Category Archives: Travel

Going out on a limb.

After the ice age, when the glaciers melted, greenery once again reclaimed the lands of Scotland and pioneer native trees began to grow and spread.  At one time, much of Scotland was covered in indigenous forest, with trees such as Birch, Willow, Ash, Hazel, Yew and Rowan dominating the landscape.   However, now only 1% of Scotland’s land is covered by this type of ancient woodland, but the area’s where it still remains have become a priority in relation to preservation and we definately have some champion trees that deserve a mention (and a visit if you’re in the area).

Let’s us start with the Fortingall Yew.  Estimated to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old, this conifer is thought to be the oldest known tree in Europe.  Standing in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall in Perthshire, the tree has stood longer than the church itself.  It stood before the introduction of Christianity to Scotland and it was likely to have been regarded as a sacred place since the Iron Age.

The tree is now surrounded by a wall built in order to protect it from souvenir hunters who, over the last few hundred years, have visited it and taken parts away with them.  However, the wall has come to serve two purposes, not only protecting the ancient Yew but also supporting many of its ageing branches.

Local legend says that Pontius Pilate, the judge at Jesus Christ’s trial, was born in the base of the tree and played in its shade as a child; allegedly, he was the illegitimate son of a Roman legionary stationed in the area and a local girl!  In times past Yew trees were referred to as “trees of eternity” – in the case of the Fortingall Yew it would seem to be true!

Not only is Scotland home to the oldest tree in Britain (and probably Europe), but it is also home to the tallest tree in the UK.  Although the overall winner in the category of tallest tree has been a matter for debate (due to technicalities in their measurement) both of the finalists are Fir trees and stand at over 200 feet tall.    In 2009, as part of the “Tall Trees Project” a tree known as the Stronardron Douglas Fir in the grounds of Dunans Castle, Argyll was crowned the champion, with Diana’s Grove Grand Fir at Blair Castle, Fife coming in a close second.

Then there is the Capon tree in the Scottish Borders that is also worth a mention; it is the last remain tree of the once very extensive Jed Forest and is estimated to be 500 years old.  This old Oak’s trunk is now split in half and many of its branches are propped up with wooden supports, yet each year it still has a central role in the local summer festival when the principals of the celebrations make their way to the tree and a sprig from its branches is pinned to the lead-man’s lapel.

These are just a few individual trees in Scotland which we think are worth a little praise but if you would like more information about areas in Scotland where ancient woodland can still be found then the Woodland Trust website gives details of woodlands throughout Scotland as well as useful information to help you plan your visit.

Bathed in Glory!

Here in Scotland we have enjoyed a fabulous week weather wise. In fact, on Monday Aberdeen was reported as having the highest temperatures in Britain and hotter than many well know sunny holiday spots including Ibiza, Majorca and Malaga! The bright sunshine and warm weather seems to have a greatly uplifting effect on people, and here in the Unique Cottages’ office we are no different. Even Laura, (one of dedicated booking office staff) who has been faithfully attached to her coat all winter, has left it at home every day this week – a real indication of how lovely it has been in Scotland!

As the weather improves, and the sun brightens everyone’s mood, thoughts turn to opportunities to enjoy these glorious conditions by getting out and about. When the weather is good, and the sun is beating down, the seaside always has an almost magnetic allure for a great deal of people. Although it may not yet be quite warm enough to bathe in the sea, it’s definitely getting to around the time you might be thinking about the pleasures of doing so in the summer! But, where do you go to find a fabulous beach? This morning, when I was watching the news, I was informed that the Environment Agency has just published an online guide to beaches in England and Wales that have been found to meet the European Standard which determine that the water is safe to swim in.

In England and Wales, out of the 500 beaches included in the report on the quality of coastal bathing water, 449 were passed as safe, an inspiring 89%! However, when I looked at the same statistics in Scotland I saw that we get an even more impressive figure of 95%, (and yes, I realise we’re a little biased) making Scotland appear to be your best bet for finding good quality beaches for swimming! But where in Scotland are the best beaches? Let us share some of our insider knowledge with you and tell you about a few of our favourites.

Tralee Beach is our Property Manager Eelin’s recommendation. On the west coast of Scotland, over-looking the Ardmucknish Bay, this fine beach is ideal for families, with its soft sand and multitude of interesting rock pools it provides a great space for all ages to explore.

I fondly remember Coldingham Beach, where I have enjoyed breakfast cooked on the barbeque while watching the waves break gently on the sandy shore. Another great beach for rock pools and with a lifeguard on duty at the weekends during the summer, its not just me who is tempted into the inviting sea waters!

These are just a taster of the many beautiful beaches that await you in Scotland, but we have so many it would be impossible to list them all. I’m sure you’ll understand if we don’t tell you about some of the better hidden ones – for one of the greatest thing about our beaches here in Scotland is that often you can come across a secluded wee area of sand and have your own private beach for the day!

5 things you might not know…

As the readership of “Our Unique Blog” continues to rise, it occurred to me that we’ve never really taken the time to let you get to know Unique Cottages a wee bit better. So, in an attempt to address this, I’ve put together –
“5 things you might not know about Unique Cottages
1)We’re completely Scottish!
First established in Scotland, based in Scotland and only letting cottages in Scotland, you can rest assured that we know this fine land and how to help you get the best out of your stay here.
2)We’ve been around for a good while.
Since 1994, long before the days of the internet and our website which launched in 1993, we have produced a quality brochure full of unique properties in the best locations in Scotland.
3)We’ve got a lot of experience
Jill Bristow, the founder and Senior Director of Unique Cottages has over 40 years of experience letting holiday properties and ensures that the knowledge she has gained over the years is used to benefit all guest who book with us.
4)We’re small enough to care.
Our dedicated team of booking office staff have an in-depth knowledge of our properties and if they can’t answer your question about a cottage then they’ll be happy to find out the answer for you.
5)We turn down more properties than we take on.
Our commitment to bringing you well situated, beautiful and unique properties means that we only take on properties that we feel meet our exacting standards.
Whether you’ve booked with us before, learnt about us through a friend or accidently stumbled across us in an internet search, one thing you can be sure of is that we’re glad you found us and look forward to helping you find your ideal, unique Scottish escape.

Barking up the right tree.

We are proud to say that the winning dog at this year’s Crufts was Scottish!  Jet, a flatcoated retriever and winner of the Best Gundog Category, beat 21,000 other dogs to get the prestigious title of Best in Show at the National Championships as the show celebrated its 120th anniversary.  Jim Irvine, Jet’s breeder who is based in South Queensferry, Edinburgh, was understandably delighted by Jet’s win.  A Kennel Club representative stated that it was clear that Jet and Jim had a great relationship and that this contributed towards Jet’s success, then going on to say that Crufts celebrates “the special and unique bond between dogs and their owners.”

The mention of a “special and unique bond” between man and dog reminded me of another celebrated relationship between a Scotsman and his four-legged friend. It’s a story that still sends a shiver down my spine when I hear it, a story of a bond so strong that even death could not sever it.

John Gray was a gardener who moved to Edinburgh around 1850 when work was hard to come by.  Unable to find employment in his chosen field, John joined the police force as a night watchman thus avoiding the workhouse.  They were long lonely nights trudging through the street of Edinburgh, especially in the winter months when the colder, wetter weather would further add to John’s feelings of solitude.  John decided to find a partner to join him on his lonely rounds, and ‘Bobby’ a wee Skye Terrier was soon by his side each night.  John and Bobby went everywhere together, watchman and ‘watchdog’, loyal and faithful friends.

 John’s health began to fail him, possibly a consequence of so many nights patrolling the street and on a number of occasions he had to be treated for tuberculosis by the police surgeon.  In February 1958 John Grey died due to the disease that had plagued him, and he was buried in the town’s Greyfriars Kirkyard. 

 Bobby, still faithful to his beloved master, stayed by the grave after John was buried, refusing to leave the graveside even in the most horrible of weather.  Numerous times Bobby was evicted from the kirkyard by the keeper of the grounds, but each time Bobby returned to be close to his master.  Eventually the groundskeeper gave up ejecting Bobby, instead putting a piece of sacking in between two flat, table stones to provide shelter for Bobby beside his master’s grave. 

 Soon the dog and his remarkable behavior became renowned in the local area and people would gather at the gates to the kirkyard on a daily basis to see Bobby.  Each day, at the sound of the one o’clock gun, Bobby would leave the graveside for his lunch, with one thing guaranteed, after his meal he would return to the side of his best friend John.

Bobby kept watch over his master’s grave for 14 years before his own death in 1872.

The amazing loyalty and faithfulness demonstrated by ‘Greyfriars Bobby’, as the wee terrier came to be known, demonstrates just how strong a dogs bond with its owner can be.  The unconditional love a dog gives can give such comfort and joy to its human companion; I know this from when I had my own canine comrade Sully the Pomeranian.

Always pleased to see me, Sully would go with me almost everywhere – but fitting in my handbag made traveling with him easy!  For those of you who have larger dogs, or more than one furry pal, going on holiday can be hard if you to have to leave them behind.  So, if you’re looking for a holiday or short break where your loyal mutt can join you and avoid the loneliness of a stay at the kennels, Unique Cottages has a wide range of pet friendly properties where both of you will be welcomed!

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.

Puts a ‘spring’ in your step

I don’t know about where you are, but for us here in Scotland this weekend it has really started to feel like spring has arrived!  No longer do I have drive to work in the dark as the days get increasingly longer.  The sun which was shinning most of the week (and is doing so again today) has taken the crispness out of the air and I’m pleased to say that my trusty hat and scarf remain on the coat hooks at home!

However, it seems that I am not the only one who has noticed this welcome change of season.  Indeed, there have been some obvious signs that nature also is beginning to revel in the winter drawing to a close.  The birds definitely sound happy about it – their chirping is distinctly more cheerful.   Ewes look proud and content as their recently born lambs race each other across fields that appear increasingly green and lush with each day that passes.  The bright colors of spring flowers brighten a landscape that appeared bleak just a few weeks ago. 

My favorite of these early (and almost valiant) flowers has to be the daffodil.  As it has rises from the cold, hard ground and spreads its bright yellow petals towards the sun it reminds me that after the harshness of winter new life always (thankfully) ‘springs’ anew.

As I’m sure you can imagine, I was pretty pleased to see these beautiful flowers begin appearing in the garden around the Ecosse Unique office, providing a jubilant greeting each morning to all employees and visitors!  In case you weren’t aware, our company headquarters is a attractive white washed cottage in the Scottish Borders which has been (sympathetically) converted into office space (I know, ingenious isn’t it, not only do we do we provide quality holiday cottages throughout Scotland, we have also based ourselves in one!)

It is not only our cottage headquarters that are benefiting from an abundance of these striking golden blooms; throughout Scotland they are now adorning the gardens of a number of our properties – providing proof that Spring is here!  But don’t take my word for it – take advantage of the Unique Cottages’ spring deals and come see for yourself.

A Royal Appointment…

Prince William and his soon-to-be wife Kate Middleton visit Scotland this week and return to the place there their relationship first started – St Andrews University.  Their trip is prompted by the university requesting that William be patron for their 600th Anniversary appeal.  One of the main aims of the appeal is to raise money for scholarships with the noble objective of supporting bright students without financial means to be able to benefit from a St Andrews higher education (not something William or Kate had to worry about when they attended).  Obviously, I am all for everyone, no matter his or her financial position, being able to attend university and St Andrews, the first University in Scotland, should be no exception!

I was accepted at St Andrews University myself (1 or 2 years before William and Kate attended!) and, on my intrepid quest to try to work out (at the tender and clueless age of 17) which University I should choose I visited the town and had a look around the university.  I decided in the end that St Andrews was not the University for me (much to my parents and teachers disappointment) and instead the City of Newcastle suffered my ‘interesting’ student years.   But my choice not to go with St Andrews was no reflection on the university, town or the surrounding area, rather the lesser number of pubs (which at 18 was of crucial importance to me) it had in relation to the big city!

Do not get me wrong, I enjoyed my time at Newcastle University, however now (older and wiser?) I can’t help but think that maybe I missed a trick (and the chance for a royal husband)!  St Andrews University and the town in which it is situated are steeped in history and tradition.  The architecture of the town is truly stunning and for those who enjoy golf it is definitely a place you can’t afford to miss.  My favourite building (or what is left of a building) is St Andrews Castle that stands close to the water’s edge over looking the small beach of Castle Sands, there is something quite haunting about the structure which was once used as a prison, and it proximity to the often harsh north sea just adds to its almost threatening character.

The history of the town extends beyond its boundaries; with the nearby village of Cellardyke has one of the most pretty old fishing ports in the country and Lower Largo birthplace of the ‘real’ Robinson Crusoe.    Branching further out of the town are treasures such as the village of St Monans with its superb coastal views and quaint traditional houses on narrow winding streets and intriguing stories of piracy, smuggling and shipwrecks.  Relics of the less distant past also wait to be discovered – Scotland’s Secret Bunker, built in the 1950, is well worth a visit.  And while Newcastle had its fair share of kebab shops (another staple of my student years) I have yet to find a better fish supper than the one served at the award winning Anstruther Fish Bar!

So, as William and Kate head back to St Andrews, the starting point of their romance, I do hope they get the opportunity to take some time out from their busy schedule and enjoy some of the peaceful pleasures the East Neuk of Fife has on offer before the stress of the pre-wedding frenzy!

Scotland: the movie!

Yesterday saw the start of the Glasgow Film Festival.  Ok, I accept that it doesn’t yield the same type of media hype and excitement as Cannes but Scotland is a country that attracts all manner of filmmakers, much more so than most people realise!

A familiar sight for Harry Potter fans (Glenfinnan Viaduct)

Saturday night has increasingly become “movie night” for me over the past few years (boozed up evenings in “happening” local night spots are quickly becoming just a memory of my youth!)  Whether it be a visit to the cinema, or just grabbing a DVD from the video shop, I like nothing better than to sit back, relax and watch a visually impressive action, a hair-raising horror or a gripping thriller.  I love the way that films can completely envelop you in a story, transport you out of your sitting room and into a world far removed from hum drum everyday worries!

It is probably the way that great films can leave you feeling invigorated or inspired which leads to their popularity, our need to find out more, and even a wish to visit some of the locations that host such compelling story telling.  I remember the rush of visitors to Rosslyn Chapel following the success of The Da Vinci Code (initially inspired by the book but shared with a wider audience through its conversion to film), the number of people through the church doors soaring by a massive 72%!

The Da Vinci Code is an obvious example of a film that uses Scotland as one of its locations, but when thinking about others then there are those films where it is very apparent that they have Scotland as their backdrop.  With its “historical” (I say that in the vaguest sense of the word) Scottish storyline, Braveheart was filmed in a number of places in Scotland.  Sets including Glen Nevis Valley (where they built the village that Wallace grew up in), the mountains that stretch between Loch Leven and Glen Nevis (location for Wallace’s trek along the mountain path) and more surprisingly Edinburgh Council Chamber (used to shoot some of the scenes inside Mornay’s Castle).  Similarly, the film Rob Roy just had to be made in Scotland, didn’t it?  As well as sharing some of the locations chosen by the makers of Braveheart, it was also filmed in Glen Coe, Glen Tarbert and at Drummond Castle to name just a few!

Drummond Castle, used in the making of Rob Roy.

My personal favourite  has got to be Highlander (if you don’t agreed then you canvote for your favourite using my poll at the bottom of the page)– classic 80’s movie making with more than a few clues that its director used to make music videos!  The use of the iconic 13th century  Eilean Donan Castle east of the Kyle of Lochalsh is inspirational as the place from which the MacLeod clan leave to go to into battle.  I have to say I was pretty pleased to hear the news that there are plans to remake the original – I do hope they decide to film it here!

Others, that don’t so quickly spring to mind, include the bond films From Russia With Love, The Spy Who Loved Me and The World is not Enough as well as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Glenfinnan Viaduct) and the cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail (I doubt the coconut shells that took the place of horses were anything to do with Scotland though!)

With a landscape like this who can blame filmmakers that choose Scotland as a location.

More recently, the film Valhalla Rising was filmed entirely in Scotland taking full advantage our rugged landscape to create some really stunning  backgrounds for its scenes, but, if I’m honest, having watched it myself I have to say for me that was its only redeeming feature!

If you look at the major films that have used Scotland as a setting, generally they tend to be those with a historical storyline, telling the story of a time now long past and when you stop and have a look around at the magnificent scenery that is so abundant in Scotland it is clear to see why.  So much of our lands are sparsely populated, unspoilt and spectacular that even without cinematic lighting, numerous cameras and a bunch of highly paid actors it is easy to believe that you have been transported back in time!

Danger Valley

The fact that grew up in “the most dangerous valley in Scotland” was brought to my attention this week!  Why was I not aware of this before now you may ask?  And how did I survive?

It seems that the key to my continued existence, and my obliviousness to my home’s worrying reputation, is simply the century in which I was born.  Had I entered the world 450 years earlier things could have been very different, and the location where I was given life would most likely been responsible for my early demise!

Brutality, violence and conflict were the way of life in the Liddesdale valley throughout the middle ages, and it was this ferocious culture that earned the stretch of land its forbidding reputation.  The land through which the Liddel waters flow straddles the England-Scotland border, making it the front line for battles between the two opposing countries long before the concept of a ‘united kingdom’ was ever suggested.  However, it was not just warring between nations that bloodied the ground.  Neighbouring clans would raid each other’s land to steal livestock (and even women) from their fellow countrymen.

If you wander through this beautiful valley now it is so peaceful and unspoilt it can be difficult to believe that it has been witness to such treachery and betrayal, although there are a few ancient buildings and stone built memorials dotted around the landscape that remind you of times long past.  Hermitage Castle, which sits about 6 miles from the village of Newcastleton, is one such relic.

Sinister, stark, and somehow almost threatening, it stands ominously amongst the hills.  Unlike many historic attractions, it is a building that I think is best to visit on a day when the sky is dark and the air is cool, making sure you get a real appreciation of just how menacing and intimidating this castle can feel!  Complimenting the building’s haunting ambience is the tale of ‘Bad Lord Soulis’ who apparently lived in the castle and was eventually wrapped in lead and boiled to death by the Liddesdale clans – and if you believe the story it was one of the more justifiable murders they committed!

I have to admit that I am rather glad I was not quite so aware of the valley’s terrifying history when, in my youth, I had a very overactive imagination.  But I’m glad that I watched the first programme in the BBC series ‘Scotland Clans’ (which was shown on BBC Scotland this Wednesday) from which I gained this increased knowledge about the significant blood-shed which once took place so close to my childhood home.

Those who missed it (or are out with the catchment area for BBC Scotland) can catch it on BBC iplayer until Wednesday 16th February.   If it inspires you to explore the area for yourself and indulge in the rich history and traditions of the Border country, my personal recommendation for a place to stay is Braehead Cottage, just 11 miles from Hermitage Castle itself.

Get here in style with the ScotRail sleeper service

Let’s be honest – Scotland is far away. Further than Birmingham and Northampton put together. And lets face it, if you have ever driven, you’ll know that it takes until Blackpool before motorways actually come into their own.

So save yourself the hassle of Little Chefs and volcanic ash by taking the train here instead. Go that step further and get the sleeper train. It leaves Euston at 10.30pm and you arrive refreshed and ready for a day of sight-seeing at 7.30am with breakfast and a newspaper thrown in. You might have to share but it will be with someone of the same sex. Bunks are specified on the ticket so there won’t be any midnight arguments about who goes on top.

The Sleeper Service operates between London Euston and Glasgow Central. Check the Bargain Berth prices to grab a bunk for as little as £19 one way. That’ll leave you with enough for a glass of wine from the on board bar before you head off to bed. Just don’t let your imagination make you get so carried away as to dress up like you’re from an Agatha Christie novel.