Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The great north east trip

Ahhh, what a good weekend that was.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I've recently spent a weekend up in the north east of Scotland, doing a bit of sightseeing, a bit of chilling, a bit of photography, and a bit of socialising with friends.

We set off on Saturday morning (18th July) around 8am, and travelled up to Perth and then onto the A9 northbound towards Inverness. This is a road I haven't been on for years, and I'd like to say it was very picturesque, but the heavy rain prevented us seeing much beyond the immediate surroundings for a lot of the time.

We were heading initially for Nairn, where we were due to meet a friend of RE for lunch, and because of a mixture of roadworks and weather we were over half an hour late. Bad show. On the way we were following the directions the Sat Nav gave (although we could easily have followed the signposts and read a map, but why have the technology and not use it!) and at Carrbridge it took us off the A9 and onto some local roads for a shortcut across country. As a result of not following the obvious main road through Grantown on Spey therefore we found ourselves on a really interesting, slightly twisty, very scenic (the rain was intermittent at this point) B road, which was I think the B9007 which goes left off the A938 less then two miles outside Carrbridge, and joins the A939 at Ferness about 8 miles outside Nairn. Anyway, if you're going up that way, try the B road.

We went for lunch in a place called the Classroom which is in the centre of Nairn. Classy looking decor, and excellent food. The burger I had was obviously made on the premises, and was as good a burger as I've had in years. The chips (fries to anyone from beyond the UK) were just right - crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. All in all good food and good company.

Leaving Nairn and saying farewell to RE's friend who was heading off to start a lateshift at work, we travelled the few miles further east along the A96 to Forres where our destination was Sueno's Stone, a monstrous 7m tall ancient standing stone which we managed to miss completely despite it turning out to be enormous, and right next to the main road we were on! A couple of u-turns and diversions later (which set the theme for the weekend) and we found it, standing proudly and protected by a huge glass case. Which we weren't, so got soaked while looking at it. Bloody rain!

So onwards to Elgin, and by this time the rain was bouncing off the ground and coming back up to hit the windscreen, or so it seemed anyway! We had a walk past the Cathedral, and then went into the town centre to find the Gordon and MacPhail shop, which has the most wonderful selection of malt whisky imaginable! Not just whisky though, they also have a great selection of other spirits, wine, and delicatessen food. We found some wine from a winery very close to RE's home town in New Zealand, and as an added bonus it was reduced in price from about £19 a bottle to about £12, so RE bought some which we later consumed in the B&B.

On the subject of the B&B, we found it via Alastair Sawday's excellent Special Places to Stay website, which lists unusual places which might be well off the beaten path, be run by very friendly people, offer locally sourced food, or be in some other way unusual or unique. The place we found was Balwarren Croft, near Cornhill (pretty much due south of Portsoy) which is a 30 acre working croft at the end of a long (and very bumpy) farm track and is run by Hazel and James Watt who were very friendly and nice people.

It only has two rooms for let, a double and a twin in a beautifully converted cow byre, and there's a sitting room for use of guests which has a wonderful wood burning stove in it. We were lucky in that the people who had booked the other room didn't turn up so we had the place to ourselves. Lucky for us, although not so good for Hazel and James because the missing guests had also booked an evening meal which I believe Hazel and James ended up eating themselves, at presumably a net financial loss. Also rather strangely the couple just didn't turn up. No telephone call of apology, just a no show, which I consider very rude indeed, although I suppose it's possible that something untoward happened to them when enroute. But I'll never know!

Anyway, if you're in that area and looking for somewhere to stay, you could certainly do a hell of a lot worse than try to book a room at Balwarren, and I have to single out the delicious breakfast as worthy of particular praise. Full traditional cooked including bacon, sausage, egg, tomato etc, and very little fat or grease (pretty well none in fact). Yum! Watch out for the farm track though, because unless you're in a 4x4 the bottom of your car will be making constant and fairly noisy (although probably harmless) contact with the grass in the middle of the track on the way in and out. Ours certainly was.

We later went out for a drive around on Saturday evening, going up to Cullen (home of the thick creamy fish soup Cullen Skink) and marvelling at the heavy seas pounding the seafront, then spent an hour travelling around looking for a fish and chip shop to get something to eat. For a part of the country which is so closely linked to the fishing industry, fish and chip shops were remarkably thin on the ground, and having set our hearts on that choice of food we roved between Cullen, Portsoy, Banff and Macduff to no avail, constantly retracing our route in case we had missed something obvious.

Eventually we spotted a tiny wee shop in Banff which turned out to be the only place open apart from a kebab/chicken/pizza place. A temporary shock when I went in and saw a handwritten notice saying "sorry for the lack of fish, please try some delicious chicken" soon disappeared when they accepted my order for haddock and chips without comment. Then down to the waterside to sit in the car with the windows tightly closed and share the food while watching the waves crash a few feet away. Having been looking forward to it, particularly knowing we were in fishing country, I have to say it was OK but certainly no better than you'd get in any average chip shop in the rest of the country. Oh well.

We then headed back to Balwarren, to make some inroads into the bottle of NZ wine before crashing out for the night, both of us being tired after a pretty long day.

Sunday dawned with bright sunshine creeping through a crack in the curtains, which was a surprise after the heavy rain we'd endured for the whole of the previous day. One delicious breakfast later (one each I mean!) and we headed out into the now visible scenery to do some sightseeing. Back again to Cullen as our starting point, where we each took a few photos of the scenery, then onwards to look at the 17th century harbour at Portsoy, and Findlater Castle and the 16th century beehive type dovecote nearby.

The ruins of the castle sit on an outcrop of rock, some 50 feet up on a cliff, and access is gained by a grassy path on a very steep descent. Left to my own devices I would have happily looked at the castle from above at the viewpoint and left it at that, but RE was having none of it (I'm glad to say)! Pausing briefly to read the sign saying that the castle was dangerous, so if you were going to go to it you'd bloody better be careful, down we went, then up onto the outcrop itself, taking lots of photos as we did so. We explored what was left of the castle (not much) and then climbed back up to the viewpoint, past the dovecote, and back to the car.

I think it's time for a brief flashback.

A bit over a year ago RE and I were on a car trip into the Scottish Borders when we stopped at the Grey Mare's Tail near Moffat. This tourist attraction is a waterfall tumbling down a steep valley, and there's a short path up to a viewpoint where you can see the water. We went up that short path, which is not much more than a stroll, and by the time we were no more than a few feet up I was having trouble breathing properly, and by the time we got to the top I thought my end had come. Unable to speak properly I could only communicate with gasps through a rasping, breathless, death rattle, leaving RE genuinely fearful that the noise she was hearing was indeed the initial death throes of a very unfit, and by now very sweaty man. It was probably 10 minutes after we made it back to the car before I could string a proper sentence together, and I felt ill for much of the rest of the day.

Flashback over, so wind forward to Findlater Castle last weekend, and I happily climbed down the hill and up the slope to the castle, and then climbed back up the hill to the viewpoint, and while I wouldn't claim not to have been a bit puffed I could have a conversation all the way there and back, and my breathing returned to a normal rate within a minute or so after getting back up the hill. And I wasn't particularly sweating either. The wonders of regular exercise! My new, and frankly enjoyable, regime is doing wonders for my health, fitness, happiness, and hopefully lifespan. RE said she was very impressed, and while, being a man, I find it difficult to accept compliments so sort of shrugged it off, secretly I was so chuffed with myself, and thankful to RE for the encouragement which has led me to this point.

Onwards then and after a brief stop at the Spotty Bag Shop in Banff, which sells everything, and all at very cheap prices, we headed further east to Pennan which was one of the locations used in the 1983 Burt Lancaster film Local Hero, and the famous red phone box used in the film is still there. Or at least there is a red phone box there but the original in the film was a prop and the box was only installed later after public demand! Pennan is a single street at the bottom of a steep curving road, right on the waterfront. Go there.

From Pennan we travelled about 10 miles further east to the fishing port of Fraserburgh, largely because the fuel warning light came on in the car and I knew there'd be a petrol station there! After a brief and unsuccessful visit to the lighthouse museum, unsuccessful because we could see no tearoom and we were only there looking for a refreshment, we found a cafe next to the beach where we enjoyed delicious coffee. As an aside I have just found out, when looking for the link to the museum, that there is indeed a cafe at the lighthouse museum! D'oh! Although I guess we'd have had to pay for admission to the museum to access it. In fact I now realise that it was the Heritage Centre we looked at, which is right next to the lighthouse place.

Anyway the cafe overlooking the beach served good coffee, albeit in uninspiring surroundings reminiscent of a bus station. The view was good though, overlooking the beach which had a fair number of surfers taking advantage of what the North Sea was throwing at them.

Off then to Turriff, a market town about ten miles inland, for the barbecue hosted by a couple of friends, SC and MC, and their young son CC. I used to visit SC regularly in Turriff a number of years ago, when she was called SP, but haven't seen all that much of her in the past 10 years apart from one or two meetings when she's been in the Glasgow area. The barbecue was very good, and although the rain started again, it just meant we all adjourned indoors to play with their Wii and give me a chance to make a tit of myself and show how crap I am at such games! But despite being crap, I enjoyed trying! The hospitality was good, and so was the craic.

After the BBQ, we headed the 10 miles back to Balwarren, which is when we found out that the other folks hadn't turned up so we had the sitting room to ourselves for a second night. Hazel kindly lit the wood burning stove for us, and we connected my MP3 player to my wee set of external speakers and ruminated about how the other guests wouldn't have enjoyed listening to our choral music anyway, as RE finished off the wine from the previous night and I opened the bottle of 10 year old Aberlour malt whisky I'd bought earlier in the day and made some inroads into it. A tranquil end to a very enjoyable day.

So Monday dawned bright and sunny, and after a repeat performance of the delicious breakfast, we settled our bill, which was very reasonable, and packed the car for the trip home. But we weren't heading straight home. No, we were already in the area so felt that some more sightseeing was in order.

Our first port of call was another tiny harbour similar and near to Pennan, called Crovie (pronounced Crivvie, apparently). At Pennan there's a road which you can drive along, at Crovie there isn't! There's a carpark at one end and the rest is pedestrian access only. Well I say there's a carpark, but it's for residents only. Visitors park about half a mile before the village, before the descent down to the village, and walk. So as you may gather, it's a walk back up as well. A steep walk. A lung burstingly steep walk. But again I managed it without undue distress. Yay!

Next we headed generally south, having exhausted everything we wanted to do and see along the north coast, and we had decided on a few things beforehand we wanted to get to.

We headed first to try to find a stone circle called Loudon Wood near Mintlaw and Old Deer, but after following the signposts for it, there was no obvious way to it and the trail went cold so instead we went to the ruins of Deer Abbey, which was a real find, as we were the only people there in glorious sunshine!

Just so we could say we'd been, we then drove east to Peterhead, which has a reputation for being one of the most unlovely towns in the north of Scotland (and probably in all of Scotland) but there were some nice looking buildings there as we drove through. A quick stop at a Tesco in Ellon, and we headed to our lunch destination of Pitmedden Gardens where we'd planned to eat our sandwiches and have a relaxing look around. But no. In their wisdom the National Trust for Scotland have decided that not only will they charge you £5.50 to get into the gardens, they will charge you for parking your car, and will not let you bring your own food or drink in, trying to force you to use their tearoom. Bollocks to that, we both thought, we'll go elsewhere.

A couple of miles away, and run by the much more user friendly Historic Scotland, is Tolquhon Castle which for a fairly small series of ruined buildings manages to pack in a hell of a lot of interesting features and many almost complete rooms. And they seemed happy enough for us to eat our sandwiches at a picnic table in the grounds. I'd recommend this as a destination, without doubt.

This isn't the only example, but suffice to say that my general impression is that the National Trust for Scotland are shit, and Historic Scotland are good. An oversimplification maybe, but there is a lot of truth in it.

And so home. From there we just headed south via Aberdeen and onto the main road. At the end of it we'd travelled just under 660 miles in two and a bit very enjoyable days, and RE was more familiar with pretty much the only bit of Scotland she hadn't previously visited.

A good trip.


  1. And a great blog post - Thank You Lay Clerk.

  2. If by great you mean long!

    Ooh, and I just noticed a big omission. I never thanked you publicly for looking after Elmo while we were away.

    Thanks ChickPea!