The distinctive red sandstone ruin of Edzell Castle in Angus is perfect for exploring, but the real treasure is finding an Italian Renaissance garden nestling at the foot of a Scottish glen. This walled garden or pleasance was originally built in 1604. Triangular beds of dwarf box hedging create amazingly intricate designs while the wall is home to 16th century German carvings using heraldic and symbolic imagery, plus flower-filled recesses. You won’t meet one of the former guests – Mary Queen of Scots – but will you encounter the ghost of the White Lady?
Glasgow has, in the Firth of Clyde, the finest hinterland of any British city. The Isle of Cumbrae is less than two hours away by train and a relaxing ferry crossing from Largs. It is a joy to cycle the 10-mile circuit of the island, perhaps pausing for an ice-cream, then relax on one of the sandy beaches with fine views of Arran or the Isle of Bute. On wet days there is an interesting aquarium to visit, run by the University of Glasgow. For the adventurous the island has the National Watersports Centre featuring all kinds of activities.
The "sightseer flight" from Barra to Benbecula has to be one of the most fantastic island experiences. Take the local minibus from Castlebay to the airport, pay £35 and show your photo ID, and step out over the sand to the Twin Otter waiting on the beach.
Up in the air, and cruising smoothly north at 1,000-2,000ft, you pass over the "Whisky Galore" island of Eriskay, before gazing down in wonder at the fascinating landscapes of South Uist and Benbecula, with a thousand lochs criss-crossed with roads, tiny houses and ancient remains. The flight takes 20 minutes, and after a short stop you fly back again. The pilot turned round and asked us what route we would like to return by, so we chose the mountainous one. I'm afraid of flying, but I loved this, and landed back on the beach on magical Barra with a big grin on my face.
Flybe flights: www.flybe.com/ but it seems to be cheaper to buy locally - ask at the tourist office in Castlebay (+44 (0)1871 810336). Tourist information on Barra: www.scotland-inverness.co.uk/barra.htm
Google map: bit.ly/96Ihrk
Ailsa Craig appears like a giant American muffin on the horizon off the south-west coast of Scotland. A boat trip round the island from Girvan costs £20, including landing on the island for half an hour, where you can inspect the rather spooky remains of the gas works that used to power the lighthouse. The bird life on the island is fantastic, and can be well-observed from the boat, together with the amazing volcanic cliffs. Can 40,000 Gannets be wrong?
Google map: bit.ly/9Fg0Rm
Jura is in the Inner Hebrides. It has 200 people, 5,000 red deer, mountains, beaches, and exotic gardens at Jura House. It has otters and eagles. It is remote and romantic, but it also has a pub, a distillery and an informal but remarkably good bistro/restaurant, The Antlers. And like all the best islands, it's a bit hard to get to (sometime resident George Orwell called it 'ungetattable'). So not too many others will intrude upon your solitude.
Papa Westray, one of the most northerly of Orkney's islands, claims to be Orkney in miniature. The island certainly has all the elements that make any Orkney holiday memorable; fascinating archaeological sites, beautiful beaches, cliffs full of sea birds, colourful wild flowers and a warm welcome. Papay Community Co-operative run the well stocked shop and some accommodation, other members of 70 strong community provide B&B and self-catering accommodation. Be prepared to talk to people, but the island has plenty of space for solitary walking too; maybe spend some time trying to spot one of the seven Corncrakes currently on the island.
The Isle of Rum is the best island visit the UK can offer; the whole island is a National Nature Reserve and the attractions include an elaborate 19th Century sandstone castle, Golden Eagles, Manx Shearwaters, Red Deer and numerous other wildlife, mountain streams, good walking and an abundance of flowers. Stay in Kinloch Castle, at the community camp site or better still walk to one of the two mountain bothies mountainbothies.org.uk; at Guirdal you can cook your well earned meal while spotting passing whales and watching the sun falling in to the Hebridean Sea.
Isle of Rum
Google map: tinyurl.com/39rgllh
Penicuik is not your normal tourist destination ... but if you're looking to see a bit of the real Scotland away from the pretty and popular tourist spots this is where to come.
Penicuik is an old mining community. It's gritty. It's seen better days. But it's got a lot of history and a lot of charm beneath it's hard exteria.
In days gone by you can really image the old town centre as the hub of Penicuik. The old town clock hangs above the square, and the old water pump still exists. Today there's the Peni Deli on the High Street and a little French bistro that are well worth popping into for a cuppa and a quick bite if you're here.
Where a lot of people in the past would have been employed in the local coal mine at Bilston (the Miners Club is still alive and kicking on the high street!) today it's mostly a commuter town for people that work in the city of Edinburgh.
In the past couple of years an excellent new sports centre and swimming pool have opened in Penicuik, and there's a skatepark and sports pitches nearby.
If you enjoy going for long walks/cycles it's possible to walk/cycle from Penicuik to Musselburgh along the old railway line. It's a full days trek so take some lunch with you!
10 miles south of Edinburgh, just outside of the city bypass.
To get there by public transport take a Lothian Bus from the centre of Edinburgh, numbers 15, 37 & 47. They are very frequent - approximately every 15 minutes.
Google map: tinyurl.com/36ht44l
Peebles is a market town in the Scottish Borders. Located approximately 25 miles south of Edinburgh it's a great place to visit for a leisurely day out.
Dander down the high street browsing the variety of shops and boutiques. Pop into the Tontine Hotel for a coffee or a bite of lunch. Walk by the river. Take your kids to the swing park or local swimming pool.
If you're feeling slightly more energetic put on your walking boots and take a walk up some of the surrounding hills ... or head to Glentress for a spot of mountain biking.
For more info check out www.visitscotland.com and search under Peebles.
Peebles is approximately 25 miles south of Edinburgh (45 mins by car).
It's also possible to get there by public transport with First Buses - No 65.
In the light of the possible flight disruptions due to ash, it's worth knowing about the 'rail & sail' offer between Belfast and Scotland. You can book a train & ferry between Belfast and Glasgow/Edinburgh for £25 each way. Separate train and ferry tickets will almost cost double.
Train to other parts of the UKwill cost a little more but again far cheaper than if you get the tickets separately.
The walk from the swing bridge at Aberchalder, at the northern point of Loch Oich to Fort Augustus is a fantastic introduction to this moody and magnificent Caledonian canal; completed in 1822, 12 years late, it was never a commercial success. The walk of around five miles will take you past pretty spot of Kytra Lock, a good spot for a picnic or a rest and on to the picturesque staircase of five locks at Fort Augustus, always buzzing with activity as boats go up and down. Fort Augustus has plenty of places to find refreshments and the Abbey to visit; from here you can either return on the towpath or take the bus back to Aberchalder. The walk from the swing bridge at Aberchalder, at the northern point of Loch Oich to Fort Augustus is a fantastic introduction to this moody and magnificent Caledonian canal; completed in 1822, 12 years late, it was never a commercial success. The walk of around five miles will take you past pretty spot of Kytra Lock, a good spot for a picnic or a rest and on to the picturesque staircase of five locks at Fort Augustus, always buzzing with activity as boats go up and down. Fort Augustus has plenty of places to find refreshments and the Abbey to visit; from here you can either return on the towpath or take the bus back to Aberchalder. Aberchalder Lodge sleeps 12 and is a splendid and comfortable Scottish shooting lodge with views over the loch. (01828 640000, aberchalder-estate.co.uk)
Aberchalder is on the A82, approximately five miles from Fort Augustus.
A fantasic place to stay when visiting Edinburgh, the staff were extremely friendly and helpful, great local knowledge. It has views of the castle and is right in the heart of the city. The room itself was awesome with great personlised touches, homemade muffins yum :) We also dined in the restaurant and we loved the food and service, we wouldn't normally dine where we stay, but was so glad we did and we even got a 10% discount which we thought was a nice touch. We really enjoyed our stay, I'm sure you will too – it's a little gem.
There's an underground and a quite good bus network in Glasgow, but take a walk if you want to get the best impression of the city. It takes about an hour to walk from the Science Centre (outer west end) to Glasgow Cathedral (east end). See a few of my pictures here.
A conversation held late one night as a first year student in St Andrews demonstrates the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights in the UK:
Jenny: Look, the aurora borealis!
Me: No Jenny, you're drunk!
Jenny: I'm not drunk I'm an astrononomoner... an astronomy student!
Me: You're drunk. You'd have to have awfully good eyesight to see the aurora from here... oh wait... the sky is unusually green...
I recommend the Botanical Gardens or the beaches and coastal walks as good viewing places, because of the lack of light pollution and the general good atmosphere.
Achmelvich is a beautiful place north of Ullapool, with clear blue waters and exotic white beaches which can be found within many rocky coves that are host to a plethora of pools, teaming with sealife.
Achmelvich, north of Ullapool
Take a hike at the late season in Aviemore (Scotland rocks for snowboarding - don't listen to the fairweather types) and session a kicker. You never know, you may even see the sun and be able to session in a t-shirt!
Stay for the night in Aviemore and have a nice tip of whiskey at the end of the night.
Aviemore, Scotland. At the Cairngorm mountain resort
It's a gorgeous Georgian house converted into a B&B or you can hire the whole place privately. We found it a delightfully posh alternative to what you would usually expect from a B&B - creatively decorated and quietly glamorous.
Not cheap but worth it to treat yourself. And there's a pool table ...
This beautiful Georgian house is a B&B, and then some. Owners, Mike and Susan Gordon (delightful hosts) restored the house from scratch (they also own a modern property available for hire nearby) have had a few celebrity guests stay. The place is going to be featured in the next Mr and Mrs Smith guidebook, say no more.
Tel: 0131 625 6669
The line between the High and Low lands is amazingly beautiful. You look down into a river valley with massive hills on either side. Green as I've only experienced in Scotland with a train going by on the ridge. Breathtaking.
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