House of Dun, near Montrose

One beautiful day a couple of weeks ago we decided to grab the good weather and drive up to the House of Dun close to Montrose. It’s a Scottish National Trust property that we had never visited before. It’s just over 50 miles away from us. Below are some photographs of the outside from various angles.

House of Dun

The house was originally owned by the Erskine family.

House of Dun, Montrose

House of Dun, Montrose

House of Dun, Montrose

The gardens are meticullously maintained, I hate to think how many hours it all must take.
Garden

Garden , House of Dun, Montrose

As you can see from the plaque below, it was laid by the Queen Mother to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the birth of the house’s architect William Adam. He was the father of three famous architects, the most famous being Robert Adam.

Box hedging dedication

The pergola below looks lovely now but it will look even better when the plants have covered all of the metal support. It is of course in the shape of a crown. The owners of the House of Dun were closet Jacobites and there are various not very well hidden decorations in the house featuring the Scottish crown.
Garden pergola

The photo below of the box hedging was taken from the top of the house steps, the back door really. The setting is fantastic with beautiful views from the house.
box hedging pano

You can actually rent holiday cottages and I think apartments in the actual house. It would be great – if the weather behaved itself. Crucially there is a good tea room!

Hurrah! the National Trust now allow people to take photographs of the inside of their properties, but I’ll keep those ones for the next blogpost.

Castle of Mey, Caithness, and Sutherland, Scotland

Castle of Mey

On our way back from Orkney we realised that we would be very close to the Castle of Mey, the Queen Mother’s residence in Scotland. After her husband George VI died in 1952 she obviously had to vacate Balmoral and the other royal residences to make way for the new Queen. She took a fancy to the very remote castle after visiting it as a guest, luckily the owners wanted to move out. After lots of renovations she moved in, and in later years the Royal Yacht Britannia was used to take royal visitors to the castle. The Queen Mother could never persuade Princess Margaret to stay overnight though, Margaret always insisted on going back to sleep on the yacht, the castle was too cold for her apparently, but I suspect she wanted more privacy to get up to her well known shenanigans.

Castle of Mey
Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos of the inside of it for security reasons apparently?! But you can see plenty of photos here.

As castles go it’s quite a cosy one with the rooms being not too big and our guide told us lots of stories about the Queen Mother, who obviously threw herself into the community and got involved with the local primary school children. There were lots of hand made gifts from them ranged around her sitting room, including a shell covered bottle made into a lamp.

I like the way they utilise the big flat stones that are on lots of the local beaches as partitions, it must be a fast way of building walls.

Castle of Mey

Castle of Mey
That was the first time we had been so far north and I thought it was really scenic, although admittedly we were very lucky with the weather, and just about everything looks lovely in the sunshine. You can look here at all the other places of interest in Caithness if you click on the list on the right hand side and here at all the small towns in neighbouring Sutherland if you click on the list on the left.

Castle of Mey garden + Hoy

It was a surprise to me how well things were growing way up north.

I just love old stone walls with wooden gates – what is the secret garden behind it like, most of the time they are locked though so they remain secrets!

East Garden door

The Scottish Crannog Centre at Kenmore

It was our 41st (yes that’s not a typo, but I don’t know how that happened!) wedding anniversary earlier in the month and we decided to celebrate by driving 50 miles north to the wee village of Kenmore. Previously we had just briefly looked at Kenmore as we drove through it on the way back from a holiday in the Highlands.
Loch Tay Crannog
Crannog on Loch Tay

It’s such a scenic area, the River Tay runs out of Loch Tay here. We intended to visit the reconstructed crannog in the loch, but didn’t think that would take very long. As it turned out we were there for getting on for two hours and I highly recommend visiting The Scottish Crannog Centre. Rachael gave a very interesting talk and is an archaeologist so she should know what she’s talking about.

Crannogs were living quarters that were built by the inhabitants of Scotland 2,500 years ago. They were built on tree trunk stilts above the loch with a split log walkway leading out to the crannog. It’s like a very heavy duty yurt I suppose and is really very comfy and cosy inside. They would have had a fire in the middle of the structure so it would have been a bit smoky and their sheep were also in a fenced off area within it so it was probably a bit smelly, but on the upside – the midges apparently don’t bother you there.
Crannog Kenmore

We were told exactly how they went about building crannogs, cutting trees with bronze axes and forming a point at one end to help get it positioned in the bottom of the loch. When the log stilts were driven in in a circle they then made a platform floor making one large circular room and then sectioned parts of that off.
Crannog at Kenmore

One extended family would have lived there, possibly as many as 15 people (and the sheep). Nowadays the only permanent inhabitants were two families of swallows who dived in and out as our guide talked to us.
Crannog swallow

The museum part of the centre has lots of artefacts that were found when some of the eighteen known crannogs that were on the loch were excavated. Tools and pottery, jewellery, wooden bowls and even some tweedy fabric has survived. The crannog dwellers could refurbish their homes for years, replacing rotten wood with new logs, but eventually there came a time when there was no space to put new supports and then the whole thing would collapse into the loch, which eventually became a small island as trees and plants germinated there. In fact you can see two small crannog islands from the reconstructed one. One had a abbey built on it in the 11th century. It’s situated just behind those boats and blends into the trees on surrounding hills, but it is an island.

Crannog on Loch Tay Kenmore 1
Crannog on Loch Tay Kenmore 2

They’ve also hollowed out some trees to make authentic log boats like the ones that were used by the crannog dwellers.
crannog log boats
After the talk in the crannog we walked back onto land and were given demonstrations on fire-making, wood-turning and spinning. I had a wee shot at the spinning, I think I could get into making and dyeing my own wool!

After that we had a tasty dinner at the Kenmore Hotel which is apparently the oldest inn in Scotland. Sadly by then what had been a beautiful blue sky day had turned into a grey damp one, but that didn’t stop us from walking along the beach below and then driving on to a few more villages in that area before going home.

Crannog and Loch Tay from Kenmore 1

That was a great way to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

Skaill House, Orkney

Skaill House

Skaill House is just a stone’s throw from Skara Brae on Orkney, in fact it was the owner of the house who discovered Skara Brae on the beach after tons of sand had been blown off the settlement during a huge storm in 1850. If you buy a ticket for Skara Brae it also gives you access to the house. It’s apparently Orkney’s finest 17th century mansion, it’s certainly very homely for such a grand house.

Skaill House

The dining room is just a nice size, it would be very cosy I think. The dinner service on display in the built in dresser belonged to Captain Cook, it was on one of his ships and he gifted it to the then owner of the house. It’s very fancy, I had imagined that anything onboard would have been much more utilitarian.

Skaill House  dinner Service

The library is great with lots of 1930s-1970s book club favourites as well as older no doubt rarer books.

Skaill House  Library

Skaill House  Library

I took a lot more photos but that’ll do for now. I really enjoyed going around Skaill House but according to some comments I’ve seen it seems that not everyone has been all that enamoured of the house and only went to see it because the ticket was included in the price of the Skara Brae one. They even thought that having Captain Cook’s dinner service on display was ‘scraping the barrel’. Honestly – some people just live to moan about things online!

Stromness, Orkney, Scotland

I liked this really quaint looking house in Stromness.
quaint house

Stromness is a really small town with just one very narrow street of shops strung along the edge of it, and as you can see it’s very narrow, you have to press yourself to the wall whenever a car goes past – which is often, and sometimes you even have to dive into a doorway if it’s a big vehicle. We were never brave enough to actually drive along this street – not wishing to kill anyone!

Stromness Street , High Street

Stromness street

Stromness, High Street

The pavements/road surfaces are interesting though, there seem to be fossils embedded in a lot of them.

fossil paving , Stromness, Orkney

This very old doorway is just off the High Street .

Carved doorway

Stromness like every other High Street in the UK has at least one charity shop, it’s a cat charity and Moxy the cat is apparently NOT FOR SALE.

Moxy the cat in charity shop

There are some cracking photos of Stromness online, you can see them here.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

St Magnus Cathedral

After a few decent days of weather on Orkney a storm rolled in, terrible high winds and torrential rain, so we decided to drive to Kirkwall which is the main town on Orkney. We dashed from shop to shop in a bid to avoid the worst of the rain, not that there are that many shops in Kirkwall.

St Magnus Cathedral beckoned us over the road and although there were quite a lot of people inside – that didn’t detract from the beauty of the place. I usually much prefer the atmosphere in small churches (not that I am at all religious) as some large places of worship often have that ‘fear of God’ about them, but this cathedral felt like a place of peace.

St Magnus Cathedral back towards door

The floor is particularly lovely.

St Magnus Cathedral Floor

As is the font which is encrusted with semi-precious polished stones.
St Magnus Cathedral Font

St Magnus Cathedral altar

St Magnus Cathedral Wall

I love this model of a Viking ship.

St Magnus Cathedral Viking Ship

There are more images of the cathedral here.

Unstan Cairn, Stenness, Orkney

Unstan's chambered tomb

Just by the salt water Loch of Stenness is the Unstan cairn, another Neolithic burial chamber. But this one you can just drive up to and explore on your own. There’s a gate over the entrance but it isn’t locked.

Unstan's tomb

The chamber has a modern-ish roof and a skylight in it so it’s surprisingly bright when you get in there.

Again, you have to bend down to get through the low tunnel.
Unstan's tomb

As you can see, this Neolithic burial chamber is partitioned off in places. These big slabs of stone are all over the island and have been used for buildings all over the place, very handy, they’re even used for fencing off fields sometimes. A lot of crouched skeletons were found in this burial cairn, along with a large number of pieces of pottery.

Unstan's tomb

Quite a lot of the stones have been carved/grafittied over the years, some of it quite modern probably but the photo below might be of original carvings.

Unstan cairn

A couple of horses were grazing in the field just outside the chamber.
horses + Loch of Stenness

It’s well worth stopping off at Unstan Cairn if you’re visiting Orkney.

Maeshowe on Orkney

Ever since I realised that Maeshowe existed I’ve wanted to go there as I’ve always had an interest in Neolithic (Stone Age) monuments and their significance to the winter/summer solstices. Maeshowe is aligned with the winter solstice and the sun shines onto the back wall of the tomb then – if it is a sunny day of course! As you can see, from a distance Maeshowe is a green mound, Orkney is full of such mounds but only a tiny amount of them have been excavated – exciting stuff. If I lived there I’d be tempted to get my trowel out, especially as one woman told me that every time she dug in her garden she found something ancient and interesting.

Maeshowe Mound

You can see a photo of the interior here.
You have to go on an escorted tour to get into Maeshowe and unfortunately they don’t let you take any photos of the inside of it, not that there is much room to do that anyway. The tomb is 5,000 years old but in more modern times, 1153, some Vikings broke into it to shelter from a snowstorm which lasted for days and they filled in the time by carving runes on the walls, you can read more about that incident here.
Maeshowe Mound

Below is a photo of the entrance and you have to bend almost double for about six yards/metres in a tunnel before you reach the interior.
Maeshowe Chamber  entrance  ce

The land around Maeshowe has cows grazing all around it and one American father pointed out to his wee boy that a calf was getting a drink of milk from its mother – he said: These are happy cows. I don’t think they had ever seen anything so rural before.

The photo below is looking over from Maeshowe to the Stones of Stenness and the Ness of Brodgar.

Stenness and Brodgar 2

There’s a lot more information on Maeshowe here if you’re interested.

Orkney Houses

One thing that I really like about going to visit new places is the different types of houses that have been built there. Most places have their own distinctive style, or they did have before the 1960-s anyway.

The wee house below is at Skara Brae and is used as a teeny exhibition centre. It is obviously well maintained which is just as well as it is more or less right on the beach and the weather is often wild.
a house a Skara Brae

Sadly the Orkney islanders have mainly opted for warmth and comfort in recent years, not that I blame them as I have recently done that too. But a lot of traditional houses on Orkney have just been abandoned and are now ruins. Every since I was a wee girl I’ve had an urge to bring any derelict houses I see back to life, it seems such a shame to me to leave a house standing empty, especially nowadays when there are so many homeless people around, but that doesn’t apply in Orkney I hope. The ruin below is just above the beach near Skara Brae.

ruin  near Skara Brae
Even I have to admit that it’s probably a wee bit too far gone, the location is great though.
a ruin

It looks like most of the local buildings have been built from stones taken off the beaches, there are certainly plenty of them where you can just pick up perfectly flat straight stones. Some houses that aren’t that far gone in dereliction still have their stone roof more or less intact.

In some ways the old buildings are quite similar to newbuilds now as small windows were preferred, presumably to keep the cold and wind out as much as possible. I was very taken by the house below which I managed to snap while Jack was driving past it. If I had a flagpole I’d be very tempted to fly a Jolly Roger/pirate flag from it too! That house has been harled/cement rendered to try to keep the weather out and preserve the stone underneath.

Pirate flag

I think it might be possible to rebuild these old homes, using a modern house structure as a sort of lining, all well insulated of course. Then you could have the best of both worlds – a lovely quaint building with character and the warmth of a modern home. I’d be tempted to give it a go – if Orkney wasn’t so far away.

The house in the photo below is now used for storage I think.

an old house in Stromness

The building below may have been just for storage or animals, on the other hand, if there are a few wee windows on the other side, it might have been a house at some point in the past. It has a slate roof though, not stone.

Orkney buildings
People in Orkney are very friendly, well the ones we met were anyway. One windy evening we were walking along the back road, struggling with a small map we had been given, and a motorist stopped to ask if he could help us. We told him we were looking for the location of Norna of the Fitful Head‘s home. She was a character in Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. As it happened the friendly gentleman had built his house right at what had been Norna’s gate, but of course her house was no longer standing. It was probably just by the escallonia bush on the right below.

Bitsy Miller

Sir Walter Scott had based his character Norna on Betty Miller (the motorist called her Bitsy) who was a sort of white witch who made her living selling ‘fair winds’ to sailors, apparently at sixpence a wind, a lot of money in those days. With sailors being superstitious and fearful of rough weather, she did a good trade in fair winds which I think she sold to the sailors in a piece of cloth. It was an ingenious way of making a living, even better than the snake oil merchants of America’s wild west. As you can see from the photo below, the motorist has named his house Fairwinds, in memory of her.

Bitsy Miller

There are ruins all over the place, often with a modern-ish house very close by, they have just built the new home in the garden of the old one. It’s quite difficult to take photos of places on Orkney though as often there is no suitable stopping place and the roads are very narrow with passing places, so stopping would cause a traffic jam.

The photo below is of Stromness from the south. If you’re interested in Polar exploration – this is the harbour that Captain Cook’s ships Discovery and Resolution called in at to replenish their stores of fresh water and food.

Stromness from south

The well they used was sealed up in 1931 and as you can see they now have it covered to protect it.

Well for sailors

Skara Brae, Orkney

We were quite lucky as we got to Skara Brae before it became too busy, we looked around the remains and then walked along the beach, and when we got back to Skara Brae three tour coaches had arrived. I don’t think it can be quite the same experience when there are that many people there.

Skara Brae plaque

As you can see Skara Brae is situated close to a beach. It was a huge storm back in 1850 which resulted in a huge amount of sand being cleared away, uncovering the remains of the Neolithic dwellings. This settlement is 5,000 years old, older than Stonehenge. According to the historian Neil Oliver Orkney was the centre of the world back then!

first structure

The rectangular ‘boxes’ on the right of the photo are the beds, they would have been filled with heather and animal skins to make them cosy.

house  at Skara Brae

It is a bit like The Flintstones, with all the furniture being made from rocks, but I really like the shelves/dresser. Some Stone Age woman was really proud of her home and did her best to make it comfortable.

shelves

This is a view of Skaill beach from the edge of Skara Brae.

Skaill Beach, Orkney