A Quick Dip into Orkney’s Treasures

Although the April morning started with a very beautiful display of heavy snow, by the time I had finished my breakfast—at the locally owned B&B in the heart of Kirkwall—it was a sunny day once again. My hostess let me know that the weather in Orkney never stays the same: there could be snow or very heavy rain, but 5-10 minutes later the sun will come out and grace the beautiful islands once again.

A Morning stroll along Kirkwall Harbour

After my morning breakfast, I set out with a local guide to see key areas of Mainland Orkney. The Orcadian accent can be tricky at the best of times to understand (get 2 or 3 in a room together and you might not understand a word!) but thankfully she had her “posh” accent on. I was grateful for this as she had many interesting facts at each site and along the way – the kinds of stories and insights you only hear from a local. I only wish I could’ve written all of them down!

Skara Brae is not only a fascinating site, but also boasts sweeping views over the sea

The weather was a bit chilly as I got into her car to start the explorations, but overall the weather is very mild in Orkney – averaging 5 degrees Celsius in winter and 15 degrees Celsius in Summer – not a place of extremes. The first stop was Skara Brae, a prehistoric village on the west of the mainland first uncovered in the 1800s by a storm. The site is still intact and has great preservation, due to this it has often been called the “Scottish Pompeii”. There are 10 houses in total which you can walk around and look down into from above. You can see all the very ‘comfortable’ looking stone beds, and maybe one or two birds hiding from the harsh winds.

Two birds making themselves at home at Skara Brae

Due to preservation of the site, you cannot walk around inside the remains of these buildings anymore like you used to. Although at the site they do have a replica house – thankfully they made the ceilings higher to accommodate visitors as the originals were more suited to shorter people. The site is around 5000 years old, older than both Stonehenge and the pyramids, but still the houses had an indoor toilet and a primitive sewer system. 

Skaill House has Skara Brae on its doorstep, lucky them

We said farewell to Skara Brae as the weather was about to change – Orcadians can tell what the weather will be from looking out to sea at the clouds and ocean. It was just a hop skip and a jump, however, to the next location of Skaill House, which was lucky as my guide’s weather skills did not fail and rain clouds promptly enveloped the area.

The view is incredible as it overlooks Skara brae, which would’ve bumped up the value of the manor when it was discovered. The land was given to the Bishop who built a house after the previous owner was executed for treason. There is a bit of eeriness about the house, especially in the hallway, as this part was built over the sight of an old pre-Viking burial ground. Ghost stories are very prominent at this old manor, with the present laird swearing that late at night he has heard a thump thump thump of footsteps on the old wooden staircase, causing his dog to bark in fear. But upon inspection no one was in sight. This happened many times, causing the dog to hide under the bed terrified each time. These disturbances have been attributed to ‘Ubby’, a local who built an island out in Skaill Loch by rowing his boat out and dropping stones. One night when he went out on his small row boat to add more stones to his growing island, the weather changed, resulting in him being drowned. It is said the ghost of Ubby now haunts his chosen resting place of Skaill House.

Skaill House will transport you back in time with antiques and artifacts

After the chills had left my spine from the ghost stories, we went on the road once again for some more Neolithic sites. A wonderful characteristic of Orkney is the amount of Neolithic sites there are. Even on the way from one major Neolithic site to another, you could see standing stones along the road side and archaeological sites still being worked on. We arrived at the site of the Ring of Brodgar to walk around the outer ring of stones, placed around 4000 years ago. There were 60 stones originally placed, with around 30 still standing today. If you’re lucky and the area isn’t muddy, you can walk around the inner ring to get closer to the stones.

The Ring of Brodgar – 30 stones still standing after 4000 years is something to be proud of

Something that my local guide made clear at all the Neolithic sites we saw is that it is still largely unknown why and how these were built, with it still being a contemporary area of study for Orkney archaeologists, with discoveries still being made to this day. The Ring of Brodgar is thought to be an area where ceremonies took place, between the living and past communities, to communicate with ancestors. The stones all come from different parts of the island, with different communities bringing them together – possibly symbolising the different people that created the stone circle, or it could’ve even been a competition to outdo other communities for the largest and heaviest stone.

Ring of Brodgar standing stone struck by lightning

The image above shows one of the stones that was struck by lightning in 1980, causing a piece of the stone to split and fall beside. The stone still stands, mirroring the resilience of the Orkney ancestors living in such harsh conditions but still building a community that thrives.

Around a 5-minute walk from the Ring of Brodgar are the Standing Stones of Stenness, Originally a collection of 12 stones placed around 5000 years ago, only a few remain now. The stones stand 5 metres tall, towering over the stones used for the Ring of Brodgar in comparison. These stones are showered in myths, one being that at exactly midnight on New Years eve, one of the stones called “The Watchman” leaves its place to take a dip in the Stenness Loch for a wee drink. With how fresh the water of Orkney is, I cannot blame them.

The towering spectacle of The Standing Stones of Stenness

Standing next to one you wonder how they managed to complete such a task so long ago, and why they would do this. Many think the site was used in ceremonies. The Victorians believed that it was used as a beheading site – my guide told me they loved to believe that anyone that came before them were barbarians and very uncivilised. So much so that the Victorians even altered some stones to replicate a place for the beheading to take place.

Victorians altered these stones to make it look like beheading took place

In some ways it’s very lucky that these stones still stand today – a farmer in the early 1800s was annoyed at having to plough around them, so he began to demolish them, incidentally he was not a native Orcadian. He managed to topple and destroy some of the stones before there was public outcry and attempts to burn down his house. However any court action was dropped when he agreed to leave the stones alone. If you look closely at one of the stones, there is a hole where a stick of dynamite was placed but never set off, thankfully.

Waving goodbye to the Neolithic stones, we then drove onto a far more modern point of local History, the Italian Chapel. On our way, we saw a horse in a field and a rather large pony with a mask on. My guide explained that the pony was there to give company to the horse, and it was wearing a mask because it was too greedy. Some ponies will just constantly eat and make themselves ill.

Pony being punished for eating too much for its own good

Photos don’t do the Italian Chapel justice, you must visit it yourself and learn about the history and see what those that built it managed to accomplish with such little resources. It was built by Italian Prisoners of war during World War 2 for a permanent place to worship. They were given no material to work with, all they could use were recycled materials.

The Italian Chapel – an incredible display of artistry in tough times

Every detail inside, such as the stone walls, were very carefully painted to make them look 3D, it’s something you have to see to believe. One of the prisoners said it was created to show that even when trapped in a barbed wire camp, down in spirit and moral, that one can still find something inside that could be set free.

These walls may look like laid brick, but are actually a painted illusion

The art centrepiece of the chapel, was painted by a prisoner called Domenico Chiocchetti who was an artist before the war. It was based on a picture given to him by his mum that he carried throughout the war, of the Madonna and Child who holds the olive branch of peace.

The Centre of the Italian Chapel displays Mary with Jesus in her arms

As you leave the Italian Chapel there is a statue of St George slaying a dragon. Remarkably this is made from barbed wire and concrete. The statue represents good triumphing over evil.

St George – the patron saint for all soldiers – slaying a dragon

I enjoyed my day experiencing the main sites of Orkney through the eyes of a local, they brought it to life with their lesser-known stories and insights. There is still much more I wish to see and do in Orkney, with the rocky landscape of Hoy calling my name the loudest.

Words & Images by Jonathan @ McKinlay Kidd

McKinlay Kidd offer a number of holidays to Orkney, including self-drive, public transport and small group guided tours.

If you’re interested in a guided experience, why not book a space on our North Highlands and Orkney Guided Rail Tour? If you’d prefer to travel self-guided and car-free, we have options including our Far North Line to Orkney trip. Do let us know if you’d like to include Orkney as part of a tailor-made Scotland tour. Visit our website for more holiday inspiration.

The Flaggy Shore – Clare and Inis Mor

A few months ago, my father told me he’d received an invitation to County Clare. He’d reread Postscript by Seamus Heaney, a truly moving reflection on this exceptional corner of Ireland. I was lucky enough to be on my own journey to Clare and onwards to Galway shortly after we spoke, the poem tucked into my notebook and excited – I’ve been lucky enough to explore a lot of Ireland but Clare and Galway were still on my list.

Doonagore Castle on the Wild Atlantic Way

As an avid user of public transport at home and when travelling, I arrived into Dublin and after a short stroll in Phoenix Park, was off on the train to Ennis, the county town of Clare. Known as the centre of Ireland’s traditional music scene I was incredibly lucky to be visiting during Trad Fest and as I explored the town, snatches of sessions drifted out of every pub doorway – it was hard to pick a spot to settle and enjoy some music along with a perfect half pint of Guinness.

Looking for a spot to enjoy a drink and trad session

After a very comfortable evening, I was up early the next day to meet my tour guide Trevor, for a tour-transfer through the Burren up to Ballyvaughan where I had picked a spot for chowder before travelling up to Galway later that afternoon.

First, we set off towards the Cliffs of Moher, a must for any visitor to Clare. Well maintained and invested in by the Irish government with facilities appropriate to the 1.5 million visits every year, there is still not much that can prepare you for the view – an almost surreal experience. Had I more time I would have done some of the coastal walk, but it was time for us to venture deeper into the Burren.

Gazing out onto the Cliffs of Moher

Heaney’s words came to life as I struggled to decide which way to look – out to the ocean on one side or the magnificent karst landscape of the Burren on the other? My visit was in November, a favourite time of the year for me as I adore the low winter sun but I resolved return in the summer, to learn more about the unique wildlife and flora within.

After an incredibly enjoyable few hours I enjoyed a late lunch in Ballyvaughan with a view of the Atlantic in front of me before travelling up to the city of Galway. I was instantly charmed – the medieval quarter with its shops, bars and restaurants was an appealing place to while away a few hours before some fresh scampi, chips and a local beer, before heading back to my harbourside hotel.

The contrasting limestone landscape of Inis Mor

The next morning I was up bright and early for another highlight of this trip – a day trip to Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands and at the time of my visit having become suddenly very well known, having been used as one of the filming locations for The Banshees of Inisherin.

In the summer time, a ferry goes to Inis Mor from right by my Galway city hotel, but in November I was to hop on a bus up to Rossaveel where I caught glimpses of the wilds of Connemara before catching the ferry, where we were joined by a pod of dolphins as we crossed, thrilling as my first ever sighting!

Aran Islands Knitwear

On arrival I was met by a local guide, a native Irish speaker who had lived on the island most of his life. I was most grateful for his company as we crossed another flaggy shore to Poll na bPéist – The Wormhole, a naturally formed and almost perfectly rectangular pool, surrounded by the tall waves of the north Atlantic – essential to have an experienced guide on hand to keep you right!

Poll na bPéist – The Wormhole

We explored the island as my guide shared stories of the island and its people and history. Farming has been a huge part of the island’s history, the stone wall patchwork of the island a constant reminder. Whilst around 800 people live on the island, much of the island is still completely untouched and has no electricity or water supply, and belongs to nature alone.

My day went in quickly, enjoying my tour, an obligatory Irish stew in Kilmurvey in a traditional thatched cottage, followed by a walk up the cliffs of Dun Aengus by myself, an easy walk and a welcome opportunity to reflect on this special island before retracing my steps back to Galway city by ferry and bus as dusk fell, before a train back to Dublin to begin my way home the following day.

Meeting the friendly locals on Inis Mor

Inis Mor and Clare had given me a taste of Ireland I hadn’t yet experienced, with these differing scales of distinctive landscape made up of ancient limestone contrasting beautifully with my experiences of Cork and Kerry but as always, with that special essence of Irish hospitality and spirit.

My experience in Clare and Galway was made all the more memorable by the talent and passion of the guides I met, a perfect harmony of the environmental benefits of car-free travel marrying with the social and ethical benefits of supporting local tourism. I’ll have to borrow Heaney’s summation to conclude how I felt after this experience, which caught “the heart off guard, and blow it open.”

Words & Images by Caoimhe @ McKinlay Kidd

McKinlay Kidd offer a number of car-free holidays to Ireland – why not check out our Explore Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way Car-Free trip or take your time on our three-week Slowly Through Ireland by Train holiday? Or, if you’d prefer a fully escorted experience in the company of a knowledgeable guide, discover our Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way Guided Rail Tour. Visit our website for more holiday inspiration.

Travel Awards 2023 Winners

We are proud to announce our team has won “Best Specialist Tour Operator” in The Telegraph Travel Awards 2023! Some 27,000 readers voted overall, with the award decided based on their opinions and not the number of votes. We want to thank our customers who took the time to put us forward for such an acclaimed award, as well as our business partners who play such an important role in delivering our fantastic holidays.

This high standard is one we pride ourselves on and one we aim to maintain as we continue to deliver self-guided road trips and rail holidays, as well as small group guided tours, made differently in the UK & Ireland.

“It’s rare for a high-end tour operator to make a success of itself by concentrating on the British Isles, but that is exactly what McKinlay Kidd has managed to do. It holds our top spot for the second time in the last six years, having won previously in 2017… Readers who want to do a British holiday in style while being supremely well looked after have clearly found what they were searching for.”

Nick Trend, The Telegraph

If you’re looking for a 2023 getaway or planning ahead for 2024, you can speak to our expert team on 0141 260 9260 or email us at [email protected]. Visit our website for more holiday inspiration.

Finding Serenity in Shetland

Boarding the small Loganair plane, the excitement for my mini fly-drive visit to Shetland really kicked in. Surprisingly, despite being the northernmost region of the UK, the flight was only 1 hour 10 mins from Glasgow. I got to enjoy amazing views as the plane landed at Sumburgh on the southern end of the mainland – dramatic cliffs, greenery and glorious sunshine awaiting me.

Sumburgh Head Lighthouse

Taking advantage of being in the south, I drove the short distance to Sumburgh Head, crossing over the small airport runway on my way. The cliffs here are ideal for birdwatching with chances to see puffins (in the summer months) and is also home to Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Shetland, built in 1819. After spending some time exploring the area, I then set off for the archaeological site of Jarlshof – a series of settlements dating from the neolithic period, the iron age and Viking times. It really was like taking a step back in time, with this picturesque site greatly enhanced by the backdrop of hills, white sandy beaches and vibrant blue skies.

Enjoy fresh home baking from the Original Cake Fridge

The next morning was very foggy, making for an atmospheric and eerily quiet drive to East Burrafirth. I wanted to see the Original Cake Fridge on my way to Aith and was surprised to be met with the biggest ‘honesty box’ I’ve ever seen. Full of freshly made cakes and bakes, this honesty fridge is open 24/7 and restocked daily. Reaching Aith Marina, I boarded the boat with a local guide to get a feel for the dramatic scenery of the west coast of the mainland. Passing Papa Little and Vementry, we made our way up to the tip of Stenness, before heading over to the rare sight of the Ve Skerries as the weather was so favourable.

The Drongs Sea Stack

The Ve Skerries are a group of rocky islands three miles north of Papa Stour, notoriously dangerous to passing ships with many shipwrecks taking place over the years. Although, the sombre atmosphere didn’t seem to put off the herd of seals sunbathing on the rocks. Next, we disembarked at Papa Stour to have a look at the hidden gem archaeological sites and wander round the island which is home to fewer than a dozen people. I even ended up in one of the locals houses for a cuppa!

Sheep being herded off St Ninian’s Isle

On the way back to the airport I took the opportunity to visit the small town of Scalloway as well as the beautiful St Ninian’s Isle. I had to wait to get into the small carpark as there was a huge herd of sheep getting ushered off the beach – such an amusing sight to round off my trip. I’m keen to visit Shetland again in the future and see more of this fantastic part of Scotland, especially the islands like Yell and Unst.

Words & Images by Keira @ McKinlay Kidd

McKinlay Kidd offer a number of holidays to Shetland, including fly-drive, self-drive and small group guided tours.

If you’re interested in an escorted experience, why not reserve your place on our Orkney & Shetland Guided Small Group Tour. If you’d prefer the chance to get right under the skin of the Shetland Islands at your leisure, check out our longer self-guided See Shetland Differently holiday or combine your time with the neighbouring Orkney Islands on our Complete Orkney & Shetland trip.

Over to Orkney

As the short Loganair flight from Glasgow to Kirkwall began its approach to Orkney, I had the pleasure of viewing the stunning scenery that was waiting for me. I could relax in the peace and calm of the off-season before the warm weather kicks in, with a gentle blanket of snow on the ground.

The coastline was beautiful, with an abundance of farmland across the flatness of the landscape – quite a contrast to the different, more rugged feel of Shetland.

My first stop was the centre of Kirkwall itself, where I enjoyed spending a bit of time exploring what the town had to offer. There’s a wonderful variety of independent, local businesses – from vibrant cafes and restaurants to shops for jewellery and art.

Loganair plane waiting on the runway

Up bright and early the next day, where I was really looking forward to my tour with a local expert guide, who would take me through a selection of the fascinating sites on the island. The Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and the Italian Chapel – all of them capturing the imagination, with my guide bringing the history into vivid life.

The Orkney Museum is also well worth visiting, to get a better understanding of the rich history of the islands. From the Stone Age to the Picts and invading Vikings and on to the present day; with accompanying details and videos to create an immersive experience.

You can also find great examples of Orkney Chairs here. These traditional pieces of furniture are unique to the islands and an instantly recognisable part of Orkney’s identity. Centuries ago, these were crafted using driftwood collected from the shores and, in the present day, the tradition continues, although with a modern twist.

A collection of Orkney chairs in Orkney Museum

After taking the time to get under the skin of the mainland, it was time to head to South Ronaldsay. To do this I drove across the Churchill Barriers, originally built during World War II, as a defensive measure to prevent enemy ships and submarines from entering Scapa Flow, they also link the two smaller islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm.

Then it was on to the ferry to the wildlife watchers’ haven of Westray, where I was to meet another local guide to take me around the island. Across enchanting beaches and captivating castles, they regaled me with tales of Orkney history. On a more modern note, we saw the Take-off strip of Papa Westray, sadly I couldn’t fit in the flight which lands here that some of our customers choose to include. The flight only takes a total of 90 seconds! No in-flight meal on that one.

Seals enjoying a rest on the shore
Stopping off to check out the beautiful coastline

Finally, it was onto the ancient village of Birsay, a peaceful place with honesty boxes full of fantastic local produce dotted around. With almost all of the land in this parish devoted to agriculture, it’s lush with green farmland and happily grazing cattle. Birsay boasts several monuments, including the 16th century Earl’s Palace. Although only the ruins now remain, it’s easy to be transported back to the times when it was in its full grandeur.

Just a stone’s throw away is St Magnus Church which, though first established in 1064, has been continually refurbished throughout the years. The simple minimalism of its hushed interior is deeply calming, with its three stained glass windows providing a dramatic contrast.

It was the perfect location to reflect on my first visit to magical Orkney, with a return journey already in mind.

St Magnus Church, Birsay

Words & Images by Linsay @ McKinlay Kidd.

McKinlay Kidd offer a number of holidays to Orkney, including self-drive, public transport and small group guided tours.

If you’re interested in a guided experience, why not book a space on our North Highlands and Orkney Guided Rail Tour? Perhaps the world’s shortest flight has taken your fancy – you can experience this for yourself on the Orkney Experience holiday or, if you’d prefer to travel car-free, we have options including our Far North Line to Orkney trip. Do let us know if you’d like to include Orkney as part of a tailor-made Scotland tour. Visit our website for more holiday inspiration.

Traditional Music in Ennis, County Clare

Here we are in the County Clare, it’s a long, long way from here to there.
Flutes and fiddles everywhere.
If it’s music you want, you should go to Clare.

‘Lisdoonvarna’ by Christy Moore, 1984

It would be fair to say that the town of Ennis in Co Clare is not the first destination anyone thinks of when planning a holiday to Ireland. This little county town on the River Fergus, 40km north west of Limerick and around a 30-minute drive from the wild Atlantic coast is somewhat off the traditional tourist trail, but at McKinlay Kidd we love it as it has an atmosphere all its own. By some it is regarded as the very epi-centre of Irish traditional music.

There’s a commitment to upholding the legacy of ‘trad’ here, though there’s a lightness of touch that comes only when that tradition is simply a normal part of everyday life. Reverence exists, of course, but there’s little sign of stuffiness, and no stiff collars.

Sometimes it seems that musicians are the more common breed here; there’s a constant flow of youngsters attending competitions for every instrument from tin whistle to harmonica, fiddle to flute and concertina to harp and all points in-between. Compete in the town heats, move on to the county rounds and make your bid for the All-Ireland championships. It’s not uncommon to find All-Ireland champion players in the corner of a bar ‘leaning in’ to The Connaughtman’s Rambles or Drowsy Maggie.

Cooley’s House, pub in Ennis

On most evenings in Spring and Summer, it can be more difficult to find a pub from which the strains of Paddy McGintys Goat don’t emanate. Perhaps from a group of just three musicians – fiddle, flute and concertina, for example – or a larger ensemble including multiple fiddles, uilleann pipes, bouzouki and even full-size harp.

A favourite ‘tune’ (the colloquialism for a live music session) takes place at Considine’s Bar (known locally as Fafa’s – most pubs have a nickname, for some reason). ‘Piping Heaven, Piping Hell’ is hosted by uilleann pipe legend Blackie O’Connell, and features pipe players young and old from all over Clare, alongside bouzouki maestro Cyril O’Donoghue. The sound of eight sets of pipes belting out Spike Island Lassies seems to make the creamy Guinness go down even better.

Sit back and enjoy a pint of Guinness in a characterful pub

Perhaps pop into PJ Kelly’s where some of the very best of Clare’s musicians often gather, sometimes with Geraldine Cotter on piano, her brother Eamonn on flute, Jack Talty on concertina and Meadhbh Hendrie on fiddle, as well as an ever-changing mix of players from all over the county. It’s a relaxed affair; a few reels and an air or two, then maybe 10 minutes of chat. This is a social outing as much as a ‘tune’, the musicians’ way of communicating their day-to-day, their family lives and stories of the week, all over a pint or two, of course.

And one of the best things about all of this, is that everyone is welcome and no tickets are required. Indeed, Ennis is consistently voted ‘Ireland’s Friendliest Town’, so be aware that strangers will bid you ‘good morning’ or ‘how’re ye?’ in the street unprompted, and foreign accents in bars invite questions and curiosity.

Away from music (if that’s even possible here) Ennis features a stunning 19th-century cathedral filled with superb art and a wonderful pipe organ, as well as a 13th-century friary. There’s a pleasingly independent feel to the extensive shopping, with few recognisable names, including several excellent bookshops and a ramshackle antique shop or two.

Take a wander up O’Connell Street, the monument overseeing all, lined with shops of all kinds, great coffee bars and one or two excellent pubs (of course) then maybe stop by The Town Hall bistro for lunch of chunky seafood chowder and just-baked local bread. Ennis is a fine base from which to explore wider Co Clare, too, with the mystical landscape of the Burren, the soaring Cliffs of Moher and the superb beaches at Lahinch and Spanish Point all within easy reach.

Trad music session in Fafa’s

And I have something of a confession to make; this music-obsessed Glasgow boy met and fell in love with an Ennis musician, got married here in 2016 and moved here permanently in 2022. Having been visiting since 2011, the transition to full-time Ennis life has been a challenge, soothed in large part by the welcome afforded every visitor, and the incredible, authentic, joyous music that seems to vibrate from every corner of town.

Words & Images by Chris Hendrie

McKinlay Kidd offer a number of holidays to Ireland, including self-drive, public transport and small group guided tours. Why not check out our Grand Tour of Ireland by Train to experience the best of the Emerald Isle? Our Wild Atlantic Way Guided Rail Tour also features an extensive trad music session in Ennis where you can discover the quirks and lore of traditional music and dance for yourself.

Do let us know if you’d like to include Ennis as part of a tailor-made Ireland tour. Visit our website for more holiday inspiration.

Make Time for Greenwich

London is a city of never-ending discovery. My favourite corner is the historic area of Greenwich, on the River Thames and only ten minutes by train from London Bridge. You won’t find it on the tube map, although it is a stop on the Docklands Light Railway. One of the most enjoyable ways to arrive is by boat – the Thames Clipper runs a scheduled service from various piers in central London.

Embarking from the river bus, you are instantly confronted with the choice of left or right, the tall rigging of the Cutty Sark enticing you towards it. But let’s start our virtual tour by heading left. Walk along the Thames Path, past the Christopher Wren-designed symmetrical domes of the Old Royal Naval College, now the study home for students of Greenwich University.

The Cutty Sark

If the tide is low, look out for jagged wooden prongs poking up through sandy mud – remnants of an ancient jetty. The Naval College was built on the site of the once grand Palace of Placentia – a favourite residence of Tudor Kings and Queens. Barely a trace remains unless you fancy mud-larking in search of hand-made bricks and old clay pipes, but enter through the gates to the grounds of the college and you will find a paving stone confirming that this was indeed the birthplace of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.

You need to dig a little deeper into history to uncover that Henry VIII despatched from here his second wife, Anne Boleyn, on her final journey by barge to the Tower of London, where she would lose her head. This was also the spot where Britain’s great naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson, made his final landing- his body shipped here to lay in state in the Painted Hall after his demise at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Continue a little further and you reach the bow-fronted, peach-coloured Trafalgar Tavern, a lively hostelry where outdoor tables line the railings and revellers queue up for a spot in the sun. The views down the river stretch to the O2, the dome built to mark the Millennium, now one of London’s most vibrant music and live performance venues.

Trafalgar Tavern

Take a refreshment or two while letting your mind wander to days gone by. The leading politicians of the Victorian eras would mingle at the Trafalgar over a whitebait supper while Charles Dickens would also linger here.

Next head away from the river and cross the main thoroughfare. In front of you is the striking classical Queen’s House. Commissioned by James I of England and dating from the early 17th century, Inigo Jones’ design is the earliest example of this architectural style in England. The colonnades stretching to the right lead you to the National Maritime Museum – it’s free to enter so worth a dawdle through the main exhibition halls and do seek out Turner’s painting of the Battle of Trafalgar. Rolling special exhibitions usually merit the splashing of a little cash if the subject appeals.

Timepiece in the Royal Observatory Museum

Now enter Greenwich Park, one of London’s smaller royal parks but nevertheless a welcoming expanse of greenery and tranquillity. Even on a busy summer’s afternoon, there’s space for everyone with vast open skies freeing you from city crowds. Clamber up the hill to the Royal Observatory. Here you genuinely are at the centre of the world, 0 degrees longitude and the birthplace of Greenwich Mean Time. Exhibitions inside relate the history of early astronomy and the importance of measuring time accurately to enable navigation of the high seas.

Gaze back across the river to the skyscrapers of the modern world at Canary Wharf – a captivating view of London. Exit the park onto King William Walk, where plenty of pubs vie for your custom. Navigate the busy traffic and duck through one of the alleyways into Greenwich Market. Depending on the day of the week, you may find art or antiques, crafts or clothing. Various street food stalls add a global flavour while an array of independent shops frames the stalls.

Leaving the market, it’s time to face up to The Cutty Sark, once the fastest ship in the world, a tea clipper at the forefront of the development of international trade. You can visit aboard for a small fee – admire the world’s largest collection of figureheads, take afternoon tea on the lower deck or even climb the rigging if you have a serious sense of adventure. In any case admire its restored grandeur from the outside, seeking that perfect angle for your photo.

Looking across to the Cutty Sark

If your hunger for history is sated, but the pangs are there in your stomach, head a little further along the Thames Path, this time towards the centre of London. Here you’ll find a couple of modern bar/ restaurants – The Sail Loft and the Oyster Catcher. Both have views out across the river, an ideal location to take the weight off your feet and reward yourself with your preferred refreshment.

But if you still have energy to spare and a thirst for something more quirky, investigate the rotunda between the Cutty Sark and the river. This is the entrance to a foot tunnel under The Thames, dating back to 1902 and still used by both visitors and commuters. Walk through the tunnel to Island Gardens then buy a ticket and hop aboard the DLR for the short trip back to Cutty Sark or Greenwich station.

That’s more than enough for one day!

Words & Images by Heather @ McKinlay Kidd.

London is the perfect destination for a stop-off en-route to or from your McKinlay Kidd holiday. We offer a number of self-drive, public transport and escorted small group rail tours in England. For more information, or for a tailor-made proposal, visit our website.

Tips for UK & Ireland Rail Touring

Leaving the car behind is an increasingly popular way to travel around Great Britain and Ireland. It’s a responsible, lower carbon way to go and thus tipped as a big trend. For McKinlay Kidd, designing holidays based around rail touring began way back in the mid-2000s. We started by offering short breaks featuring a return trip on the Jacobite Express Steam Train. Then it dawned on us that the service could be used as part of a tour. The excursion starts from Fort William and chugs passengers through the drama of the Scottish Highlands to the fishing port of Mallaig, the departure point for the ferry over the sea to Skye. So why not extend the trip to include the misty isle of legend and romance?

Take the ferry from Mallaig over to the Isle of Skye

At first, some local accommodation owners and managers thought the idea of depositing customers with them without their own transport was rather odd. We soon overcame this by adding in private or small group day tours or the option of car hire to ensure McKinlay Kidd customers got to see the length and breadth of the Isle of Skye.

Soon, we created rail tours ranging from a week’s exploration to fortnight-long grand tours. Initial feedback from visitors showed how enjoyable such a trip could be, simply using regular service trains. UK customers reported on the joyful relaxation of meandering trips, sometimes reaching areas otherwise inaccessible by car, such as the great wildernesses of Rannoch Moor and Scotland’s Flow Country. Overseas visitors rejoiced at not needing to manoeuvre an unfamiliar small car along narrow and twisty country roads. They also appreciated the chance to interact aboard trains with fellow passengers, often locals going about their regular daily lives.

Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast

At McKinlay Kidd, it has long been part of our ethos to ensure we feature not only the in-demand holiday highlights but also seek out places and experiences away from the beaten path. This means helping you to travel beyond the end of the rail-line. Skye is not the only island we bring into reach. Take the slow journey from Inverness on the Far North Line to hop over to the Orkney Islands. Travel by train to Penzance then onward by plane to the Isles of Scilly. Journey by train from Dublin to the West of Ireland then explore the Wild Atlantic Way with a local guide and spend a day on the Aran Islands. We love carrying out the detailed research, pairing rail journeys with characterful locally-owned accommodation, providing taxi transfers and locally-guided tours to ensure a carefree trip.

If you are seeking a little luxury, consider indulging in a break featuring the Caledonian Sleeper and top-notch accommodation. It’s a unique feeling to depart London at night and open your eyes the following morning to the wonder of the mountains and lochs of the Highlands.

Orkney’s Italian Chapel

We spend hours meticulously planning such holidays so they run like clockwork. It’s the reason why we have built such a strong reputation for self-guided rail tours, long before they became tipped as a burgeoning trend. It’s also why we launched a range of fully-escorted small group rail tours in 2019. Spend a week in the company of like-minded travellers discovering the history and legends of Scotland or Ireland, featuring highly-memorable train journeys along the way. You’ll be looked after throughout by McKinlay Kidd’s tour guide who will keep you on track while regaling you with fascinating stories and insights.

If you’re considering a tailormade rail tour or joining a group tour, these are our tips for before, during and after:

Before:

  • Do book with a bonded tour operator to make sure your trip is financially-protected. And check the flexibility policy – McKinlay Kidd offers a free change up to eight weeks in advance of departure, plus a value for money guarantee.
  • Review the detail of the itinerary to see how much rail travel is included. Of course, some days will be spent in vehicles with guides in order to reach the spots worth seeing beyond the end of the rail-line. However, this shouldn’t mean you spend most of your trip aboard a coach.
  • Check out past independent reviews of the operator and the trips. Do they have a long-standing reputation for organising and running such trips?
  • When you enquire, let the operator know of any special requests or ways in which they can tailor-make the trip for you so that these can be incorporated from the outset.
Enjoy the views from The Jacobite Steam Train

During:

  • Pack lightly – space is limited aboard trains for storage of baggage and few stations offer porterage so make sure you can carry your own luggage on and off the trains and for short distances.
  • Bring some supplies aboard for the longer journeys – catering is not always reliably provided by the rail companies.
  • Don’t worry too much about which side of the train you are sitting on – longer journeys will feature much of interest on either side.
  • Do engage with other passengers – this can be a rewarding way to learn more about local life and add some fresh perspective to your trip.
  • Stay two or three nights at each destination – space your travel days with the chance to explore the local area. We provide plenty of tips for walks or local excursions that don’t need you to drive.
  • If you have booked with McKinlay Kidd, enjoy the reassurance that we are contactable 24/7 during your trip. If plans are disrupted at all, that’s not your problem – it’s ours.
Travel along Scotland’s West Highland Line

After:

  • Give yourself credit for choosing to travel in a sustainable and responsible manner.
  • Provide feedback on your trip. At McKinlay Kidd, we act upon information from our customers to review and improve all we do.
  • Share the delights of UK & Ireland train touring with your friends and family and encourage them to leave the car behind for a carefree future holiday.
  • Start planning your next adventure by rail – and beyond.

Words by Heather McKinlay

On Holiday with Paralympic Champions Lora & Neil Fachie

From experience, we’ve found that having something independent from our Paralympic Games performances to look forward to allows us to get the most out of ourselves in competition. Before, when the Tokyo Paralympics were still to be held in 2020, we booked a three week adventure to Canada. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. When Tokyo was finally confirmed for 2021, covid was still a risk and there were many travel restrictions in place. We still wanted an epic adventure, just one much closer to home.

We’d heard the Hebrides and Scottish Highlands were beautiful and seemed like the ideal place to go – cue me going into a planning frenzy where, for a couple of weeks, I engrossed myself in research. I became so obsessed that it was all I could talk about before deciding it would be far easier letting someone else do all the hard work for us. We could just sit back and enjoy the anticipation – thank you McKinlay Kidd!

Barra runway – AKA the beach!

The holiday lasted just over two weeks, spanning several islands and incorporating a small detour up Ben Nevis. Both of us are visually impaired and unable to drive so are completely reliant on public transport and taxis; fortunately, McKinlay Kidd specialise in car-free holiday itineraries. Our trip started with an epic flight from Glasgow to Barra, the furthest south-west Island of the Outer Hebrides, where the airport runway is the beach and the luggage reclaim is a bus shelter. We asked for unique experiences and this was certainly one!

We stayed at a warm and welcoming hotel and were given a fantastic tour of the island by a very friendly and knowledgeable guide – all organised for us by McKinlay Kidd. We enjoyed the place so much – the fact that it was so far away from the crowds but still had everything you could possibly need made us fantasize about living there (even going so far as to look up local house prices!)

After two nights, we caught our first ferry over to Eriskay. We were driven by taxi to North Uist and the family-run hotel here had a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Fishing is a main attraction here, but there are also some lovely walks to be found. We enjoyed the scenery and superb food, especially the vast array of cakes.

Enjoying fresh seafood with a view

Our third island was Harris, our favourite island of the trip. Mountains, beaches, rocks, sea and lochs – this island has the lot. It’s also home to one of the best gins I’ve sampled (and hopefully whisky soon as well). We could’ve stayed longer on beautiful Harris but we will definitely come back. Next stop was Skye where we had three nights in Portree, the biggest village on the Island. Our tour here was conducted by a thoroughly-entertaining local who regaled us with stories, facts, and taught us some Gaelic along the way. His catch phrase, “Living the dream”, will be used by us both to spark happy memories for a long time to come.

Waterfall on the Isle of Skye

After Skye, we caught the ferry back to the mainland at Mallaig and boarded the famous Jacobite/Harry Potter steam train across to Fort William. The next day, it was with some trepidation that we set off for Ben Nevis very early in the morning, laden with packed breakfast and lunch from the hotel. Our taxi driver certainly thought we were mad given the rain. However, something miraculous happened as we arrived at the visitor centre to meet our guide – the rain stopped falling. We managed to stay pretty much dry for the four-and-a-half hours it took us to reach the summit. The sense of achievement was immense.

Neil & Lora Fachie conquer Ben Nevis

Returning to the family-run hotel in Spean Bridge for the evening to rest up, dry out and refuel was perfect. This was our favourite hotel of the trip. It was so unassumingly welcoming and cozy, like staying in someone’s house, and the food was superb. Luckily, the following day of travel to Islay allowed us to rest our sore and tired legs. Arriving late meant that we didn’t really get to appreciate this island properly until the following morning but the wait was worth it. So was the whisky. I’m not a fan of whisky but Neil is, so we tasked our tour guide with finding me a whisky I’d like. Thankfully, he didn’t disappoint as he took us to Bunnahabhain Distillery for a warehouse tasting – a fun experience and, yes, we did find a dram I liked!

The rest of the day was spent touring the island, stopping in at a couple of other distilleries and visiting a few landmarks en-route. What we thought would be our final full day in Islay was spent strolling along the coast, enjoying the atmosphere and the sun. Due to the weather the following day, our flight home was cancelled. Thankfully though, we were well looked after so this wasn’t a big deal and gave us more time to sample a few extra whiskys!

Enjoying the whisky in Islay

All in all, this was a fantastic experience, leaving us with memories to treasure and a love for the Western Isles that will, no doubt, draw us back in the future. Everywhere we went the people were kind, generous and incredibly proud of their heritage. The food—especially the abundance of fresh seafood—was delicious and even the rain didn’t dampen our spirits or our love of the trip. We are already considering when our next visit might be.

Words & Images by Lora Fachie

If Lora and Neil’s trip has inspired you to visit Scotland or discover Scottish Island Hopping, do get in touch with us and we’d be happy to create a tailor-made proposal for you.

Reflections on Summer 2021

Are we there yet? That over-used phrase of kids on long journeys, bursting with hope yet irritatingly impatient, feels pertinent just now. At McKinlay Kidd we are nearing the end of a very busy summer and autumn season. But no-one is quite prepared to proclaim that we are definitely there yet when it comes to Covid.

Since we started McKinlay Kidd in 2003, we’ve always believed in helping people to venture off the beaten track, even within their own country. This has provided us with solid foundations despite these turbulent times.

Uig, Isle of Lewis

We are hugely grateful to those customers willing and able to travel with us in 2021, whether on one of our small group guided tours or a tailor-made holiday within the UK & Ireland, whether for the first time or the tenth time.

Customer photo by Helen

We had an amazing time and the route and accommodation you planned for us were perfect

Helen, UK – Tailor-made Scottish Honeymoon

We organised trips for as many people this year as we did as recently as 2018, which is remarkable given the restrictions on inbound international travel. Recently we’ve celebrated the arrival of our first intrepid visitors from overseas, prepared to navigate the forms and testing that may yet be with us for some time to come. Thankfully the guidance, systems and costs are becoming more transparent – and therefore more manageable – by the day.

Customer photo by Tricia

I can’t get over how jam packed this tour was and still it was really well organised and thought out… I’ve come to expect very little when travelling but this was never the case with you guys, I was always included

Tricia, Tampa, USA – Loch Ness, The Jacobite & Skye Guided Rail Tour

We also wish to thank sincerely those customers, both in the UK and around the world, who have stood by us with credit in place for a future trip, sometimes having had to reschedule several times. Rest assured, we are here to help. Just get in touch when you are ready to confirm your travel dates. Interest is high already for May and June 2022, especially in the remoter destinations such as the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, the popular spots such as Devon, Cornwall & Scilly and for rail touring trips. So if you have plans forming for your trip to Scotland, Ireland, England or Wales, do get in touch sooner rather than later – call us or email [email protected].

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Your holiday matters to us as much as it does to you. As a fully-bonded tour operator, we provide 24/7 back-up during your trip and your money is financially protected. We like to think we do the hard work so you don’t have to – leaving you free to enjoy your precious time away.

We are a small, personal company – my name and my wife’s name are ‘on the tin’. Back in March 2020, I wrote about the business origins and how determined we were to come through the pandemic. At the time we anticipated weeks of disruption, unknowing that it would last so long. Are we close to being there yet? Let’s hope so.

2021 has been rather consuming but the time has now come for us to turn our attention positively to next year. We will soon share new ideas and new trips to inspire you alongside established favourites. We look forward to welcoming you back on a McKinlay Kidd trip when the time is right for you in 2022 or beyond.

Words by Robert @McKinlayKidd