Dornie and Eilean Donan

Eilean Donan Castle

In July, we spent a week in an apartment within walking distance of Eilean Donan, arguably the most romantic and most photographed of all Scotland’s castles. It’s a bit of a cheat though – originally established in 1230, it was destroyed during the Jacobite uprising in 1719 and what you see today was rebuilt between 1912 and 1932 by a British army officer, John MacRae-Gilstrap. The MacRae clan has ancestral links to the area and its war memorial is below the castle walls (see gallery below).

We took a stroll round the exterior after we arrived late on Saturday afternoon, and returned a few days later to look inside. No interior photography was allowed, but I think the exterior is the spectacular part anyway.

In the last picture above we are looking down from the castle onto the remains of a medieval tower (more or less obscured by a tree). Beyond it, immediately before the northern end of the road bridge, you can just make out our apartments. To the right of the bridge is the village of Dornie, and we finished our afternoon / early evening by following the dead-end road through the village to its termination at the small settlement of Bundalloch (just over a mile each way). We could again see our apartments on the other side of Loch Long.

In the last image above, the windows just above the fence belonged to us. I can highly recommend Eilean Donan Apartments which are operated by the same trust which owns the castle. The building was initially constructed as a hotel in the late 19th century, but has been extensively refurbished over the last few years into eleven self-catering units for 2-8 people. We loved it!

We settled in for our first evening, but the view across Loch Long to Dornie kept distracting us from making plans for the next seven days. These pictures were taken around 10pm – it’s wonderful when it stays light so late.

Spoiler alert: we did make some plans. What would the next day bring? Coming next – Applecross.


Cowden Japanese Garden and Castle Campbell

Japanese Garden at Cowden

At the end of September, John had an unexpected day off work. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great but we believed the forecast which said it would be better further east. It lied! We arrived at the Japanese Garden at Cowden in Clackmannanshire in pouring rain so, as it was around midday, we decided to have lunch first in the hope that the weather would clear. The small café is housed in a temporary Portakabin, but once inside you wouldn’t know because it is well maintained and attractive – better still, the food is good and the staff are friendly.

Cowden is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a while. Created in 1908 by intrepid traveller Ella Christie (1861-1949), with the help of Taki Handa originally from the Royal School of Garden Design at Nagoya, it fell into disrepair in later years and was badly vandalised in the 1960s. In 2013 Professor Masao Fukuhara from Osaka University of Arts, Japan, was appointed to restore the garden and, although still a work in progress, it is now open to the public again. The full history, detailed on the garden’s website, is fascinating and well worth a read.

Our strategy of waiting for the rain to go off over lunch hadn’t worked, but it didn’t detract from the beauty of the garden and gives us an excuse to come back to visit in sunshine some day. Click on the gallery below to take a stroll round the central pond with us.

After Cowden, we headed a few miles back up the road to the small town of Dollar to visit Castle Campbell. We left the car in town and headed up the burn to Dollar Glen, where we chose the west path which climbs through woodland, eventually following the Burn of Sorrow, and leading to great views of the castle.

It’s a long time since we’ve actually visited the castle, but we decided to do so now. It was no longer raining, but the mist made the views from the top of the tower very atmospheric and, as the last image in the gallery below shows, there were some weak rays of sunshine as we left.

In the internal photos, you can see two Green Man carvings in the ceiling which would originally have held chains for oil lamps in their mouths. You can also see John testing one of the latrines for comfort, as invited by the notice behind him. This notice also informed us that a remedy for bed wetting from 1544 involved adding the ground bones of a hedgehog to the sufferer’s food and drink. Poor hedgehogs!

After the castle, we took the east path back down the glen along the Burn of Care until it merged with the Burn of Sorrow to form the Dollar Burn and led us back into town.  Such sad names!

Before leaving we found this interesting drinking fountain and a bench dedicated to Ella Christie whose garden we had visited earlier.

This was a day which proves there’s no point in sitting at home waiting for the weather to improve. Just get out and do it! We had two lovely walks which I’m linking to Jo and her wonderful group of Monday walkers. She has blue Portuguese skies to counter my grey ones.

Jo’s Monday Walks.

Glasgow Gallivanting: September 2019

25th August 2019 was the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Scottish engineer James Watt. Watt’s interest in the technology of steam engines began while he was employed as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, and his work became fundamental to the Industrial Revolution. There have been commemorations in Scotland all year, and this month it was John’s turn to take part by giving a lecture on Watt at a conference organised by some of his colleagues. I went along and enjoyed it very much (even though I had heard some of it before!)

You can find representations of Watt in several places in Glasgow – left to right below: on Glasgow Green outside the People’s Palace, in Anderston, in the Hunterian Museum and in George Square.

John’s not the only one to have been talking. I gave my talk on the Suffragette Jessie Stephen for the third time – it’s getting quite polished now – and a few days later I led two women’s history walks for Doors Open Day. I’m not quite sure why I agreed to three events in one week – note to self for next year: don’t do it! However, a bonus to one of the walks is that I got to see inside Glasgow’s Mercat Cross which is usually firmly locked. Market crosses like this are found all over Scotland to mark the places where markets were legally held – Glasgow’s original cross was removed in 1659 and this symbolic replacement was erected in 1929/30 to the design of Scotland’s first practicing female architect, Edith Burnett Hughes. The unicorn and interior animal figures were modelled by  Margaret Cross Primrose. I’ve said that last sentence every time I’ve been a guide on this walk, but only now know what these animals look like.

A couple of family visits (one to us, one involving travelling) also contributed to a busy month, but we still got time to get out and about to see new places. Autumn is upon us and short, dark days lie ahead so we decided to make the most of the last of summer.

Penicuik House

Penicuik House in Midlothian looks impressive from a distance, but as you get closer you can see that it is merely a shell. Erected by Sir James Clerk of Penicuik between 1761 and 1778, it was extended in 1857 and destroyed by fire in 1899. A Preservation Trust was set up in 1987 and, over a century after the fire, the ruin was stabilised and partially restored (2007-14) and is now open to the public. Inside, you can see doors that open into thin air and the remains of spiral staircases. The exterior is still ornamented by some fine statues (and on this day, John.)

After exploring the ruin, and having lunch in the café which, thankfully, has a roof, we walked round the estate. The building with the spire is the old stables where, I believe, the family still lives. The 18th century tower, which the Trust aims to renovate and reopen, was designed as both a belvedere (viewpoint) and doocot (dovecot). The view is of the Pentland Hills from Cauldshoulders Ridge which we had climbed in the hope of reaching the monument you can just glimpse in the distance over the white gate. We failed to find it!

On our way home we dropped into a place I would never have known about had I not read a post on Things Helen Loves just a few days before. The Secret Herb Garden was a short detour on our route from Penicuik House back to the Edinburgh by-pass. A herb nursery, garden, café and gin distillery – it’s all those things. We indulged in coffee and cake and left with a bottle of gin.

The Clyde at Crossford

We did a lovely circular walk out along the Clyde from the village of Crossford in South Lanarkshire, returning on minor roads and farm tracks via the memorial at General Roy’s birthplace. William Roy produced a map of Scotland after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, and from this grow the Ordnance Survey which produces the maps we use today. Appropriately, the memorial is in the form of a trig point pillar.

Dumfries House

Dumfries House which, confusingly, is not in Dumfries but near Cumnock in Ayrshire, was built in the 1750s for the 5th Earl of Dumfries. The architects were the Adam brothers, and much of the furnishing was specially commissioned from Thomas Chippendale. When it became too expensive for the family to run in 2007, the owner, by then the 7th Marquess of Bute, sold it for £45m to the nation in the form of a Foundation headed by Prince Charles. The house (no photography inside) and estate have been restored to their former glory and opened to the public..

I have ambivalent feelings about touring these great houses – to me, they represent the pinnacle of a rotten social system – and I am no big fan of royalty, quite the reverse. However, I think a good thing has been done here. The Estate is now the second biggest employer in the area, after the local council, and the jobs provided are not just casual, dead-end ones. Young people are learning new skills via apprenticeships in hospitality and traditional crafts such as stonemasonry – the estate is dotted with quirky little shelters and summer houses as a result.

Mugdock Country Park

Mugdock is close to home and we’ve visited often, but we’ve never been lucky enough to be there when the only intact tower of the castle was open. Great views from the top!

The middle floor of the castle is furnished like a dining room, with posters detailing old remedies around the walls. I rather liked this one:

To cure a great flux or looseness of the belly take a hard egg and peel off the shell and put the smaller end of it to the fundament and when it is cold take another such hot, fresh, hard and peeled egg and apply it as aforesaid.

Readers, do not try this at home!

The last bit

The Oor Wullie trail which graced Scotland’s cities this summer finished at the end of August, and during September each city auctioned off its statues. In total, they have raised an amazing £1.3m for children’s hospital charities. Metal Oor Wullie, designed by Jason Patterson and exhibited in Glasgow’s George Square, was the biggest fundraiser at £25,000.

Every autumn, I find a new mural by street artist Pink Rebel Bear. This year, s/he takes aim at Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, and Boris Johnson, depicting them all as big babies. It was really hard to photograph because there was scaffolding in front of it, hence the angle. It’s on Woodlands Terrace Lane near the junction with Woodlands Road should any Glaswegian readers be interested.

The other piece of graffiti art above was snapped on the Kelvin Walkway near Inn Deep, but I’ve seen the same head in different colours all around the city over the last couple of months. I’ve only just discovered the story behind it though. The “Big Heids” are by Oh Pandah, a Glasgow based graffiti artist who is using them to celebrate two years of sobriety. Apparently, the reason the faces all look as they do reflects the previous lifestyle followed by the artist and the toll taken by years of partying. Crikey!

Finally, to my Scottish word of the month. You might have noticed the UK is still in political turmoil, with the government recently being taken to court. Twice. If you live here, you will know the sordid details. If you don’t, I won’t bore you with them. One of the Scottish judges used the word stymied meaning obstructed – I think that’s a fairly common word these days and would be understandable to non-Scots, but did you know that it originated as a golfing term from the Scots stimie? Well now you do! It describes a situation where one player’s ball lies between another ball and the hole on the putting green, thereby blocking the line of play.

In another Scottish turn of phrase, the nights are fair drawing in. Will that curtail our October gallivanting? Time will tell – have a great month.


Eglinton: a castle, a tournament and a country park

Eglinton Tournament, 1839, by James Henry Nixon. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I had never heard of the Eglinton Tournament until I watched an episode of Scottish Television’s People’s History Show which billed it as Scotland’s most expensive and worst party. I was intrigued!

When Queen Victoria came to the throne, the country was in dire economic straits and she was given a scaled-down coronation ceremony which was ridiculed as ‘The Penny Coronation’. One of the fiercest critics was Archibald, 13th Earl of Eglinton, who decided to throw his own party over three days in August 1839 in the form of a grand medieval tournament on his Ayrshire estate. He invited a couple of thousand of his rich mates and thought he might let in a few thousand of the lower classes too. However, ticketing procedures and crowd control were woeful and some estimates suggest that in the end over 100,000 people attended the Tournament. Local transport and accommodation were overwhelmed, and the knights themselves created gridlock on the estate with the opening parade taking three hours longer than expected. And, of course, you can’t rely on the Scottish summer weather – the heavens opened on the first day and flooding meant that the entire audience, apart from Eglinton’s personal guests, was stranded without transportation. They had to walk miles through the rain and the mud to nearby villages, where only a few people found any food, drink, accommodation or transport. Even the personal guests missed out on the medieval banquet and ball that evening because banqueting tents had also been flooded. The middle day of the Tournament was cancelled, but the third day went ahead as planned with the overall winner judged to be – guess who? – Lord Eglinton himself.

After learning this story I wanted to see Eglinton myself, so on a sunny August Sunday, almost 180 years to the day since the Tournament, we set off – it’s less than an hour’s drive from home. There isn’t much left of Eglinton Castle itself, and it was difficult to get pictures of what there was because of all the picknicking families and children joyously leaping off the ruins.

You can see below what it looked like in its heyday before the Eglintons lost all their money and abandoned it. In 1925 the roof was removed so that the walls could be used for target practice by the military, and most of the rest was pulled down in 1973.

Eglinton Castle, 1906. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are several other interesting structures in the park. The ornamental Tournament Bridge, which crosses Lugton Water a short walk from the castle, might seem to be a remnant of the events of 1839, but actually dates from 1845. It has recently been beautifully restored.

The old stable block has been converted into a café, and the gardens and grounds of the estate surrounding it are very attractive. Interesting objects include some colourful benches and a double headless statue. I have no idea who they are or where their heads have gone, in case you are minded to ask!

The garden also contains war memorial benches and a cairn commemorating those who died in the 9/11 attacks.

There are several trails round the park, a mixture of woodland …

… and open countryside. We wondered about these stones on top of Cairnmount Hill. They were obviously not ancient standing stones, but we thought they might be a folly placed there by one of the Earls. Googling them later, I found that they are much more recent than that. An opencast mine was established nearby in 1983, and when extraction finished in 1986 it was filled in and these large boulders discovered in the process were erected on top of the restored hill. The stones effectively mark the closing of the last coal-mine on the land attached to Eglinton Castle after a period of at least 400 years of continuous production.

Finally, a small loch attracted walkers, such as ourselves, as well as those who just wanted a peaceful spot to read.

We enjoyed our day out at Eglinton: the trail we followed was pleasant, if not spectacular, and fairly quiet once we got away from the café and the picnickers at the castle.  I think the park caters mostly for that audience and not so much for those interested in its history – a few more information boards would have been helpful: the only one I can recall was at the Tournament Bridge. I’m pleased to have seen the site of the Tournament, and certainly recommend the park to anyone who happens to be in the area, but for me it is one to file away as a once-only visit – I don’t feel a strong need to go back.

Islay: Singing Sands and Kildalton Cross

Kilnaughton Bay

Our last day! We chose two shortish walks with lunch in Port Ellen in between. The first started at Kilnaughton Bay, just outside Port Ellen.  At the east end of the bay we explored this old building which looks like a ruined chapel but is actually the remains of a bathing hut where the ladies of Cairnmore House would once have changed. Underneath the sand, you can still see the tiled floor

From here, we crossed the bay and picked our way across rocks and walkways to the lighthouse at Carraig Fhada with its twin white towers.

The lighthouse was commissioned in 1832 by Walter Frederick Campbell as a memorial to his wife, Ellinor, and was taken over by the Northern Lighthouse Board in 1924.

Backtracking from the lighthouse, we took the path marked Singing Sands from which we had good views back over the bay. We’d been watching the cruise ship, Ocean Atlantic of Albatros Expeditions, and I looked it up later. It was on an 8 day voyage from Dublin to Aberdeen via Orkney and Shetland. Next departure is May 21st, 2020, should you be interested. I can’t see any prices – you have to request a quote: I suspect it might be well beyond what I would like to pay!

The Singing Sands were a bit of a disappointment. The beach, Traigh Bhan, was certainly beautiful, but we couldn’t make the sands sing however we trod on them, although we’d had success before on Ardnamurchan. (The “singing” is supposed to come from the sound the sand makes as you walk through it, and depends on the size of the grains).

From Traigh Bhan, we climbed the grassy hill behind it, with more views back over Kilnaughton Bay until we came to a series of three cemeteries. The oldest one was by far the most interesting – Kilnaughton Old Churchyard in which you can still see the ruins of the old chapel, including a slab with a carved knight clutching his sword.

As usual, I have far too many pictures of old gravestones. I think I just liked the angel and urn on the left below. The image next to it is one of those tragic tales which always give me pause. You have to really zoom to read it, so I’ll summarise. The stone was erected by Betsy Ferguson in memory of her husband, Donald Whyte, and their sons. Donald, 53, and son Daniel, 17, were drowned at Port Ellen lighthouse on 1st January 1916. Presumably they were working as the keepers. Two other sons were killed in action, Dugald (21) in December 1915 and Walter (20) in August 1916 – they are interred in Belgium and France respectively. So in less than a year, Betsy lost her husband and three sons. Another son, John, died in infancy and the longest surviving son, Robert, died in 1933 aged 28. Betsy herself died in 1935, aged 68, and the final name on the stone is her daughter, Jessie, who survived till 1950 when she was 52. How many tragedies can one family bear?

I was also looking for Sinclairs because of my Great-Grandfather, John Joss Sinclair, who came from Islay. There were quite a lot! The stones below interested me the most because, although for a family of Campbells, one of the wives listed was Christina Sinclair, and the name was passed down to (possibly) a grandchild. It’s a family name with John Joss Sinclair’s descendants too – my grandmother and mother were both given the name Christina and my middle name is Christine. Could this Christina (born c. 1832) be a relative, possibly an aunt, of John Joss who was born in 1866? Maybe someday I’ll put the work in to find out – at the moment I’m happy speculating!

After exploring the cemeteries, we drove into Port Ellen for lunch, then continued along the south coast, past all the distilleries, to Kildalton. Here, there is another ruined church containing several carved medieval grave slabs.

However, the most notable thing about Kildalton is the High Cross in the churchyard, one of the finest early Christian crosses in Scotland, dating from the second half of the 8th century. The cross stands 2.65 metres in height, with arms 1.32 metres across. The biblical carvings, although somewhat weathered, can still be identified and include David fighting a lion, the Virgin and Child, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, and Cain murdering Abel.

As we left, we dropped some money in the collection box by the gate, and were amused both by the fact that most people seemed to leave their offerings exposed at the foot of the cross, and by the warning notice on the gate.

Outside the churchyard is another cross, this one medieval. The other picture below is John at Kildalton on our previous visit in 1989. I think I must be taking the photograph from the base of this cross. In 2019 there was another, more modern feature, by the track visible behind John, but I’ll leave that excitement till the end …

From here, we walked down a lovely woodland path to the small jetty at Port Mor. It was a lovely spot to sit and relax for a while – but not too long! We knew what treats awaited us …

Back at Kildalton, we made a beeline for Cake @ The Cross, delicious home-baking on an honesty box system. We had a cup of tea (£1 each) and a cake (£2 each) totalling £6. Now, we’d already emptied all our change into the collecting box at the church and the honesty box didn’t run to £4 change for our tenner. What to do? I bet you can guess the solution. Yes! Another two slices of cake brought the total neatly to £10 and we enjoyed them after our dinner that night.

The next morning, we packed up and drove to Port Askaig for the ferry. It was raining – hard – and we felt sorry for the people disembarking. We’d had a wonderful week and, apart from a few blips, had been so lucky with the weather. We’d love to go back to Islay, but our sadness at leaving was tempered by the though that in another 7 weeks (mid-July) we’d be off again, this time up the west coast of mainland Scotland. Coming soon – probably.

Islay: day trip to Jura

Although we’d visited Islay before, we’d never been to its neighbour, Jura. It’s a short hop on the ferry from Port Askaig to Feolin – there’s a timetable, but no booking. However, if there are too many cars for one trip, as there were the day we travelled, the boat will make the five minute crossing several times to clear the queue.

While we were watching our own ferry depart, we also saw the big ferry coming in to Port Askaig from the mainland, and were sad to think that in a couple of days we’d have to get on it at the end of our holiday. There was a good view too of Caol Ila distillery, one we hadn’t had time to visit.

Jura is 28 miles long and about 8 miles wide, but most of it is mountainous, bare and infertile, and thus very sparsely populated (196 inhabitants in the 2011 census). Much of it is inaccessible except on foot, including Barnhill at its northern point where George Orwell famously wrote 1984 and which is a four mile walk from where the road ends. On a day trip, we could only scratch the surface so made straight for the only settlement of any size, Craighouse, which has a shop, hotel, tea-room (The Antlers) and – guess what! – a distillery. We didn’t have time to visit this one either, but we enjoyed The Antlers (twice). Could this be the distillery cat sitting disdainfully in the carpark opposite?

We walked around the village for a while, and out onto the pier. The mountains you can see are the Paps of Jura, so called because of their smooth, breast-like shape – even though there are three of them! They are all around 2500 feet. The view of the mainland at the end of the gallery is Knapdale – I remember admiring the view in reverse from there last year.

Here are the Paps from further up the road. Beautiful!

Although the island is several miles wide, Loch Tarbert slashes it almost in half, as this satellite image from Wikimedia Commons shows. Jura is less than a mile across here, and for thousands of years, people used this strip as a short cut between the island of Colonsay and the mainland.

It was therefore really easy to do a coast to coast walk from Tarbert Bay to the shores of the Loch. We explored the latter first.

When we returned to explore the bay, we found we had observers. Jura has about 6000 red deer, outnumbering the human population by 30 to 1. In fact the name of the island is probably derived from the Norse dyr-oe, or deer island.

Also on Tarbert Bay is a small burial ground with a prehistoric standing stone and the remains of a chapel dedicated to St Columba. The standing stone has later been marked with Christian crosses.

On our way back to Craighouse, we stopped at another graveyard, Kilearnadil, which is named after St Earnan, Columba’s uncle and one of the 12 men who accompanied him to Scotland. The graveyard contains the Campbell Mausoleum, burial place of 11 Campbell lairds, and a memorial to those of Clan Shaw killed by the Campbells in 1614.

We explored Jura’s parish church in Craighouse – very simple and plain, but with a couple of nice windows.

Then it was time to return to Feolin for the ferry.

There’s really not a lot to see in Feolin – that’s pretty much it above – so we went for a short walk along Whitefarland Bay until we could see the ferry coming. We met more deer!

This was a lovely day out, but I think to do proper justice to Jura we would need to stay on the island. With limited accommodation, that’s easier said than done and is maybe better left until John retires and we can be more flexible about dates. Dream on!

Glasgow Gallivanting: July/August 2019

Loch Long from Eilean Donan Apartments

There was no Gallivanting post in July because we were too busy gallivanting away from home. We stayed in three different places, and just look at the views we had! First, we travelled up the west coast to Dornie and spent a week in a beautiful apartment on the banks of Loch Long (see above).

On our way home, we stopped for a couple of nights at the Isles of Glencoe hotel. I think the view from our window here was even better (see below).

Loch Leven from Isles of Glencoe Hotel

After a few days at home catching up with friends and family we were off again, this time to the east coast just this side of the English border. When I saw the view below online it sold me the cottage we rented in Lower Burnmouth. This is our bedroom window – I admit when we got there I was disappointed to find that high tide that week would always be during the night while we slept and mid-afternoon when we were out. The view at low tide was much less picturesque because there is no sandy beach. However, towards the end of our stay we made sure we were home early enough one day to catch the tide, and watched mesmerised as it receded. Expect many, many more pictures when I finally get round to writing this up …

The North Sea from the Old Lobster House

When we weren’t away gallivanting, we managed to get a few walks in from home. I’ve posted about the Greenock Cut walk before (in April 2016) and nothing much has changed, except there wasn’t a cruise liner in port at Greenock last time.

We’ve also done the walk to Callander Crags and Bracklinn Falls before. However, that was pre-blogging which allows me to do a then-and-now gallery. Here’s 2008:

Followed by 2019 – I don’t seem to have taken any pictures of John, how remiss of me! The cairn is to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 with a small plaque added (and later defaced) for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

A new-to-us walk was Eglinton Country Park. The park has a really interesting history and I might do a full post on that later, so just a couple of photos for now.

In June I wrote about the Oor Wullie art trail, which has taken over several Scottish cities this summer, and posted a few of the Wullies I had snapped. I have many, many more but some people found them ugly or scary so I’ll only add one, Wonder Wullie. I’ve met several other weird figures over the past couple of months though! Joining Wullie below are a cow met outside a pub in Dalwhinnie; Nutkin, from another art trail in the Highlands; the Clyde Mascot from the Commonwealth Games in 2014; Elvis, who has not left the building; and Glasgow University’s Lion and Unicorn which I’ve featured before, but not with their new lick of gold paint.

Clyde and Elvis can be found in Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery which we visited in August to see the excellent Linda McCartney Retrospective (on till January). No photography was allowed in the exhibition but, as always, we came away with a new set of shots. The organ in the Centre Hall is extremely photogenic.

So are the Floating Heads (by Sophie Cave) which grace the East Court, and the Spitfire which flies over the West.

However, I can’t believe I have never properly looked beyond these to the stained glass windows at the end of each gallery. They are quite different, but both stunning (though I prefer the blue bird).

Some new murals by Art Pistol have appeared along the Forth and Clyde Canal at Firhill. Inspired by Mackintosh, one is based on his well-known work Roses and the other on the lesser known Sailing Ships. They’re under a bridge so hard to capture, but I tried. Again, I think I prefer the blue one.

Glasgow Women’s Library welcomed some Kenyan visitors recently. As part of a British Council funded programme the Library has partnered with a group called Book Bunk in Nairobi. Founded by Wanjiru Koinange and Angela Wachuka, Book Bunk aims to transform three public libraries in Nairobi, from throwbacks to a colonial era which excluded Africans, into inclusive spaces with heritage, public art and shared experiences at their core. Read the GWL blogpost about Wanjiru and Wachuka’s visit, watch the Book Bunk video and weep – and if your finger strays towards the Donate Now button, so much the better. Wanjiru, on the left of the picture, is also an author and read some extracts from her debut novel, The havoc of choice, which follows one family during the 2007 Kenyan election and its violent aftermath. It’s not out till next week, but I’ve pre-ordered a copy and can’t wait for it to arrive.

Finally, to two fabulously floral events! My friend Irene held a garden party at which she raised over £1500 for Pancreatic Cancer UK. Cheers Irene! We had a great time.

September sees the heritage festival Doors Open swing into action throughout Scotland. Glasgow’s turn isn’t for another few weeks, but in this 30th anniversary year a celebration was held last weekend in the city’s Govanhill Baths. Blooms with a View filled the old Ladies’ Pool with flowers and acted as a base for various events. We had booked tickets for a talk on Saturday which was unfortunately cancelled, but decided to turn up anyway because we wanted to see the Baths. Here’s the Ladies’ Pool in its “glad rags”.

You might have noticed that underneath the flowers the pool is rather the worse for wear. Originally opened in 1917, the baths survived until 2001 when the city council decided to shut them down. Local residents were outraged and staged a 147 day occupation which saved the building from demolition. The campaign became a charitable trust and has so far raised about £7m towards refurbishment. Officially, the baths are closed again in preparation for work to start, so we were glad to get this opportunity to visit. We also sneaked a peek at the other two pools – the learners’ pool, which looked rather gross, and the main pool which looked rather better!

No Scottish words this month, I’m running out of time. Happy September!

Islay: the Rhinns of Islay

View across Loch Indaal from John Francis Campbell Monument

The Rhinns of Islay is the peninsula which makes up the north-west of the island. We’d been as far as Port Charlotte on our whisky tour, so the next day we decided to explore the Rhinns’ furthest end. But first we stopped to climb a small, monument-topped hill near Bridgend, from where we could see across Loch Indaal to the route we would take. The monument is to John Francis Campbell (1821-1885), a descendant of Daniel Campbell who bought Islay in 1726. John would have inherited Islay himself, had his father not run up huge debts forcing him to sell up in the 1840s. However, John carved out a reputation for himself in other fields, as a renowned author and scholar who became an authority on Celtic folklore producing the four-volume collection Popular Tales of the West Highlands.

From here, we drove to the end of the Rhinns to explore the twin coastal villages of Port Wemyss and Portnahaven, both built in the 1830s to house tenants who were cleared from the island’s interior. The Campbell of the day, Walter Frederick, named Port Wemyss after his father-in-law, the 8th Earl of Wemyss. (He also founded Port Charlotte and Port Ellen, called after his mother and his wife respectively.)

We found a small parking area in Port Wemyss, just across from the small island of Orsay on which stands the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson in 1825. From here we followed a 2.5km loop through both villages. Burnside Lodge in Port Wemyss operates as a café in the summer – as this was May it wasn’t open, but we were delighted to discover the Cake Cupboard! Flasks for tea and coffee, a selection of delicious home baking and an Honesty Box to pay for it all. We had a break here before we’d even started our walk …

Following the pretty coastal path through the village we could see seals basking on the rocks over on Orsay.

Back on the road, we reached Portnahaven – quirkily decorative.

We discovered that the Parish Church was having a coffee morning – well, it would have been rude not to visit, don’t you think? Their cakes were good too – this was a day of appalling diet.

We continued to waddle round the village, making our way back to Port Wemyss along the coast. I wonder who lost a hat?

Next stop, Port Charlotte where we started by visiting the Museum of Islay Life, housed in an old church.

I found lots of interest here including, amongst other things, an old light from the Rhinns Lighthouse which we’d just seen:

An example of the illicit stills we kept reading about:

And a display about the loss of the Tuscania and Otranto in 1918, the ships commemorated by the American Monument which we’d visited on our first day. This included the notebook of local police sergeant Malcolm MacNeill who went to great lengths in his attempts to identify the bodies washed ashore – here he lists the property of each man found (taken through glass, sorry about the awful picture, but I found it too moving to leave out).

Most intriguingly, I photographed the group of pipers below because it included a MacAffer (my great-grandfather’s sister married a MacAffer) and only realised when preparing this post that it also included Piper Lily MacDougall whose gravestone I featured a couple of weeks ago. I was interested because she had such a long life, dying aged 100 in 2014. It doesn’t say on the museum caption when the photograph was taken, but I bought a book of old Islay which includes the same image and gives the date as 1972, so Lily would have been 58 here.

After the museum, we went on another short loop walk (5 km – not quite enough to work off all that cake). We passed the hotel and its pretty garden …

… before following the shore to the lighthouse at Rubh’an Duin.

Then through a field observed by curious sheep, across the road and up a farm track with evidence that the farmer grows grain for nearby Bruichladdich. There used to be another distillery actually in Port Charlotte, Lochindaal, which closed in 1929.

We continued to climb above the village where we got good views over Loch Indaal and Port Charlotte and were terrorised (well, I was) by another herd of excitable cattle – not the beautiful highland cows shown below who allowed us to pass without showing much interest in us at all.

The journey back was on a minor road which took us down to the pier for a final look at the village.

From here, we returned to our cottage. I can’t remember what we cooked for dinner that night, but I hope it was suitably nutritious to counteract all that cake!

Islay: whisky galore!

Islay Whisky Tours

Islay has nine whisky distilleries – already two more than when we last visited thirty years ago, and soon to be ten when Port Ellen reopens next year. There was no way we were going to visit without sampling a few drams, and driving was therefore not an attractive option. Step forward Islay Whisky Tours, operated by Bowmore Taxis. We chose a one day tour at a cost of £260, which included the services of a driver/guide from 9am to 5pm and tours of two distilleries selected by us. We booked about 6 weeks ahead – the longer the better, the company is deservedly busy and popular – and received a detailed itinerary based around our choices well in advance of our trip. This included short visits to several other distilleries and some general sight-seeing. We had a very enjoyable day, as you will see below, and highly recommend this company.


We chose two contrasting distilleries for our tours – one small and privately owned, the other large and owned by a multi-national. Our lovely driver, Donald, appeared at our accommodation exactly at the time arranged, and we set off immediately for our first destination. Kilchoman, the small distillery we chose, began production in 2005 and is Islay’s second-newest distillery, at the time the first to be built for over 120 years. It’s the only farm distillery on the island and we saw the whole process from the barley growing in the surrounding fields to the small bottling plant. It initially felt a bit weird to be sampling whisky at 10 in the morning – but we got over it!

The distillery also has a small café which looked very good, but we didn’t have time to try it. We did have time to look at the Visitor Centre displays before our tour started and were amused to find four Sinclairs in the list of persons contravening The Excise Act, 1801, i.e. they were probably distilling illegally. Shocking, they can’t be related to me. Nor shall I claim kinship with John Sinclair who established the short-lived Mulindry Distillery in 1826. According to the local Excise Officer, he liked his own product a little too much, went bankrupt in 1831, and emigrated to America. I’m sure any Sinclairs I am related to were fine, upstanding citizens.


Our next stop was Bruichladdich Distillery, on the shore of Loch Indaal ( a sea loch) just outside the pretty village of Port Charlotte. We didn’t have a tour here, but we had a quick look around and came out with a bottle of gin! As well as whisky, Bruichladdich also produces The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, and very good it was too (note past tense).

By the way, if you are pronouncing the ch sounds in these names as in church, then that’s not right. Ch is a guttural, back-of-the-throat, Germanic sound – usually. Just to fool you, Bruichladdich has two chs. The first is pronounced as expected – the other isn’t pronounced at all, hence the name of the Laddie Shop.


Next, we had a couple of hours in Bowmore, the island’s main settlement, to have lunch, look around the distillery (no tour) and explore the unusual Kilarrow Parish Church (1767), otherwise known as the Round Church for obvious reasons. That’s it at the top of the hill, above. There was a great view over the distillery roofs from its upper windows.

We visited Bowmore Distillery, Islay’s oldest (1779) in 1989. From what I can remember, it was the only one offering commercial tours at the time. It hasn’t changed much, though I don’t remember the mermaid.

Again, it’s set right on the shore, almost directly opposite Bruichladdich on Loch Indaal. The sea was an important form of transport – Kilchoman is the exception being inland.


At 2pm we met Donald again and set off for our afternoon visits. The morning had been spent in the north of the island, now we were heading back south where three distilleries lie in close proximity to each other. The furthest away is Ardbeg which dates from 1815, though hasn’t had a continuous history. We liked its green bus, and the views along the coast to Dunyvaig Castle and the neighbouring distillery, Lagavulin.


We didn’t visit Lagavulin next – we drove past it because we had a 3pm tour booked at Laphroaig (pronounced Lafroyg, it means ‘broad hollow by the bay’). Donald and Alexander Johnston founded the distillery in 1815, and it remained in family hands for the next 139 years. These days it’s a multinational, owned by Beam Suntory. Laphroaig is arguably the best known Islay malt: it was certainly the first one I tried and is still my favourite – if you like your drink to taste of peat, smoke, and iodine then its for you (check out the marketing slogans in the gallery below). One person who certainly likes it is Prince Charles who gave the distillery his Royal Warrant in 1994 – his coat of arms (three feathers) appears on every bottle. In the gallery below it’s on the wall in one of the photographs. You can also see a cairn unveiled by the Prince in 2015 for Laphroaig’s bicentenary in 2015.

I haven’t bothered with the technical details of making whisky because I’d probably get them wrong, and you can very easily look them up anyway. As you know, it’s the human element that catches my eye and women’s history in particular. Here we have a splendid example in Bessie Williamson who arrived as a temporary shorthand typist in 1934 but remained for nearly 50 years, eventually becoming the first female distiller and distillery owner in the 20th century. Bravo Bessie!


After our tour at Laphroaig, we backtracked to Lagavulin for a quick look at its grounds. Like many distilleries, its site was originally used for illegal stills, in this case becoming licensed around 1810. It’s now part of the Diageo group. From here we could once again see Dunyvaig Castle, this time from the other side. That’s me with Donald, our driver, in the final photo below.

Port Ellen

On our way back to our accommodation we made one last stop at Port Ellen where we spied this beautiful ship in the bay. The distillery here closed in 1983, but its owners, Diageo again, are set to re-open it next year. You can still buy its single malt whisky, though it’s becoming increasingly rare and therefore expensive. We bought a bottle at a Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting about 25 years ago, and five of us demolished it the following night. I seem to remember the tasting notes involved sailors’ pigtails …

Donald dropped us off at the end of our tour after a wonderful day during which the sun even shone for us! Many thanks to him and to Lamont who made all the arrangements so splendidly (though possibly he had nothing to do with the sunshine). Once again, a hearty (and completely unsolicited) recommendation for Islay Whisky Tours. Total stars!

Islay: Finlaggan and Ballygrant

Loch Finlaggan

Finlaggan Castle is a ruined fortified house on the isle of Eilean Mór on Islay’s Loch Finlaggan. It was once a residence and stronghold of the Lords of the Isles, semi-autonomous rulers of the Hebrides and Kintyre from the 12th century until 1493 when the lands of the Lordship were forfeited to King James IV. The title Lord of the Isles was annexed to the Crown in 1542 (and is now one of the titles of the present Prince of Wales). The castle appears to have been demolished around that time.

In truth, there’s not much to see of the ruins, but we enjoyed our visit all the same. We started in the small visitor centre which has an interesting display of artefacts discovered during archaeological excavations, along with a fabulous new virtual-reality reconstruction of the settlement in the early 15th century. You can see John totally immersed in it above.

I was also, if you remember, looking out for references to Sinclairs (my great-grandfather’s name) and MacAffers (the family his sister married into). Sinclair is a relatively common name in Scotland and we found many in the graveyards around Islay, but the only reference to MacAffer that I found was at Finlaggan. The MacAffers were hereditary armour bearers to the Lords of the Isles – see below.

From the Visitor Centre, we took the path down to the site, crossing the reed beds of the loch on duckboards.

On the island, interpretive panels explain the ruins and fill in the gaps of what was no longer there. We also visited Finlaggan in 1989 when it was quite overgrown, and I think you can tell from the pictures below that it is now much better maintained.

After a quick lunch in Port Askaig, we drove back to a little village called Ballygrant from where we planned to walk to Lily Loch. This was a pleasant, if unspectacular, walk through woods and farmland, and the loch was pretty – although we were there too early to see waterlilies.

From the loch, we crossed an area of open moorland to take a parallel track back – this took us through the village of Keills. The name derives from the Gaelic for church, Cill, and the graveyard here contains the ruins of an old chapel attributed to St Columba. I can never resist an old graveyard, especially one with a view like this. Headstones which caught my eye included one for a father and son who died a fortnight apart, and the memorial to Piper Lily MacDougall aged 100 years. There must be interesting stories attached to both of those.

From the graveyard we headed back to Ballygrant where we caught Labels, the local café, just as it was about to close. Coffee at an outdoor table was a pleasant end to a round walk of 9.5km.

(In my last post, I mentioned that I had been called for jury duty and might therefore be out of action for a while. That turned out to be an anti-climax. I called the helpline three nights in a row to find out if I was required – I wasn’t and was “released from my citation” on the third call. Whoopee!)