Sheep and Other Adventures

Another day of indifferent weather and we mop up (no pun intended) a few more ancestral locations, although sadly these churches are all locked. We also have a wander round Morpeth and manage to visit the destinations we abandoned due to the road closure two days ago. I am still working on these Northumbrian ancestors during our time back in the van and I am wondering if I should ‘ink in’ the next generation or not. At the moment I am erring on the side of caution and looking for additional evidence. They may make a blog post of their own when I am a bit more sorted.

In torrential rain we drive through floods, creating flume-like effects and make our way to Belsay. The site has been home to the Middleton family since at least 1270, when Richard de Middleton of ‘Belshou’ was Lord Chancellor to Henry III. The tour begins in the most recent home of the family on this site, Belsay Hall. This was built in 1817, using plans drawn up by the owner, Sir Charles Monck. He changed his name in order to inherit some other property; later generations reverted to Middleton. Sir Charles was obsessed with Greek architecture and the Hall reflects this. It was designed for effect, not practicality and contains some design flaws, including very steep steps to the entrance and a lack of guttering and downpipes. The latter has led to some serious water damage, which is having to be addressed by English Heritage. There are two high-ceilinged floors to the main house but the same height accommodates five floors on the north side, which were the servants’ quarters. Our tour has to omit the cellars due to flooding. Monck demolished the existing village and a chapel because he did not want the villagers too close to his home. In his defence, he did rebuild cottages further away and these too have signs of classical influences.

155 28 May 2019 Belsay Hall

The military took over the Hall in the Second World War and the building deteriorated rapidly afterwards, with the family leaving in the 1960s. It then stood empty for a further two years. Strangely, a condition of giving custodianship to English Heritage was that it would remain unfurnished. There are still remnants of William Morris wallpaper and a large library with 19 bookcases that might just accommodate my current book collection, which was culled by 50% when I left the Isle of Wight.

139 28 May 2019 Belsay Hall

149 28 May 2019 William Morris wallpaper Belsay Hall

The highlight of the Hall tour was observing a sheep-related incident. Whist admiring the rhododenrons, we notice that a sheep has got its head stuck through a fence that is protecting a sapling. Our guide radios for assistance. Simon the sheep rescuer comes to the aid of the stricken sheep. We watch from the window as he leaps into the rain-soaked ha-ha. As he approaches the sheep, which has been struggling for 10-15 minutes, miraculously, the sheep frees itself. Cue resounding applause for Simon.

153 28 May 2019 Rhododendrons Belsay Hall

The rain eased up sufficiently to allow us to paddle through the rhododenrons in the dramatic quarry garden and reach the castle. The castle is a traditional fortified peel house, designed to repel border raiders. A Jacobean manor was attached in 1614. This was abandoned two hundred years later, when the family moved into the hall. Sir Richard and his squire are bravely conducting some living history in the officially freezing castle. I feel quite sorry that the weather has kept visitors away but a few children are listening to the legend of the Lambton Worm and we discuss armour cleaning techniques.

Another ancestral location stop and then it is back to the van. And so the holiday draws to its close, leaving us with memories of bluebells and birdlife, the smell of guano and of wild garlic that shrouded each time we left the campsite and some ancestral adventures. I have somehow managed to successfully conduct three chat sessions for my Pharos Writing and Telling your Family History students, each one from a different field and now it is home for a week before we will be heading north again, this time for THE Genealogy Show.

Hearse Houses, Herons and Hauberks

On a day ear-marked for treading in my ancestors’ footsteps we set off round numerous villages and hamlets across the wilds of Northumberland. Great great grandfather, John Hogg, led an itinerant life, so we had a long list of places to cover. Chollerton was first on the list. This small village is sited on the ‘Corn Road’ from Hexham to Alnmouth, which opened in 1753, enabling produce to be shipped to London. Outside the church was a ‘hearse house’ used, as the name suggests, to store the village hearse and to provide stabling for the vicar and others coming to church. It now contains a small, unmanned museum. Interestingly, the font at Chollerton church has been created from a former Roman altar.

Amongst other stops, we go to Thockrington, officially one of my favourite places in the world. Believe me, it is not a place you are likely to encounter unless you make a deliberate effort but the awe-inspiring landscape is worth the effort. We called at Great Bavington, Mitford and Netherwitton, with a supermarket stop in Morpeth in between. The main road north of Morpeth was closed due to an accident and fortunately we noticed this as we approached and whilst we still had time to take avoiding action. This sent the sat-nav into ‘turn around where possible’ mode, so it was back to the trusty map. I actually really enjoy tracking journeys on OS maps. It doesn’t seem to make me feel as unpleasantly unwell as it used to do. Unfortunately, this did mean we had to miss out three of our intended destinations.

130 25 May 2019 Gravestone St. Mary Magdalene, Mitford

Not one of my ancestors! Reverse says John Pots (sic) d. 1724 age 30 Mitford, Northumberland

Ten out of ten for Hauxley Wildlife Discovery Centre today. The forecast was a little uncertain but indications were that the early rain would pass over, so we ventured out and were very glad that we did. This coastal nature reserve is run by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and is excellent. The only charge is a donation towards the car parking. The 1km walk round the lake gave access to several bird hides and I don’t think I have ever seen so many different birds at one location. I believe the lake has been created from a landscape that was a legacy from open cast mining. To top it off, the café, with its views of the lake was lovely too. If you are interested in this sort of thing here are the birds and wild flowers that we encountered:- great tit, robin, black-headed gull, mallard and ducklings, magpie, Canada geese and goslings, grey heron, oyster catcher, house martin, barnacle geese, greylag geese, lapwing, mute swan, moorhen, goldfinch, crow, blackbird, jackdaw, shelduck, little grebe, cormorant, house sparrow, wood pigeon, blue tit, pheasant, tufted duck, gadwall, shoveler. Red campion, primroses, dandelion, buttercup, daisy, iris, bluebells, hawthorn, cleavers, gorse, cowslip, violet, stitchwort, white clover, speedwell, bird’s foot trefoil, red clover, stinging nettle, broom, dog rose.

132 26 May 2019 Hauxley Nature reserve Canada geese and goslings

We debated whether to go straight back to the van but decide to call in at nearby Warkworth Castle on the way and again this was the good choice. We hadn’t realized there was going to be a fifteenth century living history event underway. This was a real bonus and we enjoyed chatting to armourers, bow-makers, shoemakers, stained glass artists, candlemakers, rope-makers and potters. We watched dancing and combat and listen to music. I was amused that the compere attempted to disguise his anachronistic microphone by covering it with hessian. All in all, two great destinations today.

133 26 May 2019 Warkworth Castle

Gardens, Books, Chips and a few other things

The day begins with a look at Longframlington Gardens. These are clearly a labour of love for the owner, who we chat to. There is a strong commitment to environmental principles and we wander through the arboretum and wild meadow. The gardens also boasts rope sculptures, including a swing, which I road test until Chris points out that one of the uprights looks decidedly unstable. We attempt the garden maze quiz, where correct answers to gardening questions lead you successfully out of the maze. We escaped but probably not solely due to our gardening knowledge. We also look at the attached garden centre, well it would be rude not to and I succumb to purchasing a mock orange (Philadephus). Now we are back to impersonating Burnham Wood.

We travel on to Alnwick (pronounced Annick), where we fail to find our supermarket of choice, despite having what was, allegedly, its exact address. We did find a substitute supermarket and also paid the obligatory visit to Barter Books. This is a second-hand book shop on steroids, set in a former station and complete with electric train running above the bookshelves. Refreshments and comfy chairs are available as well as a vast array of books. I purchase a map to help with locating ancestral villages, which are annoyingly and probably inevitably, centred on an area that is on the edges of four separate maps, of which I now possess two. Then it is back to the van to deposit the supermarket haul.

We decided to pay repeat visit to Cragside, rather than stay in the van for the afternoon. Cragside is an impressive Victorian edifice; the former home of Lord William Armstrong who was a notable engineer and pioneer in the field of electricity. Cragside was the first home in the world to be lit using hydroelectricity. Armstrong installed a lift, a water powered jack to turn the roasting spit and a Turkish bath. There is real cooking going on in the kitchen and we sample Earl Grey cake; fortunately, the Earl Grey is not discernible. There is also brass cleaning in progress. Here, pine cones discourage visitors from sitting on the chairs. I suppose that is one up on the holly at Seaton Delaval. The gardens are impressive and are famed for their rhododendrons. These are already beautiful but look set to be even more spectacular in a few weeks’ time. We drive along the five mile ‘carriage drive’ round the grounds. As we pass through Powburn, fortuitously, the mobile fish and chip van is in situ – no brainer.

122 24 May 2019 Cragside

Off to the Farne Islands

Today is a special day and the weather is glorious as we head to Seahouses for our trip to the Farne Islands with Billy Shiel’s fleet. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this option sooner, instead of being fixated on going to the Isle of May. Seahouses’ harbour is undergoing restoration and we have been warned that the harbour car parks are closed and we may need to arrive early to secure parking in town. We can do ‘arriving early’. It also gives a fisherman of my acquaintance the chance to get his fishing boat fix.

The St Cuthbert III is running slightly behind schedule and is full for our trip. We don’t manage to secure a seat on the edge of the boat but that doesn’t matter too much. We set out for the Farne Islands, which are in two groups, the Inner and Outer Farnes. There are 28 islands at low water but only 14 at high tide. Like many islands in the area, the Farnes were a monastic settlement and St Cuthbert died here in the seventh century. We circle the Outer Farnes and view the cliff-side nests and the Atlantic grey seals; there are 3000-4000 of these in the area. We pass the Longstone Lighthouse, of Grace Darling fame, which was built 1825, at a cost of £3000 and was manned until 1919. Grace and her father are notorious for their 1838 rescue of nine survivors from the Forfarshire.

The islands are home to 80,000 puffins or ‘Tommy Noddies’ as they are known locally. They live up to thirty years and mate for life, returning to the same burrows each summer. They spend the winter at sea, not touching land until the following spring. What I hadn’t realised was that they lose their iconic bills in the winter, when the bills are black. The orange colour is generated from their sand eel diet. The more sand eels they eat, the brighter the bill. Natural selection means that the brighter bills, in other words those who are the most efficient providers of food, are the most attractive. Apart from the puffins, there are also 50,000 guillemots nesting on the islands. The smell of guano is powerful and all-pervading.

We disembark on Inner Farne, are greeted by the rangers and run the gauntlet of the dive-bombing, nesting terns. We listen to a short talk by the ranger. We are unable to go in St Cuthbert’s chapel as terns are nesting in the entrance. In fact, birds are everywhere. Even with my not very wonderful, under £100, camera I manage some half decent photographs.

106 23 May 2019 Puffin Farne Islands

So today the wildlife haul included: black-headed gulls, black-backed gulls, herring gulls, eider ducks, lapwing, feral pigeons, house sparrows, starlings, jackdaw, swallows, mallard, cormorants, guillemots, common terns, razor bills, shags, oyster catcher, Atlantic grey seals, a  rabbit and the iconic puffins. The wildflowers are also at their best at this time of year, with red campion, stitchwort, sea campion, poppies, broom and bluebells being prolific. What is really sad is that so many people would struggle to name the wonderful flora and fauna that surround us. It is our planet, we need to take an interest in it, nurture it, celebrate it, protect it and share our love of the beautiful landscapes we encounter.

Highs, Lows and Hingin Lums

After our busy day yesterday, we take a short walk into the village to take a look at Dochart Falls. Then we drive up to the nearby Ben Lawers nature reserve. There is a car park but no visitors’ centre. Do we pay to park? No. Do we turn round and retrace our steps? Again no. Do we press upwards and onwards along a single-track road with a precipitous drop on the passenger side; a road that we are not convinced actually leads anywhere? Yep. That would be the one. Ben Lawers is 1214 metres above sea level and the tenth highest Munro in Scotland. We drive pretty near to the top and I can tell it is higher than I should be venturing, as I experience some of the effects of altitude that curtailed our Peru trip. Fortunately, this time we can get ourselves back down to lower levels without too much trouble. Well eventually we can. All the sat-nav can offer is ‘turn round where possible’. Turning around on a road barely wider than the car is not going to work. I take a look at our not very detailed map. Reassuringly, this does indicate that there is a way out and indeed, eventually, this proves to be so. The scenery is ruggedly spectacular and we are certainly seeing parts of Scotland other holidays might not reach.

On the way back we take a look at the outside of the Moirlanich Longhouse, which is very close to the site and which we have failed to investigate on previous visits. It is open twice a week but not today, so we shall just have to pay a return visit to Killin, no hardship there then. An interpretation board tells me that the longhouse was inhabited by the Robertson family. Were we able to get inside, we would be able to see a  hanging lum, also knows as a hingin lum, which is, the board says, a paper lined wooden canopy to funnel smoke away from fireplace. This sounds a bit of a fire hazard to me but here is some more about them from a website that I use and recommend often.

077 21 May 2019 Moirlanich Longhouse, Killin


It is time for us to return to England and we pass the Kelpies at Falkirk, 30 metre high, steel horse-head sculptures. Or possibly 60 metres high, if some websites are to be believed – big anyway. They are very impressive but difficult to detour with a caravan on the back and I was not ready with the camera.

We wend our way to one of our favourite sites near Alnwick via a supermarket stop. A quick walk round the site’s nature trail and then a lazy afternoon.

Back to the Iron Age and various Wildlife Encounters

We are booked on a forest safari with Highland Safaris first thing, so it is up at the crack of dawn. I’ll admit that it was slightly earlier than strictly necessary but we are able to lurk in the car park waiting for them to open. We have been on an excursion with this company before but have decided to do another short trip because we enjoyed it so much the first time. We find our way to the safari centre in the village of Dull without incident. I was amused to learn, on our last visit, that Dull was twinned with a town called Boring in Oregon. Apparently, it is now also paired with Bland in New South Wales! Dull is in fact a corruption of the Gaelic for ‘raised meadow’ and was a seventh century monastic settlement. Our tour guide is Dave and we are accompanied in our land rover by a family with a small boy. Again, I am impressed that a family is introducing their offspring to wildlife. We drive through the beech, birch and larch forest, many people don’t realise that the latter are a needle shedding pine. There are also introduced species of pine and the broom is in full flower.

As usual, we are a kiss of death when it comes to wildlife spotting and red squirrels and red deer are both conspicuous by their absence. We don’t see pine marten either. They are much more elusive, so that would have been less likely; although I have seen one on a previous trip to Scotland. We learn that pine marten are useful because they will predate on the grey squirrels but not on the red. There are awe-inspiring views of the Tay valley and we see patches of snow on the heights. Although there are longer rivers, the volume of water in the Tay is greater than any other British river. The first bridge across the Tay was part of General Wade’s bridge and road building scheme, which aided troop movements when he was tasked with suppressing the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. The town of Aberfeldy grew up round this bridge. It is thought that the Gallic sounding nearby Coshieville may have been so named because the French POWs used by Wade on his road building projects were billeted there.

To make up for the lack of wildlife on the nonetheless awesome safari we do see a hare as we leave the site. We head to Osprey Haven at Loch of the Lowes via a slight detour round the golf club courtesy of our sat-nav. We are in luck here as three osprey chicks have hatched this week, the youngest is just four days old. We watch the nest from the hides and via the web-cam, seeing both parents on the nest feeding the chicks. We also see another osprey circling, which caused the staff some concern as it could be a threat to these chicks. I do love the ospreys but watching the birds on the loch and at the feeders is just as good, although again the red squirrels elude us. We get a great view of a pair of great-crested grebes and there are yellowhammers and randomly, a mandarin duck on the feeders. The latter has been visiting for several years and is thought to be an escapee from a private collection.

053 20 May 2019 Osprey nest Loch of the Lowes

049 20 May 2019 Great Crested Grebe Loch of the Lowes

063 20 May 2019 Yellowhammer Loch of the LowesDave from Highland Safaris has recommended a visit to the Crannog Centre, which does not feature in the guidebooks or on any leaflets we’ve seen. We don’t have a great deal of time and we wonder if it is worth paying the entrance money. It so was worth it – an amazing reconstruction of an iron age structure complete with a variety of historical interpreters spinning, dyeing, cooking, boat making and creating an enormous set of bellows. With our own ‘neo-building’ experience, this is particularly interesting to us. The whole thing was fascinating, highly recommended.

I will pass on the snippets that we gleaned during our visit. A Crannog is an artificially created island and although there were earlier examples, nine were constructed on the loch between 600 and 400 BC, including the one on which this reconstruction is based. ‘Cran’ means branch and ‘og’ means young. Strictly ‘cran’ is ‘a branch shaped like a pregnant woman’. This led to the, now discredited, theory that these structures were birthing chambers. The word is medieval, not iron age like the islands and may refer to the shape of branches used. Not actually sure I quite buy this explanation. The original would have had a roof of bracken and heather, rather than reed but the charity cannot afford to replace the roof every two years, which would be necessary if bracken had been used and reed is not out of place for iron age structures. Each crannog would house fifteen to twenty people. The last inhabited crannog, lived in by nuns, was abandoned in 1740.

The experimental archaeologists tried several methods of erecting the main piles for the crannog. They discovered that trying to float them out in log boats is a fail, as you can’t stand up in a log boat without it rolling – result – a number of wet archaeologists! They ended up using a jetty instead. The walls are made from two layers of hurdles with bracken in between. Daub is impractical because of the weight. The structure would have been built in a single season and would last about eighty years, although they would begin to decay after about fifty years, with the piles rotting and the floors needing repair. Despite the lack of pollution in this area, piles now need replacing four times more often that they did in the iron age, due to the effects of the poorer water quality of the twenty first century.

There is a central stone fireplace but no hole in the roof. Instead, the smoke lines the underside of the roof, helping with the waterproofing. The excavations suggest that the crannog dwellers had a largely vegetarian diet, although animals were kept for dairying and wool. The animals would have been wintered inside part of the crannog. Meadowsweet was used to separate the curds and whey. Surprisingly there is no evidence here, or at crannogs elsewhere, that fish were eaten. This seems very odd. The theory is that those who lived on crannogs were of higher status and that they may have had a spiritual significance, perhaps acting as intermediaries between the land dwellers and the loch deities. Maybe taking fish from the loch was deemed inappropriate on religious grounds. What seems certain is that the crannogs had no defensive function and weapons have not been found, suggesting that this was a time of peace.

Loch Tay, in the centre of Scotland, was in an important trading position and perhaps 10,000 people lived round the loch, on land and sea, in the iron age. It is thought that the crannogs may have been built to save land that could be used for farming but this seems unlikely to me. Apparently the archaeologists found a collection of Mesolithic arrow heads that it seems a crannog dweller had collected and displayed. The crannog also contains an anachronistic eel trap, left by a basket weaver in residence. Health and safety means that the crannog is fully equipped with smoke alarms. I am not sure how this works when they light the fire.

All in all, a special day, with three highly recommended activities and it was topped off by being able to watch The Generation Frame, a Scottish genealogy programme, with people I know featured amongst the experts.

Rainy in the Trossachs

The weather was against us when we moved further north and west to our second and last Scottish stop at Killin. The high ground was blanketed in mist, nonetheless there were glimpses of the impressive scenery as we travelled along the banks of Loch Earn. We secured a lovely pitch on the river bank but decided to have an afternoon in the van rather than brave storm and tempest outside. The next day and the weather was still uncertain, so we opted for a circular drive, recommended in the guide book. This took us round the perimeter of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. This is a wonderful time of year to be in Scotland. The bluebells were spectacular and many gardens were full of colourful azaleas and rhododendrons.

We stopped off at the RSPB Loch Lomond reserve. This is on a much smaller scale to the one at Loch Levan. Our arrival coincided with a birthday party. I’d be the first to applaud a parent who decides to expose party-going children to the great outdoors but the piercing screams did rather put paid to seeing much in the way of wildlife. The best we could do was hear a cuckoo.

040 19 May 2019 Bluebells Trossach National Park

I was tasked with hiding a panda within sight of Loch Lomond. We stopped by the Loch Sloy hydro-electricity plant, where there is a car park, café and view point. There were also rather a lot of people. I nonchalantly attempted to make it look as if photographing a toy panda is a perfectly normal activity. It is actually quite difficult to do this without drawing attention to oneself. I accomplished the mission as subtly as possible and beat a hasty retreat before I could be accused of leaving litter in a National Park. Not that our lovely pandas are litter of course but you never know.





More Island Misadventures and some Birdwatching

One of the reasons that this holiday to ‘Northumberland’ has seen us detour to Scotland was because I wanted to make a return visit to the Isle of May to see the nesting seabirds, in particular the puffins. Last time we went the weather was truly appalling. It was raining, it was freezing; we were the only sailing that week, all others having been cancelled due to the conditions. This time, I decided I would not book months in advance but would wait until I had some idea of what might be expected from the weather. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea, so when I went to book online a few days ago, they were already full. There was no chance on our first choice of day and the only other sailing whilst we were in the area was also full but we were invited to come along on on spec as first reserves.

The sailing is at 9.45 and you have to be there half an hour in advance. The harbour is half an hour away so, naturally, we leave the site at 8am – that is quite restrained for me. By 8.40am we are wandering round Anstruther. The fisherman of my acquaintance comments that, given the state of the tides, the boat looks unlikely to sail within the next couple of hours and indeed the harbour is almost dry. It nears 9am and we approach the booking office. What I have not thought to do is check the sailing times. 9.45am was sailing time on our first choice date. Now the tides have changed and today’s sailing isn’t until 11.30am! We could have had a lie in!

Anstruther is all very lovely, a typical fishing village that has been forced to also embrace tourism. It doesn’t have massive wandering round potential however. An additional problem is that I have believed the weather forecast, which stated that the maximum temperature would be 11 degrees (about 55 in old money). Despite this, people are sitting on the front at 9am in shorts and t-shirts. I however am wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, my thickest fleece, a waterproof coat and a body warner for good measure, accompanied by my fleecy lined trousers that were purchased for Finland’s minus 23 degree temperatures; I have drawn the line at the thermal long-johns. I am prepared for it being colder out on the ocean. It turns out that the weather forecast is wrong and there is glorious sunshine and despite the keenish wind, the temperature is approaching 20/70. I shed layer after layer. Eventually, the ferry operator arrives and tells us to return at 11.15am. We do as instructed (well, we are there for 11am) and wait with bated breath to see if all those who were booked will turn up to collect their tickets, which are they are supposed to do by 11am. It was close. The last party arrive at 11.27am, so there is no room for us. We are offered places on the rib but I really don’t do adrenaline and this looks a bit ‘adventurous’, so we decline. I am very sad until I realise that we might be able to substitute this trip for a visit to the Farne Islands on our way back through Northumberland.

So another day of plan B. I do have thinner clothes in the car and Mr Bean-like, I manage to wriggle my way into these as we set off for the RSPB reserve at Loch Levan. The Loch provided the water supply for local paper and flax industries but was later drained, so the reclaimed land could be used. More recently, the RSPB have restored the wetland habitat and also created the world’s first bee reserve. We walk round the waterside track and see nesting swallows, shelduck, greylag geese, mutes swans, many nesting black-headed gulls, an oyster catcher, a redshank, a grey heron, mallard, a coot and a wood pigeon but the stars of the show are the nesting lapwing, who have declined noticeably in recent years, so we rarely see them now. We watch three adult lapwing mobbing a stoat, to draw attention away from the nests. This causes consternation when we report back to the ranger as the stoat was inside the predator fence.

036 17 May 2019 Lapwing at Loch Levan (1)

Despite some changes of plan, we have enjoyed our stay in Fife and look forward to moving on tomorrow. To top it all we have a booking for a boat to the Farne Islands!

Elusive Ferries and other adventures

Today we were meant to be going to Inchcolm island. The clue is in the name really; ‘island’ involves a boat. I thought I had correctly identified the location of the ferry boarding point but lack of time to prepare for this trip meant that I didn’t have my usual beautifully printed out itinerary. We set off. I plug the postcode into the sat-nav. It doesn’t seem to exist. Instead of returning to the van and firing up the computer to check the proper address, I try to remember it. We try Queensferry. The sat-nav insists this is in Wales.  Even we know we don’t need to go 288 miles. I know, I know, we should be able to Google this on the mobile phone that we have that is less than thirteen years old. Phone fine, operator not so. We could have and perhaps should have, made a call on said mobile phone (we can actually accomplish that, or at least one of us can) and summoned assistance. We didn’t. I look at a map (remember those?). Unfortunately, it is a very small-scale map but it does suggest I might need to be looking at North Queensferry. We go to North Queensferry. We get nice views of the Forth Road Bridges (which no one is painting) but no sign of a ferry. I try the postcode again. I’ll own up here, I have scribbled this down and can’t actually quite read my writing; this is not an unusual occurrence. The postcode I put in takes us somewhere called Aberdour. (It turns out this was the correct postcode for the island but not for the ferry). By this time, we have missed the ferry, which doesn’t go from here anyway. (I later discover we needed South Queensferry – ah well, hindsight and all that). Aberdour is a satisfactory plan B and after a wander along the coast path enjoying the wildflowers and bird song, we walk inland to Aberdour Castle.

It is likely that a stone tower was constructed here in the twelfth century by Sir William de Mortimer, making it one of the oldest castles in Scotland. Additions and improvements were made and by the sixteenth century, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton, regent to the under-age James VI, had created a residence with a lavish Renaissance garden on this spot. His doocot, with room for 600 pigeons, was designed as a status symbol. It includes ‘rat courses’, ridges to impede rats trying to get inside. Douglas was beheaded in 1581 when he was accused of murdering Henry, Lord Darnley, the king’s father and husband of Mary Queen of Scots. The property was owned by William Douglas, the 8th Earl of Morton in the seventeenth century and suffered from a severe fire in 1688. Troops were billeted here during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 and another fire led to the gradual decay of the building, with major collapses in 1844 and 1919. The gardens have now largely been laid to lawns, which is a shame. We can however recommend the café’s produce. Aberdour’s claim to fame is that it featured in Outlander. I have never watched Outlander; is this sacrilege?

028 16 May 2019 Aberdour

We take a look at neighbouring St Fillan’s Church, which dates from 1123, or earlier. In 1790, the Countess of Morton got fed up with the great unwashed attending a church so close to the castle and had the roof removed, forcing the congregation to meet in town instead! It was restored in 1926. The stained glass is beautiful and I am also taken with the leper’s squint, allowing sufferers from leprosy to witness the service whilst limiting the danger of contagion (although leprosy is actually a great deal less easily transmitted than was believed). Allegedly, Robert the Bruce, a leprosy sufferer, used this squint.

On the way home, we see signs to ‘Scotland’s secret bunker’; spot the irony!

Rubbing shoulders with Mary Queen of Scots in the Kingdom of Fife

Ten minutes up the road and we are at Falkland Palace and gardens. This is still considered to be a royal palace and there was a hunting lodge on this site as early as the twelfth century. We are there for opening time and historical interpreters are assembling to accompany a school party. I don’t want to be picky but we quickly spot a watch, twenty-first century footwear and an unauthentic hairstyle. I shouldn’t judge though, as Mistress Agnes has had to resort to glasses, following two unpleasant contact lens related incidents. I was therefore pleased to see that ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ was also wearing glasses. In my defence I have made some attempt to make Mistress Agnes’ look vaguely old fashioned. I wanted proper re-enactor’s frames but the optician refused to put lenses into anything but their own frames, so I had to settle for the nearest I could get.

We spend our visit playing dodge the school party. The building was extended in the sixteenth century by James IV and improved further by James V, using French architects, hence the resemblance to a chateau. It seems that the influence of his wife, Mary of Guise, was at work here. His daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, spent time at the palace and we were able to view what is allegedly the oldest real tennis court in the world that is still in use; it dates from 1539.

022 15 May 2019 Falkland Palace

A great deal of damage was done during the ‘English’ Civil War (which was not exclusively English at all), when Cromwell’s troops were billeted here and the banqueting hall wing was destroyed by fire. The Marquis of Bute was responsible for the nineteenth century restorations and the twentieth century hereditary keepers of the palace were the Crichton-Stuart family. The palace contains a functioning Roman Catholic chapel and is the only royal residence to do so.

The palace has adopted an effective method of preventing visitors from sitting on the chairs, each one has a sprig of holly placed on it! No photographs were allowed inside but I was particularly taken with the painted ceilings and the tapestry depicting a British woodland, compete with parrot! They also have an apothecary’s room and a physic garden. The gardens as a whole are beautiful and several gardeners are hard at work. They were designed in the 1940s by Percy Cane who also designed palace gardens in Addis Ababa.

This is meant to be a relaxing ‘chill out’ holiday so the remainder of the afternoon was spent sitting in the sunshine on site, planning next year’s trip to Ireland.