North of the Border

A mini break in Scotland is not most people’s idea of glamour, but for me, the very thought of fresh air and mountains has filled me with anticipation for weeks. Last Friday, my dear flatmate Verity and I boarded the Kings Cross to Edinburgh train, very excited at the prospect of no more work and complete relaxation for five days. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and as we steamed out of London and into the countryside, I gleefully pressed my nose up against the window as England in all its splendour flashed by. As we neared the border, the sea could be seen sparkling beside the railway tracks and the largely flat and gentle landscape slowly developed into a more hilly and dramatic vista. After just four and a half hours, we arrived in Edinburgh and I gasped at the beauty of the city I have longed to visit for so long. However, there wasn’t much time to admire the view – we had another train to catch. We rushed to switch onto our connecting train, which took us over the famous Firth of Forth bridge into Perthshire, where we were going to stay with Verity’s parents for the next three days.

Verity grew up in Perth, a beautiful city at the gate of the Highlands and Islands, situated across two sides of the River Tay and set amongst mountains and miles of unspoilt countryside that stretches as far as the eye can see. It is an absolutely stunning place and after lunch Verity took me off for a tour. With the temperature reaching 25c, we were treated to beautifully clear skies and strong sunshine that couldn’t help but give us a holiday feeling. We wandered through the historic centre of town, walking across the Old Bridge that joins the two sides. The architecture here is grand and imposing; golden coloured sandstone buildings line the streets and many of the municipal buildings are Georgian or very early Victorian, beautifully proportionate and elegant. The Salutation Hotel is a particular landmark in the city centre; reportedly Scotland’s oldest hotel, it welcomed its first guest in 1699 and The Beatles have stayed there.

Everywhere you look, mountains and green hills can be seen and a flower filled sculpture park runs along the right bank of the river, providing wonderful views. We made daisy chains and sunbathed to the sound of the river lapping against the bank, rejoicing in the peace and quiet that we both long for but never get in London. After a good rest, we went wandering through the park and were just about to turn for home when I spotted an interesting looking graveyard next to a ruined church. Never one to miss an opportunity to explore a graveyard, despite Verity’s protestations that it was always locked, I set off to investigate. We were in luck – the gate was open. The graveyard is called Kinnoul Old Churchyard and is set in the midst of the ruins of the city’s old church. It is filled with beautiful 18th and 19th century graves, and on a perfectly preserved marble monument still attached to what would have been the interior wall of the church, I was shocked to find a memorial to the painter John Everett Millais‘ wife Effie, former wife of John Ruskin. It turns out that Effie was a native of Perth and she and Millais lived in a large house on Verity’s parents’ road!

The next day, after a nice early night and a relaxing breakfast in the garden, we set off to see some local sights. First on the list was Glamis Castle (pronounced Glarms), childhood home of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Strathmore. It was also the birth place of the Queen’s sister, the late Princess Margaret and a favourite childhood haunt of the Queen. It is still lived in by the present Earl of Strathmore, but a large section of the castle and its beautiful grounds are open to the public. The castle is famously the setting of Macbeth; Shakespeare was inspired to write the play after visiting the castle and being told some of the legends associated with it. It is a real hodge podge of architectural styles, as the original parts of the building date back to medieval times. Stately Victorian parlours are juxtaposed with medieval crypts, and 16th century bedrooms sit next to those furnished in the 1930s. It is wonderfully atmospheric; its turrets and loopholes hint of a time when it was used as a place of fortification and there are plenty of haunting ghost stories that are particularly chilling when you are wandering in the old, dank cellars. At the same time, there are frequent reminders in its pretty furnishings and cosy living spaces that it has long been a happy family home. There is a particularly lovely family portrait of the 14th Earl and Countess and their nine surviving children, one of whom was a 9 year old Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, playing cards with her little brother.

After some lunch and a wander through the gardens, we headed off to nearby Kirriemuir to see J M Barrie’s birthplace. This couldn’t have been more different to Glamis. A tiny weaver’s cottage on the main street, it was cramped and poky, with just two rooms available for the family to live, work and sleep in. There was a recreation of J M Barrie’s study in his London home and an interesting display of original costumes from the first performance of Peter Pan. Barrie retained strong links to Kirriemuir throughout his life and never forgot where he had come from. Growing up in a world of poverty and sadness, it is unsurprising that he wrote the story of Peter Pan, a boy who never wanted to grow up and face the realities of an often disappointing and painful world. After looking around the house, we walked up the hill to see his grave, situated in a stunning cemetery that had panoramic views across the surrounding countryside and mountains. It was nice to think that Barrie had such a pleasant place to rest after the experiences of his rather tragic life.

The next day was our final one in Perth, and we started it off with a walk up the spectacular Kinnoul Hill, which commands wonderful views across the Tay valley and the surrounding mountains. At the summit there is an old folly and a diagram pointing out all of the sights that can be seen. One of these is Dunsinane Hill, again of Macbeth fame. I was in raptures looking out across the beautiful countryside; Scotland is blessed with so much natural beauty. It’s impossible not to be delighted at every turn. I didn’t want to take my eyes off the view, but we had more to see! After lunch we headed off to St Andrews, which is a university town on the coast just north of Dundee. There is a glorious sandy beach which stretches for miles, and from the beach you can see the fantastic, historic skyline of the town. The university buildings, turreted and crenellated, are fantastically gothic and these are set alongside quaint sandstone streets filled with independent shops and cafes. There is also a beautiful medieval ruined cathedral and a ruined castle, both of which lend a mythical atmosphere to the quiet, winding streets of the town that sits above the wild North Sea. I thought it was absolutely breathtaking.

After those three days, the stress I always carry in my body had totally evaporated and I was left feeling completely calm, relaxed and refreshed. The fresh air and slow pace of life had done me the world of good, and I was ready to re-enter civilisation. Edinburgh beckoned….but that’s for another post!

35 comments

  1. Just as you wrote early on in this wonderful essay, I too have always longed and yearned to visit Scotland. The beautiful and loving way you’ve described your first trip up there has inspired me further, and my longing for it that much stronger and deeper. It beckons me time and time again. One day, I hope to be able to get there. I also want to visit the smaller islands of Skye and Iona – as breathtaking as the entire country is, these islands have a magic all their own, I’ve read and heard about. Thanks for sharing your Scottish mini-holiday, Rachel. A beautifully expressed stream of consciousness, as always.

    1. Thank you for your always kind and very flattering compliments, June! I’m so glad you enjoyed my thoughts and I can strongly recommend a trip to Scotland. It is so beautiful and dramatic a landscape, and it was a truly unforgettable experience. I hope you’ll be able to go soon and see it for yourself.🙂

  2. Oh, how wonderful. We stayed with friends in a village near Perth, about 20 years ago, and it was the most incredible scenery, but you packed in far more than we did – we never saw Glamis, or JM Barrie’s birthplace, but I remember the beach at St Andrew’s, and we went to Edinburgh for a day. I would love to go back.

    1. I’m glad you got to experience the loveliness of the area, Christine! I’m sure you saw plenty of delightful things I didn’t see, though Glamis is definitely worth a visit if you go back!

  3. When the train skirts so close to the sea it really is magical. What wonderful weather for a UK holiday.

    1. I know, I was gasping out loud when the first glimpse of the sea appeared! We were SO lucky with the weather – I think if we’d had typical Scottish weather, I wouldn’t be waxing quite so lyrical!

  4. Oh my – it all looks and sounds heavenly! I really hope I can visit this corner of the world in the future. Scotland seems really magical and always makes me think of medieval fantasy novels. The castle is stunning, as is all the natural beauty. I don’t see much of anything green these days, so these photos are like a breath of fresh air. As always, I LOVE hearing about your lovely adventures Rachel!🙂

    1. It really is a beautiful place, Lucy, and there is a bit of magic about it as well. There are so many myths and legends and the scenery is so dramatic that you can’t help feeling swept away! I hope you’ll be able to visit soon. Glad you enjoyed reading about my trip!🙂

  5. You should write for the Scottish Tourist Board! Your enthusiasm and delight in Scotland shines through. And even though I’m biased, having been born and brought up in Scotland, I think Edinburgh and Perth and the landscape of Scotland are among the most beautiful things in the world! There’s a beautiful, simple poem by Hugh McDiarmid that captures that mix of beauty and history and painful history that is Scotland. “The rose of all the world is not for me / I want for my part / Only the little white rose of Scotland
    / That smells sharp and sweet/ —and breaks the heart.”
    I look forward to reading what you thought of ‘Auld Reekie’ and if you visit Scotland again, can I put in a word for my home city Glasgow – its a beautiful, warm and vibrant place and well worth a visit!

    1. Oh thank you, Col! That would be a very easy job!

      I love that poem! I fully intend on going back and want to see more of the West coast so Glasgow will definitely be on my itinerary!

  6. Superb pics – thanks for sharing. I know Scotland very well and it was lovely revisiting with you.

  7. I live in Fife, not far from Perth and St Andrews, but it’s still lovely to see your photos. I’m glad you had such a great hokiday. Next time I hope you do manage to get over to the west coast, Glasgow and Loch Lomond in particular. You’ll love the Trossachs and Stirling too and also Dunkeld where you can walk in what’s left of Dunsinane Wood.

    1. Oh Katrina, you lucky thing – we drove past Fife and it looked just beautiful. I’d have loved to have time to explore it! Yes, I very much want to go over to the West coast and have a good ramble in the Highlands…there will be many more trips to Scotland in my future!

  8. LOVE Scotland. My first trip to Europe involved 2 days in London, followed by 8 days in Scotland. We stayed in a flat not far from Dunoon. We rented a car and traveled all over the west side, including taking a 2 day trip up to Skye. One of the best vacations ever!

    1. I’m so glad you’ve had the chance to visit, Bliss! Isn’t it amazing?! I am jealous you’ve been to Skye – I would love to go there so much!

  9. Oh, Rachel, I am now filled with yearning for the Scotland you give us here. Glamis Castle has called to me forever and ever, or at least since a friend toured it and told me every detail one could imagine. How wonderful for you that you were there this past weekend and how tenderly you relate Barrie home and grave. Thank you.

    1. Penny, you must go! I know you would adore Glamis. It’s a very special place! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and I really do hope you can visit one day soon.

  10. I’m dying to go to Scotland and, as usual, your post makes me want to fly there right now. Unfortunately, it’ll have to wait a bit longer, but when I finally get the chance, I’ll make sure to visit all the wonderful places featured in your post.
    By the way, I recently learned about a British Library exhibition that reminded me of your literary travels: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/writingbritain/about/index.html
    You might have heard of it, but just in case. It looks interesting.

    1. I hope your chance will come soon, Azahara! Thank you so much for that link – I had seen posters but had totally forgotten, so that reminder was very welcome! I will go and see it post haste!

  11. Scotland sounds cool and green, just lovely compared to Texas in the summer! (Summer starts here sometime in April or May and lasts until October. Well, I guess we only have two seasons here: Really Hot; and Not as Hot.) I loved reading about Glamis Castle and J. M. Barrie, I didn’t know his life was tragic — I only know a bit about him from that movie with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. I’ve scheduled Peter Pan for a holiday read for my library’s book group, so I’ll have to provide some background on J. M. Barrie. You’ve inspired me to include some photos from his house and that delightful statue.

    1. Oh Scotland is marvellous! It definitely is cool and green – we were lucky to have blazing sunshine but it’s not normally like that! Oh yes – J M Barrie had a terrible time of it. A lot of losses and grief. None of the boys he adopted – and who inspired Peter Pan – made it to adulthood. Hope you enjoy Peter Pan and if you want some photos of the house to show let me know and I’ll email them to you.

  12. How breathtaking! There are some vistas that just beg you to stay and you’ve captured them, Rachel. And I had to laugh at the notion of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon being a commoner before her marriage after seeing her childhood home. The castle is stunning and the perfect place for hours and hours of playing hide-and-seek! Next installment of your travels please…

    1. Thanks Darlene! Oh I know – hilarious, isn’t it, who is deemed to be ‘common’ according to the royals! I wish I could have stayed at the castle and had more time to roam…it really is a magical place!

  13. How is it that I’ve lived in Britain for a total of three years but never made my way up to Scotland? I feel rather ashamed of myself! Hopefully this will be rectified in the near future. What lovely photos you take!

    1. Oh Diana, it’s taken me 15 years to revisit after going as an 11 year old, so don’t beat yourself up! I hope you can go soon – even just for a weekend would be enough to enjoy some lovely views! Thank you – just taken on my iphone if you can believe it!

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