Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Day 16 - Scotland West Coast - Largs - Vikings, Scottish accents and Robert Burns recording

Largs (click on name to see on my Google Map) is a mid-sized town (it will take you five minutes to drive from one end to the other - stopping at red lights), on the edge of the Firth of Clyde (a Firth is what the Scots call a large inlet of sea water that was carved out by glaciers in the last ice age), which links Glasgow to the Atlantic. The town itself isn't much to get excited about. There's a sea promenade, some unsuited mini-theme park attractions, and a few restaurants.

Ice cream booth in Largs, with seagulls.

Ladies of Largs...

"Can you take our picture?" - the girls of Largs

But eventhough Largs is still in the lowlands, you do get a sense of Scotland's famed highlands, looking west and north. Across the Firth, the hills rise quickly into semi-mountainous lands - the beginning of the territories of clans? Despite summer, clouds were grey and heavy. To me, the weather wasn't out of place. I've always thought of Scotland as wild and stormy, my imagination formed from movies like Braveheart, Highlander and various TV documentaries on clan wars and Viking invasions.

And Largs does have one must-do attraction, if you are interested in the country's sword-bearing past. The Vikingar experience, just back from the sea front, is a retelling of how the Vikings were instrumental in the development of Scotland. For instance, in 1263, Largs was the site of the last official invasion of Scotland by the Norse raiders from Scandinavia. The Vikingar centre is like a museum that's come to life, where costumed story tellers explain the influence that these invaders had on the region.

Largs was also the place of my first encounter with "real" (?) Scottish folk, the compatriots of my great grandfather who grew up in Elgin on the north coast.

I stayed at South Whittlieburn Farm, a few kilometres into the Brisbane valley away from town. I may as well been on a different planet. Verdant hills, spotted with sheep, pockets of oak trees, and a farmhouse with the front door wide open to guests. (Above the gate to the property is written "Ceud Mile Failte"...which is Scottish Gaelic for "A Hundred Thousand Welcomes".

As soon as owners Tom and Mary Watson start talking, you realise they are quite clearly Scottish. They are the first people I have met on my trip who are culturally tied to the land on which they grew up. Tom grew up in Selkirk. Mary grew up in Garbhaltt on the Cowal peninsula near St Catherines (where I am staying tomorrow night). Her family came from Tighnabruaich, further south on the peninsula (don't ask me how to pronounce that...). For me, the couple epitomise what I've dreamt up in my head about what Scottish folk are all about - especially the accent, which is beautiful to listen to.

Mary told me how I should visit Castle Lachlan on my way north to St Catherines...at first I didn't know what she was talking about, describing it like this:

"You should visit MacLachlan of MacLachlan, Castle Lachlan in Strath Lachlan", all in a strong Scottish accent...fantastic.

And I've recorded Tom reading a Robert Burns poem, the famous Scottish poet. Give it a listen, and then play it again. It's only an audio recording (no video).

The audio recording of Robert Burns' Red, Red Rose, read by Tom Watson.

Tom Watson, of South Whittlieburn Farm, on which he farms Scottish black-faced ewes, crossed with blue-faced Leicester rams.

Day 16 - Scotland West Coast - Largs - Entry to the highlands

From Wigtown, I headed to Largs on the west coast (click on names to see on my Google Map), which is really the beginning of the highlands area. North of Largs, the lochs loom large.

On the way, from south to north along the A77 road, there is Turnberry Golf Course, the site of the recent 2009 British Open Golf Tournament - check out the golf course's live webcam. Culzean Castle near Maybole, the Burns National Heritage Centre in Ayr, and then a few kilometres after, another famous golf course - Troon, the site of previous Open Championships.

Day 15 - Scotland South West Coast - Wigtown - The abode of the authors...

In Wigtown (click on name to see on my Google Map), I stayed with Andrew and Debbie Firth of Hillcrest House, a five minute walk from all the bookshops. They bought the regal 1875 Victorian building in 2003, after stumbling upon it while searching for potential properties further north. The couple never planned to live in Wigtown, but for them, and for the town, it ended up a good thing.

Hillcrest House is now well-known locally as one of the better guest houses, where large bedrooms, high sash windows and a capacious lounge and dining room mean that no matter how many guests are around, you always feel like you’re alone in your own home.

My room at Hillcrest House...the view looks over the Solway Firth and the Wigtown Bay Local Nature Reserve, the largest private reserve in Britain.

For the town, Hillcrest supplies a down-to-earth, slightly bohemian atmosphere – the kind that authors with the same qualities would enjoy. And indeed they do. When the Wigtown Book Festival takes place in autumn, Hillcrest is the preferred guest house for well-known English authors like Willie Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine) and Joanne Harris (Chocolat), who spent a lot of time on the stairwell at Hillcrest chatting to Debbie's cats! "She was just lovely," says Debbie.

Debbie cooks all the meals, using only local produce. Pork from nearby Sunnyside Farm, potatoes, beetroot and other veggies from her back garden, lamb from the saltmarshes and so forth. Meals are Scottish, tasty, wholesome – let Debbie cook you “chicken stuffed with Haggis in a whisky cream sauce”. This sort of dish is the type that won Hillcrest the title of Scotland’s Real Food Award in 2009, an independent competition which is judged partly on the locality of the ingredients.

The Firths like a good chat, and are happy to discuss anything and everything that’s going on in the area...

1) Visit the gardens in southern Scotland. Because of the warm Gulf Stream sea current which eddies in the Irish Sea, the area hosts many gardens which are able to grow exotic – and southern hemisphere – plants. Here are just two of 19 in the area:

Logan Botanic Garden, near the Mull of Galloway – , claimed to be Scotland’s most exotic garden, with groves of eucalypts and a brilliant flower garden that is in bloom all year round.

Dunskey Gardens & Maze, near Portpatrick, comprising a huge greenhouse, as well as a maze in which to get lost.

Go to the Dumfries and Galloway tourism website to see all the others.

2) On the way to Wigtown from England, stop off near Kirkcudbright at the Galloway Wildlife Conservation Park , where about 100 different species – some rare and endangered - are kept. The park is part of the European Endangered Species Programme, meaning breeding is co-ordinated according to strict guidelines.

3) Go to Monreith, to see the area which inspired naturalist Gavin Maxwell to write Ring of Bright Water (which describes how he brought an otter back to Scotland from Iraq in 1960)...and pop in to see the otters at Monreith Animal World nearby.

4) Check out the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse, at the southernmost point of Scotland. During summer you can climb to the top for great views, or spend a night in the lighthouse’s cottage .

5) Go on a dairy farm tour at Cream o’ Galloway, but more importantly, try out their ten different flavours of organic ice-cream.