A Slice of Paradise in Shetland

Having spent the majority of my adult life living in a city I found Shetland to be one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. The shockingly beautiful and dramatic scenery really caught me by surprise and I must say that one of the highlights of my trip was St. Ninian’s Isle. I loved the contrast of a golden sandy tombolo beach followed by high jagged cliffs leading into the ocean.

After a day of exploring the north of the Shetland mainland we decided to make our way south while the weather and daylight were still on our side. As we were driving through the tiny roads of Bigton we turned a corner and all of a sudden saw this stunning view appear out of nowhere in front of us. We parked the car and made our way down to the beach. As we walked across it was amazing not only how green the water was but also how on either side of the tombolo the colours looked completely different. We continued across the beach and up the little the hill to reveal a sheer drop on the far side. One minute we could have been on a tropical beach and the next we were watching the waves crash against the jagged cliffs: it felt like we were at the edge of the world. We spent a while exploring the area whilst soaking up the fresh, salty air and enjoying the peace and quiet of our remote surroundings.

St. Ninians Isle, Shetland

Shetland in general seems to have an amazing relaxing quality about it. For my entire time there I was able to unwind and let the stresses of day to day life simply melt away. It’s a wonderful feeling to have brought home from this trip.

Words and Images from Daniela @ McKinlay Kidd.

Daniela explore Orkney and Shetland on a recent trip to get to know the island – our brand-new Complete Orkney & Shetland holiday can help you do the same thing. Get in touch and we will be delighted to arrange your Scottish island holiday. 

15 Years of McKinlay Kidd: Anniversary Interview

Recently McKinlay Kidd celebrated a very significant milestone – our 15th anniversary of seeking out locations, activities and accommodation that allow our customers to see Britain and Ireland differently. Our founders, Robert Kidd and Heather McKinlay, sat down to reflect on the journey so far.

Why did you decide to start McKinlay Kidd?

Robert – I’ve been asked this question a lot, and I give a different answer every time! It all traces back to when Heather and I first met, working for a large tour operator. By that point we had both been bitten by the travel bug – it really is the most exciting industry to be part of because you are selling unforgettable experiences to people. We always knew we wanted to run our own hospitality business and we had a really in-depth understanding of good tour operating practise. A redundancy package in 2003 gave us the opportunity to really go for it.

Heather – We always loved travelling and suggesting hidden gems and quirky places to go to our friends. The original idea was to help people experience Scotland differently, the way we have always loved to ourselves.

 

What have been your personal highlights of the last 15 years?

Heather – (Laughs) There have been far too many to mention! For me, the feeling when you discover somewhere great to stay is special. I’ll always remember a trip one February. First, we went to an incredibly remote part of Scotland called the Knoydart Peninsula, cut off from the main UK road network. We took a boat over with a walking guide and ended up scrambling 500m up in snow and ice before heading back to our cottage for the evening – only to find that it was freezing inside as well as outside! We ended up having a fantastic night around the fire and impromptu ceilidh with some other visitors but later I could hardly sleep at all as it was so bitter cold. Then – as a total contrast – we spent the next night at the luxurious Isle of Eriska, a five star hotel on a private island.  I’ll never forget unwinding – and thawing out – in a hot tub under the stars.

Robert – I love sending people to places we feel passionately about, empty beaches and little corners you’ve never heard of. We’ve also met some wonderful people over the years, both customers and business partners, who we now count as friends. But I suppose my personal highlight is the fact I am sending so many customers on holiday to Northern Ireland. As a child of the Troubles, having the opportunity to send people to my favourite parts of my beautiful home country is an amazing feeling – I still get a thrill every time we get a Northern Ireland booking.

 

How do you choose where to offer to customers?

Heather – We want people to get to places they may never have thought of before. When Robert suggested creating holidays to Shetland, I wasn’t at all convinced. Thank goodness he changed my mind – it has become one of our most beloved and popular destinations! So we always try to look at things a little differently.

Robert – When we first sent people to the Isle of Skye without cars, I was told we were crazy. But the reality was that people wanted to go! A huge part of choosing our destinations relies on finding people in the area who share our outlook and vision – a taxi driver who can become a private tour guide, for example. As a result, we have built very strong relationships with local business partners over the years.

 

What is your favourite destination that McKinlay Kidd offer?

Heather – It changes all the time!

Robert – Aside from my home country, I really love the West of Ireland. In general through, stick me on an island or an empty beach and I’ll be happy. Shetland is a personal favourite, the Scottish borders are also beautiful, Wales has a lot to offer…

Heather – You’ve just said everywhere is your favourite!

Robert –The list never ends! I suppose the best way to show our favourite destinations is actually through our new 15th anniversary holiday. Heather and I sat down with our Product Manager Chris for a few hours one day and brainstormed all of our favourite destinations and activities. We then drew these highlights together in a way that would make the trip the most enjoyable for our customers, and I have to say that I think we have succeeded.

Heather – I love places that are a bit out of the way. The Isle of Gigha in particular – my Dad is from that area and I remember writing a school project years ago about a trip to the island after a family holiday in Kintyre. Now we make a point of trying to go there once a year to sample their delicious seafood – Chris (one of McKinlay Kidd’s sales advisors) went recently and it has made us long to re-visit soon! Equally, though, I love going back to London. I grew up on the outskirts so I always get a thrill walking those familiar streets, no matter how busy.

 

What is the most important lesson you have learned in these 15 years of McKinlay Kidd?

Robert – The most important thing to us will always be our relationship with our customers. People on holiday want to have a great time, so we make sure we are with them every step of the way to offer help if it is needed. There will always be challenges – particularly from the weather in this part of the world – but we can always learn from the experience and change things for the future.

Heather – For me it is definitely to never stop trying new things. This is the foundation of the company – we weren’t following anyone else’s model when we started the business. The first time we really had to adapt was a few years in, when the economy was in a downturn. We made the decision to purchase a Jaguar E-Type to help promote our classic car trips – we had been renting until that point – and this was really successful for us the following year. We only kept the car for a couple of years, but it opened up possibilities for us. Now we offer holidays touring in a Tesla, for example.

Robert – We were the first company to do a lot of things; to offer classic car touring packages, whale-watching holidays to the Isle of Mull, to send people to three different islands on one holiday, to offer independent train touring in Scotland…the list goes on.

 

Finally, what are your plans for the next 15 years of McKinlay Kidd?

Heather – (Laughs) That’s a difficult question! The world is constantly changing – smartphones didn’t exist 15 years ago for example. I want to make sure we stay true to our values. We want to grow, but we never want to lose sight of our vision as a small company that offers real personalised service to every single customer. The more technology evolves, the more personal contact will leave other businesses – so this is more important to us than ever, as it sets us apart from the crowd.

Robert – I would say that I hope we aren’t that different in 15 years. We will offer different products, experiences and potentially some destinations outside the UK & Ireland, I don’t know. But like Heather, I want our values to remain the same, in terms of team dynamic and the services we offer. McKinlay Kidd is built on personal contact with our staff, so while technology will be helpful, people to people interaction will still be our main focus. I’m very happy with how things are, so in a way I don’t want things to change too much…though, of course, they probably will.

A Wild Day in the West of Scotland

Otters are supposedly secretive creatures but not this one! Last weekend we were sitting on our rug on the rocks enjoying peace and quiet and warm sunshine on a deserted Kintyre beach. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement, a glimpse of brown. Ah, that would be a dog, no doubt closely followed by its two-legged owner. Wrong, I realised, that’s actually a rather large dog otter padding its way across the sand! I resisted the temptation to let out a squeal from my wide-open mouth. Instead I turned to Robert beside me, nudging him and gesturing to draw his attention.

We both watched in awe as the rather ungainly creature wobbled his way to the water’s edge, then slipped sveltely into the brine, transformed into a darting swimmer. Arching his back, he dipped under, his long tail flicking behind. We rummaged for the i-phone and binoculars as silently as we could. He emerged amid the lapping seaweed, hungrily devouring a small, silver fish. Then he dipped back under, reappearing with a large crab. He was close enough for us to observe with naked eyes, hearing the crunch-crunch as his sharp teeth cracked their way into the shell. The scene repeated itself for several more minutes as we did our best to take a few snaps and short videos on the phone, albeit needing to zoom.

While our new furry friend was swimming around, we stealthily moved a little nearer. At this point we saw criss-crossing footprints all over the wet sand behind us – the creature had clearly been wandering around unbeknown to us for quite some time earlier. As good fortune would have it, the otter next popped up further to our left and hauled itself out into a barnacled rock, its shiny brown coat perfectly contrasting with the grey-white stone. Robert started filming.

Earlier the same day I had been strolling on a neighbouring beach as a pod of a dozen or so dolphins splashed their way past – just the third time in fifteen years I’d watched such a sight from these strands.

And our wildlife adventure had yet another twist to come. After the excitement of our close encounter with the otter, we settled down to enjoy the more regular birdlife: diving gannets, screeching oystercatchers, swooping gulls, darting sand martins, elegant terns and the occasional pair of adult ducks followed by a stream of cute ducklings. A grebe, with its distinctive head-dress, swam quietly past.

The tide had recently but imperceptibly turned, the sea still flat calm, a shimmering steel-blue colour. We spotted a black shape purposefully heading out to sea towards the Isle of Sanda. Our first instinct was to think it was the otter, but the swimming style was all wrong. The binoculars revealed a clear triangular fin scything through the water. Cue Jaws theme music.

However, in the West of Scotland, the only sharks are of the more benign basking kind. They prey on plankton, hoovering it up through a gaping jaw. We’ve seen them before off the Isle of Mull on one of McKinlay Kidd’s wildlife trips, but this was a first (and shortly after, a second) for us in Kintyre. Local knowledge suggests these huge mammals used to be much more numerous but have been very scarce in recent years. The sea conditions aided our chances of spotting them and perhaps the recent lengthy spell of warm and settled weather had led to an abundance of food, attracting them back to the area.

In any case, it was the perfect end to a very wild day!

Words by Heather@ McKinlayKidd. Video by Robert @McKinlayKidd

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

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)