Early March saw us taking a few days to revisit some of our old haunts in Scotland. The first stop was Dundee where James studied at the university from 1979-1984. A keen football fan, he followed Dundee United. So, when he spotted that Dundee Rep Theatre were putting on a production entitled ‘Smile’ about their manager Jim McLean, it was a must. We stayed at a central hotel just a short walk from the theatre and although some of it was a bit of a mystery to me (having never been to a football match), he and the rest of the audience enjoyed it very much. In the morning we drove along the Tay towards Perth pick up the A9.
Before reaching Perth we diverted near Errol to Cairn O’Mhor Winery. Someone James was at university with left the course and with her husband, has been making fruit wines and cider since 1987. We had a look around the winery and saw some cider being bottled before having a coffee with Judith and Ron.
After driving down the very familiar A9 south of Perth, we arrived at Doune. The castle, built in the 1300s, is now under the care of Historic Scotland.
My first visit there was in the early 1970s when my clarinet teacher had to arrange a musical group to play at the wedding reception of Lord Doune’s daughter. The castle has been under renovation for some time and not open the last time we passed by. Today, we did manage a wander round the interior
but the grounds and riverside were too wet from the recent heavy rains. The guy in the gift shop told us that while filming had gone on in the castle since Monty Python and the Holy Grail; after Game of Thrones and Outlander were filmed there, the number of tourists visiting had increased. Last summer they had days with more than 1000 visitors (many from the USA), causing huge problems when coaches tried to drive down the single-track road to the car park. Continuing up the route my school bus used to take, we arrived in Callander. Parking down by the meadows, I could see a snowy Ben Ledi behind all the ducks and swans hanging around on the water, hoping for some food.
At the south end of the car park is a mound known as the ‘Hill of St Kessog’.
St Kessog was an Irish follower of St Columba preached here in the 6th century. It is not certain whether or not the mound was part of a motte or castle hill but in the 1930s an archaeological dig found the remains of a pre-Reformation church just to the right of the mound. It is thought to be the first church in Callander built in 1238. It was later demolished and the graveyard was established with the hexagonal watch house nearby to look out for grave robbers. Callander also has a second-hand bookshop with adjacent book bindery.
Our next night was in Stirling where we met while working at the hospital there. Our hotel, in the old town was the original Royal Infirmary and the hotel next door was the old High School. We watched the sun go down from the castle terrace.
In the morning we were at the entrance just as the castle opened and had a look around the palace which was restored in 2011.
As most of the other visitors were waiting for the guided tour, we had the place to ourselves, looking at the sculptures and views over the surrounding countryside. Staff told us that in the high season they get up to 5,000 visitors each day.
A few miles further on is the Wallace Monument. Like Stirling Castle, I had not been there since childhood. The path winds up the Abbey Craig where snowdrops and primroses were blooming with blue bells and dog’s mercury emerging. These are both indicators of ancient woodland.
A few miles further along the foot of the Ochil Hills lies the Broomhall. It was built in 1874 by John Foukes and Frances Mackison for James Johnstone. He was the younger of two brothers who owned a shipbuilding and mills business. After a family argument, James had the hall built in the style of Balmoral Castle with the tower so that he could look down on his brother. It is situated next door to where I lived from the late 1960s to 1974 on Long Row in Menstrie.
In 1906 the Castle was sold to an Italian Riding School and in 1910 became the Clifford Park Boys Prep School run under the auspices of William Herbert Leetham. Some sources say that in the early hours of Friday 28th June 1940 (others say in 1941) the building caught fire whilst the boarders were camping in the grounds. The fire seemed to originate on the second floor towards the rear of the building and the alarm was raised by the Local Defence Volunteers who were out on their night-time patrol. It took hold quickly and could be seen for miles as it lit up the sky. Under the direction of Fire Master Robert Cairns, water was pumped from the county mains near the old Menstrie railway station and it was brought under control before 9am. By this time a large crowd had gathered to see what had happened and offered what help they could. No one was injured but the building was completely gutted, although some furniture was saved. The cost of the damage ran into several thousand pounds but luckily Leetham had the building insured. Meanwhile, the boys were shipped elsewhere to continue their education. Information in the hotel (and other sources) state that a German schoolmaster took the boys camping on Myreton Hill and then set fire to it so that it could act as a beacon for the Luftwaffe returning from bombing Clydebank Shipyards in Glasgow. The Clydebank Blitz took place on the nights of 13th and 14th March 1941; nine months after some say the fire occurred at Broomhall. In 1946, and mostly in ruins, the proprietor of the house was Walter Alexander of Kork-N-Seal, a metal bottle cap manufacturer. By 1950, he had moved on and it belonged to Walter McAlpine Chalmers who rented it out to radio operator William James Sillars. During the 1950s the gardener’s cottage was sold to Tommy Kettles. I lived next door and went to school with his daughter; we used to play among the ruins although we were not supposed to as they were inevitably unstable and dangerous. The stables were converted into a house in 1977. In 1985 Broomhall was rebuilt and turned into a nursing home. In 2003 it was purchased by the current owners, who turned it into a small hotel with 16 bedrooms and a restaurant. The field which was in front of the hall and our house is now full of houses.