Tag Archives: Holidays in Scotland

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.

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/