Round Britain: exploring Stonehaven


Our campsite lies across the Cowie River in Cowie, a former fishing village, now part of Stonehaven. Stonehaven lies on the coast 15 miles south of Aberdeen. We spent the morning exploring the town before the forecast rain was due to return in the afternoon. It grew up from an Iron Age fishing village and like other towns in the area it has had several names over the years. During my five years at medical school in Aberdeen the nearest I got to Stonehaven was the occasional winter Saturday evening when eight of us would squeeze into a Mini Clubman and visit the Lairhillock Inn near Netherley; enjoying the huge open fire and a drink or two. Today, walking into town from Cowie the first thing we passed was the Art Deco open-air swimming pool. It is one of only two in Scotland and was being prepared for the opening on 25 May. Every April it is filled with sea water and heated to 29 degrees. Built in 1934 it is now maintained jointly by volunteers and the council.

We walked along the beachfront, round the High Street to the Old Pier. Crossing the Carron River, we saw some of the major flood prevention works that are underway, due to be completed in 2021. James had chatted to an elderly man there who told him that he recalled cars floating down the streets in some of the previous floods.

Near the bridge is the former Haven Fish Bar which invented the Deep-Fried Mars Bar.

The oldest part of the town is near the harbour and the oldest building is the Tollbooth, which was the first courthouse and prison. It now houses a museum which unfortunately is closed on Tuesdays. The first episcopal church in the town was destroyed in 1746 and laws forbade episcopalians from holding a service for more than five people at a time. For several years secret services were held by the Rev Alexander Greig at a house in the High Street, Christian’s House.

Rev Greig and two other ministers from nearby congregations were imprisoned in the Tollbooth for six months and would conduct services from the prison window to their congregations below.
There were a number of metal sculptures along the way to the pier:


The harbour was improved in 1820 by Robert Stevenson, engineer and grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson. In the 19th century the herring trade was important. The tide was out when we visited.

The new town, north of the River Carron was founded in 1795 by Robert Barclay of Ulry with wide streets named after his and the Allardice families. The market square was built in 1826. The Stonehaven Feein’ Market is held there every year on 1st June. A farmers’ market occurs on the first Saturday of every month. Another annual June event is a vintage rally to commemorate Robert William Thomson who invented the pneumatic tyre in 1845 and a number of other things. In July a Highland Games is held and every Hogmanay balls of fire are swung around in the streets. I walked back to the campsite along the mostly shingle Cowie Beach where a fossil of the oldest known air-breathing land animal, Pneumodesmus newmani, a species of millipede, was found in 2004 picking up a few small pieces of sea glass. A notice in town asks people not to remove stones from the shingle beach.

After lunch we walked along the remainder of Cowie Beach towards the sandstone cliffs which are only 1km or so from the east end of the Highland Boundary Fault.

North of the fault is granite. There were oystercatchers on the shore and cormorants on an offshore rock. At the end of the beach a path leads along the foot and then up the cliff to rejoin others near the B road. Many wildflowers were blooming among the undergrowth.

A little further on, returning to Cowie is the remains of a gun emplacement.

I don’t know which conflict it is from. We got back to the van before the rain set in for the rest of the evening.

Round Britain: Carnoustie to Stonehaven


The campsite was quiet when we awoke but the nearby rookery was very noisy. After picking up supplies in Carnoustie we continued on Arbroath Road towards East Haven. The village won a Gold Award in Britain in Bloom 2018 as the best Coastal Village. The coastal path and National Cycle Route 1 from Dover to Shetland pass through. On Sunday morning there was a pop-up café run by a guy originally from Kent/Sussex who had been in the army and married a local woman he had met when she worked at the nearby military base. The café supports the public toilets here which were very nicely decorated. The town dates back to 1214 and is one of the oldest recorded fishing communities in Scotland. The first owner of the Barony of Panmure granted a charter to the monks of Coupar Angus Abbey, providing an acre to build a homestead on and the right to charge a toll on fishing. At that time the village was known as Stinchendehavene which is thought to relate to the smell of rotting seaweed. It has had various names over the centuries. There was a lot of kelp on the beach the day we visited. It became a burgh in 1541 with the right to hold a market. East Haven had a station but lost the railway due to the Beeching cuts.There are local sculptures nearby, the first by Ian Chalmers of Chainsaw Creations on the Black Isle.

The war memorial remembers the role of Airedale Terriers and is sculpted from granite by local sculptor Bruce Walker.

The café guy told us that there were plans to recreate an 1870 photograph of all the villagers.

Continuing north, we reached Arbroath and parked by the shore in Inchcape Park. Wandering into town we passed the Signal Tower Museum, formerly the Signal Shore Station for the Bell Rock Lighthouse which is 11 miles off the coast. However, it is closed on Sundays.

The football stadium is right on the sea-front which must be cold in winter. James recalled going to matches at Pittodrie Stadium in Aberdeen which is in a similar situation and very prone to winter winds off the North Sea. Arbroath FC’s claim to fame is that in 1885 they beat Aberdeen Bon Accord 36-0 which still stands as the world record for the most goals scored in a professional football match. First settled in the 12th century and situated at the mouth of the Brothick Burn it was called Aberbrothick until the mid 19th century. It was known for making sail cloth, including for the Cutty Sark but was always connected with fishing, the first harbour opening in 1394.

Arbroath Abbey sits in the town. It no longer holds the Declaration of Arbroath which is kept with the National Records of Scotland. The abbey was founded by King William I.

The large circular window in the south transept is known as the Round O and was rebuilt in the 1800s by Robert Stevenson who constructed the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

The staff member in the Abbey told us that St Vigeans Pictish Stone Museum was open today (it is usually only open on demand) so we drove over to the outskirts of the town where it is situated. The 32 carved Pictish stones were discovered when the church was being refurbished in the 19th century.


One thing we did not have time to do was to walk out to the sandstone cliffs which have some geological wonders. Later, we passed Lunan Bay and stopped at Montrose Basin. In the 12th and 13th centuries Montrose harbour was the centre of the local salmon export industry, second only to Aberdeen. The salt pans around the basin have been cleared out and made into pools for wildlife and it is now managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.


Crossing the River South Esk, we passed Montrose Harbour which has both a Lifeboat and International Rescue Boat Station. One mile north of the town, we stayed for the night at a Britstop on a fruit farm.

The next morning, we crossed the River North Esk and entered Kincardineshire. Our first stop was at St Cyrus Nature Reserve which includes grassland between the volcanic cliffs and the dunes and has an extensive beach.

Back on the A92 the road passes through St Cyrus, past Johnshaven and Gourdon before entering Inverbervie where we picked up more supplies. A little further north we encountered the haar: a mist which occurs when cold air from the sea meets warmer air on land an condenses. It occurs during the summer months along much of the east coast of Britain. We looked around Dunottar Castle which we had visited previously a couple of years ago before heading to our campsite in Stonehaven.

Round Britain: St Andrews to Angus


We had to pop in to Anstruther for a repair to the van technology. Returning along the B road back to St Andrews, we passed the sign to ‘Scotland’s Secret Bunker’ which we had seen on various occasions but never visited so we decided to take a look. Construction began in 1951 and it opened in 1953 as part of Britain’s early warning radar chain ‘ROTOR’. The Royal Air Force occupied it for six years. As technology improved the range between stations could increase and some, including this one, became redundant and were mothballed by the government. From 1958 to 1968 the Civil Defence Corps operated it and afterwards it became ‘Central Government HQ for Scotland in the event of a nuclear war’. It remained in service until 1993.

The main tunnel to the bunker is 150 yards long and is encased in 18 inches of solid concrete.

Further on the solid concrete is 10 feet deep and reinforced with tungsten bars. The main switchboard room could connect 2800 external lines and 500 internal extensions. It was manned 24 hours per day.

There is even a consecrated memorial chapel which is still used.

And a resident MOD cat whom we met.

Outside there are various military vehicles

Leaving St Andrews, we passed the Eden Mill Gin Distillery and crossed the River Eden at Guard Bridge. RAF Leuchars is a little further on but our destination was Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve. We parked by the beach which on arrival was very quiet.

Walking on the windy dunes was reminiscent of walking on Indiana Dunes on a very windy day almost three years ago.

We had our picnic there and the car park was filing up. There is even a crepe shack.

Our overnight stop was at a Certified Location in farmland near Morton Lochs which are also a National Nature Reserve. The Lochs were originally created by the Christie family who were local landlords, in 1906 and stocked with fish. They became a nature reserve in 1952.

We had a walk down there in the afternoon. A sign noted that there had been a tsunami 7,000 years ago with a wave 70 feet high which would have destroyed the neolithic population there. I had heard some time ago about that there is geological evidence of it in some Norwegian Fjord and joked that living right on the sea front on the East Coast might not be a good idea in case it is replicated. Now, rising sea levels secondary to global warming are a more likely threat.
At the loch we saw some coots and their young, a heron fishing in the distance and a red squirrel on one of the feeders.

That evening saw the end of the good weather as rain moved in. The following morning, we picked up supplies in Tayport and then continued to Newport. They are both commuter towns for Dundee and St Andrews. Manna café in Newport sells good coffees and is a community venture run by the local Church of Scotland. The profits support a youth worker. The town sits between the Tay road and rail Bridges.


The first rail bridge collapsed in a storm December 1879 while a train was crossing it, killing all onboard. Across the river, oil rigs were being repaired and Saturday morning boating was in full swing.

Down by the waterfront I discovered some street art:

After crossing the road bridge, we turned east along the coast, past the port and into Broughty Ferry. It had become a popular resort by 1790, known as the ‘Brighton of the North’. The population increased 4-fold in 30 years due to the popularity of ‘taking the waters’. The castle sits on the shore and was built in 1496.

It was rebuilt in 1860 and the Forfarshire Artillery Volunteers were garrisoned there. Later, the Submarine Miners who were ready to lay mines across the Tay in the event of war, were housed in a nearby building. It last saw military service in the World War II and has been a museum since 1969.
The first floor tells the history of the castle, the second is an art gallery containing a small selection of the collection of James Guthrie Orchar who was a prominent engineer and businessman in Dundee in the 19th century.

and on the third floor is an armoury. At the top there is a viewing platform and displays devoted to the local natural history. Down at the windy beach there were only a few brave souls, lots of kelp and I found two pieces of sea glass. It was raining as we left. Driving along the esplanade we passed the Barnhill Rock Garden. In better weather I might have stopped and explored it as I am constructing a new one at home. Our campsite was just beyond the settlement of Lucknow. It is named after the city in India but I still have to discover why.

Round Britain: Anstruther to St Andrews


Scotland has been having some unseasonably warm weather in the last few days. On Tuesday it reached 24 degrees in Drumnadrochit and on Wednesday 25.8 in Kinlochewe which was hotter than Athens and the snowy mountains in Corsica. Our two days of driving back to the East Neuk of Fife to pick up where we left in April were plagued by closed roads, diversions and temporary traffic lights. The last few miles were through farmland where the oilseed rape was bright yellow under a blue sky and some of the potatoes were emerging. A lot of sheep were finding it very warm and I could imagine them wondering when they were going to be sheared.

Our first stop was Crail, the oldest East Neuk town. It was built around a 12th century castle and confirmed as a Royal Burgh in 1310 by Robert the Bruce. My last visit was on a primary school trip in the early 1970s. In medieval times it hosted one of the largest markets in Europe. There was much trade between Crail and Belgium and the Netherlands; delivering salted fish, linen and coal and bringing back pantiles which we were told were used as ballast. Nowadays the fishing boats bring in shellfish. The architecture of the East Neuk is characterised by crow-step gables, outside stairs and pantiles on the roof.

Heading out towards Fife Ness the road passes an old air field which was a Second World War Fleet Air Arm Station but now stands with redundant buildings and is used as a race track and to host car boot sales. At the end of the road is Crail Golfing Society which is the oldest golf club in the world, founded in 1786. There is a nature reserve on the shoreline but a height limit meant we could not park there. The golf club does allow non-players to park for £1 and a path leads down to the shore and Fife Coastal Path. There used to be a harbour at Fife Ness and a sea-beacon construction yard. This was where Robert Stevenson started to construct the first lighthouse in 1813. After five years it was almost complete when it was destroyed in a winter gale. The current low-level light dates from 1975.

There was a quay here and there is still evidence of what may have been a crane base on the rocks.

There was also a tide mill nearby and a coast guard station here since 1846.

The golf course prevents visiting Constantine’s Cave which is named after the Pictish king who is said to have been killed there by the Vikings. However, there is evidence that he died peacefully in St Andrews in 946. The cave has been used by various people over the centuries including early Christians and Fifeshire Volunteers in 1812 when there were scares over a possible French invasion.

Returning to Crail we continued towards St Andrews, stopping at Kingsbarns Distillery en route. It is outside the town, nearer to the Cambo estate. In addition to whisky, they also produce gin.

Our campsite is on the cliffs south of St Andrews and close to the coastal path where there are views over the East Stand to St Andrews.

The following morning was sunny but windier. We walked into town diverting onto the beach where the path was closed for repair.

Some of the old town walls are still in existence.

We wandered around the ruined cathedral which replaced the former St Rule’s Church and when it was consecrated in 1318, was the largest building in Scotland. The west front was completed in 1272 and then blown down by a storm. After consecration there was a fire in 1378 and it was again rebuilt. John Knox gave a sermon in the Holy Trinity Church in 1599 and during the reformation the church trappings were pulled down so that by 1600 it probably looked much like it does today.

Nearby is the ruined castle. It was here that the Protestant preacher George Wishart was burnt for heresy in 1546 at the request of Cardinal Beaton, the Archbishop. Also, in that year, a group of locals opposed to the Cardinal seized the castle. Eventually an armistice was achieved only to be followed by an artillery onslaught by the French fleet. In the 1550s it was rebuilt.

Coffee was had in the Northpoint Café whose claim to fame is that it was ‘Where Will Met Kate’. We left as students were emerging from an exam and loudly discussing their answers to the questions. Birds have been around us for much of the day. While we were breakfasting a goldcrest sat on the rowan tree at the back of the van, this gull was watching us in the street

We had lunch on a bench by the harbour sheltered from the wind.

A pair of house sparrows were feeding on worms by the water’s edge and then had a dust bath on the sandy path. A pair of Eider Ducks then landed in the harbour. We had also discovered a good secondhand bookshop and had a good chat with the proprietor who was originally from Stockport.

I recalled that while deciding which university to apply to, decided against St Andrews, partly because you could not complete the whole of your medical course there but also because coming from a small town, I wanted to go to a city and St Andrews was somewhere you took your granny on a Sunday afternoon. We have enjoyed our brief visit and tomorrow continue further around the coast.

A day in Dundee


The day before we left for Dundee, Edinburgh and the autumn leaves were bathed in sunshine. While we were in Australia the UK seems to have had a fairly mild autumn.

However, this was not to last and by the time our train pulled into Dundee Station, the sky was overcast and the wind was getting up. We had been meaning to re-visit the city for some time, especially since the V&A opened a museum there in September 2018 and James is always keen to come back to the place he was at university in. The new V&A is right on the waterfront in a stunning building. It was designed by Kengo Kuma & Associates from Japan who are also designing the stadium in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.



The collection is devoted to Scottish design in many different areas. The main collection is free to visit and there are additional exhibitions for which a ticket has to be purchased. The current one is on ocean liners. There was so much to see and one thing I enjoyed was The Oak Room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Miss Catherine Cranston who owned tea rooms in Glasgow.

Next to the V&A is Discovery Point; a museum devoted to Antarctic research and the ship Discovery. Dundee had for some time engaged in whaling and so had expertise in constructing ships that could withstand Arctic ice, making it an obvious place to build the first ship constructed for scientific research in the Antarctic. The Discovery had sails but also an auxiliary coal-fired steam engine. There are displays on the construction of the ship which used several different kinds of wood, those who sailed in her, the work they did and the restoration of the Discovery. After looking at the displays in the museum (and trying some of the interactive things if you are brave enough) the ship can be explored, above and below deck.

When we visited some workers were repairing the decking with what looked like traditional methods.

Back in town, penguins are popping up everywhere as part of the Christmas Decorations. Those outside Discovery Point and these in the city centre are present all year.

Another Scottish export was comics. DC Thomson have been publishing newspapers and comics since 1905. Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx from the Beano are also in the city centre.

Had the weather been better there are riverside walks, boat trips, the Botanic Gardens or a climb up the Law for the view but they will have to wait for another trip. Down in the waiting room at the station there was a wall display:

While living in Dundee, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein

The first ever wireless broadcast took place in Dundee

In 2016 Dundee hosted the UK’s biggest independent video games festival

Dundee is the sunniest city in Scotland. This raised a smile as it was pouring with rain and very windy outside with reports of snow on high ground. Despite Scotrail glitches: announcing a delayed train when it had just departed and telling us as we approached Haymarket that the next stop was Leuchars, we made it back to Edinburgh on time.

On the Waves: St Kilda


Our boat left the Sound of Harris at 5am. I had awoken when the engines started up but fell asleep again until breakfast time. The weather was improving and blue sky appearing among the clouds. Just before the St Kilda archipelago came into view, we were overtaken by some small, fast daytrip boats. The first island to come into view was Boreray with Stac Lee and Stac an Armin.

On arrival at Hirta, a cruise ship came into view.

I had not expected this and had to remind myself that St Kilda has been a tourist venue since the mid 19th century. Unfortunately, these ships also brought smallpox and cholera and in 1913, influenza. Emigration also contributed to population loss. In 1851, 36 islanders emigrated to Australia and a suburb of Melbourne is called St Kilda. After the First World War many young men did not want to return. Zealous church ministers who expected high levels of church attendance left less time to run the island and harvest food. The demand for goods which the population had previous given to their factor in lieu of rent such as feathers for mattresses and tweed made from Soay sheep wool had declined. Midwifery skills were rejected and tetanus infantum lead to infant mortality rates up 80% because putting fulmar oil on the umbilicus was a local practice. This may have been stored in gannet or sheep stomachs and is thought to be the origin of the bacterium. In 1877 a midwife was brought to the island and maternal and infant mortality levels reduced.

Packed lunches collected, we were taken in the dinghy to the village pier where a red carpet was laid out. This was not for us but for the cruise passengers.

The street consists of the 1860s cottages with the old blackhouses in between and a small cemetery behind.

Cleits are everywhere and were used to store peat, food and clothing. Some on the hillside are now used by the sheep as shelter.

The current shop is also the Post Office and mail is collected by helicopter twice a week. The helicopter also transports workers to and from the military base which is being renovated at present to turn the buildings into some more in keeping with the others on the island.

We walked up to the gap which overlooks the cliffs below, past the storehouse and gun emplacement but the tops of the hills were still in the cloud.


After descending we had our lunch on the seat outside the small museum where this Lesser Black-backed Gull was observing us hoping for some food.

I also chatted to one of the cruise ship passengers who was from the San Francisco Bay Area. At least she was used to grey days and fog. After lunch I returned to the cliff edge near the gun where fulmars were nesting, and some puffins were visible.

On our return to the boat we saw a basking shark in the bay and after our evening meal enjoyed the sun going down.


On our second morning we walked up the road which was built in the 1950s when the military arrived.

The base has a pub but it only opens from 7pm as a previous earlier opening time had led to behaviour problems and drunkenness.
It was sunny and warm at first and we walked as far as the scree.

Back at the street, I briefly saw some St Kilda Wrens before it began to rain.

Our skipper told us that we had to leave the island at 3pm due to an approaching storm which was predicted to have up to 50mph winds. It was too windy to get to Soay so we passed around the stacs and Boreray where northern gannets nest. St Kilda vies with the Bass Rock as to which has the largest gannetry in the world.


before heading to Lochmaddy on North Uist to shelter for the night.

New things in familiar places



Kelpies were mythical water horses which could transform into humans. However, artist Andy Scott also based his work on the heavy horses which supplied the industry of the area including drawing the barges on the adjacent Forth & Clyde canal. Duke, the downward-looking Kelpie is 26.5m high and Baron, the upward-looking one is 30m high.

I remember heavy horses still being used by a brewery in Stirling in the 1970s. We lived in Falkirk for a year in the 1960s and I have not really been back since. The Kelpies were completed in 2013 and I have driven past them on the M9 but this was the first time we paused to walk around them. On a cold winter morning with the snow-covered Ochil Hills in the background, they were not busy at all.

We had spent the previous largely grey and wet day driving to Perthshire with only a few breaks in the weather. At Tebay, the ducks, resplendent in their breeding plumage, looked as if they were walking on water as just below the surface it was still frozen. On the north slopes of Shap the sun appeared briefly, and a rainbow stretched over the motorway. For once we were passing our usual turn-offs to Edinburgh and continuing north into Perthshire where I grew up. Just before Doune we stopped off at Deanston Distillery for the obligatory photograph and sampling. My clarinet teacher was from Doune. I played in the county wind band and in the early 1970s, some of us played at the wedding of Lord Doune’s daughter which took place in the medieval castle. It has since become more well-known as it has been used in some films including Monty Python’s and Game of Thrones.

We drove back towards Dunblane on the road my school bus used to take. One of the farms we passed has now become a red kite viewing centre which will be worth a visit at some point. We were heading to Dunblane to spend a night in Cromlix House just north of the town. The name Cromlix has existed in various forms since the 15th century although there is evidence of human settlement on the site before this. The Chisholms, several of whom were bishops of Dunblane before the reformation had a castle on the site as late as 1723. A marriage in the 16th century introduced the Drummond name which became Drummond Hay in 1739. A later marriage brought the estate into the Eden family who still own much of it, a reminder that only 500 people own most of the land in Scotland. The hotel is in what was initially built as ‘Cromlix Cottage’ in 1874. It was destroyed by fire and in 1880 was rebuilt. There is no sweeping staircase in keeping with the ‘cottage’ theme. The house was enlarged between 1880 and 1903. It was converted into a hotel in 1981 and we spent the first night of our honeymoon there in May 1987. It closed in 2012 but in the following year was purchased by Andy Murray and it opened again as five-star hotel in 2015. It has a Chez Roux restaurant and is situated in the hamlet of Kinbuck amongst the hills and woods that I love. Unfortunately the weather did not allow any wandering around them. It remained cold with snow and sleet showers during the rest of our weekend.