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Issue 20 - Ten places you have to visit

Scotland Magazine Issue 20
April 2005

 

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Ten places you have to visit

When it comes to tourists sites, there is plenty of choice. Here Ian Buxton picks the ones you just can't afford to miss

It’s not hard to find somewhere special to visit in Scotland. City or countryside alike, there’s a rich variety of museums, galleries, attractions, heritage sites, countryside and places of interest to suit all tastes.

The ‘top ten’ attractions are, of course, deservedly popular. Edinburgh Castle, for example, receives well over a million visitors a year – and gets pretty crowded during the summer months. I’ve listed some of Scotland’s best loved sites in the panel (over). If you haven’t visited them, then you should do so soon, but this article plans to take you a little off the beaten track, to some less well-known and less crowded parts of Scotland that you should make time to see very soon.

One of my favourite places is the island of Islay, off the west coast. It’s famed for its pungent, smoky whiskies, reeking of peat smoke. While you’re there, catch a distillery tour – and the tastiest home cooking – at the Ardbeg Distillery. Ardbeg is a connoisseurs’ whisky, and the distillery a sanctuary for traditional production and old-fashioned tender loving care for the whisky they make. Don’t miss it.

However, today it’s just a stopping off place, because I want you to drive (or cycle, or walk to get the full flavour) on a few miles to Kildalton Cross. This starkly beautiful landscape contains an ancient Celtic Cross. Carved from a single piece of epidiorite in the sixth century, this peerless cross still stands proudly next to the ruins of a church which it pre-dates by several centuries. The chapel itself is a ruin, but close by there are a number of early grave-slabs, among them a figure of a medieval knight.

Islay is full of ghosts. All over the island you will find standing stones, menhirs and chambered cairns, but nowhere do you sense the island’s rich heritage more evocatively than at Kildalton, especially when fortified by a few drams of Ardbeg!

Thinking of whisky, you’ll definitely need to include a distillery on your tour. Many are open to the public, with excellent visitor centres, but probably the best is Dewar’s World of Whisky at Aberfeldy.

This Perthshire town is worth a visit in its own right, for the magnificent surrounding countryside, the bridge over the Tay built by General Wade and for its unspoilt atmosphere.

The distillery dates from 1896, when it was constructed by the entrepreneurial Dewar brothers. Today, it’s the malt at the heart of the Dewar’s blends Heading out to the islands again, you’ll need to make a special trip to reach the island of Lewis.

You’ll probably get there by Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferry service, though it’s possible to fly to Stornaway. There, take a pilgrimage to the stone circle sited at Callanish.

The Sunday Herald said: “Leave Stonehenge to the hippies, Callanish is for grown-ups.” One of the world’s most important ancient stone circles, dating from about 1800BC, a visit to Callanish is unforgettable.

For maximum effect, join the annual gathering at the solstice or join a guided walk from Stornaway on Lewis. Alternatively, see it alone and wonder at the wisdom and arcane knowledge of the ancient inhabitants of this beautiful island.

Equally wonderful and striking is Scotland’s natural environment and the rich variety of animal and birdlife that you can see, often very easily. On a fortnight’s visit you could tick off otters, red squirrels, eagles, ospreys, several species of whales and dolphins and many other interesting and rare birds and animals.

Few sites, however, are as spectacular as gannets feeding, or their massed nesting sites. On Scotland’s west coast they are to be found on the inaccessible island of Aisla Craig. It’s visible from the golf course at Troon but that’s generally as close as you can get.

Over on the east coast, they have chosen to make life much easier for you by nesting on the Bass Rock, a huge volcanic mound in the Firth of Forth, just off North Berwick.

David Attenborough has called it “one of the twelve wildlife wonders of the world,” and he should know.

From picturesque North Berwick harbour you can take a boat trip out into the Firth and get up close and personal with these large, and very noisy, seabirds.

More than 40,000 pairs of gannets share the Bass Rock with guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, shags (but no cormorants), kittiwakes, herring gulls, lesser black-backs and now a few great black-backs and eiders, making it a veritable Mecca for bird-watchers.

If that wasn’t attraction enough, or if the sea is choppy, you can visit The Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.

This award winning wildlife visitor centre and one of Scotland’s five star attractions has been developed specially to interpret Scotland’s seabirds, with a particular focus on the Forth. From its stunning location overlooking the sea and islands of the Forth, visitors enjoy a close encounter with nature, using video links to get amongst the birds as they nest on the Bass Rock.

It’s almost better than walking through the nesting colonies on the island, as the cameras don’t disturb the birds at all and you can enjoy their completely natural behaviour. As well as the Bass Rock, the Scottish Seabird Centre has cameras on the shore line and on Fidra.

Fidra itself, a small attractive island about three miles from the Scottish Seabird Centre, is an RSPB reserve and reputedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

With grassy slopes and cliffs, it is home to small populations of guillemots, razorbills, herring gulls and puffins.

The Fidra camera specialises in capturing closeups of birds. It gives visitors the opportunity to observe young birds such as kittiwake. Apair of peregrine falcons have adopted a ‘feasting perch’ on Fidra, close to the camera and can be observed all year round, dining on their prey! Of course, if you’re feeling hungry the Seabird Centre also has a splendid café.

But perhaps you are more interested in the works of man than the glories of nature. If so, you’ll know that the invention of printing transformed culture and communications and you’ll want to journey to 7/9 High Street, Innerleithen in the Borders region, where the National Trust for Scotland operate Robert Smail’s Printing Works.

Sounds dull? Think again. Visit Robert Smail’s printing works and you’ll discover first-hand exactly how the local newspaper once came off the press.

Smail’s is a working printshop restored to full operation just as it was a century ago. You can see the presses turning, once powered by the reconstructed waterwheel.

Today print is all managed by computers, but the process would be unrecognisable just 20 years ago. Step back in time, visit the paper store and the composing room, where you can meet the ‘compositor’ and try your hand at traditional typesetting.

There, you have to mind your ‘ps’ and ‘qs’ (where did you think that phrase came from anyway?). Altogether, Smail’s makes a stimulating day out with plenty of fun activities in an authentic setting and they will even print your personal stationery or wedding invitations with a charming hand-crafted feel.

My final tip is also industrial – the heritage village of New Lanark. This World Heritage Site, a beautifully restored 18th century cotton mill village in Central Scotland is close to the Falls of Clyde and less than an hour from Edinburgh and Glasgow. It played a vital role in both the Industrial Revolution and in Britain’s social history.

The mill manager from 1800-1825, Robert Owen, was a visionary. He transformed life in New Lanark with ideas and opportunities which were at least 100 years ahead of their time. Child labour and corporal punishment were abolished, and villagers were provided with decent homes, schools and evening classes, free health care, and affordable food. His work had a huge and lasting influence on social thinking and industrial relations, both in Scotland and worldwide.

Though New Lanark is still a living community, with permanent inhabitants, you can visit the historic buildings, enjoy a variety of exhibitions and even stay on site. That’s just as well, because the range and variety of things to see and do deserves an extended visit.

Spectacularly located on the banks of the River Clyde in the heart of historic New Lanark, the New Lanark Mill Hotel offers the chance to relax and unwind, surrounded by the beauty and history of the World Heritage Site.

Originally an 18th century mill, the hotel has been carefully restored and converted, keeping many original features such as Georgian windows and barrel-vaulted ceilings. All of the 38 bedrooms enjoy stunning views across the Clyde gorge and surrounding conservation area.

So there we are – a few of my favourite places. If not quite secrets, they are not as well known, or as appreciated as they should be.

From prehistoric monuments to high tech nature interpretation centre the variety of Scotland’s attractions never ceases to involve and engage. And don’t forget our Top Ten sites as well – they didn’t get to be so popular by accident!

TEN OF THE BEST – SCOTLAND’S MOST POPULAR ATTRACTIONS

Scotland has an enormous range of things to see and places to go. According to tourism statistics, these are ten of the most popular (free and paid).

* Edinburgh Castle
* Edinburgh Zoo
* Royal Museum of Scotland
* Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh
* Glasgow Science Centre
* Old Blacksmith’s Shop, Gretna Green
* Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh
* Stirling Castle
* Royal Yacht Britannia, Leith
* Deep Sea World, North Queensferry.

Apart from Gretna Green, which is just over the border with England, all are in Scotland’s Central Belt. All are great fun but do try, if you can, to get out and about a little further afield – using our guide to the most interesting and less-known places.

That’s where the true Scotland is to be found