Horsing around in Scotland

As we start our second full week in Scotland, we once again have a full Scottish breakfast at our B&B which sets us up well for the day’s adventures.  We’re finding that because of the sizeable breakfasts we eat, we’re often not hungry again til between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, and are just making do with two full meals most days.  Of course, there may be a few snacks thrown in here and there, me with a weakness for ice cream and all things Chocolate, and Mary with a insatiable Shortbread addiction.

It had rained quite heavily overnight, but walking out the door to our car, we were greeted with blue skies and our weather app said that temperatures were going up to 17 celsius, more than comfortable, I’d say.


Over breakfast, we settled on starting our day with a visit to the historic town of Culross (pronounced Kur-uss), and believe me when I say it is a place that time has passed by – which frankly made it all the more charming. It is the most complete example of a 17th and 18th century Scottish burgh in existance, and its appearance has remained unchanged for over 300 years!


It almost looks like a film set with its little houses roofed with red ballast tiles, and lined narrow cobbled streets, all which converge in a tiny town square.  Despite its outward appearance, Culross is still a lively community with families inside the 17th century homes living modern lives.

While there is a substantial history involving the Cistercian monks and the mining of coal going back to the 8th century, the main story of Culross is linked to the life of one quite remarkable man, Sir George Bruce, who was born in 1548.  A descendant of Robert the Bruce, he was granted the lease of the Monk’s abbey’s collieries in 1575, and having gained much technical expertise while travelling the continent, he pioneered many innovations in coal mining.

Bruce was ahead of his time, not only in technical innovations, but also in his treatment of his employees.  He paid them sufficient wages every two weeks, enough to take care of their families, with the balance of  their wages paid three to four months later in order to create “savings accounts” for the men of the mines.  A massive storm in March of 1625 damaged his under-sea mining operations beyond repair, ending a period of prosperity for the coastal town.  Bruce died later that same year.

Amassing considerable wealth in his lifetime from both his coal-mining and salt-panning operations, he built a “palace” for himself,  the yellow building below.


Mary and I toured the building and were quite taken by how “big” it was compared to many other historic buildings we’ve visited dating from the 16th century.   I don’t have any inside pictures to share, as photography was not allowed, but I can tell you that the house was occupied until around 1853, before being left to fall into a state of neglect. One of the guides told us that the doors were off their hinges, all the windows were broken, and that local children used to run from room to room playing games.  It was eventually purchased by the Scottish National Trust in 1932, and the house has been restored in two different styles.  One half of the house  is presented as it would have been during Bruce’s time, while the other half is more reflective of the families who lived there from the mid/late 1600’s through to 1853.

One thing I did want to show you is the room called the Painted Chamber, and the picture below is from a small guidebook I bought.  It is not as clear as I would like but it is the best I can do from “the road”.


The painting decoration in the room is original, likely from the early 17th century, and since wall coverings were expensive, painting directly onto the wood was a less costly method of decoration.  Mary and I had never seen anything like this and the paintings on the ceiling were incredible.  It is not clear from the picture, but each ceiling painting was done on four strips of 2″ x 8″, and at one point they had all been removed from the room and stored in a basement.  When they were discovered in the 1950’s by the National Trust, our guide described it as “quite the jigsaw puzzle” to reassemble the paintings and in the process restore the room to how we saw it on our tour.

We wandered the streets of Culross for quite awhile, talking to several “locals” along the way.  We met a lady from Dallas who had moved there with her Scottish-born husband, having left everything familliar behind.  She told us that she “missed pizza” and that the long-time residents of Culross referred to her as “the Queen of Tex-Mex”, but that she wouldn’t trade her new life for anything.   Her husband is an amazing photographer who has set up shop in the building below – one that originally was used to “try witches”, and contains the remains of a rather nasty dungeon.  Mary intends to order some of his prints when we get back home.


Starting from a lane just to the right of this picture, Mary and I climbed a steep hill which afforded us magnificent views of the River Forth, along the way.  Reaching the top, we came upon Culross Abbey, founded in 1217 by the Cistercian Order that had leased coal-mining rights to Sir George Bruce.

Much of the original building remains (on the left above), although a great deal of the Abbey is now in ruins.  We explored both the inside of the abbey and the grounds that surround it, and at one point, I managed to catch Mary unawares while she was practicing a Qigong move (a Tai Chi discipline).  I love how this captured her silhouette against the morning sky over the River Forth.IMG_1530

Having spent almost three hours in Culross,  we reluctantly moved on as there were several more things we wanted to see on this beautiful Friday.  I should note that having been on the road for a week, we were now beginning to edit our “what to see” list on the fly. Before leaving home, I had identified numerous castles, abbey ruins, stately homes, and historic points of interest that we might want to check out, fully realizing we couldn’t and wouldn’t want to see all of them.  In the first week, we did just about everything on the list, but going forward, we will now start to become a bit more selective in picking the castles and ruins that we’re most keen on seeing.

To that end, our next destination was a castle, completely different from anything else we had seen so far, a castle that has been described as “the ship that never sailed”.  It is built right into the bank of the River Forth, and from the seaward side it looks a little like a ship stranded on the rocky shore.


Blackness Castle was commissioned by Sir George Chrichton, in the 1440’s, and it is thought that he set out to build a castle that befit his status as a seaman.  We had great fun at Blackness as there seemed to be no end to the rooms, towers, and walkways that were available for us to explore.

Another great thing about Blackness, was that it gave Mary a chance to break out her binoculars from several different viewpoints and check out the seabirds that dotted the mud flats surrounding the castle at low tide.  She identified five new species of birds to add to our ever-growing life-list.

Disappointed that I had been unable to get a picture of the iconic Firth of Forth bridge the night before, I was delighted to be afforded an unobstructed line of sight from Blackness Castle, and here is just one of the many pictures I shot.  You can see the new Queensferry Crossing in front of it, and I thought it was pretty neat to be able to capture the two of them together from this angle.


It was now early afternoon, and we still wanted to get to Falkirk before calling it a day.  Falkirk had been drawn to my attention during pre-trip planning as the home of two rather fascinating points-of-interest – The Falkirk Wheel, and Helix Park, home of the “Kelpies”.

The Falkirk Wheel is a rotating boat lift, that connects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal.  When it opened in 2002, as part of the Millenium Link project,  it reconnected the two canals for the first time since the 1930’s.  Planners decided to create a dramatic 21st century landmark structure to reconnect the canals, instead of simply recreating a historic set of lift locks.  The images below are stock photos, because the Wheel was not operating on this day, and we could not get close enough to take good pictures ourselves.  You can see how unique a structure this is though.

And speaking of unique, I can now provide the answer to my head-scratching reference to “horses” in the title of this blog.  The magnificent steel structures in the picture below are “the Kelpies”, a tribute to the Clydesdale horses used for heavy work in Scotland during the 19th and 20th centuries.  The structure was also inspired by the heavy industries that fuelled Scotland’s economy during the Industrial Revolution.  We first saw them from the M9 on our way to Blackness Castle, and they are so large, you can’t help but let out a “whoah”, when you encounter them for the first time.


The monument was unveiled on April 21st, 2014, and it towers above a stretch of green space in the Helix, a land transformation project designed to improve the connections between and around 16 communities in the Falkirk District of Scotland. No surprise, that the Kelpies are the main attraction.  We walked a two kilometre stretch of the Helix and saw many different types of boats lined up along the canal, awaiting the re-opening of the Falkirk Wheel tomorrow, (Saturday September 8th).  Check out the houseboats that look nothing like the ones you’d expect to find in the Shuswap.

Here are some Kelpie “stats” for you, just to give you a sense of the magnitude of these two structures that together form the largest equine sculptures in the world.  First of all they are each 100 feet tall, equivalent to a 10 story building.  They each weigh more than 300 tons, and are comprised of 928 uniquely made stainless-steel skin plates.  And finally, they cost £5 million to build.  Wow!


We had one final stop in mind for today, and that was to get to the site of the Battle of Bannockburn in Stirling, about 20 minutes from where we were in Falkirk.   The Battle of Bannockburn  is the most famous Scots victory – a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history, and one considered to be an icon of Scottish nationhood.  The battle was a showdown between Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, and the English army led by Edward ll, and the result was an unprecedented rout of Edward’s army.  It is a victory that has resonated with Scots for centuries.


At the site, there is a modern contemporary interpretation centre, and we hoped to make the last tour of the day at 4 o’clock.  Arriving  at 3:45, we were somewhat disappointed to learn that the 4 o’clock tour had been fully booked for a bus tour, and the best we could do was book 10 AM tickets for tomorrow (Saturday), which we proceeded to do.  Free to wander the grounds, we walked out to the field of battle beyond the interpretation centre, where there are two noteworthy “markers” that commemorate the site.  The first is the Borestone, where it is believed that Robert the Bruce planted his battle standard to celebrate his victory.


Robert Burns was inspired to write “Scots Wa Hae” after visiting this sacred spot in 1787.  Like many famous landmarks, the stone suffered the fate of many battlefield relics, and over the years, fragments of it had been cut off to be set in rings, broaches, and medallions, so as to be worn as a memorial of one of the proudest moments in Scottish history.  From 1836, to 1964, a cage was erected to protect it from further harm, and it remained that way until the rotunda seen in the picture above was built, complete with the 120 foot tall iron flagstaff that had been mounted on the site in 1870.  By the way, you can see that dark skies and heavy winds were moving in, and as we stood there, we were getting chilled to the bone.

The second noteworthy marker is a statue depicting an axe-wielding Robert the Bruce on his war horse.  It was created using the actual measurements of Bruce’s skull, re-discovered at Dunfermline Abbey in 1818, and was first unveiled by Queen Elizabeth ll in 1964.  It was originally cast in bronze but by 2013, it had become weathered and was turning green. Conservationists cleaned and repaired it for 700th anniversary of the battle celebrations that took place the following year.


We had left it later in the day than usual to book a room, and were a little concerned as to what our prospects might be, given that it was 5 o’clock on a Friday night.  Fortunately we were able to find a room in Stirling at the the aptly named King Robert Hotel, which much to our amusement turned out to be right next door to the Interpretation Centre.


We checked ourselves in, and then headed into town for some “pub grub”, at The Cronies restaurant, located in the Golden Lion Hotel that was built in 1786.


Image result for golden lion stirling

It is mind-boggling to me that we are eating and sleeping in buildings that are older than virtually anything that exists in Canada, and these steeped-in-history venues (which are everywhere), are simply a part of everyday life, everywhere we go in Scotland.

I’ll tell you more about the Battle of Bannockburn and the Interpretation Centre, after our visit tomorrow.



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