I opened the curtains on this Tuesday morning (September 4th) to find sunshine beaming down on the cows that had awoken me with their morning moos, and it was such a welcome sight. What a wonderful way for our day to begin, and after a great night’s sleep at the Riggs B&B, we were ready to roll.
Our host James feted us with a great breakfast before we hit the road, and the bowl of porridge he brought Mary was big enough to have shared with two others. He also proffered us some “local notes” that he had been developing for guests since moving to the area some 18 months ago. Hearing that we were off to visit the Robert Burns Museum at Ellisland Farm, he pointed out a favorite spot of his, Morton Castle, whose ruins we would pass on the way.
Speaking of Robert, or should I say Robbie Burns, pictures and statues of him abound, and as proof, here is a Burns portrait that was hanging in the hallway of the Riggs farmhouse…..and they’re not even Scottish!
After bidding farewell to the sheep and the cows, we began backtracking towards Dumfries, since you might recall from yesterday’s blog, I had taken us rather out of our way, when booking a room the night before. That meant going back through the small village of Sanquhar, and past Sanquhar Castle, now a ruin.
Sanquhar Castle was built by the Crichton family in the 13th century and while no longer safe for public access, it has a storied history, having been visited by many notable figures including Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Edward 1, Mary Queen of Scots, and James VI.
From Sanquhar, we headed south with a quick stop planned for Drumlanrig Castle. It is situated on the Queensberry Estate near Dumfries, and is just one of the homes of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry. The Duke is Scotland’s largest private landowner, with some 280,000 acres, and we will encounter more of his holdings later on our trip. We were aware that the castle had closed its doors to the public for the season on August 31st, but we still wanted to take a quick look. The best we could manage was a long-range picture from the expansive drive-up, before u-turning our way back out to the main road.
We then set off to find Morton Castle, the one that our host James had told us about, and though it was just a short drive from Drumlanrig (15 minutes), it was a harrowing one to say the least. Morton Castle is really off the beaten track and to get there, Mary had to negotiate her way along a single lane road, which was more of a path that anything else. The “road” was lined with hedgerows and featured one blind turn after another that we anxiously approached.
When Sid (that’s what we have named our GPS) told us we had reached our destination, we pulled off to the side off the road, as we could see the castle, across a field. There was a somewhat beaten-down grassy (and wet) path to the ruins, and there were a couple of markers relating what little history is known about the castle. As one marker said, “finding out the history of Morton Castle is almost as difficult as finding the ruins themselves”.
It is thought to have been in use in the 12th century, when Dunegal, Lord of Nithsdale established a stronghold there. He seemed to have chosen the spot for its remoteness and natural defenses offered by the slopes around it. As you can see from the picture to the right, the inside of the castle is simply a big empty shell. It was however a breathtaking setting, and the fact that we had blue skies under which to see the castle ruins, made it even better.
Back in the car, Mary had to retrace her route back to the main highway, and I was much relieved that she did not encounter any other cars on the way out. I should note here that these roads are barely wide enough for one of the small cars that are prevalent in the UK.
When one is faced with a car coming in the other direction, either you or the other driver is forced to reverse their way back to one of the sparsely located “pass-by” spots along the road. These one-laned adventures are usually worth the effort, but given the anxiety they can create, I am glad that Mary is the one doing the driving, and not me!
As I’ve mentioned a few times, we were firmly in the epicenter of Robbie Burns country, and having previously visited his birthplace, near Ayr, we were now going to see the house he built at Ellisland Farm. It was during his time at Ellisland between 1788 and 1791, that Burns was at his most prolific. Here, he produced some of his most famous poems (Tam O’Shanter, Auld Lang Syne, and the Wounded Hare), and generated more than 3000 pieces of writing, including many, many letters that have survived to this day.
The home he built still stands, along with other buildings that were added by later owners of the property. Today, his home serves as the Burns Museum and two of the five original rooms are set up as they were when he and his family lived there. There are a remarkable number of original pieces at Ellisland, and work is underway to restore the rest of the house to the way it was during Burns time. There is a funding proposal that is rumoured to be in the hands of Prince Charles, whose Prince of Wales Foundation has been involved in a number of similar projects in Scotland in recent years
The property that Burns built on lies on the River Nith’s east side, and he apparently loved to fish for Trout in his infrequent “down” times. We walked along the river which was said to have inspired him in his writing, and during our walk we came upon a small statue of a hare, made from iron. It was created by a local artist in recognition of Burn’s having written “the Wounded Hare”, while at Ellisland.
Mary and I were the only ones there on this beautiful sunny day. We were treated to a personal walking tour of the property by one of the curators, followed by a private walk-through of the house by a Burns archivist whose life work is the collection of Burns material, and restoration of this historic property.
We probably could have spent the entire day with these two impassioned gentleman but with so many other things to see and do, we reluctantly cut our visit short after two informative and enjoyable hours.
Up until now, we have rarely had to drive more than 30-35 minutes between the places on our “what to see” list, but as we left Ellisland, our next destination was more than an hour away – the town of New Lanark.
New Lanark is a village founded in 1786 by David Dale who built cotton mills and housing for the mill workers. Dale built the mills there in a brief partnership with the English inventor and entrepreneur Richard Arkwright to take advantage of the water power provided by the only waterfalls on the River Clyde. Under the ownership of a partnership that included Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, a Welsh philanthropist and social reformer, New Lanark became a successful business and an early example of a planned settlement. As a teenager, I had planned to pursue the study of urban geography and urban planning, so this was of particular interest to me, as New Lanark is considered to be an important milestone in the historical development of urban planning.
The New Lanark mills operated until 1968. After a period of decline, the New Lanark Conservation Trust (NLCT) was founded in 1974 to prevent demolition of the village. By 2006 most of the buildings had been restored and today the village has become a major tourist attraction. Even though it is a historic site, in its restored state it is also a working village, so many of the buildings are alive with the hum of daily work. Only a few buildings could be considered museum-like, but we were able to walk all over the village. New Lanark is now one of six Unesco World Heritage Sites in Scotland, so you can see why it was worthy of a stop.
Before leaving New Lanark, I went online and booked us a room for the night in Peebles, roughly 30 miles to the east, and we then set a course for Traquair Castle, the oldest continually lived-in house in Scotland. It has been lived in for over 900 years and was originally a hunting lodge for the kings and queens of Scotland.
It is not known when the exact foundations of the house were laid but a substantial structure existed by 1107 when Alexander 1 of Scotland signed a royal charter at Traquair. As I noted earlier, at this time the castle was used as a hunting lodge for royalty, but it was also a base where they could administer justice, issue laws and hold courts. At Traquair, we saw copies of many charters that still exist. One, signed in 1175 authorized William the Lion to found a Bishop’s Burgh with a right to hold a market each Thursday. This small hamlet was later to become the City of Glasgow.
Traquiar was the family home of the Stewarts (Stuarts) from 1491 until 1875 when Lady Louisa Stuart died unmarried. The earldom was lost and the house passed to her cousin Henry Constable Maxwell who took the name Maxwell Stuart and it is Catherine Maxwell Stuart, 21st Lady of Traquair, who lives with her family in the house today.
It had been our plan/goal to get there by around 3:30-4, giving us plenty of time to explore the house and grounds at Traquair. Unfortunately, Sid (our GPS) led us astray, or perhaps it was the navigator (me), who misguided her. In either event, we got lost not once but three times on our way, and did not arrive until 4:30. A kindly gate-keeper, an older Scottish gentleman, could sense Mary’s frustration and upon hearing her story, patted her on the head and said “nae to worry lass, we’ll wave your entrance fee, and you go on up to the house and have a wee visit before it closes at 5”. When we got to the house, the guide asked us for our tickets. I told her we didn’t have any due to the kindness of the man at the gate, and she said “aye, that’ll be my soft-hearted husband who did that. On you go!”
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a whirlwind visit, but we did go through the rooms much quicker than we usually would, and I snapped pictures of every sign I saw, so that I could read more about the castle, once we got to our hotel.
A couple of fun things to note. We were told there was a spooky cellar, and you can see Mary walking down a stark hallway to where a ghost supposedly resides. A note on the door from one of the Stuart children explains that the ghost was invented by her father.
On the top floor of the house, we came upon a room that was full of toys dating back over 300 years. They included two magnificent multi-story doll-houses, a rocking horse, and a menagerie of dolls.
My favorite and a somewhat macabre item, was a death-mask of Mary, Queen of Scots. And best of all, this castle even had its own maze. How cool is that!
Traquair was a really great place, and we both wish we’d been able to take our time wandering through each room, and looking more closely at all the artifacts. I know we missed a lot. Ah well, what we saw, we loved, and it is not often our “winging it”approach to our travels, leaves us short of time.
So, it was on to Peebles, and after a walk along the high street and dinner at the Crown Hotel (a different Crown Hotel than the one we’d had such an underwhelming experience at in Newton Stewart), we headed for our room at the Neidpath Inn. At first blush, I wasn’t sure what I’d gotten us into. There was no reception area, just a bar, manned by heavily tattooed man with a billy-goat beard that was died pink! (I swear I’m not making this up). When I inquired where the hotel was he said “right upstairs mate, let me take you to your room”.
I gulped as he grabbed a key and walked out onto the street to a door adjacent to the bar, the one Mary is standing at in the picture below.
Unlocking the door, he took us upstairs and showed us to our room – a generous-sized multi-windowed corner suite with a great view of the town, and the quirkiest decor I think we’ve ever seen.
After he closed the door, Mary and I started to laugh, but I have to say that it was a really great room. It was warm, clean and quiet, and we had a great night’s sleep. You just never know how things are going to work out, but this was a perfect end to another day in our Scottish adventure.