Category Archives: Things to do

The story of Coillegillie

With our portfolio of over 450 unique cottages throughout Scotland, we often get to hear some interesting stories about the properties and their pasts.  One such history rich account caught my attention this week, it was the story of The Cottage by the Shore, let me share it with you-

The Cottage by the Shore is one of only two habitable dwellings in what at one time was a flourishing wee coastal settlement at the south end of the Applecross peninsula.  As its name suggests, the cottage stands close to the shore, with spectacular views across the Inner Sound and over towards the Isle of Skye.  This fantastic location can truly be described as an area of outstanding natural beauty and its remote setting has resulted the magnificence of its surroundings remaining largely unspoilt.

Once this cottage was among a number of traditional, stone-built properties that made up the secluded community at Coillegillie, where its inhabitants woke each morning to these stunning surroundings, but now only ruins remain as a haunting yet intriguing reminder of the families that resided here.  What made me curious about Coillegillie was the question as to why a hamlet in such a delightful location, once so full of life, was all but abandoned by its inhabitants?   Finding the answer to my ponderings required a little research and thankfully, the residents of the other property in Coillegillie were only too willing to oblige.

The original inhabitants of Coillegillie were varied in their occupations, there were weavers, fishermen, quarrymen and carpenters as well as those who worked as servants at Applecross House just under 5 miles up the coast.  Apparently in the late 19th century Coillegillie had as many as 28 inhabitants whose diet mainly consisted of fish and seafood (no wonder considering it proximity to the sea).

At this time apparently there were some quiet famous characters living in the community, for example, Kenneth MacLeod who was the last weaver in the district and was said to be the greatest walker in Scotland.  Apparently, he once walked from Dingwall to Coillegillie (over 71 miles) in the space of a day and then walked to Lonbain, North Applecross and back again (a total trip of over 100 miles)!  But it would seem you had to be a good walker to live in Coillegillie back then, the nearest vehicle access is still 1.2 miles away along a path which has its own extraordinary story.  It is one of the last unimproved stretches of ‘desolation road’ in the area – desolation roads (also known as hunger roads) were built during the Highland potato famine of 1846-1852 when the rural population were forced to labour on local roadways in order to receive poor relief – their own means of surviving.

It was the tuberculosis outbreak in the 1920’s which eventually led to the majority of homes in Coillegillie being abandoned and the houses stood empty and locked, just as the residents had left them, for almost 50 years.  Despite its unrivalled scenery, living in Coillegillie must have been fairly hard going all those years ago and now I know a little more about the community’s past it is understandable why the inhabitants choose to leave as they did (tuberculosis was little understood at the time).

Nowadays Coillegillie retains the same charm and allure as it did in centuries past – just without the disadvantages!  Still as tranquil and breathtakingly scenic, 12 years ago they installed electricity (bought in by helicopter) as well as a pumped water supply.  One of the original stone buildings, The Cottage by the Shore, has been beautifully and sympathetically restored over the last two years retaining many of its delightful, unique features.  Those wishing to holiday in this really amazing location can arrange to have their luggage etc. bought in by boat, making the abundance of surrounding beauty the only thing you need to focus on when you stroll along the ancient path to the magical Coillegillie.

A Scottish Safari

A trip out of the office this week taught me that you don’t need to go to Africa to embark on an expedition which surrounds you with fascinatingly diverse habitats and puts you in to close proximity with an assortment of rare and fascinating wildlife!

Just as the game reserves of Kenya and the Serengeti aim to protect and conserve the area’s indigenous species in their natural habitats, increasingly Scottish farmers are endeavouring to ensure that the land they tend promotes the prosperity of our native ecosystems. One particular estate in the heart of the Scottish Borders has demonstrated its commitment to the conservation of local wildlife by ensuring all its land is used with the benefit of nature as a primary concern.

Whitmuir Estate, not far from the town of Selkirk, illustrates definitively that modern farming methods need not infringe on the resident plants and animals with which it shares it soil. In fact, over 170 different species of animal have been found on Whitmuir Estate in the last 10 years! Large areas of the lands are now scattered with wild flowers where numerous varieties of butterflies, moths and ladybirds are clearly in seventh heaven!

Among the exceptional provisions which have been made are special ‘beetle banks’ created in the estate’s arable fields, ensuring that when the ground is ploughed insects have a safe and undisturbed sanctuary close by in to which they can scuttle. There are quite a few ponds, wooded areas, hedges and fields which have been specifically set aside for native fauna and flora to thrive. And although the word ‘safari’ is actually Swahili, it literally means ‘journey’ –

Whitmuir Estate offers you the opportunity for a journey which takes you through a hidden wonderland of Scottish natural treasures, one that even most locals are unaware exists! Because of the need to preserve the delicate plant life that makes up the rare habitats as well as protect its inhabitants from too much human interference, Whitmuir Estate is not open to the public, but Unique Cottages clients who choose to book one of the 3 properties on the estate will find themselves right in the middle of this wildlife haven.

Place to stay on the Whitmuir Estate:

Valentine’s Rules.

It’s that time of year again! The one day of the year when even the most unromantic among us are forced by social pressure to consider how we show the one we are closest to just how much we appreciate them.

Whether you’re a believer in Valentine’s day or not, failure to show your partner a gesture of how much you cherish them can result in all manner of unpleasant consequences, unless of course you enjoy sleeping on the sofa!

But romance, which of course, forms the basis of Valentine’s Day, is such a difficult entity to define. For different people it means different things, and trying to get it right for that one special person is never as easy as it sounds (I speak from experience). Although romance in its entirety is a difficult thing to pin down and describe, there are a few basic rules that I now stick by which make things a wee bit easier ensuring that even me, without a romantic bone in all my body, can show the one they love that they really are special! I hope that other people who (like me) are generally deemed as failures in the romance stakes can draw some benefit from these fairly simple rules that have served me well (so far…)

  1. Your time is one of the most valuable things you can give. Whatever your budget, your time is possibly the most valuable thing you have to give in a relationship. Taking time out of your usual routine to be with your beloved, alone as a couple if possible, will no doubt make them feel more greatly sought after. In today’s society time is such a valued asset that often the day-to-day pressures of modern life result in work, family and other commitments over taking your ability to have time together as a couple. Leaving the daily grind behind and going somewhere away from it all is a great way of ensuring you can focus your attention on one another.
  2. Romance has to be personal. Considering your beloved’s likes and tailoring your Valentine’s gesture towards this is essential if you want to show that you not only care, but that you care enough to find out what they like and include this in your token of love. In order to show your partner that it is them, as an individual, that you treasure you can’t go wrong if you include something you know they like! If you do choose to take time out from your usual routine to spend with your loved one then using it to do something they enjoy will only add to how valued they will feel.
  3. Romance is not practical. A new steam iron or a subscription to Weight Watchers maybe what you think your partner really needs, however this is not the time for sensible, practical gifts and gestures. Valentine’s Day is all about doing things out of the ordinary, so forget (as much as possible) the practicalities of your gesture, and go with the spur of the moment. Fair enough, a week away in the Bahamas may not fit in with your boss’s demands and your new year’s commitment to attend the gym daily, but taking a short break, not too far from home, somewhere secluded and private, to indulge the one you love might just be possible even with your tight schedule and everyone likes nice surprises! I remember one of my most successful Valentine’s day offerings was to take my long suffering partner on a short break in a wee cottage on the Isle of Cumbrae, we turned off our mobiles, left the world behind and enjoyed the beautiful sunset over the Firth of Clyde, together. Even a few years on we still both remember it as a time that was just about us and what we have together.

There is no doubt that being able to relax, in beautiful surroundings, with the person you think most of in the world is a wonderful way to spend Valentine’s Day, and when the flowers have wilted and the chocolates have been eaten, the memories of quality time spent together remains. Whatever you get up to this Valentine’s Day, I hope you have a great time and avoid relegation to the sofa, at least for tonight!

A Glorious (Romantic?!) Clyde Sunset.

Small Cat, Big Attitude.

When I was at school (not so long ago – honest!) there was a period of time when sightings of unidentified big cats in places such as Cornwall and Dartmoor were common place in the tabloid newspapers.  As a teenager I found these stories rather intriguing.  Perhaps it was the allure of the unknown that fed my imagination, or the idea that these predators were surviving against all odds out with their preferred environment and eluding humans in the process.

Rarer animals that avoid human contact and lurk far from civilisation often do have that bit more appeal than the common, every-day species of animals that share our lives and lands.  I think it’s the air of mystery which they create, through the privacy they crave and their almost secretive nature, which sparks our imagination.  One such example, which has quickly become a favourite of mine, is the Scottish Wildcat.

Wildcat at the Highland Wildlife Park, Inverness-shire

I share my home with two gorgeous (although I recognise that I am slightly biased) Siamese cats and I am incredibly fond of them.  They’re cuddly, affectionate, comical, cute and amazingly human-like, but the thought of them surviving without the comforts with which I provide them is almost not worth considering.   Their breeding and the way I have raised them has resulted on them being almost entirely dependent on me.  A good example of this was provided during the period of heavy snow at the end of last year.  As I trudged in and out of the house collecting wood from the shed for the fire I left the back door of the cottage open.  Isis, the more inquisitive of my two cats, decided to venture out on to the door step, putting her front paws into the snow that had gathered.  Next thing I heard was an almighty cry (more like that of a baby than a cat) and a flash of black fur as she shot past me back into the warmth of the house – she hasn’t attempted to venture out since!

Pampered Pets!

As much as I love my cats (I even got rid of my husband because my cats were allergic), I found myself even more greatly charmed by their native cousins when I visited the Highland Wildlife Park this weekend.  Just as beautiful as my domestic felines, these cats are truly enthralling creatures – in their natural environment they are extraordinarily illusive and extremely wary of humans, keeping well away from populated areas.  It is thought that there are as few as 400 of them left in the wild, hiding out in the remotest, most isolated parts of the Scottish Highlands – so seeing them in their natural habitat is a very special treat for those lucky enough to do so.

Seeing these untamed, independent and self-sufficient wild animals, with their perfectly honed instincts, determined nature and resilient attitude it was difficult to believe that the delicate, indulged, wimpy wee ‘scaredy’ cats that I live with are related to them at all!  In my eyes Scottish Wildcats resemble larger cats such as tigers, lions and pumas, more than they do our domesticated pet moggys and I think it is the inherent unpredictability and enigmatic attitude that they share with larger predators which makes them so enchanting and fascinating.  If you have the opportunity to visit one of the centres which is supporting the survival of this scarce, and often underappreciated, native prowler I wholeheartedly recommend you do so.

If you want to get £2 off per person, per ticket, to visit the Highland Wildlife Park , Scottish Holiday company ‘Unique Cottages’ are running a discount promotion, just sign up to their free E-magazine or join them on Facebook to gain access to the offer.

My ‘seal’ of approval…

The news at the beginning of this week reporting the introduction of new laws to protect Scottish seals brought to mind an old Scottish legend told me as a child by my dear old, if not a little superstitious, grandmother.

The story went like this:

A seal hunter is woken one night by a stranger who states that his master requests the presence of the seal hunter and asks the hunter to go with him to his master’s abode. The seal hunter agrees and is taken, on the back a large black horse, many miles through the Scottish countryside to the edge of a cliff. On arrival at the cliff’s edge the seal hunter questions his escort as to where his master’s home is, at which point the stranger grabs the hunter and they both plummet downwards into the sea. The hunter wakes in a beautiful underwater kingdom, surrounded by the same animals that he has dedicated his life to killing and is approached by a large boar seal.

The boar seal leads him through the kingdom to a room where another seal lies dying with a huge knife wound to its belly. It turns out that this injured seal is the father of the large boar seal who invited the hunter to his realm, and the hunter recalls how earlier in the day, while hunting, he had stabbed a seal but not having killed it, only wounded it, the seal had managed to swim away with his knife blade still buried within it.

The hunter is told by the boar seal that he, as the one who inflicted the wound, is the only one who can save his father and requests that the hunter does so. The hunter removes the knife blade and magically the wound heals. The boar then tells the hunter that they will allow him to leave the underwater kingdom and return home only if he promises to surrender his job and vow never to harm a seal again. The hunter, feeling rather overwhelmed and more than a little homesick, agrees – worrying all the way home (on the back of that black horse again) how he will make ends meet now he cannot do what he has always done to make a living for himself. But when he returns home, before the stranger bids him farewell, he is handed a purse full of gold coins, enough to ensure that he will be comfortable for the rest of his life.

I’m sure the moral to this story is meant to be something along the lines of – if you do the right thing, and don’t harm others, you will be richly rewarded, but as a child the message I took from it was don’t hurt a seal or you might end up being taken to the bottom of the sea!

It would seem that seals now have more than just bedtime stories to discourage people from killing or harming them without good reason, as the new law makes it an offence to kill or injure a seal except under licence, with a potential penalty of a hefty fine or even 6 months in prison. Although seals can and do cause problems for the fishing industry, they are long standing residents of our seas and shores and I personally believe that more regulation of the way in which they are culled has to be a good thing – so the new law gets my seal of approval (excuse the pun, I couldn’t help myself!)

Seals in the Sound of Jura

Fortunately it still remains legal to shoot seals as much as your heart desires – as long as it’s with a camera! So, for those who fancy spending some time admiring these intriguing animals below is a list of my favourite places to spot them around Scotland:

The Moray Firth Coastline

The shores of Loch Linnhe

The Orkney Islands

The Sound of Jura

The shoreline at Fast Castle, near Coldingham

Fast Castle Seals

And just a wee bit of advice -please remember that even the cutest of seals with the biggest, most appealing eyes are still wild animals and if you do get too close and make them feel threatened they may bite in defence. Keeping a safe distance ensures seal watching is an enjoyable experience for both you and the seal!

A right to roam.

For me, one of the greatest advantages of living in Scotland is the ability to enjoy the countryside around me! Whenever I choose I am fortunate to be able step out of the front door of my cottage on to the hillside and roam across the landscape, as long as I do so responsibly. I’ll often walk to places far from the beaten track and not see another soul for hours, discovering places I never knew existed and sometimes feeling like I might be the first person in years to have explored a certain area or to have had the opportunity of appreciating an unusual land formation, hidden cave or secluded waterfall.

It’s all yours!

Somewhere in my subconscious I keep on waiting to hear a farmer cry “get off my land!”…but I’m in Scotland, so that call will never come, after all, up here we have the wonderful ‘right to roam’ and enjoy the natural riches of our beautiful landscape. This right has to be part of what makes our country so special and each one of its inhabitants so blessed. It also has to be one of the things which helps attracts so many visitors to our shores.

This blessing is not bestowed in all of Great Britain, all the land throughout the UK belongs to someone, but in England if you go on to land without the owner’s permission, you are trespassing! There are exceptions of course, for example if there is a right of access for the public, or if you personally have the right to pass over the land to reach some land of your own. But it’s not like here in Scotland where, happily, we are not bound by the same restrictions!

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 established universal access rights to most land and inland water and it is this act which ensures that no matter who you are, you can responsibly enjoy the varied, and often breathtaking, terrain of this most unspoilt of lands.

With so many activities in today’s society incurring some type of cost for those who wish to partake, the fact that Scotland offers so much potential enjoyment for free is not to be sniffed at! So roam, explore, discover and revel in our limitless fine lands with the peace of mind that the only price you will pay is that of being respectful of others right to do the same!

If you are heading out exploring in Scotland this weekend, then it’s worth having a wee look over the “Responsible Land Access Code” which gives guidelines about how you can ensure we all continue to get benefit from this rare, fantastic and liberating ‘right to roam’! http://www.outdooraccess-scotland.com/

Get your wildlife fix on a day trip to Staffa

If you’re planning on holidaying to the West coast this Summer, then you might want to consider a day trip to Staffa and Lunga. Turus Mara are now running day trips throughout the Summer until October with an all-in-ticket that includes ferry passage from Oban to Craignure, on the Isle of Mull where you are then taken by minibus directly to Ulva Ferry. For those worried about sea-sickness, it’s only the last 10 minutes of a 50 minute journey as the boat enters more exposed waters that might be cause for concern and that’s only if you are below deck. But don’t worry, there is a toilet on board! Better still if you can, try and bag one of the sixteen seats on top deck even if it means elbowing some school children out of the way.

The awesome hexagonal ballast columns on Staffa greet you as you come into port (although the Captain of the Hoy Lass ferry assures us that there are in fact at most only seven sides to the columns). You are given an hour on Staffa which is just enough time to climb the steps to the top and eat your packed lunch with views of Iona Abbey and the Treshnish Isles, free of the worry of tick bites as Staffa has no deer or bracken for them to hide. This lack of bracken is sure to be a hit with Scottish wild flower enthusiasts or in fact any Highland inhabitant as they will tell you that the amount of bracken has grown significantly in recent years with the steady decline of grazing and crop planting. So don’t mention the ‘B’ word to any locals you might meet. After lunch, there is still have enough time to walk back down and precariously edge your way to hear your echo in Fingal’s Cave before taking the boat onwards to Lunga.

Lunga will tick your bird-watching boxes with a large population of puffins, guillemots and shags. However, for birds that have colonised an uninhabited island, the puffins seem rather sociable as you’re able to get within a few feet of their cliff-top nests. We were also lucky enough on the day to spot the fin of a basking shark in the bay and a couple of seals on the rocks on the way back to Ulva Ferry. Day-trippers to Mull are bussed back to Craignure just in time to catch the 7pm ferry back to Oban.

Celebrate the Summer solstice tonight in Scotland

It’s not just Stonehenge where all the Gandalf-wannabes gather, you know. Apart from the Beltane Festival which already took place this year in April to mark the beginning of Summer, there are a few more places we can think of to whet your astrological appetite.

The Callanish stones on the Isle of Lewis are famous not for their alignment with the midsummer sun but with the midsummer moon. Some astrologists claim that the position of the moon on midsummer night behind one of the stones to be pure coincidence but what does it really matter when we all know that Stonehenge was rebuilt in the 1950′s.

The Maeshowe cairn on Orkney is of particular interest for those celebrating the Winter solstice for the angle at which the sun descends through the tunnel towards the inner chamber and its alignment with the Barnhouse stone 800m away. What we find truly amazing is that the sun even makes it to Orkney in December.

It is only in recent years that the stones at Ballochroy, Kintyre has sparked interest amongst astrologists. The stones are best seen tonight but it will involve leaving your car and climbing a hill to the site which you carbon-guzzling hippies may find hard to get your head around.

But why bother with all those crusty old sites when you can be a new-age hippy. And by new-age we mean pay a visit Britain’s newest stone circle. Sighthill in Glasgow was to be the site for the first stone circle built in the UK for 3000 years but plans were cut short in the 1970′s when half way through building, the plug was pulled on spending.

Blame Thatcher.

Its creator, David Lunan, (we’re starting to wonder if he changed his name – Lunan, luna, moon – see where we’re coming from?) wants to see the project completed for party-goers to come and enjoy the midsummer celebrations. We’re sure Somerset would be all to happy to pass on your details to the bearded men dressed in bedsheets, Dave. Not so sure however what the residents of the nearby tower blocks would say though.

The marmalade cake

With rain pelting against the window, there seems little else to do but bake a cake. Especially when there’s nothing else sweet in the house to eat. And if you’re looking for sweet, then the marmalade cake really hits the spot with its drizzle frosting.

According to www.rampantscotland.com it was first made in 1797 in Dundee after a Spanish ship sort refuge from a storm and then had to sell its cargo cheap to the locals. Always up for a bargain, never have we wanted to be a resident of Dundee 200 years ago more than now.

Ingredients for the cake

6 oz butter or margarine

6 oz caster sugar

6 oz self raising flour

3 eggs

3 oz marmalade

Zest of one orange

Ingredients for the icing

Juice of one orange

4 oz icing sugar

Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the marmalade and zest and then the flour. Bake in a lined round 6 inch tin at gas mark 4 for about an hour or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Beat the icing sugar and orange juice together and drizzle on top of the cake while still warm. Yes, it will make a mess.

Someone pass Mr Murray a slice of this – there’s always next year, Andy.