Craignethan Castle

Craignethan Castle
Craignethan Castle

You might have guessed by now that we love visiting ruined castles, and there are plenty of them within easy reach of where we live. Craignethan Castle, in the care of Historic Scotland, is one of our favourites. The tower house was built around 1530 by Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, the eldest (but illegitimate) son of the 1st Earl of Arran and a friend of King James V. The castle’s defences include its location, high above the valley cut by the River Nethan, and a caponier, a stone vaulted artillery chamber which is rare in Britain.

Claims to fame include giving shelter to Mary, Queen of Scots, prior to her defeat at Langside on 13 May 1568, and, allegedly, being the inspiration for Tillietudlem Castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality. Scott denied this, but interest in his novel attracted visitors to Craignethan and a railway station built nearby was named after the fictional castle. Houses built near the station developed into the modern village of Tillietudlem. Fact follows fiction!

After visiting the castle, we explored part of the Lower Nethan Gorge Nature Reserve which runs from the castle down to the village of Crossford.

On the way home, we stopped at Blackhill Viewpoint, a rather damp trek across fields, but worth it.

I’ve just realised that in the picture of the trig point, you can just see a fuzzy rainbow forming. I said it was damp!

Two Towers

Clackmannan Tolbooth

A four mile circular walk between two towers – Clackmannan and Alloa – starts at Clackmannan Tollbooth. This was built in 1592 as a court, prison and administrative centre, but only the west gable and bell-tower now remain. Next to it, you can see a boulder sitting on top of another boulder – this is what gives the town its name. It’s the “Clack” or Stone of Mannan, named after the Celtic God Manau, which started life to the south of the town before being moved to Clackmannan Tower and then to the Tolbooth in 1833. Next to that is the shaft of the Mercat Cross which dates back to the 1600s and still shows signs of wear from the chains of prisoners who were attached to it as punishment. The ball finial was added in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

After admiring this rather odd collection of structures, we headed out of town to Clackmannan Tower, the oldest parts of which date to 1359. It suffered subsidence and partial collapse because of mine-workings in the 1940s, but Historic Scotland has repaired it. It’s only open occasionally though, and this was one of the days it had to be admired from outside.

The hill on which it is perched has contrasting views to either side – one way to flat farmland running down to the Forth; the other to the Ochil Hills – and a lot of cows.

Continuing along the hillside, Alloa came into view and we descended through trees to a small burn.

After we crossed the bridge, the next part of the walk was through a residential area as the town has now surrounded the Tower.

This is one of Scotland’s largest surviving medieval tower houses, the ancestral home of the Earls of Mar from around 1368. It has a very surprising interior though. If you enlarge the pictures above, you might be able to see the lines of previous extensions. A mansion was attached to the tower in 1680 and the 6th Earl renovated the house in the early 1700s, inspired by the elegant villas he had seen on his Grand Tour of Europe. The mansion burnt down in 1800 and was rebuilt 38 years later. It then fell into ruin and was eventually pulled down around 1960. The tower was left derelict until 1988 when Clackmannanshire Council set up a preservation trust under National Trust for Scotland supervision to restore it and it was opened to the public in 1996. Unfortunately, though, photography is not allowed inside so you will have to take my word for it that the interior is much more elegant than the exterior suggests – or see the pictures on the NTS site. I did use my phone to take this photo in the Ladies though – the message amused me!

You have been warned!
You have been warned!

One place you can take pictures is from the roof of the Tower, from which we could see back to Clackmannan Tower where we started.

Our route back took us across the flat ground near the river which we had spied from above at the beginning of the walk. This is the Black Devon Wetland nature reserve – the Black Devon being a river running into the Forth. To start with, we had a row of pylons to guide us, then we veered off across farm tracks back to Clackmannan.

I’m linking this post to Jo’s Monday Walks. She’s following mountain goats this week and her other contributors have been all over the place! Check the link for some great posts.

Jarlshof to Sumburgh Head

Medieval farmhouse
Jarlshof and the Sumburgh Hotel
On a glorious morning we set out for the southern tip of Mainland Shetland to visit Jarlshof and Sumburgh Head – there’s a lovely cliff walk between the two sites. We started off with morning coffee in the Sumburgh Hotel and thought we might be back in time for lunch, but there was so much to do that we only made it in time for afternoon tea and cakes. Not complaining….

You might think Jarlshof sounds like a Viking name, but it was actually coined by Sir Walter Scott. It’s my favourite of all the archeological sites we visited on Orkney and Shetland because its multiple layers cover such a long period from the late Bronze Age to the Middle Ages. The picture at the top of the post shows the remains of a medieval farmhouse. There are also oval-shaped Bronze Age houses, an Iron Age broch and wheelhouses, Viking long houses and a 16th century laird’s house. The site is run by Historic Scotland and includes a small visitor centre.


Norse house
Norse house

Laird's House
Laird’s House
After a wander round Jarlshof, we set off along the cliff-top path, with the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head clearly in view ahead of us.

It’s not very far, but there were many stops to look over the cliff edges (safely!) to see birds – so many birds. The puffins are my favourite – and presumably John’s too as he took umpteen photos of them.

We spent a lot more time at the lighthouse than we expected – I don’t remember there being such an extensive visitor centre last time we were there. You can even rent holiday accommodation there if you wish (though not in the tower itself).

Finally, it was time to turn round and return to the Sumburgh Hotel via the other side of the Head. As the lighthouse retreated into the distance behind us, Sumburgh Airport came into view ahead, and from there it was a short drop down to the hotel.

I’m linking this post to Jo’s Monday Walks. I wonder where everyone else is taking us this week?

Edzell Castle

Edzell Castle and Garden
Edzell Castle and Garden

Edzell Castle was built by the Lindsay family in the 16th century, with its beautiful walled garden added around 1604 (then restored in the 1930s). It’s had some famous guests – Mary Queen of Scots in 1562 (though can there be a Scottish castle she didn’t visit?) and her son, James VI, in 1580 and 1589. Unfortunately, mounting debts forced the Lindsays to sell up in 1715. Today, Edzell is run by Historic Scotland and has to put up with less famous visitors such as ourselves. They still send out a welcome party though – an unusually co-operative peacock who almost posed for his picture (though kept his tail unfanned).

My favourite part was the garden walls which included little niches for flowers….

…. and heraldic sculptures and carved panels representing the Liberal Arts.

The garden itself looked best from above:

Garden from the castle
Garden from the castle

Edzell is in Perthshire, just north of Brechin and Montrose. We stopped off on our way to Aberdeen to catch a ferry – there’ll be much more on our destination to follow…..

Cairnpapple Hill

Cupcake Café Bar
Cupcake Café Bar

On a cold day in May, our destination was Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian – but first, as you know, lunch is essential. We happened upon this lovely little place, the Cupcake Café Bar, near Torpichen – we were very good and didn’t have a cake, but the lunch was delicious.

In the village itself, we made a further stop at Torpichen Preceptory, a former base of the powerful Knights Hospitallers and a seat of government for William Wallace in 1298.

Then it was on to Cairnpapple Hill. I can’t imagine why I have lived in Scotland for nearly 30 years and never visited this significant site. It’s just a short climb from the road to the once-sacred hilltop where people first raised monuments 5500 years ago. Today you can see a Neolithic henge, the site of a great timber circle and a Bronze Age cist grave (now protected by a modern, domed chamber which you climb into by ladder). The views stretch from one coast to the other – partly obliterated by approaching storms.

Both Torpichen and Cairnpapple are managed by Historic Scotland where you can find out more about them.

We had intended to continue walking, but the weather prompted us to go a bit further by car, stopping at the Scottish Korean War Memorial – there was a memorial here already, apparently, but the current one (2013) is designed to be a permanent structure. It was sunny again when we arrived so we climbed the hill behind the monument, Witchcraig. On the hilltop is a Refuge Stone marking an old boundary where those on the run could seek sanctuary – it’s connected to Torpichen – and  the Witchcraig Wall, an enclosure with 43 special stones built into it, collected from across Central Scotland. (See also the interesting three-way bench attached. Is this an exciting variation on the kissing-seat?)

Once again, you can see a rain storm approaching, and this time it caught us as we descended. Witchcraig is not a high hill, but we were drenched by the time we got back to the car. However, after driving just a little further, we decided to chance another short walk as it was dry again. (This happens in Scotland – it can have four seasons in one day, as I keep telling people.) Cockleroy Hill is small but perfectly formed for varied views – we could see Linlithgow Palace, the Forth Bridges, the refineries at Grangemouth and the mound at Cairnpapple.

After that, it was time to head home. I’m linking this post to Jo’s Monday Walks (three short walks for the price of one) and Jude’s Bench Series, which for July is benches with unusual details. Click both links to see what other people have come up with.

Blackness Castle

Yesterday we went east to Blackness Castle on the Firth of Forth, one of Historic Scotland’s sites. We dodged the rain with a well-timed lunch, then spent a dry, if cold and blustery, hour exploring before walking a couple of miles along the banks of the Forth for good views back to the Castle and of the Ochil Hills and some intriguing fungi.

Blackness was built in the 15th century and is remarkably well-preserved, perhaps because it spent much of its life as a fortress and prison. It’s also known as “the ship that never sailed” – you can get some impression of that in the picture above of the prow-like tower with the Saltire pointing out into the water. Well worth the visit!

Scottish Snapshots: A quartet of castles

Scottish Snapshots is a series of short posts about places I visited in 2013 but didn’t write about at the time

Scotland is not short of an iconic ruined castle or two. Last autumn, we visited four, all run by Historic Scotland. Since these posts are called Snapshots, I’m going to restrict myself to a photo and a fact about each.

Doune Castle

Doune Castle
Doune Castle

If you take an audio-tour of the castle, you’ll find it’s narrated by Terry Jones. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed at Doune.

Bothwell Castle

Bothwell Castle
Bothwell Castle

In 1301, Edward I of England, “Hammer of the Scots”, brought 6,800 soldiers to the castle. A huge siege engine was hauled from Glasgow and the garrison surrendered within the month. Boo!

Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle
Dumbarton Castle

This castle is built high above the Clyde on the twin peaks of a volcanic rock. There are a lot of stairs!

Castle Campbell

Castle Campbell
Castle Campbell

Castle Campbell used to be known as Castle Gloom or Glume. As you can see, it’s not at all gloomy on a bright autumn day – and it’s a lovely walk up the glen from the village of Dollar.

Linlithgow Palace

I love old castles and palaces, clambering up and down staircases and trying to imagine what it must have been like to live there. Before Christmas, we had an abortive visit to Linlithgow Palace because we failed to check the Historic Scotland website and didn’t realise it was closed. All was not lost, we had a good walk around the adjacent Loch and a pub lunch in the Four Marys. I posted some external pictures and vowed to go back for a proper visit later. Yesterday, we did just that. We visited the Four Marys again (their hummus is a definite highlight) and ended with a warming coffee in a lovely little café next to the Palace, So Strawberry. We needed it after the cold and the effort of climbing several towers. The Palace is probably most famous for being the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots – she was baptised in the adjacent St Michael’s Kirk, which you can also see in the pictures below. The aluminium crown is a 1960s addition to replace a masonry crown which had to be removed in 1821. It was apparently controversial at the time, but I like it. However, the real highlight is the elaborate, carved fountain in the courtyard which was restored to its former glory a few years ago. unfortunately, it’s only turned on in the summer – sounds like a good reason to go back again!

Stirling Castle at dusk

The last time we visited Stirling Castle (Historic Scotland) was a sunny, autumn day in 2011 and the pictures in the blogpost I wrote then reflected that. After arriving in Stirling for a short break between Christmas and New Year, we nipped up for a quick visit in the late afternoon and found the castle looking equally stunning, but with a totally different atmosphere as dusk changed to darkness. We visited:

The Palace



The Great Hall




The Chapel Royal




The Great Kitchens





By the time we left, when the castle closed at 5pm, it was completely dark. This is the other side of the Great Hall taken from the Grand Battery.


Finally, on our way back down the hill we spotted these lovely Christmas lights designed by children.


Stirling is less than an hour away from where we live, so it’s wonderful to be able to see it at different times of year. Normally, we’d be back on the motorway to Glasgow by 5pm, so it was an added bonus to see it at this beautiful time of day.

Stirling Castle

Robert the Bruce stands guard over Stirling Castle:


We’ve visited Stirling Castle many times in the past, but not since the newly refurbished Royal Palace opened this summer. The beauty of being a Historic Scotland member is that you can go in free and just visit the parts you want, rather than feeling you have to go over the whole thing every time to get your £13 worth, so a few Sundays ago we set off to see the Palace.

The highlight is the ceiling with the brightly painted Stirling Heads, shown below. These are replicas, but you can see the remaining originals in the Stirling Heads Gallery:


Other highlights of the castle are the ochre-harled Great Hall which can be seen for miles around:



And the gargoyles:


An unexpected bonus was that you can now have a free tour of Argyll’s Lodging, the 17th century townhouse just down from the Castle, which we had also not visited before:



Finally, where to eat? The Castle has a nice café, but we usually opt for the Portcullis Hotel, just down the hill, which was built in 1787 as a boys’ school. Their lunches are substantial and good value. My stuffed peppers with salad also included a disc of breaded mozzarella and chips, neither of which had been mentioned on the menu.

Stirling is recommended as a lovely day out.