London: The City of Dreams

The writer Dr Samuel Johnson once said ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, and I certainly have some sympathy with his argument. Like many young Scots and others from around the globe, I found my way to this innovative city straight after finishing my university studies and ended up spending most of my 20s there.

The term ‘global city’ is banded about quite a bit these days but London really does live up to this title.  Within the city 300 languages are spoken on a daily basis, and almost 40% of the population were born outside the UK. You have the opportunity to dine in restaurants offering every conceivable global cuisine, shop at markets with goods from all over the world and mingle with people from every country you could think of. However, although a cultural melting pot, you are also never far away from the quintessential ‘British’ experience in London, be it the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, glimpsing of a red telephone box at the end of a handsome Victorian terrace, or passing police officers in their traditional custodian helmets.

Last weekend I made one of my frequent visits back to the metropolis to see friends and catch up with the dizzying pace of change in this global city. Since departing back in 2014, I have seen many changes and one of my great joys comes from re-visiting familiar haunts to see how they have developed since I moved on. As such a large city London can seem intimidating, especially for a first-time visitor. Some advice I was once given is to think of it not as one large city,  but rather a collection of villages, each with its own main street, station, community and distinct character, and I find this very useful. The only way to see London is by exploring each of the individual neighbourhoods so you can really get under the skin of the city and see what makes it tick. For this reason I would recommend that rather than take the famous London Underground to get from A to B, you should walk where possible or alternatively sit on the top level of one of the city’s iconic red double-decker buses to get a bird’s eye view of the skyline.

Here at McKinlay Kidd, we know London intimately and our speciality is advising you on how to discover the city beyond the tourist clichés. We always include the more quirky and lesser known attractions and a specially curated art trail for all of our clients who will be visiting London as well as our own personal recommendations and favourite restaurants. We work with a small collection of family-run, original hotels in some fantastic central locations and can also set you up with one of our local guides for the day. London is at the centre of the UK and Ireland’s transport network so lends itself perfectly for a stopover at the beginning or end of a McKinlay Kidd holiday in Scotland, Ireland or elsewhere in England.

So the question is this; if I love it so much, why did I leave? Like all truly global cities, London does face challenges, notably the high cost of living and exorbitant housing prices. I made the decision to return north of the border to buy my own property and be closer to family, and I don’t regret it at all. At times like last Saturday though, as I sat sipping a gin and tonic with dear friends overlooking the Thames, I do feel incredibly lucky that I got to spend some of the best years of my life in this amazing city.

Words by Tom Hamilton @ McKinlay Kidd, with images from Chris @ McKinlay Kidd

 

The Isle of Gigha: Perfect Antidote to City Life

I recently set off from the bustling city centre of Glasgow on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon to enjoy a relaxing bank holiday weekend and experience island life on the Isle of Gigha.

Even the drive to the ferry port was spectacular. By the time I hit Loch Lomond, the weather had turned in true Scottish fashion. The majestic scenery was blanketed in a layer of stunning low cloud, turning the journey into a beautiful and dramatic drive! I travelled on through picturesque towns, such as Tarbet and Arrochar, before reaching my personal favourite, Inverary.  With a ferry to catch I tore myself away from the stunning spot, making plans to visit properly on the return trip.

As I made my way towards Tayinloan ferry port the sun broke back through the clouds. I pulled in with enough time to enjoy a quick bite to eat and a refreshing beverage from the family-run cafe close to the dock. I wandered down the pier and was greeted by a white sandy beach with crystal clear water. The view had me almost believing that I was on an exotic island in the Caribbean!

The beautiful view before embarking on the ferry

The ferry journey takes around 20 minutes and once disembarking, my hotel for the next two nights was a short two-minute drive from the port.  After a simple check in, I went upstairs to my large double room to the front of the hotel, which had breath-taking views over the Sound of Gigha. That evening I enjoyed a delicious dinner including some locally caught seafood, and made my way to the bar for a night cap and to get to know some of the Gigha locals. However, tonight called for an early night as I prepared to explore the next day.

The crystal-clear waters surrounding the Isle of Gigha
The crystal-clear waters surrounding the Isle of Gigha

I awoke to another glorious day and tucked into a hearty full Scottish breakfast. I then drove to the South Pier at the southernmost point of the island, where there are some beautiful secluded beaches and more stunning views of mainland Scotland across the water.

Along the way I stopped off at the spectacular Achamore Gardens. These 54-acre gardens host many notable and unusual plants and trees from around the world. Then I continued to the north of the island, and the small bay with its twin apple=core beaches and views out west to the isles of Jura and Islay.

Gazing out towards the Isles of Jura and Islay

By the late afternoon I had worked up an appetite so made my way to my lunch reservation at the island’s local eatery, located near the ferry port. All I can say is this was a taste sensation and I had some of the best seafood I have ever eaten anywhere; not to mention the views from the table!  The staff were also outstanding, all locals who were never too busy to discuss the island and its rich history.

Some of the delicious seafood available

After my lunch I dropped the car off and went exploring on foot, discovering the local church and golf course. Gigha is a quaint island – the locals are very welcoming and I am very much looking forward to returning.

The next day I was up early to set sail for the Kintyre penninsulaon the first ferry of the day, and quickly found myself heading back north towards Inverary. Here I stopped for a coffee and fresh croissant in one of the many cafes. The town even in the early hours is alive and bustling with visitors! I found myself at the castle and spent some time there taking in the scenery.  My next stop was Loch Fyne where I treated myself to some oysters and chowder at the loch front. I even had time to drop into the local Loch Fyne brewery to buy some craft beer samples to enjoy that evening after getting home.

The weather stayed perfect the whole way back to Glasgow as I ended my trip. The island was beautiful, peaceful and the ideal getaway from the city living. Gigha is definitely a perfect place to relax and unwind!

Words & Images by Chris Stewart @ McKinlay Kidd

 

Bath’s Brilliant Buns

Hidden down one of Bath’s quaint cobbled lanes is the oldest dwelling in the city, established in c.1482. This historical site has been the home to the original “Bath bun” since 1680, when Sally Lunn – the inventor of this regional speciality – was employed in a bakery on the premises.

VB-Sally Lunn's plaque
Commemorative plaque

Story has it that a young Huguenot refugee, Solange Luyon, came to Bath from France in 1680 to escape persecution. She found work in the bakery on what was known at the time as Lilliput Alley. In addition to selling the baker’s wares from a basket, Sally Lunn – as she came to be known, an anglicised version of her name – had a special talent for making a unique brioche bun in the French tradition, resembling French festival breads.

The bun quickly became popular in Georgian England, with customers soon coming to the bakery just to request the unusual delicacy that could be served with either sweet or savoury accompaniments. The bun became known as the “Sally Lunn bun” or “Bath bun” and today is legendary the world over.

A visit to the Sally Lunn tea house and eatery is essential to any visit to the historical city of Bath.

McKinlay Kidd now offers two new itineraries to Bath in 2018. Take a look at Explore Britain by Train and Classic England by Train.

Road tripping on the west coast of Scotland

Recently my colleague, Caoimhe, and I enjoyed a picturesque and slightly Harry Potter-themed adventure to the west coast of Scotland.

Setting off on a lovely Thursday morning we drove up north from Glasgow and past the breath-taking views of Loch Lomond. The burnt orange coloured leaves falling from the trees made our journey all the more beautiful. Every now and then the sun would pop out of the clouds leaving a beautiful rainbow over the glistening water.

Viaduct rainbow - Daniela
Rainbow over the Glenfinnan viaduct

Our first stop was the Glenfinnan Viaduct visitor centre, where we parked up and made our way to the top of the hill for the best possible view. We really were amazed. The viaduct is not only a work of art but for me as a Harry Potter fan, it brings back magical childhood memories. Once we had soaked up the views we made our way to the waterfront where the Jacobite monument stands proud, overlooking Loch Shiel. Something about the clouds gave the hills an almost blue hue and the water quite a spooky look which added to the ambiance.

After plenty of photo opportunities, we were back on the road and heading towards Mallaig for a spot of lunch in a lovely location near the ferry port. The prawn roll was simply delicious. Our next stop was Spean Bridge for the night which gave us another excellent chance to enjoy the phenomenal Highland scenery and hospitality.

The following day, well-rested and eager for the next part of our adventure, we headed to Fort William train station for a tour of the Jacobite steam train. Having never seen a steam engine before I definitely felt like I was taken back in time. I can’t deny that I was also excited to be on the train that inspired the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. Walking along the platform surrounded in clouds of steam felt quite enchanting. It was lovely to see both kids and adults soaking up the experience in anticipation of the train’s departure.

The whole trip was very enjoyable. Driving through the Highlands was such a contrast to my normal journeys on motorways and around the city centre. The time seemed to fly by with so many wonderful sights to take in. I can’t wait to return to the west coast of Scotland again very soon!

Words and images by Daniela at McKinlay Kidd

The Magical Islands of Mull & Iona

My first trip through the western Highlands was a wonderful discovery of old and new. Coming from Ireland originally, I have strong beliefs that the Irish countryside will always be the most beautiful I’ll encounter but I was happy to find stiff competition on these magical islands of Mull and Iona.

Oban oysters
Oban oysters

I knew things were off to a good start when after collecting my ferry ticket at the harbour in cheerful Oban, I enjoyed some enormous ice-cold oysters opened in front of me at a fresh seafood stall right next to the ticket office. I held on to that marvellous flavour of the sea as we set off, setting the tone for my trip brilliantly. As the weather was crisp and dry, I wanted to take advantage of it so I wrapped up warmly and took in the view from the open air deck, enjoying the picturesque Eilean Musdile lighthouse bathed in the late afternoon light as we passed. On arrival on Mull we drove to Tobermory through the setting sun, catching the brightly painted harbour front just before darkness.

Mull is known for its wildlife as much as its beauty so the following day we went out with some local experts to see for ourselves. The day’s arc was perfect; birds including white tailed eagles in the morning, otters at lunchtime and red deer late afternoon. I was struck by Mull’s changing scenery as we went – volcanic pillow lava causing rocky terrain, soft rolling fields and woodland covered in soft green lichen – all confirming the pure air on the island. Another fun sight was the ubiquitous sheep nibbling seaweed at the water’s edge. I was kept going myself by a lovely spread provided by our guide: hot soup, sandwiches, coffee and cake. I enjoyed a rounded education of the island from nature to history, learning of islanders of times gone by suffering the effects of the Highland clearances and using seaweed to fertilise meagre potato crops by the rocky coast, and returned to Tobermory with insider knowledge of my surroundings.

View to Mull from Iona
View to Mull from Iona

The Isle of Iona was next on the itinerary, beginning with an early rise and drive to Fionnphort on the opposite side of the Island. We parked the car and could see Iona waiting for us as we boarded the ferry as foot passengers. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was as we alighted but something about Iona is instantly warming. I was lucky to enjoy a tour of a hotel garden by the resident gardener and was delighted to see seaweed feeding the soil as a nod to traditions of the past. Home grown produce is common on these islands to ensure freshness rather than rely on deliveries and I loved seeing beds full of fruit, vegetable and edible flower seedlings waiting for next season’s guests to enjoy.

Iona Abbey
Iona Abbey

Though I had planned on seeing it, the Abbey came as almost a surprise on this tiny island, such was its magnitude thrust into sharp relief by its diminutive surroundings. The remains of the nunnery was an interesting wander also, the nuns on Iona having enjoyed a thriving social life on Iona as active members of the community. It was easy to see why Iona had and has a deeply spiritual resonance for some; it feels somehow brighter than the rest of the world when you are there.

But all good things must come to an end and the drive back through Mull brought new discoveries as we went. I returned to Glasgow with warm memories of two magical islands.

Words & images by Caoimhe O’Brien @ McKinlay Kidd 

Shetland: Full of Surprises

There’s something incredibly liberating about going on holiday to Shetland. I felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life as soon as I started my descent on to the Sumburgh runway. No book or documentary could truly prepare me for the stunning scenery sprawling around me and, despite the October chill in the air, I was glowing with excitement for the duration of my stay.

Though I lost touch many years ago with a good friend from Shetland, I’ve never forgotten her great pride in calling this place home. Her stories and tales were the catalyst for me wanting to spend some time in what she had portrayed as a welcoming and community-spirited location. My expectations were exceeded hour after hour and I doubt I will ever find anywhere to rival the locals’ natural gift for hospitality. From my taxi driver to shop owners, I was welcomed with open arms. Shetlanders are fiercely proud of their history and heritage and it’s an absolute privilege to be invited in.

On arrival, my tour guide, David, took me to a local café to discuss our day ahead. A renowned place for wildlife spotting with windows facing out to the bay, I sat entranced by the waves crashing around us and very nearly forgot to order from a packed menu of homemade delights. A hearty bowl of soup on a cold day, a colourful salad on a hot day or just cake for cake’s sake, this place is a must on every itinerary.

After checking in to our accommodation for the night, I knew it would be a struggle to leave the history soaked hotel, roaring fire and comfortable bed behind. Staff, locals and visitors were all cheerful. The food was tasty, and there was a good choice of wines and an impressive whisky selection on offer too. For me, sincere hospitality needs complemented by enjoyable food and this location certainly has both.

Though I have many fond memories of Shetland, the trip had a distinct highlight. My taxi driver not only got me from A to B safely, he was a fount of knowledge. So much so that after telling him the tale of my long-lost friendship, he told me that he in fact knew my friend – a close-knit community indeed! He put us in touch within hours. Sitting by my hotel’s roaring fire the following day, I looked up to see my friend smile just as she had done all those years ago, and I knew this was only the first of many more holidays to Shetland.

By Zoe @ McKinlay Kidd / Photo by Ashleigh

If you would like to experience both Shetland and its neighbour Orkney together, take a look at our Shetland & Orkney Fly-drive itinerary.

Along the North Coast 500 (Part 1)

Drive the North Coast 500, Scotland’s acclaimed 516-mile touring route around some of the country’s remotest parts, and chances are you’ll end up in conversation with a fellow traveller, who’ll tell you ‘Oh, we’re doing it in two days!’.

Now, this is entirely feasible, but, in my opinion, can’t be much fun. That’s why I set out in October to see how much I could eke out of the route across eight days, a much more leisurely pace.

Starting in Glasgow, I made my way to Inverness for the official start point at Inverness Castle, the red sandstone structure standing watch over the Highland Capital. A quick photo opportunity and off I went. It felt good to be having a go at the route without any thought of hurrying or of time pressures.

Out of Inverness, skirting the Beauly Firth with Kessock Bridge in the distance, time to sort out lunch. The pretty town of Beauly seemed as good a place as any and I found a terrific little bistro serving good seafood chowder. I would have had a photo to illustrate this, but I dropped my iPhone in my soup, much to the amusement of my fellow diners.

On the road again and heading north on the A9, I took a detour off to the right to visit Nigg on the north shore of the entrance to the Cromarty Firth, met by a dramatic scene with darkening clouds overhead and looming oil rigs in the background.

Wending my way back towards the A9 through tiny hamlets like Balintore, Cadboll and Portmahomack, then the sizeable town of Tain, famous for whisky production, it was time to head for Dornoch, for my first night’s stop. Good to see a new artisan chocolate producer here since my last visit, so a hot chocolate was a must before a stroll around the cathedral and the steps that take you up to footpaths above this prettiest of Highland towns.

Unable to sit still for long, and with light ’til 8pm at this particular time of year, I took the car out again and followed my nose along the A949 that edges the Dornoch Firth, through Spinningdale and on to Bonar Bridge, turning right here to take the rising road to Loch Migdale – a new loch for me.

Dunrobin Castle
Dunrobin Castle

Next morning dawned bright, and after a quick jog on the ‘Royal’ golf course I got back on the road. First stop, Dunrobin Castle and Gardens – you can take a train here on the way to Thurso – for a quick look at the ramparts and the old cannons standing watch over the entrances.

Helmsdale Harbour
Helmsdale Harbour

There are few things I like more than a tiny harbour, and Helmsdale’s fits the bill. I was able to get the car right to the edge, next to bobbing sailboats and tiny fishing vessels. The ‘Emigrants Monument’ is here, too, a moving tribute to those who fled their homes in search of ‘freedom, hope and justice’.

I love this part of the A9, with its long straights, sweeping curves and tight, corkscrewing, rising hairpins all the way to Latheron, where I pick up the A99, the road to the ‘proper north’ of Wick and, eventually John o’ Groats – a ‘must-tick’ on any keen travellers list and the gateway to the majestic north coast.

More of that later…

Words and images by Chris at McKinlay Kidd, November 2017

Also by Chris: On The Road in an Aston Martin

Scotland’s Hidden Gem: Caithness

Recently I was fortunate enough to visit a part of the country that although a little lesser known has a wealth of attractions to offer its visitors. The county of Caithness can be reached by train, car, or air, with regular direct flights to Wick airport from Edinburgh. After choosing the latter of these options, we hired a car and spent the next few days exploring this wonderful part of Scotland.

The coastline around this region offers stunning landscapes at every turn, from sandy beaches to staggering cliffs where wildlife watching is a must. At Duncansby Head you can admire views over the cliffs and sea stacks whilst listening to the echoes of thousands of seabirds on the rocky face below your feet calling as they confront the coastal winds against them. For me the stacks that hug the coastline here, emerging out from the waves below, are definitely the highlight and a well-deserved reward should you choose to walk by way of the coastal path from nearby John o’ Groats. The renowned John o’ Groats is a perfect spot for a bite to eat, to pick up a souvenir and take an obligatory photo by the iconic signpost before heading off to take in some of the rich local history that Caithness has to offer.

John o' Groats signpost, Caithness
John o’ Groats signpost

Historical and archaeological sites, including ancient cairns, brochs, standing stones and castles, can be found almost anywhere, with plenty still waiting to be explored. For something a bit more recent there is the Queen Mother’s Highland home, The Castle of Mey, that is a living time capsule, still visited regularly by Prince Charles and other members of the royal family.

Despite being somewhat of a history enthusiast, the most memorable moment of my trip was our visit to Dunnet Head. The most northerly point of mainland Britain, this isolated and striking peninsula offers breath-taking 360 degree views over to the Orkney Islands, and back over the mainland. Just a stone’s throw from here, along the clifftop away from the lighthouse and main viewpoint, we managed to see hundreds of puffins perched on the cliffs below. Anyone who knows me will be aware of my love of puffins, which I’ve had ever since my parents took me to Orkney as a child. After a few failed attempts to see them in the past (including on last year’s trip to Mull), to see so many somewhere I wouldn’t have previously have expected to was a real treat! We could have sat here for hours admiring these incredible birds whilst avoiding the crowds and bumpy boat journeys that some of the more well-known puffin hotspot tours require. As well as puffins, Dunnet Head’s dramatic cliffs are also home to thousands of other seabirds including guillemots and razorbills.

Caithness truly is a region of hidden gems waiting to be fully explored. Whether you’re an adventurer ready to brave the elements and visit forgotten brochs or you prefer taking in breath-taking scenery from the comfort of your car, you better get adding to that travel list!

By Rhona @ McKinlay Kidd

In the Footsteps of Giants

I have known the Giant’s Causeway since I was a wee boy. We visited every summer during the school holidays and, like many, I was entranced by the stories of the warring Irish and Scottish Giants who created and destroyed it respectively.

Our visits always went beyond the Causeway itself and took in the cliff-top walks to the east. From here we enjoyed views to Rathlin Island, County Donegal and even Scotland.

My memory may be misleading but I seem to remember we would finish our trip with an ice cream down by the harbour at nearby Ballintoy or maybe a trip to the beach at White Park Bay – miles of sand with the occasional herd of cows for company.

When I was older we would attempt the crossing of Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, though I was never keen on such a precarious place.

In fact the whole of the “Causeway Coast” was the focus of many family holidays for us and I absolutely loved it.

Roll on some forty plus years and I found myself back there last week. Of course, there has been change. The Giant’s Causeway is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and draws thousands of visitors from all over the world. Some squeeze in a visit on day trips from Dublin – far too rushed to be anything I would ever advise! There are audio guides, a shuttle bus for the less able, toilets, park and ride etc. The focal point is the very impressive National Trust visitor centre, opened five years ago now, complete with shop, cafe and interpretation centre. The latter pleasingly gives equal emphasis to the two alternative stories of the creation of the Causeway: the geological version describing volcanoes and lava versus the mythological yet colourful tales of mighty beings. The centre is a clever design, single storey with a grass roof and pretty much hidden from the coastline itself – apparently aided by a complete lack of ninety-degree angles to draw the eye.

I admit I was worried that all this change would take away the magic of the place, the magic which captivated a small boy all those years ago. Instead I felt rather proud of my home country: people of all different nationalities were now discovering the magic for themselves. We continued our walk beyond the stones, away from many of the visitors, and onto the clifftops. From here I couldn’t help thinking that nature – or the Giants’ handiwork – hadn’t changed that much after all.

By Robert Kidd

In Search of Rural Solitude

At McKinlay Kidd we love to get off the beaten track. We encourage our customers to do likewise by providing them with “Robert’s Recommendations” – our tips for things worth seeking out in an area. A couple of weeks ago, Robert and I spent the weekend in Perthshire, not far from the shores of Loch Tay. We decided to revisit an old favourite: the 25-mile drive along the single-track road into Glen Lyon. In our recommendations we proudly proclaim, “The further you go, the more rural solitude you’ll find.”

It was a bright and beautiful Saturday morning, the spring sun coaxing the last of the leaf buds into unfurling on the branches overhead. We anticipated meeting the occasional local vehicle running errands. We were not surprised to encounter – every now and then – energetic cyclists, adventurous motor-bikers, determined Munro-baggers and other visitors on exploratory missions like ourselves. Nevertheless, we’d been encouraged to read the description adorning the hotel information of Glen Lyon as Scotland’s “longest, loneliest, loveliest glen”.

It wouldn’t be difficult to find complete solitude, we envisaged, as we kept a keen eye out for red squirrels and listened to twittering birdsong, punctuated every now and then by the squawk and clapping wingbeats of a pheasant, startled by our presence on the virtually-empty road.

Just over halfway into the glen, we passed the tearoom, shop and post office at Bridge of Balgie, slowly awakening for the day ahead. Refreshment stop noted for our return. Here, a side road branches off towards Ben Lawers and the north side of Loch Tay, taking much of the touring traffic with it. We continued further into Glen Lyon, feeling the cares of the modern world slip away as we left most signs of civilisation behind us.

The view opened out, ringed with jagged mountain peaks, their looming presence beckoning us to continue. We caught a glimpse of Meggernie Castle, painted a brilliant white in blunt contrast to its dark past – this was once the home of Robert Campbell who led the Glencoe massacre. Here and there we spotted a fisherman, wading thigh-deep in the meandering River Lyon.

The twentieth century intruded in the curvaceous shape of the hydro-electric dam and power station at Cashlie. In the distance the brutal concrete slopes of 1950’s-built Lubreoch Dam loomed into view, stoutly holding back Loch Lyon. We’d get to the far dam, we thought, then park up and go for a stroll, just the two of us, soaking up the much-anticipated rural solitude.

Our car crested a small hill and revealed the full vista around the huge dam. The sun glinted off a hundred or so vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Colourful tents adorned the grassy slopes, while bony runners in numbered vests straggled along the trail. Cobalt-blue banners fluttered in the gentle breeze. Welcome to the Glen Lyon Ultra Marathon!

We hastily retreated to the by-now bustling Bridge of Balgie tearoom. Homemade soup and locally roasted coffee would fortify us to continue our search for rural solitude. On this particular morning, even in Scotland’s loneliest glen, it had proven to be as elusive as those pesky red squirrels…

By Heather McKinlay