A whip around the Scottish Borders

Given how long it’s been since our last post you could be forgiven for believing that we had, on the spur of the moment, decided to settle permanently in Edinburgh. We did not. Honestly, we’ve just been a bit crap at writing, but our story isn’t quite finished yet.

As we drove away from Edinburgh, we contemplated what to do with our remaining day and a half in Scotland. The least appealing task was drying the tent which, as you may recall, was bundled sopping wet into the back of Carl three days earlier. We hadn’t dared to actually look at the tent, but the pungent aroma of old gym kit pervading the car was enough to assure us that some fairly serious airing was going to be needed to make it user friendly. Ever sensible, we decided to ignore this task until the very last possible minute and do something else instead.

We set off to Falkirk to visit a nerdtastic combination of attractions; The Kelpies and The Falkirk Wheel. Both sites were developed as part of an enormous regeneration project around the Forth and Clyde Canal and, whilst both have practical applications, they are largely tourist attractions. Each is, in its own way, an example of how to do something right. The Kelpies are the largest and most popular attraction in Helix Park, which is in itself an excellent regeneration which has resulted in a peaceful setting for an enormous art installation. Overall the park is just lovely.

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Kelpies are mythical water creatures of Scottish lore which take the form of large shire horses. The installation at Helix Park is of two thirty metre high stainless steel kelpies shown from the neck up. Their size alone is impressive but they are also beautiful, glittering with reflected sunlight.

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Whilst you can only see the heads of the kelpies, in the gift shop you can see the artist’s impression of what they look like beneath the water and once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it; you imagine that they really are underneath the ground that you are walking on. The Kelpies tap into Caro’s love of everything magical and mystical and she was completely mesmerised by them. As we walked back to the car we kept having to stop and turn around just to get another look at them.

With Caro’s nerd quota filled, we drove the short distance to The Falkirk Wheel so that James could get his geek on. The wheel is an awesome engineering solution to a unique problem; the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals were previously connected by a series of 11 locks which were dismantled in 1933. In 2002, the wheel was opened and the canals were reconnected after 70 years.

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Now, you could easily get this information from the internet, indeed, that’s where we got it, but, we simply have to shamelessly parrot some facts and figures from the Falkirk Wheel website because it’s just so cool.  The wheel is the same height as 8 double decker buses, each of the gondolas hold 500,000 litres of water, the equivalent of an olympic swimming pool, there are over 15,000 bolts in the structure and it took 1,000 people to build it. It’s wicked.

Combined, the two attractions made for a brilliant day’s entertainment and we were very happy as we left the wheel in search of a campsite for the night. As good fortune would have it, there is a campsite just around the corner, as bad fortune would have it, it’s a hell hole, so we made a swift U-Turn and did some rapid googling. The nearest feasible campsite was an hour away, the clouds were closing over again and we still had the teensy problem of an uninhabitable swamp of a tent. So, we found ourselves in the middle of a less than lovely part of town spreading the tent on the largest open area we could find and hoping that it dried before the rain set in. It was at least an excuse to make cup of tea.

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We had a whistle-stop tour of the Scottish Borders planned for the next day. Caro loves old houses, James loves beer, so an old house with a brewery attached and a maze thrown into the bargain was always going to get our attention, even if we hadn’t the foggiest how to pronounce its name. Traquair House is Scotland’s oldest inhabited house, it was formerly a royal hunting lodge which played host to Mary Queen of Scots. We weren’t sure how long the weather would be on our side so we decided to explore the gardens first and walk along the river. The woman in the carpark booth had told us that there were swans and eight cygnets in the river and that, if we were lucky, we would see them. What Caro heard was “you are 100% guaranteed to see cute fluffy tiny swanlets and, if you don’t, you have the right to be super grumpy”, any guesses on whether or not we found the swans? It was still a lovely walk through the gardens and we had the place to ourselves, not a person (or swan) in sight.

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We made our way back to the house by way of the maze. It’s a slightly unusual maze in that it has five “centres”, you have to find each of the four outer centres in turn before you can find the main one in the middle. Now, mazes are always a potential catalyst for an argument, particularly when tackled as a couple. They are even more likely to cause problems if you don’t read the sign and therefore don’t know that there are 5 centres, pretty much ensuring that you will be trapped for the next few hours. Regular readers will think they know what is coming but unusually, we had taken the time to read the sign and, even more unusually, Caro discovered a hitherto dormant sense of direction and was able to navigate us to the end, without an argument. We passed a less-than-gruntled couple who hadn’t read the sign on the way through.

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The current owners of Traquair are almost certainly certifiable and this we know because of the goats who have their own special assault course outside the house.

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Having fully appreciated the exterior we delved inside.

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Traquair House is described as a fortified mansion and claims to be the longest inhabited house in Scotland. The house is associated with many famous monarchs and lords in Scottish history but its two most famous guests were Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie.

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We don’t have a picture but one of the coolest aspects of Traquair is actually outside of the house: the Bear Gates, which were buildt by the fifth Jacobite Earl, Charles Stuart, in 1738. In 1745, having slept in the crib above, the babe-in-arms Bonnie Prince Charlie, accompanied by his mother Mary Queen of Scots, passed through the Bear Gates. They were closed behind him and the Earl vowed they would never be opened again until a Stuart king returned to the throne; they have remained closed to this day.

A lot of our favourite things about travelling are really simple pleasures that seem surprisingly, well, simple, when seen in comparison with the some of the incredible things that we have done. One of these things is picnic lunches. Part of the reason that we enjoy being able to drive ourselves around is that we can stop on whatever verge or farm gateway and have lunch. Ordinarily we wouldn’t talk at length about this but as we neared the end of our travels it felt important to get some of these simple pleasures down on paper. Anyway, Scotland has been a treasure trove of picnic spots, and our very last day we found a real beauty.

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No tour of the borders would be complete without a sniff around an abbey or two and our first stop was Melrose where Caro was treated to a rather more recent history lesson as James reminisced at length about a teenage rugby tour and one of the several occassions he had his head stitched up. It was scintillating stuff and had the benefit of being free, which the abbey isn’t. We therefore took a stroll around the lovely town and took pictures through gaps in the walls.

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The cost of visiting many of these sites can be prohibitive but we were keen to have a nose around at least one and, based on the Lonely Planet description, we chose Dryburgh Abbey, the final resting place of Sir Walter Scott.

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It’s a very peaceful spot and it wasn’t a surprise to see the few other visitors spread about the grounds with picnics and books. Despite over a century of bad fortune, including being burned down and destoyed three times, a good chunk of the original buildings remain and we passed a calming hour strolling around.

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And then we were done, almost suddenly. We had some stops and saw some family on the way back to Norfolk but the Scottish adventure was over. When we look at our three weeks in Scotland as a whole they consisted of some of the most varied, interesting, and breathtakingly beautiful travelling that we have done, and that really is saying something. We travelled literally across the globe in search of rugged landscapes and  beautiful beaches, ancient ruins with fascinating histories, marvellous food and (more often than not) intoxicating drinks, alien cultures and lifestyles so different to our own. And the trip delivered beyond our wildest imaginings, but in those imaginings we never stopped to think that we would also find those things so very close to home.

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