Exploring Northumberland – hills and castles!

I may be a little biased as I have lived in Northern England all my life, but I have truly enjoyed researching holidays for McKinlay Kidd on my own stomping ground. I thought I knew my home area fairly well but have made some amazing discoveries and continue to be very impressed with the quality of accommodation and experiences on offer. The overriding feeling from all of my encounters in Northumberland has been the friendliness of the people I have met, who are all so passionate about their surroundings and all they have to offer.

Being Northumbrian by birth, I have always adored the dramatic countryside, the stark contrasts, the often wild weather and the endless opportunities for a good walk, safe in the knowledge that you won’t bump into many people! Whatever the time of year you will find a spot you can call your own, perhaps to enjoy a peaceful picnic with a superb view, interrupted only by birdsong.

In the north-west, the Cheviot Hills offer an inviting wilderness of hidden valleys, waterfalls, endless heather moorland and copious remains of Bronze Age activity, with hill forts, standing stones and cup and ring marked carvings scattered throughout the area. You really can get away from it all in the most sparsely populated of all the English counties. Pack waterproofs and sunglasses and prepare to enjoy four seasons in one day. If you prefer to enjoy the great outdoors from the comfort of your car then North Northumberland’s roads offer fantastic drives, criss-crossing the county with superb views in all directions. The roads are incredibly quiet and a joy to explore. I discovered some routes I had never been on before and loved seeing the new views of the hills from different directions. There are plenty of great pubs for lunch, too.

Northumberland has more castles than any other county with over 70 sites; I must have visited nearly all of them. Being the most northerly county of England the area was continually fought over by the ruling powers of England and Scotland, resulting in grand fortifications as Bamburgh and Alnwick, which remain intact and still lived in today. My favourite castle is the ruin of Dunstanburgh, dramatically perched on a headland overlooking Embleton Bay. There’s an easy walk from Craster village along the foreshore (and back to enjoy a crab sandwich in the pub for lunch) or continue to Embleton and Newton further north for a proper hike. The views are incredible from both directions. A close second favourite of mine is Warkworth, a solid structure towering above the delightful village of the same name, on a bend in the River Coquet, one mile inland from the sea.  It’s a ruin but a substantial one, accessed by a drawbridge and surrounded by a moat.

As well as the royal castles, the locals certainly added to the battle-torn countryside of Northumberland with many fortified houses and peel towers to guard against raids from each other. The Border Reivers from both England and Scotland scraped a living from the land from the 13th to 17th centuries: there was a certain amount of lawlessness and basically it was survival of the fittest. There are numerous ruins and dozens of stories from this era. One saying I remember on reading about a quarrel over sheep rustling which resulted in a murder was “his heid span alang the heather like an inion”. Fortunately, such tough times are well behind us!

by Anna Skelton, who has been helping us plan and prepare our new programme of holidays to the North of England.

 

The Spirit of Scotland

Yesterday I attended the launch of VisitScotland’s new marketing campaign – the Spirit of Scotland.  The national tourist board have produced a series of impressive short films designed to bring this rather intangible concept to life, with portraits of real people, who encapsulate the values of #ScotSpirit: warmth, guts, humour, determination, soul, spark, fun.

It’s a major challenge to create a campaign which can appeal to every market across the world, but I think they have made a great attempt, trying to go beyond the cliché.

At McKinlay Kidd, we strive to achieve this too  – helping our customers to explore beyond the obvious and to uncover the true essence  – the spirit, if you like – of the places they visit.

Many of our visitors to Scotland include a trip on the Jacobite steam train, so I particularly enjoyed the film made about one of the engine drivers.

Do let us know what you think. And if it puts you in the mood for a trip to Scotland, please just get in touch!

Going back to my roots

Heather McKinlay in search of family roots and food on the Hebridean island of Tiree.

It’s a strange feeling when you have never been somewhere before, but you know a part of you is “from” there: my great, great grandfather was born on Tiree in 1810.

The plane from Glasgow was delayed somewhat – low cloud over the island meant it was after three when we first set foot.  So the search was on for a late lunch.  We suspected this might be challenging here on this most westerly of windswept outposts.

The hotel in Scarinish had stopped serving at 2.30pm.  The enticing Sam’s Seafood Van across the road claimed to offer all day fare, but the shutters were resolutely pulled down.  We headed back out of town, following signs to “Chocolate and Charms”.  We arrived at a very quaint shop, crammed with colourful crafts and shiny silver jewellery plus copious chocolate.  Coffee and cakes were on offer too, but I have a rather savoury tooth, so the hunt continued. A little further on, the Farmhouse Café promised Mon to Sat opening.  It was just 4pm as we pulled alongside, only to see the “closed” sign flapping on the door, while the last, lucky customers hastened out of the side entrance.

The hunger pangs were worsening, so I tore into the recently purchased bar of chocolate to ease my mood while we meandered along the single track roads back to the main town.  Nothing for it but to settle for the lunch of last resort – a savoury pastry, bottle of water and some raspberries straight out of the Scarinish Co-Op.

Tiree is famed as the windiest corner of the UK, attracting surfers of all persuasions.  It also has an enviable sunshine record: often the rain and clouds simply blow-in off the Atlantic and straight over the top of this low-lying land mass.  Today, however, the clouds were hanging about.  Even through the grey and the spray, the place had an alluring aura, and a strong sense of community.  Maybe my Tirisdeach (“from Tiree”) roots were influencing me somewhat?  Or perhaps I was just happier now I had eaten!

I’d made an appointment to meet Duncan, the volunteer genealogist at An Iodhlann, the historical centre.  Here I heard fascinating stories of how Tiree people had spread far and wide, though many just to Glasgow.  We browsed island records both on and offline in search of McFarlanes and MacArthurs (my paternal grandmother’s line), while learning about the island’s social history.

It is unfathomable to compare my upbringing and comfortable modern-day lifestyle with that of my Scottish family going back just a generation or two.  My great, great grandfather left Tiree at some point in the first half of the 19th century – perhaps because of the potato famine, perhaps on the promise of work elsewhere within the Duke of Argyll’s lands, perhaps because he met and fell in love with a visitor – now I’m almost certainly over-romanticising. The census of 1851 shows him in Campbeltown, Kintyre, working as a “drainer” laying clay pipes.

McFarlanes and MacArthurs are still found on Tiree, so I may have been brushing shoulders with distant cousins.  Just as we were leaving the historical centre, I spotted a picture of D&A MacArthur’s Stores – once the main general store in Scarinish.  I read that it burnt down several decades ago, to be replaced on the same site by, you’ve guessed it, the Co-Op.

Maybe my lunch venue of last resort was just meant to be.

by Heather McKinlay

Two Red Men

Antony Gormley is well known for his large scale public art – the Angel of the North being the most famous. It’s therefore a real privilege to be able to view one his newest works on a tucked away corner of the Kintyre peninsula. This chap is here as part of “Land”, an installation of five figures right across the UK. You can visit him at Saddell bay, but he’s only going to be there until May 2016, so I highly recommend seeking him out soon.

You don’t have to mimic the pose of course.

Amber Alert

After some great weather in April, May has been a bit of a let down. We have seen a fair bit of ferry and even flight disruption. As part of our service we have to keep a close eye on what’s happening weather-wise and how it’s affecting our clients, so that we can come up with alternative plans when necessary. To do this effectively we need to be able to access accurate and timely information from transport providers – some are better than others! One of the better innovations in recent years came from Calmac the ferry company, who now have an “app” so you can monitor all their routes in one place. While this is convenient, the system works on a green/amber/red indicator – green being normal service, red being cancelled, and amber being defined as “may be delayed or cancelled at short notice”.  Problem is, that’s so general to be almost useless, especially when you are trying to work up back-up plans for clients who can be travelling in remote parts of the country.  So then it’s back to the old fashioned method – call the ports and find out the full story. I have even been in contact with a couple of vessels directly, just to make sure they were going to make a sailing and get our clients to where they needed to be.

As you can imagine “Ferry on Amber Alert” is not the news we like to wake up to in the morning.

All part of the McKinlay Kidd service!

Ireland’s truly Ancient East

Last week Bord Failte (the Irish Tourist Board) revealed their latest key initiative – “Ireland’s Ancient East”  – which follows on from the “Wild Atlantic Way”, launched in 2013. This new concept is not a touring route, but rather a project to promote the history and culture of those parts of Ireland which are neither Dublin nor Atlantic – the bits that many visitors simply drive through on the way to Cork, Kerry and Connemara.

I am very positive about the idea, as outlined to the travel trade in Dublin last week. There is no doubting the rich history that can still be seen in these parts of Ireland, spanning Neolithic, Pre-Celtic, Viking, Norman and Anglo influences. After the event Heather and I visited the Boyne Valley and Bru na Boinne – otherwise known as Newgrange. If being able to actually walk (slightly stooped!) into a structure built over 5000 years ago, one built in perfect alignment to the winter solstice, totally waterproof, yet consisting of stones and turf alone – was not impressive enough, just hearing how this special place had been celebrated through ancient oral traditions, including those associated with my own favourite Irish Hero – Cú Chulainn, the “Hound of Ulster” was pretty awe-inspiring.

Yet this is just one of the hundreds of places to visit across the island – and one of the most accessible. If the concept  of “Ireland’s Ancient East” is sufficiently resourced, and focuses on working with local communities to help them protect and promote the lesser known sites, it will be a great success.

 

The start of Summer?

Some consider the day the clocks change for “British Summer Time” as marking the change of season, and we all enjoy the return of longer evenings, but for me another key date is the start of the Summer ferry timetables – this year on 3rd April for the Hebrides and Clyde islands. I was in Oban last Sunday and it was pretty quiet – and a bit wet to be honest, but I know this weekend, with the Easter holidays and more than twice the number of departures to islands such as Mull, Barra, South Uist and Colonsay, the whole place will take on a different character. This weekend also marks the return of the super wee ferry from the north of Arran to Kintyre – a personal favourite  – and a great way to join up various touring routes.

Although the weather may not reflect it yet  – the ferries are ready to welcome visitors once again……..

Argyll – a hidden gem?

The area of the West Highlands and Inner Hebrides, known as Argyll, is, strangely, often overlooked by first time visitors, and many tour companies. Yet as an area it can boast 3,175 miles of coastline, 60 castles,
25 inhabited islands, 14 world-class distilleries, 32 clan seats, Europe’s highest concentration of primitive rock art at Kilmartin, the cradle of Scottish Christianity at Iona, the site where the first kings of Scotland were crowned at Dunadd, wonderful golf courses, stunning wildlife and superb food, and more empty sandy beaches than you can imagine.

Argyll has always featured heavily in our See Scotland differently programme, and is also where Heather and I spend much of our leisure time, so I was delighted this week to be asked to address the annual Argyll & Isles Tourism Summit, which brought together businesses from across the area’s tourism sector gather to plan – both individually and collectively – to encourage more visitors to come,  for more time, to do more activities and sightseeing. We look forward to offering many more holiday ideas in the area over the coming months and years – its odd to think that an area as rich in potential is still a hidden gem.

Porridge etc.

I am often asked how I select hotels to feature in our holidays. The key fact is that I personally visit and select all the hotels and guesthouses we use regularly. I am looking for a variety of factors, including high standards of customer service, the right location, value for money etc  – the things you would expect.

I also look out for individuality – places with character, though this needs to be appropriate for the location…..I always prefer owner managed places, but if not, I want to see a manager who has the authority to act like the proprietor ( and not wait for approval of the tiniest investment)……I am particularly keen to assess the establishment’s relationship and reputation locally. …..While it is always difficult for a seasonal business to employ many local residents, its always good to see a core of local people working there……Even if locals don’t frequent the restaurant, I prefer it when they are welcome in at least a public bar ( if it exists)..and if not hope they would recommend it to their friends and visiting relations….I now expect there to be bottled or even better drinking tap-water in a bedroom… and so on…

Then there’s the porridge……I do like my porridge in the morning and to me this simple dish can tell a great deal about a hotel or guesthouse….the worst porridge I have had in twelve years of research was in a hotel which boasted a Michelin Star (we don’t use it currently) but I have enjoyed many excellent and varied examples of this perfect start to the day all across Scotland and indeed Ireland too.

My best was last year in Perthshire – a bit of  fancy number, well cooked, and served with creme fraiche, honey and pistachios….(ok, so I am not a purist). The chef here had also once held a Michelin Star at another hotel, but he still cared about his porridge…..”guid man yersel”