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

Lewis and Harris Food Trail

Last week I ventured to the isles of Harris and Lewis for the first time. I had a fab time exploring all the sites. I also bought my first piece of Harris Tweed and even managed to sunbathe on Luskentyre Beach! I have to say that the best part of my trip was discovering all the quirky eateries on both islands – from croft shops to street food and much more. Here are my top places to check out!

1. Croft 36 – Based in the middle of Northton village, just three miles from the Leverburgh ferry on Harris, this cute croft shop sells local seafood, fresh fish, home baking and organic bread. A great place to stock up before heading to Luskentyre Beach for the day. The shop is self-service with an honesty box. Go early to avoid missing out!

2. Digby Chick – A firm favourite of McKinlay Kidd, I was eager to try this Stornoway restaurant out for myself. The décor itself is inspired by the islands with dramatic seascapes adorning the walls. As for the food – lemon and garlic monkfish and fresh fillet of hake were amongst the highlights – not forgetting raspberry cranachan shortbread to finish!

3. 40 North Foods – Your “go-to” place for delicious cured and home smoked meats as well as fresh pastries, breads and cakes made fresh every day. Situated at North Bragar on the Isle of Lewis, this is a great stop off on route to the Butt of Lewis – the most northerly point of the island!

4. Gourmet Street Food – Blink and you’ll miss it! This quirky food trailer takes up residence in Perceval Square in the town centre of Stornoway every Thu, Fri and Sat for a few hours. Favourite bites include their roll and scallop with chorizo and lemon dressing. They also serve scrumptious home bakes and ‘bean to cup’ coffee. Be warned – you may have to queue, but it is well worth the wait!

5. The Butty Bus – Situated at Leverburgh Harbour, this is a great stop off for a quick snack if heading down to North Uist. Delicious homemade soups as well as fish and chips are served in this unlikely looking establishment. With seating available for just 5 people, it’s pretty cosy. I’d suggest sitting outside (weather dependent!) and admiring the sea views.

Have you been inspired to see the Outer Hebrides differently?

By Zoë @ McKinlay Kidd

(Featured photo taken at Croft 36 on Harris)

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.

Seeing Shetland Differently

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit Shetland for the first time for my familiarisation trip. Having never travelled as far north before, and being used to living in the bustling city centre of Glasgow, I was unsure of what to expect to say the least. Much to my surprise I absolutely loved my time on the islands and could even picture myself living there one day…..ok well maybe not just yet. Anyway, here are my top tips and interesting facts to help you
see Shetland differently…

1. Lighthouses – If you’re into lighthouses you’ll love Shetland which has no less than seven. My personal fav is Sumburgh Head which has a brand new visitor centre.

2. Scones! – Whether sweet or savoury – you’ll soon discover that folk here love this delicious treat. Just saying.

3. The White Wife – If you go that far north, do pay a visit to this white-washed figure, poised on the rugged coastline of Yell.

4. Shetland ponies – Enough said really. No matter where you drive here, you’ll be sure to spot some galloping around. Have your camera at the ready.

5. The ‘Reel’ deal – The Isle of Unst is now home to Shetland’s newest gin distillery – Shetland Reel Gin. Do sample some if you get the chance.

6. Be a local – If you want to get a feel for a place, check out the local newspaper. The Shetland Times comes out weekly and is full of info on what’s happening and where.

7. Prepare for all weathers – The Shetland Isles have their own micro climate, so expect to experience all four seasons in a day. Layers are your friend.

8. Embrace it! – Shetland is like no other place you will have ever experienced, and I can’t wait to return!

#SeeShetlandDifferently

By Zoë @ McKinlay Kidd

(Featured photo taken at Sumburgh Beach)

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.

From the air – Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

The development of the “Wild Atlantic Way” has been an impressive initiative from the Irish Tourism  authorities, bringing together many of my favourite parts of the island. The landscapes look particularly impressive from the air, and we are delighted to feature the first of a series of specially commissioned videos, which will aim to capture the unique nature of the landscape. This one features Connemara, County Galway – watch out for the cows’ reaction to our film-maker’s drone powered camera!

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”