Friday, May 16, 2008

Scotland news

I believe Scotland is doing something that we don't do in America. Although, I wonder how many castles we have in the States--other than White Castles. lol I believe they're not charging admission for the period of a week. At least, those of you who like to visit Scotland or, like me, write about it, here's something about what the castles are today.

Is the castle still king?



Edinburgh, EH1 2NG, tel: 0131-225 9846
EDINBURGH Castle is one of Scotland's best known landmarks. The dramatic location atop a long -extinct volcano in the centre of the capital means it's hard to miss – but when was the last time you visited?

There's more to see than just bricks anADVERTISEMENTd mortar: the castle complex boasts the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Stone of Destiny, the Royal Apartments, the Great Hall built by James IV in 1511, and the famous One O'Clock Gun.

There's plenty to see for adults and children alike, but the sheer scale of what's on offer makes this a long day for very young children, and Marcus's enthusiasm waned quickly. Still, while sheltering in the café from the drizzle outside, he enjoyed peering down on the trains at Waverley Station.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: There are ample facilities including a (pricey) souvenir shop and the aforementioned café, with its views over Princes Street and beyond. You can hire an audio guide, but it's better to tag along for free with one of the regular guided tours.

PRACTICALITIES: Well served by local bus routes, and an easy walk from most city-centre locations. Waverley is just a ten-minute walk away. Parking isn't so easy, so it's best to leave the car at home. Disabled access is about as good as it gets.

BEST BITS: The views are great, but the portcullis left the biggest impression on Marcus, who was terrified by the prospect of "the big spiky door" falling on him

WORST BITS: The high prices and the ever-present crowds

CRICHTON CASTLE

Crichton, EH37 5QH, tel: 01875 320 017

THE main draw at Crichton Castle is its secluded location: the walk up to the castle from the little car park by Crichton Collegiate Church gives the impression you are walking back in time. Marcus was very excited on seeing the castle, but he did find the going a bit steep and slippery on the way up.

The castle itself is a ruin, with the main architectural point of interest being the grandiose quarters added in the late 16th century by the fifth Earl of Boswell, of which the ornate red-sandstone façade in an Italian renaissance style remains in excellent repair. Being in his own words "only little", Marcus was a touch under-whelmed by the interior, but with a little prompting entered into the spirit of imagining the castle in the days when royalty and nobles stayed here.

On the downside, the wet stone floors and steps were treacherous underfoot and, despite holding my hand, Marcus fell over, resulting in one very wet mitten.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: The facilities extend only to a tiny ticket booth with a few token souvenirs. The countryside hereabouts is perfect for ramblers and dog-walkers, and the views from the castle's towers are accordingly spectacular.

PRACTICALITIES: The site is remote, so isn't particularly suitable for those travelling by public transport or coach parties. Disabled access available with prior arrangement.

BEST BITS: The castle's magnificent windswept location, and the unusual Renaissance-inspired interior wall

WORST BITS: Getting there, especially the long boggy walk up the bridleway from the car park

CRAIGMILLAR CASTLE

Edinburgh, EH16 4SY, tel: 0131-661 4445



CRAIGMILLAR Castle is somewhere we had been intending to visit for several years, but just hadn't got around to, and the attendant in the shop confirmed many visitors say the same thing. Marcus, who had been eyeing a foam sword at the Crichton Castle shop, was rewarded with a plastic sword and scabbard, the ideal accompaniments to a day out at a castle.

Stepping through the outer wall into the tidy courtyard with its sprawling conifer tree and impressive carved coat of arms is like stepping on to a film set, and once inside Marcus was immediately moved to engage in some Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling with his new toy. The castle is associated with Mary, Queen of Scots, who is said to have stayed here in the 1560s, and we felt the sandstone walls were dripping with history. The views over Edinburgh and the Forth from the rooftop gallery are also spectacular.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: The shop is well-stocked, particularly with Mary, Queen of Scots-related items. Other than that, there's not much more to see here, though we enjoyed a picnic in the car park after our visit.

PRACTICALITIES: The parking is limited, and the nearest bus routes are a few minutes' walk away in either Craigmillar or at the new Royal Infirmary.

BEST BITS: One of Scotland's best preserved castles, redolent of the folklore associated with Mary, Queen of Scots

WORST BITS: Its location means it is too often overlooked.

CAIRNPAPPLE HILL

Near Bathgate, tel: 01506 634622

WITH the wind whipping up, we drove from Blackness a few miles the other side of Linlithgow to this ancient ceremonial and burial site, which dates back more than 4,500 years. We took shelter in the visitor centre as the friendly guide explained the fascinating history, and how the site was excavated in the late 1940s. As the summit of Cairnpapple Hill has been significant for millennia, the site has evidence from different eras – Neolithic, Bronze Age, early Christian – which makes it quite complicated to grasp all its history, at least with an uninterested six and three-year-old prodding the displays. Out on the hill, a concrete dome covers the Bronze Age burial stones, which can be accessed down a metal ladder. We went down, looked around, then came up – not for us a spiritual and moving experience. The best features were the spectacular views and the Neolithic ditch which circles the summit, part of the henge monument, which was perfect for rolling down.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: There is a very small shop and self-serve tea and coffee.

PRACTICALITIES: Best for older children, aged nine-plus. It's not expensive, but was of limited interest to our group. Driving is by far the easiest way to get there.

BEST BITS: "Rolling in the ditch was fun" – Gigi

WORST BITS: There's not much to enthuse younger children and it's weather-dependent. "You don't have to pay to go to the top of Arthur's Seat" – Kitty

TANTALLON CASTLE

Near North Berwick, EH39 5PN, tel: 01620 892 727

IT'S wild and windy when we visit, which adds to the sense of drama, but also increases the need to supervise the children to ensure they aren't blown off the battlements.

This is a classic ruined castle, perched on cliffs with sea on two sides. It's an exciting place to visit and for the children to explore; there's plenty of open space for them to let off steam, both as you walk in from the small car park and around the back of the site as you look over to the seabird shanty-town that is the Bass Rock.

There are information boards and plaques dotted around the castle and a pretty tricky quiz-sheet that will keep the kids focused. Again, a good place to take a picnic and make an afternoon of it – you could probably write off three or four hours on a nice day.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: No café, but a decent shop/visitor centre with small range of refreshments and souvenirs.

PRACTICALITIES: Small car park beside the visitor centre; a bigger one is down the lane. There's a new lavatory block by the visitor centre. By public transport: take a train from Edinburgh Waverley to North Berwick, walk to High Street (at Quality Street) and take the Eve Bus no 120 (Dunbar) to Tantallon Castle. The journey takes about an hour.



BEST BITS: Great for dramatic photos. "Can I take a picture of Bass Rock and the castle, Dad?" – Seth

WORST BITS: It's challenging on blustery days. "Daddy, my ears are getting cold, it's very windy here" – Livvy

SETON COLLEGIATE CHURCH

Seton, East Lothian, EH32 0PG, tel: 01875 813 334

THIS gem of a church, situated between Prestonpans and Longniddry, dates mainly from the 15th century and has great historic links to Mary, Queen of Scots (she was a close friend of the Setons and is believed to have worshipped here). There are links also with Rosslyn Chapel – some of the stonework is believed to have been done by the same masons. This is a more modest building, but there are still plenty of interesting touches to view: lots of quirky carvings, including a Green Man and a Green Cat, and grave-carvings of some of the Setons, which were (literally) defaced during the Reformation for their Papist leanings. Next door is Seton Castle, Scotland's priciest private home, worth a cool £5 million. Arn: The Knight Templar, an expensive and controversial Swedish film, was partly filmed here last year.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: There's a tiny shop and visitor centre, run by a very helpful man who will make you a hot drink and sell you toffee. No play area, but a nice short walk through the woods on the way in.

PRACTICALITIES: A small car park (turn left off the A198 as you leave Prestonpans heading for Longniddry); not good for public transport. A decent day out, but don't bring the younger ones. Fine for adults and children aged ten and up.

BEST BITS: Great carvings – "Look up there at that skull, dad," says Maya

WORST BITS: Limited interest for younger children – Seth: "Can we go and get some sweets now?"

LINLITHGOW PALACE

Linlithgow, EH49 7AL, tel: 01506 842896.

ONE of the jewels in Historic Scotland's crown, Linlithgow Palace was home to Stewart kings and queens, including James V and Mary Queen of Scots. We had picked up some lunch in Linlithgow but, even so, energy levels and enthusiasm were starting to wane for this, the third and final site of the day. The weather, too, was turning. We stood in the roofless great hall, peering up at the impossibly high walls and made our way up one of the towers to the very top, for blustery breathtaking views over the town and parkland below. The fountain, now completely restored, is spectacular and the drawbridge suitably dramatic.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: There is a well-appointed shop, picnic area, small play area and walkway round the loch, home to an extensive bird population.

PRACTICALITIES: Suitable for ages three-plus, though with close supervision for younger ones. The palace is the easiest to visit of the three by public transport as it sits on Linlithgow High Street. Good value, though we barely scratched the surface. With better weather we could have spent much longer here, particularly with the loch and parkland. To fully enjoy the Palace, visitors are advised to come on Sunday rather than Saturday.

BEST BITS: Location, history and the views. "I liked looking for the stone statues" – Kitty

WORST BITS: "I want to go home. Now" – Harvie has enough of historic sites


BLACKNESS CASTLE

Blackness, EH49 7NH, Tel: 01506 834807


LOOKING like a castle is supposed to, with imposing walls and a striking location on the shores of the Firth of Forth, Blackness Castle was a huge hit with Kitty, Gigi and Harvie. Built in the 15th century, it has been used as a prison, fortress, barracks and movie location. Notable moments in its history include when Cromwell's New Model Army laid siege to it in 1650.

Modified over the centuries, it has three main towers and a pier that stretches out into the Forth, where munitions were landed in the 19th century. There was plenty to explore and signs explaining various features such as the strategically placed gate for defenders to charge any attackers and the gun emplacement with 16ft-thick walls. The courtyard, which echoes wonderfully when shouting in the strong wind, is rough hewn from rock and very uneven. This only thrilled the children more, though Harvie, despite being very nimble, needed close supervision throughout the visit.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: There is a small shop with a few goodies, plus a picnic area and toilets.

PRACTICALITIES: The castle is three miles north-east of Linlithgow off the A904. For public transport, take a bus or train to Linlithgow and catch an Edinburgh or Bo'ness bus. Blackness Castle isn't suitable for wheelchair users.

BEST BITS: "I loved going out on the pier and the climbing" – Kitty. "It's the best" – Gigi

WORST BITS: Adults need to be on their guard to keep younger children safe.

DIRLETON CASTLE

Dirleton, East Lothian, EH39 5ER, tel: 01620 850 330

I HAVE driven past Dirleton Castle many times on the way to Yellowcraig beach, but never ventured in. Luckily, my four-year-old daughter attended a birthday party there recently, so she was happy to show me round.

It looks quite small from the road, but is actually huge, with different chunks built from the 13th century onwards. The biggest hits for children are the tunnels and staircases, nooks and crannies. It's a wonderful place for hide-and-seek, though you need to keep a close eye on under-fives because lots of steps means they are likely to fall over.

The landscaped gardens are lovely, the doocot amazingly well-preserved and you have terrific views over the island of Fidra and the Forth from the castle. You could easily take a picnic lunch and spend the best part of a day here.

The information boards are straightforward for older children to follow, and there is a quiz sheet and wordsearch.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: No café, but this is great picnic territory. You can get ice cream and soft drinks in the well-stocked shop, and there is a good playpark (and toilets) just outside the entrance.

PRACTICALITIES: Decent car park, but not great for public transport. The 124 First Bus from Edinburgh drops you three minutes' walk away, but takes more than an hour to get there.

BEST BITS: "It's brilliant for hide-and-seek," say Imogen and her friend Luke.

WORST BIT: Constant vigilance to avoid falls – "hold my hand up the stairs, daddy," says Livvy.

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