A weekend with kelpies and old books

Another lovely weekend in Central Scotland meant I could cross off two more items on my summer “must visit” list. The Kelpies are the latest large-scale public art installations by sculptor Andy Scott. Sitting next to the Forth and Clyde Canal in Helix Park, Falkirk, the two horses’ heads tower over 26 metres high – they’re not just art, they represent a massive engineering achievement too. If you’re wondering what a kelpie is, it’s a mythical water-being inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland which usually appears as a horse, but is able to adopt human form. Scott modelled his sculptures on two real-life Clydesdales in honour of the horses which used to pull the barges along the canal, so they might be mythical, but they’re also very real.

We chose to take a tour which meant we were able to go inside one of the heads (Duke, the one looking down, the other is Baron) and learn more about how they were made. They have 928 plates which took 130 days to construct on site using over 300 tons of steel. Awesome!

A word of warning about Helix Park itself – the facilities are awful. We got there just after 11am and were able to park, but from then on there was a constant queue of cars looking unsuccessfully for spaces. The advice given is to use overflow parking at the Falkirk Stadium, but that’s at least a 20 minute walk from the Kelpies, so if you’ve booked a tour you might well miss it – and if there’s a football match there, presumably you can’t use it anyway. The café is also about 15 minutes away, and when we got there just after 1pm they had no lunch left, just crisps and snacks. This is a fairly new attraction, so maybe they will get their act together soon, and I guess it’s good news in one way if more people than they expected turn up. A Visitor Centre is under construction and I assume it will have extra catering, but they need to sort the parking problems too.

Saturday was our last chance to catch Dunblane’s Leighton Library – it’s only open during the summer and we don’t have another weekend free before it closes at the end of September. This is the oldest purpose-built private library in Scotland, opening in 1687 as the result of a bequest by Robert Leighton. He had been Bishop of Dunblane from 1661 to 1670 and wanted to leave his books for the benefit of the clergy of the diocese. His own collection of around 1400 volumes eventually grew to over 4000 – all are held on the first floor, with the lower storey originally being living quarters for the librarian. From 1734 to about 1840 it functioned as a lending library, until the growth of public libraries rendered it obsolete. Despite the worthy nature of most of the tomes, the most borrowed book was a novel – Zeluco (1789) by Scottish author John Moore, which relates the vicious deeds of the eponymous anti-hero, the evil Italian nobleman Zeluco. Another novel, The cottagers of Glenburnie by Stirling author Elizabeth Hamilton, was so popular that it went missing. Now why does that sound a familiar tale? It happened regularly in every library I’ve ever worked in, that’s why!

Dunblane Museum is also worth a look – it too only opens summer hours and was closed on our last visit in December. For more on the town and its year-round attractions, such as the Cathedral, see my previous post Scottish snapshots: Dunblane.

Scottish Snapshots: Dunblane

Scottish Snapshots is a series of posts about places I visited in 2013 but didn’t write about at the time. This is the last – and it has turned into rather more than a snapshot. I had forgotten how many pictures we took!

To those who haven’t been there, Dunblane possibly means one of two things: the site of a horrific school shooting in 1996 or the home town of Scottish tennis star, Andy Murray. You can’t escape either with touching memorials to the children and teacher who died and Andy’s golden post-box. (The Royal Mail painted a post-box in the home town of every gold medal winner at the London 2012 Olympics.) Dunblane is only a 45 minute drive from Glasgow, but we hadn’t visited for about 20 years, avoiding being grief-tourists, but when I read about a new hotel opening there I thought it would be a lovely place to stay for three nights between Christmas and New Year.

Old Churches House
Old Churches House

Old Churches House is a row of 18th century cottages opposite the Cathedral which have been converted into a hotel and restaurant. It was very comfortable and the food was good – we had breakfast every day and dinner once. The other nights we ate at India Gate and Café Continental, both enjoyable.

The Cathedral is beautiful.

We used Dunblane’s Community Paths leaflet to explore the town thoroughly – the river (Allan Water) was impressively high. The museum and Leighton Library (oldest private library in Scotland) aren’t open in winter, so we’ll need to go back.

We also explored Dunblane by night – the Christmas lights were very pretty.

On the one day with reasonable weather, we walked out to Sheriffmuir, site of a battle between the Jacobites and the Government Army in 1715. The monument is to the members of Clan MacRae who died there. There’s nothing like a walk with a strategically placed pub for lunch and the Sheriffmuir Inn didn’t disappoint, providing the best meal of the holiday. It’s beautiful inside too.

This was a lovely “Twixmas” break – and there’s a lot to be said for a holiday where the journey home is only 45 minutes!