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

Across Ireland to the Edge of Europe: Tom’s Car-free Irish break

When I’m exploring a new part of the world car hire is usually one of the first things I book so I know how I’m getting from A to B, especially outside main cities. So it was with some trepidation that I set off for Ireland last week on a car-free trip taking in Dublin, Galway and the wonderful Aran Islands. On arrival at Dublin Airport I was met by my friendly driver and whisked into the city centre via the impressive and rejuvenated Docklands area – the sheer number of cranes on the horizon and the number of high-tech firms who have moved in was a sign of a city on the move. I used Robert’s Recommendations, which are personally researched by our Founder and Director Robert Kidd and supplied to all McKinlay Kidd clients, to navigate my way around the Irish capital and made use of taxis, buses, trams and my favourite method of transport in a new city – walking. From St. Stephen’s Green to Trinity College to Dublin Castle I managed to get a real flavour of the city, discovered some quirky off-the-beaten-track attractions and sampled amazing food and great craic in the pubs of the city. 

After far too short a visit it was time to move on to the west of Ireland and the excellent service from Iarnrod Eireann (Irish Rail) really let the train take the strain as it whisked me across the country from east to west in less than three hours with great views of the countryside of the Irish Midlands. The train comes in to the heart of Galway City at Eyre Square in the heart of the Latin Quarter, a fantastic warren of narrow cobblestone streets bursting with pubs that host trad music throughout the week as well as some of the best seafood restaurants I have ever eaten at. The hotel was located just a few minutes’ walk from the station and I spent the afternoon walking the path that runs along the fast-flowing River Corrib before sampling some local oysters, which luckily go very well with a pint of Guinness!

The highlight of the trip was the crossing to Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, accessed by bus from Galway City to the ferry port an hour to the west in the Connemara region then by a 45 minute ferry crossing. The landscape of this incredible island is marked by the distinctive limestone pavements that are also found in The Burren region on the mainland as well as the remoteness of the island’s location on the very edge of Europe – we took a ride in a jeep to the very western tip of the island with nothing out ahead of us but the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Newfoundland, an amazing thought! I would recommend staying at least a couple of nights to experience the island’s amazing Irish speaking culture and rugged scenery but unfortunately my trip was only for the day. I still managed to have a browse in the Aran Sweaters shop and enjoy a pint of Guinness before taking the evening ferry back to the mainland!

The following day it was a seamless journey back to Dublin on a spacious, brand new train to connect with my short flight back home to Scotland and without realising it I had become a car-free holiday convert! So next time you travel why not consider leaving the car and travelling by public transport as the locals do – you see your destination from a whole new perspective. 

By Tom @ McKinlay Kidd

Have a bit more time for your own holiday? Check out McKinlay Kidd’s Grand Tour of Ireland by Train

On The Road in an Aston Martin

There are few more evocative British brands than Aston Martin, particularly ever since Sean Connery’s James Bond 007 was introduced to his gadget-laden DB5 in 1964’s Goldfinger. Modern Aston Martins carry on that tradition of handcrafted muscularity and unmistakable Britishness, and I was lucky enough recently to experience it first-hand on a spin in a gorgeous DB9 Volante, the very same car McKinlay Kidd clients are able to enjoy on our popular Aston Martin 007 Weekend holiday.

Aston Martin Inside with treatment

We were fortunate to have a bright, sunny day, so wrapped up warm, dropped the top and headed south for some quieter backroads around Glasgow. Nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring power of the 5.9-litre V12, and oh, that sound! Real hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff. But the car was equally happy just pootling around, whispering through villages, the low-slung leather seats easily comfortable enough for a whole day on the road.

Now, if I only I could find the keys lying around somewhere…

Words and images by Chris @ McKinlay Kidd

Mull: an island of memories

A bewildered shaggy highland cow standing in the garden, peering through the glorious Scottish rain that was battering the cottage window: that was one of my main memories from a number of family holidays as a child to the beautiful Isle of Mull, just a short ferry ride off the west coast of Scotland. I was eager to go back here after so long, I had no idea what to expect, but as soon as the ferry set sail knew I was in for a special trip. Not so different to my childhood memories, only this time the cows were at the car window!

Mull is famed for its diverse wildlife and this is proven instantly with regular sightings of porpoises on the crossing to the island. Eagles, deer and seals are also common (if you know where to look!) not to mention the countless sheep and highland cows. Many inhabit the hidden beaches, tucked away just waiting to be found.  A variety of boat trips available give people the chance to whale-watch or visit the famous puffins. Unfortunately the weather and the season prevented me from these trips this time, but luckily there is still plenty to see back on dry land. Whether you are in a tour or driving yourself, a trip around Mull will not disappoint. With its dramatic scenery from vertical cliffs plummeting into the choppy sea below or white sandy beaches with calm blue waters, there is something worth seeing at every corner.  And there are a lot of corners: Mull is not an island for the faint-hearted driver. The winding single track roads, especially in the north west of the island offer breathtaking views from all angles, looking out onto the wild Isle of Ulva, down across the cliff faces or back towards Ben More, Mull’s very own Munro that towers above you as you drive along the base of this forbidding mountain.

Just a ten minute ferry crossing from the west of Mull you will find the tiny yet blissfully peaceful and idyllic Isle of Iona. This world famous pilgrimage sight for Christians hosts the tranquil Iona Abbey, full of ancient history and artefacts from when Saint Columba landed here in 563 AD. As well as a wealth of history and culture, Iona also has spectacular scenery looking out over the rocky west coast of Mull or the untouched beaches on the west coast overlooking the wild Atlantic.

If you’ve had enough of magnificent landscapes and endless wildlife spotting, the main settlement on the island, Tobermory, offers plenty of options to eat, drink and shop.

The colourful bay offers delicious fresh seafood, lively bars and a number of independent and quirky boutiques giving you the chance to find that one-off souvenir!

Mull produces many of its own products from chocolate to cheese and beer to whisky. My personal favourite, that also goes down a treat in the McKinlay Kidd office, is the delicious lemon melt shortbread from Island Bakery.

Mull and Iona both make for a unique and unforgettable trip in the Inner Hebrides, full of wildlife, dramatic scenery and rich in history. I am already looking forward to my next trip and eager to see those lovable puffins!

By Rhona @ McKinlay Kidd

(Featured photo taken on Mull)

South by Southwest: Hamish’s home from home

Given that I was brought up in the South West of Scotland, it seemed apt that my first visit to Ireland with McKinlay Kidd was to the South West of the Island to discover the Wild Atlantic WayCork and Kerry. The similarities were uncanny; rolling hills, lush green forests, rugged coastlines and long sandy beaches. Not forgetting of course, the warm and friendly locals.

Flying from Glasgow to Cork, a journey of around an hour and fifteen minutes, you get a wonderful view of the whole of Ireland. My approach was augmented by some wonderful autumnal sunshine which bounced off the Celtic Sea.

The Dingle Peninsula, one of the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland (where Irish is widely spoken), was my first stop. What struck me instantly was the slowing in the pace of life, everyone from locals to the tourists seemed to be going about their business in an unhurried fashion. A must see stop is the Inch Strand, a long sand spit backed by a dune system reaching into Dingle Bay. Popular with surfers as illustrated on my visit, I was rather wishing that I had brought my own wetsuit to go for a swim!

Next was the famous Ring of Kerry. I drove round the entirety of the 120 mile circular route which is one of the country’s most popular tourist trails.  As a Star Wars fan, I was hoping to have had the opportunity to take one of the boat trips from Portmagee to view the dramatic island monastery at Skellig Michael, but alas the weather thought otherwise. However, there are plenty of other options to enjoy the open views of the mountains, coast and islands of the area.

West Cork was my last destination, with the fishing village of Baltimore first on the list of places to see. En route to Baltimore, the section from Kenmare in Kerry to Glengarriff in Cork was one of the most spectacular I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving. Jaw dropping scenery is around every corner and the road scythes through the mountains via tunnels carved into the rock in the mid-nineteenth century during famine times.

Rock Tunnel Drive, Old Kenmare Road
Rock Tunnel Drive, Old Kenmare Road

Baltimore is the place to be if you want to see Wildlife in West Cork. Marine life is bountiful, with whales topping the bill, as well as seabirds which frequent the cliffs of Cape Clear Island, just a short boat journey from Baltimore.

Kinsale was my last stop in West Cork and Ireland. What a place to finish, despite my visit coinciding with the winding down of the tourist season, the town was buzzing. Unfortunately, I was a week late for the famous Kinsale Gourmet Festival, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016. However, Kinsale is known as the “Gourmet Capital of Ireland”, meaning there is good food to be had all year round! My trip came to a wonderful end in a cosy bar, full of locals and visitors alike enjoying a pint of Guinness whilst listening to a local band playing traditional Irish Music.

The recurring theme of my visit to Ireland was the friendliness and generosity of the people I met. No matter where I went, I was greeted with a smile and an enquiry as to how I was enjoying my time in Ireland, with recommendations of what to do or see next. The genuine interest all my hosts had in my trip and their eagerness to show off their homeland was incredibly endearing. I can’t wait for my next visit!

Exploring ancient civilisations in Orkney

Last month I was in Orkney for the first time. I have never been that far north before. I flew from Glasgow to Kirkwall, the main town, instead of taking the ferry. The weather was gorgeous and we could see all the islands – turquoise water and empty lands…I was already loving it! As a non-driver, I want to share some recommendations of what to see and do. You don’t need a car to explore Orkney and see the main sites.

Kirkwall is a great base with very nice hotels in town, giving you the opportunity to walk everywhere. Go to the pub and try one the island’s famous whiskies – Highland Park or Scapa. Explore St. Magnus Cathedral, located on the main street. Known as the ‘Light of the North’, it is one of Orkney’s Viking splendours and definitely worth a visit. Staying in Kirkwall makes it also very easy to visit other islands. Did you know that Orkney has more than 70 of them? From Kirkwall ferry port you can go to all the northern isles, for example Shapinsay, Westray and Papa Westray.

If you have time, I advise going to the isle of Rousay for a day trip, taking the ferry from Tingwall. The visibility was so good that we could see all the other islands around us – even Westray! I discovered from the local guide that Rousay is called the Egypt of the North because of so many neolithic remains, such as Midhowe, with its broch and cairn.

No trip to Orkney is complete without at least a visit to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, both are listed as world heritage sites. At Skara Brae, you can imagine how ancient people were living… and also walk down to the nearby sandy beach. The Ring of Brodgar was for me a completely different experience. A circle of standing stones? I’ve never been interested in such sites, but as it’s one of the most famous and iconic symbols of Orkney’s prehistoric past, I thought it would be a shame not to see it. OK, I take back everything I said! It is a very impressive and spectacular structure!

A trip to Orkney is a truly remarkable experience, when you can feel the history and find something unique around every corner.

By Kim @ McKinlay Kidd

(Featured photo: St. Magnus Cathedral, Orkney)

On a nostalgia trip to the west of Ireland

As a child I spent a very memorable holiday in Connemara, in the west of Ireland. Although we had explored many parts of Ireland and Scotland before, I can still remember the first sight of the white sandy beaches near Roundstone, contrasting with the beautiful bleakness of the boglands, just a few miles inland.

It’s a part of Ireland I am always thrilled to return to. This year, for my birthday, we had the chance for another short visit. Just to add to the nostalgic theme, we drove there from Dublin in a car from the same year as my first visit- a 1974 MGB roadster.

The intervening period has of course seen enormous changes, both in the island of Ireland and in the cars we drive. The first challenge we met was trying to reach the motorway toll booth from the driver’s window – clearly cars are rather higher now than forty years ago. Mind you, there were no tolls in the seventies and certainly no roads worthy of charging for!

Once we reached Connemara, with its small roads sweeping over the dramatically beautiful flatlands between the lakes and mountains, our wee MG seemed right at home.

After an evening enjoying the craic in Clifden, we headed off to re-visit another place which made a big impression on me in 1974 – the memorial marking the landing site of Alcock & Brown’s first transatlantic flight. Years ago this was just a white beacon with some sketchy notices in the middle of a Connemara bog. This year, as part of the Wild Atlantic Way project, an impressive visitor experience has been developed. With boardwalks so you can explore the bogland, and a range of interpretation areas, the fascinating history of “Derrygimlagh” has been brought to life. Not only was this the site of the famous, though somewhat unscheduled landing, but it also marks the spot where Gugliemo Marconi established the first ever commercial transatlantic wireless station. This was an extensive complex, with massive condenser house, staff accommodation, even a social club.

Alcock and Brown certainly picked the right spot to touch down, meaning news of their tremendous feat could be rapidly broadcast. It is still hard to grasp that this one, pretty remote part of Ireland played a key role in two of the last century’s most important innovations – flight and communications.

It seemed a very appropriate place to visit in a classic car. A true nostalgia trip.

And, to round off the day, it was time to enjoy some open top motoring and find those sandy beaches again.

By Robert @ McKinlay Kidd

(Featured photo taken in Connemara)

Been there, done that, where to get the T-shirt?

During my time at McKinlay Kidd, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some amazing places in Scotland, and indulge my love of empty beaches, wildlife (particularly Shetland ponies) and seafood. One thing for sure is that I also really, really love a good gift shop – I can’t resist bringing back trinkets from my travels for my friends and family, as well as the obligatory sweet treats for the McKinlay Kidd team of course!

Scotland still proudly promotes traditional crafting methods and celebrates original artwork and textiles. So, think beyond the cliché idea of Scottish souvenirs such as shortbread tins and bagpipe fridge magnets and take a look at my top gift shop recommendations.

Bonhoga Gallery, Shetland

This former barley mill at Weisdale has been converted to a gallery featuring contemporary visual arts and crafts. It boasts an extensive range of locally produced prints, textiles and cards in the gift shop. The mill also houses a café serving light lunches, so is well worth a visit. If you do find yourself in the area, stop off at Shetland Jewellery en route!

Ragamuffin, Isle of Skye

Situated on Armadale Pier in an idyllic location, Ragamuffin is home to the very best knitwear and original clothes. Beware though…this place is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, so you may find yourself in here for a while. Don’t miss your ferry!

Rarebird, Isle of Lewis

If you journey to the Outer Hebrides, you’re sure to be spoilt for choice when it comes to buying Harris Tweed products. My top pick is Rarebird studio in Stornoway which combines a skilful blend of reassuring tradition and modern flair into each handmade Harris Tweed creation. To ensure its provenance each item carries the Rarebird Corncrake logo and Harris Tweed Orb label.

Iain Burnett Highland Chocolatier, Perthshire

For chocolate lovers, The Scottish Chocolate Centre is a must. The centre is located in Grandtully, just five miles from Aberfeldy, and is Home to the Highland Chocolatier, Iain Burnett himself, who is dedicated to chocolate and its origins. The centre also houses an enchanting, vintage style gift shop. Perfect for those last-minute purchases for family and don’t forget to but yourself a few of the centre’s award-winning dark velvet truffles to take home.

Isle of Mull Soap Co. Isle of Mull

Situated on colourful Tobermory’s Main Street, the Isle of Mull Soap Co. produces its natural soaps by hand using the traditional cold process method using the finest quality essential oils & botanicals. Psst….we hear their ‘Buzz Off’ soap is great for fighting off our wee midgie friends!

By Zoë @ McKinlay Kidd

(Featured photo taken outside Ragamuffin, Isle of Skye)