Not the best castles in Scotland

VisitScotland recently released the results of a survey about castles. The headline figure was 49%, the percentage of people from the UK who haven’t been to a castle in Scotland. Of those who had been to a Scottish castle, Edinburgh was voted the most recognisable, closely followed by Balmoral. The best castle in Scotland is apparently Edinburgh, followed by Stirling then Urquhart. I’m only sharing this just so I can dismiss it. Edinburgh is a recognisable place, fine. A fair proportion of people in these islands have never been to Scotland. Probably even more haven’t been to a castle in Wales, for example, or even England. Big wowsers.

The big one for me is best castle. My favourite big castle in Scotland is Stirling. Edinburgh Castle (shown above, from Craigmillar) is busy and not really that interesting. Urquhart is perfectly fine but there are nicer lochs in Scotland than Loch Ness. There are certainly nicer castles. Instead of Edinburgh, go to Craigmillar; swap Stirling for Doune; instead of Urquhart, how about Inverlochy Castle? That’s without trying. Craigmillar has lots of ways round it. Doune has been in a Monty Python film and Outlander as well as being beautiful. Inverlochy sits in the shadow of Ben Nevis.

As a public service, here is a list of some amazing castles you should go to in Scotland instead of Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart:

Kilchurn

Tantallon

Dirleton

Hailes

St. Andrews

Castle Campbell

Lochleven

Bothwell

Caerlaverock

Dunnottar

These are of course ruined castles, the kind I like. Boring National Trust castles with scones and tartan tat and that, they are the kind that tend to be more popular. A lot of our ruined castles are also in nicer settings than a lot of the NTS ones, with the notable exception of Culzean, which is rather stunning.

Of the list I gave above, Caerlaverock (shown above) is probably my favourite, despite three of the others being in East Lothian. Caerlaverock just looks like a castle. It has loads of towers, different lodgings, interesting decorative architecture, a moat, an old bit in the woods. It’s not far south of Dumfries. It is quite reachable from most places in this country, especially from Englandshire. I’ve been there a few times, most recently in 2016. It is the closest castle in Scotland to something out of Disney, with the possible exception of Kilchurn or Eilean Donan.

Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart aren’t bad places. It’s just that there are better castles in Scotland, beyond the Central Belt and beyond the A9. Go out and see some. You’ll be glad you did.

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Streets of Glasgow: Nelson Mandela Place

This was a bit of an experiment. It was a dark, December Sunday night and I was curious how my iPhone would cope with night photography. Plus I was toying with making Nelson Mandela Place, one of the shortest streets in the city, into a zine. I decided fairly swiftly to save that for a longer walk. I came in from the West Nile Street end deliberately since it gave a better view of the St. George’s Tron church that sits primly in the middle of the square. The street was busy with folk leaving the Chaophraya restaurant, not to mention buses which I had to dodge while snapping photos and avoiding being run over. This blogging lark should come with a health warning. This walk, all of five minutes, came with the soundtrack of a busker on Buchanan Street singing ‘Love Me Do’ by the Beatles, not badly at all, as it happens. I walked around twice, seeing what I had missed the first time. I quickly realised that the statues weren’t at their best in the dark.

Nelson Mandela Place was named after the South African leader in 1986 by one of our more left-leaning council administrations. They had already accorded him the Freedom of the City in 1981 and it just so happened that during those dark Apartheid days, the South African consulate sat in what was then known as St. George’s Place. Thus it was that the city fathers and mothers renamed the street Nelson Mandela Place. Mandela did come to Glasgow in 1993. I remember when he died in 2013 that there was a vigil and tributes left outside the St. George’s Tron Church on the street that bore his name. John MacKay presented the STV News from there too that night. This I thought about later. While I walked around Nelson Mandela Place, though, I just looked up and around at my surroundings. The church was designed by William Stark in 1807-1809, influenced by Wren, according to my Pevsner’s guide, which describes the church as forming ‘an arresting point-de-vue at the western end of George Street’. I took pleasure at walking around and enjoying the church from various angles.

During one of my circuits, I noticed a glass on a railing point, perhaps the title of a poem or a shit indie song one day. I looked up into Urban Outfitters and saw great coloured loops in one of the windows. The Chaophraya’s tall, elegant, poised Buddha in the doorway lent a certain surrealism to proceedings, or rather gave them perspective. It is easy to forget that there’s a whole big world out there. In a city built in no small part due to the efforts of slaves, it is right that we have a street named after someone who did his utmost to ensure equality was brought to his country and the wider world. I enjoyed my few minutes’ walk around it and especially being able to ignore the sensory overload of the Christmas lights for just looking up.

Sources and further reading –

The GlasgowStory: Nelson Mandela – http://www.theglasgowstory.com/image/?inum=TGSA00948

Williamson, Elizabeth, Riches, Anne and Higgs, Malcolm, The Buildings of Scotland: Glasgow, 2005, New Haven, CT/London, Yale University Press

The last train

Where I grew up, the last train home was often ridiculously early. On a Saturday night, the last train from Edinburgh to Dunbar used to be at 7pm. It’s now around 11pm, I believe, but when I went on day trips on Saturdays, I usually had to make sure I was back at Waverley Station for 7 or else I would be sitting on the bus going home the long way, stretching a 20-minute journey out to an hour and a half. Since I moved west, though, the last bus to Dunbar has also gone a bit later and takes less time. Bastard. All those nights willing the bus to go faster through Musselburgh, Wallyford and Tranent, all in vain.

Dunbar, by day

Being a late bedder, I prefer the last train to the first one. I’ve done that too, though. From Dunbar, the first train in the morning was to London, arriving nearer 11am. From where I stay now, the first train into town is around 6, except on a Sunday when it is just after 9. The first train means getting out of the house on time, The last train is easier to catch, since I’m out already. But in defence of getting up early, it is possible to see the city waking up at that time of day. It has a lot of the same qualities in that it is so often quiet and with fairly limited transport options.

Now, I live in suburban Glasgow. The last train home, six nights a week, is at ten to midnight. I am on it fairly often, usually heading back from a football match in Edinburgh. Glasgow is never, ever quiet. I’ve seen buskers singing Taylor Swift songs on Buchanan Street at half eleven at night. The last time I got the last train was the night before the new iPhone X came out. There were people queuing outside the Apple shop even at that hour. And the last train that night had a few guys who had been out on the piss and were much louder than they really had to be. Usually it is quiet, barely half-full with people as tired as I tend to be but more than once my music has been turned up to drown out folk.

Buchanan Street, by night

The last train leaves from Glasgow Central. There’s a few trains going out even as the clock nears midnight. My favourite, and I’ve managed to be on it a couple of times, is the Caledonian Sleeper down to London, arriving at breakfast time in the morning. More than once I’ve been tempted on my way home to buy a ticket and climb aboard, never quite succumbing, probably because my bed is stationary and four miles away. Most of the other trains are heading down the coast, including mine which ends up in Gourock. Others are bound for Ardrossan and the very last to Ayr. You can also go to Motherwell, if you really want.


The last train

The station usually has a few staff scattered around, maybe a police officer, some fellow travellers and only one shop open, Boots. Central is the busiest station in the country and I like being there that time of night with the feeling that things are beginning to wind down all around me. I get on the train and after 7 minutes, I’m off. Getting off the last train is usually just a relief, the end of a long day, right around midnight when it really feels like the night is slowing down. The last train pulls out of the station and away down the coast. Soon it will be morning but in the meantime I’m bound for bed, not sleeping immediately, but just glad to be home.

Before I go, I’ve revised and updated the most popular post on the blog, It’s a grand thing to get leave to live, which is about the RBS £5 note featuring Nan Shepherd. People seem to Google that a lot and that post seems to get read as a consequence. Have a wee read.

Walking on the waves

Every so often, maybe every three months or so, I have a hankering to go back to Dunbar. I can’t quite explain it, it’s just a deep, lingering emotional attachment to where I grew up that puts me on a train now and then. The Dunbar notion came up just before Christmas and it didn’t quite happen over the festive period, mainly because I wasn’t up early enough to get the right train and spend enough time there before it got dark. Finally, yesterday I managed to be up and out early enough to finally make it happen, on a Hibs-free Saturday due to the winter shutdown, and I was soon stood by the door as the train approached Dunbar, taking the traditional look across to the Bass Rock on approach, only with a different view with houses being built in the field between Belhaven Toll and West Barns, finally eroding any sort of boundary between Dunbar and the village. I would have kept a wall at least.

I got off the train and walked down to the new harbour, hoping I might get another look at the development on the Battery, which I saw on my last visit in October. Alas, the bridge was up but I had noticed coming into Dunbar that the sea was particularly intense, with a whole lot of waves. Ideal for a wave lover like myself. I ended up walking around to the side of the Castle and watched the waves there as they billowed and splashed through the arches. Standing there, I looked at the different bits of ruined castle scattered on the rocks, the more prominent bits on the rock facing the harbour, others with gun holes nearer the town. I imagined, not for the first time, the castle in its pomp as one of the most prominent fortifications in the country, at least until it was demolished in 1568 by order of the Scots Parliament of the day and its stone successively plundered to build the houses up the street.

Under the Glebe, the water was white with waves and foam, particularly closest to the shoreline but a fair bit out. I’ve often wondered on days like those just how wave power isn’t utilised more, given the sheer force of water crashing against the shore. Maybe the electricity companies, based in big city office blocks, need to go down to the coast now and then. Anyway, I walked around the Prom to Belhaven, and it was a proper, authentic biting wind, the kind that goes through you and it had only grown colder since I had stepped off the train.

As I came closer to Belhaven, based on a conversation I had a few days before, I decided to get a few photographs of the bridge, popularly known as the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’, owing to its being cut off when the tide’s in. The tide was going out, luckily, as I walked across to the bridge, the steps just as steep as they seemed when I was a kid, the feeling still just as momentarily uneasy as I tried not to look through the grille between me and the burn below. I walked across the tightly-packed sand towards the waves, across the foam line on the sand a little way from where the water started. There were tiers of waves blotting out much of the Bass Rock and I got a few photos, at least until I had to hastily step back as the waves came closer. The sand looked like a Mediterranean taverna as the water slowly ebbed out of it.

The walk through Winterfield was eerie, with the Pavilion having been demolished a year or so ago. Winterfield Park is a place I know very well, having learned to ride a bike there, played touch rugby there, lost toys walking across it in the dark, amongst many other things. When I used to go out running, it was usually where I stopped and stretched half way through. It just seemed a bit empty, a little bereft.

I have a route when I go to Dunbar and I made sure that I beat the rapidly advancing darkness to get to the East Links and look back towards the town and across the still formidable waves. I had a fleeting notion to go south to Berwick to get a train home that way – it was still baltic – but it wouldn’t work. I ended up walking back along to the Old Harbour, somewhere I hadn’t been in absolutely ages, paying particular attention to the barometer recently restored. The harbour was full of yachts sheltering from the tide, having been moved from the new harbour into the more sheltered haven of the old. The waves were coming over the walls at this point, steadily stronger than they had been a few hours earlier. Through the low, blue twilight, I could still see the Barns Ness lighthouse tower and St. Abbs Head behind, the hulking mass of Torness never to be missed either. Over at the new harbour, the waves were making a waterfall across the three tiers of the harbour wall, from the top walkway to the middle and down into the harbour basin.

As I stepped onto the train home, I made sure I got a photo of the sunset, a low blue, dark grey clouds etched across, with a pastel orange nearer the horizon, the kind John Houston would have painted. The sky is always a reason to come to Dunbar, always wider than in much of the country. The waves yesterday were that bit higher and more dramatic. Sometimes we need space and time to reflect, to be in a place which doesn’t ask much but gives a lot in perspective and familiarity. Yesterday did the stuff good and proper. I’m good for a while.

Streets of Glasgow: Hope Street

It boded well that as soon as I stepped onto Hope Street a suitcase ended up bashed against the back of my legs. I was stood outside one of Central Station’s many side entrances, trying to get a photo of a Hope Street sign, as is traditional, and despite trying to keep out of everyone’s road, I failed dismally at being invisible. Damn. As I walked on, I looked across to the Solid Rock Cafe, which has a mural above the door in memory of the late Lemmy of Motorhead, who died around two years ago. Also above the door was that the Solid Rock Cafe had been established in 1987. I get annoyed at the branches of Tesco, thankfully not including the one on Hope Street, which state they were established in 2015 or whatever. 30 years, I suppose, is long enough to note in some way.

Hope Street has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted streets in Scotland, according to the most recent figures. There is an air monitoring station which sits starkly in the middle of the pavement near Central Station. It is a green box with some stickers and part of a tourism advert on one side. On another side were the words ‘La Street C’est Chic’. Included in the chicness of Hope Street, though, on that bright, cloudy Sunday lunchtime were fish and chip boxes abandoned from the night before plus some pavement pizza that may have resulted from the fried goods once therein. What was more poignant as I continued to pass Central Station was some chalked words on the wall in tribute to a fallen friend.

There is a whole lot of red sandstone on Hope Street, looking very Glaswegian and how I imagine a lot of the city centre being at one point in the mists of time. There were a fair few finials, including on the corner of St. Vincent Street on a particularly fine building which had a tower, railings above ground level and a feast of visual details at every turn. On another building across the street were waves carved into the white walls. Carvings were ten aplenty on this walk, with one even netted off on a slightly ramshackle building nearer Sauchiehall Street. Hope Street is probably second only to Ingram Street in how much of the walk I spent with my head high in the air. The cricked neck is a small price to pay, mind.

Getting run over isn’t, however, part of the fun. I was standing waiting to cross the road when two guys stepped out into the road, narrowly missing a taxi. The two guys were suited, one wearing a bunnet possibly to offset the fact he was follicly challenged, and the string of abuse that followed the taxi driver on his merry way included that he was a ‘pure rebel, man’, that rebellious act of course having the temerity to drive along a public highway and not having to swerve and avoid a pedestrian. I was of course minding my own business, being all psychogeographical and looking up at finials, all the while mentally shaking my head in disbelief. That was also the case a few yards later as I passed a pub, which was celebrating its 6th year of operation by touting various whiskies. I idly mused on how being 6 years old is neither old enough to drink nor to be a decent malt and walked on.

As I reached Sauchiehall Street, the Theatre Royal, Royal Conservatoire and the National Piping Centre came into view. To the left, a row of grand tenements led to Cowcaddens Road, bearing the city crest and noting that they were built in 1907. There was an abrupt gable end, though, with the Royal Conservatoire behind, one to be chalked up to Glasgow’s atrocious urban planning in decades past, rendering our city centre a great hotch-potch of old, new and not gracefully aging concrete. At ground level was a restaurant with the curious name of Ardnamurchan. I assume it serves Scottish cuisine, cranachan, haggis and stuff, though the name puzzled me since Ardnamurchan is a very isolated peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic quite a bit north and west of here. Across the road, the Theatre Royal was modern but suitably sweeping, looking all theatrical in white on Hope Street before lapsing into modern glass on the corner with Cowcaddens Road.

Of the three parallel streets that lead vertically through Glasgow city centre, I would have to say Hope Street is my favourite. Architecturally, certainly; it is more open and less claustrophobic, despite its considerable problem with air pollution. This walk was undertaken on a cool, bright Sunday December lunchtime, a great time to be able to take my time and look up, even if suitcases bashed my legs and taxis had to take evasive action.

The day when the trains stop

Every few minutes, my house shakes. I don’t live in an earthquake zone or anything. I understand we get them every so often but the authorities require special equipment for anyone to notice them. I live very close to a busy train line in suburban Glasgow and it is very busy, with most trains whirring straight past in haste for the city or the coast. If we can’t hear that then there is the constant hum of cars on the M8 just beyond the railway. There is of course one day a year when all this stops. The trains just don’t run. There are much less cars. There aren’t even any buses to be found anywhere in the greater Glasgow area. I spent that day within 200 yards of my house and I was the only person around me who noticed. I am writing this the day after, Boxing Day, and since I started writing, at least two trains have passed, plus a plane overhead bound for Glasgow Airport.

The majority of trains in Scotland don’t run on Boxing Day either. If I wanted to go on a day trip today, and I don’t, incidentally, the furthest I could get by train is Croy, in North Lanarkshire. I’ve been there before and I wouldn’t encourage it. The buses are on, though, on a Sunday service and I could go use the Subway but frankly I don’t want to.

Where I grew up is strangely well connected on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. East Lothian Council subsidises buses to run over the festive period. Unlike where I live now, Dunbar is served by hourly buses on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The Edinburgh area is considerably blessed with buses too. No trains either, mind, but still something.

Everything is constant in our society. There is no let up. It is good, however, to realise that things can just stop, even for a few hours, even in the biggest city in the country, and there is simply no place to go. That’s okay, at least until the 27th.

Natural light

About a year ago, I was on holiday in Northumberland. We drove down on the Friday night from Edinburgh. It was freezing cold. I had been at the football and remembered driving through the lights of the capital and out onto the A1. We turned off the road near Alnwick towards Embleton, where we were staying, and the sky was very black but coated with stars. I will never forget it. It was a clear, dark night and I remember just standing outside the car when we got there, looking at the stars. I live in the city and don’t often see them these days. It was special.

I love natural light. Whenever possible, I like to switch the lights off and work with what comes through the window. It is winter as I write this and light is accordingly in short supply. From the sky. As I write this, Christmas lights, LED lights, bulbs and whatever else, are far more plentiful. Proper, natural wintry light, though, is therefore more precious and more vivid. Nan Shepherd put it best, in The Living Mountain, when she said ‘Light in Scotland…is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense distances with an effortless intensity.’ Some of the best days happen in the winter. It is just necessary to put on more clothes to enjoy them, that’s all.

I never used to like winter. I now do, mainly for the light. It means I have the opportunity to go out and have some amazing experiences. Here are a few photographs of wintry days I’ve had, complete with added light:

Fisherrow, Musselburgh
Queen’s Park, Glasgow
Winterfield, Dunbar
Embleton Bay
North Berwick
Tynemouth
Craster
Cambridge

Digest: December 2017

December gets forgotten as a month in the whole whirl of Christmas. I myself was focused on getting done with work. Still I managed to be out in the world a wee bit over the time, even with the ice, with a few rovings shoehorned into an otherwise busy existence.

Friday 1st December I went to see a friend who was over in Edinburgh for the weekend. We’ve had many good adventures over the years, usually involving loads of good chat too, and this time was no exception. We went to the Portrait Gallery, a good favourite place of both of ours, and there was a nice exhibition of portraits of modern Scots, including a fair few writers, poets and folks of all backgrounds. The Portrait Gallery cafe also does good cake. We also headed out to Portobello where we had lunch, went to a few shops and wandered along the Prom. After we parted, I went on a long urban ramble from the Botanics to Waverley Station via Leith.

The following day Hibs were playing at Partick Thistle, only a few miles across the river from the house. I didn’t have to leave until 1, getting the bus to Dumbarton Road then walking up Byres Road from there. It was a nice sunny afternoon so I dawdled the mile or so to Firhill, stopping on Queen Margaret Drive to look up and down the Kelvin. I also paused not far from the ground to look at one of the Stalled Spaces that have emerged to try and make artworks or gardens out of forgotten corners of our cities and towns.

That Sunday, instead of staying in bed like a sensible person, I was to be found on my way to Kirkcaldy to my favourite art gallery. It felt like an art gallery sort of day and I wandered around my favourite rooms and sat by my favourite paintings. I also took a few minutes to walk down to the sea and felt refreshed after being witness to the stunning sunset over the Forth, particularly looking towards Edinburgh. That day I also undertook two Streets of Glasgow walks, which will appear here later in January, I think, Hope Street and Nelson Mandela Place, the latter in the dark.

The following Sunday Hibs were playing Celtic at Easter Road. It was cold, very cold. After the game, which was at lunchtime for the benefit of those watching in the pub or their hoose, I walked along the Water of Leith as far as Canonmills. The Water was frozen over at several points, including by the Shore in Leith. It was a beautiful walk all the same, all the better, due to the cold. I took a bus across town from Canonmills to George IV Bridge, managing to get a sneaky peek at the new Muriel Spark exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, which was marvellous, arranged chronologically telling the story of Spark’s life through manuscripts, images and text. NLS also had a cracking display of documents out relating to the Reformation.

That Wednesday Hibs were playing The Rangers, again at Easter Road. I took the scenic route to the capital, travelling from Central via Shotts and Livingston rather than the usual Queen Street via Falkirk and Linlithgow route. I like a change of scenery. This one was notable for a delay getting into the East Stand at Easter Road due to ice. Apparently Hibs, Edinburgh City Cooncil and the polis had forgotten that the slope that leads from Hawkhill Avenue to the stand would be very icy. So, those of us who get to the football early were treated to a formation of Edinburgh’s finest with shovels and salt bags in their hands gritting the slope. It was a formation, something that wouldn’t have gone amiss on a battlefield. Better than the football, as it turns out.

That Friday I was in Edinburgh again. On my way back from my shopping, I walked up Regent Road and in the low winter sun the view across Edinburgh city centre was gorgeous.

The following day, Hibs were playing at lunchtime in Aberdeen. Aberdeen. ABERDEEN. Yep. I was there. I left Glasgow at an agriculturally early hour and made it to the frozen north in time to slide across the ice to Pittodrie in time to see Hibs get absolutely gubbed. The pies were decent, though. Rather than hang about, owing to the cold, ice and foulness of my mood, I went to buy a bus ticket straight home. I have never been happier to see Glasgow. I have nothing particular against Aberdeen as a place. It was just baltic, beautifully so as you will see below, and my faith in my fellow humanity had been shaken just a bit too.

I wasn’t well for much of the end of December. My first trip out, besides work and Christmas family stuff, was a spur-of-the-moment trip for a wander at Fisherrow Harbour. On the way back through, I went the long way, via the Forth Road Bridge and Dunfermline, bopping around on buses, just watching the world go by.

On Saturday 30th, Hibs played Kilmarnock. I was there. Before going to the game, I walked via the New Town, down Dublin Street and along East London Street to Gayfield Square, a nice saunter through the lesser-spotted bit of the New Town.

In blog business, I had three spurts in numbers in December. The Streets of Glasgow posts about Ingram Street and Edmiston Drive were particularly popular in December, as was the Books of 2017 post, which ignited a fair bit of interest. Nearer Christmas, the Best of 2017 post got shared a bit owing to its mention of the Glasgow Women’s Library.

So, that’s the December digest. I have a post backlog again so Wednesday will be a two-post day too. The morning one will be about natural light this time of year, the evening one about the trains stopping but one day a year. It’s nice to be back.

Posts this month –

Digest: November 2017

Streets of Glasgow: Edmiston Drive

Paisley!

Why the south side is the best side

Clearing out my inbox

Books of 2017

The turn of the year

The places you end up caring about

Power

Ice, ice baby

The Living Mountain

The Harbour

Best of 2017

2018

Happy New Year!

It’s New Year’s Day. I personally couldn’t give a hoop about that but hey ho, it’s a public holiday and they are fundamentally good things.

The New Year can be stressful for many people. There are some who find this time of year difficult purely because it can be a powerful reminder of how little we think we’ve achieved during the previous year. I’ve felt like that before though this year it seems to be less of an issue.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. They are made to be broken. Any aspirations I have aren’t just for January, they are for all year. I would rather go down the route that Claire Eastham, the blogger behind ‘We’re All Mad Here’, went down the other day and consider what makes me happy and what makes me sad, coming up with two lists. I’ll share some of my happy list.

Perversely, I can’t do one of the main things that makes me happy today since the buses and the trains are off. I can’t go on a day trip, as much as I would like to. Luckily I have one planned for tomorrow when more trains and buses will be on. And the Internet is still on so I can plan, which is often better than the journey being planned.

The football is currently on a winter shutdown and the Hibees aren’t playing for three weeks, eliminating another happy thing. There’s always Hibs TV highlights I can use.

I have lots of books so I can, thankfully, read after all the family stuff. Travelling to and from the football the other day, I read a wonderful biography of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock called Into The Mountain. I still have it to finish.

I also have a laptop, notebooks and pens so I can write, again, family stuff permitting. I write something every single day, though this past Christmas Day I only wrote a grand total of 12 words, a neat close to a story I had been writing the day before.

The family stuff involves being with people I like, which is an undoubted bonus.

I had a lie in this morning, another thing which makes me very happy. Not being the best sleeper, a lie in is a small mercy.

Listening to good music is also high on the Zen score. The last good music I heard was a concert by Skipinnish broadcast on BBC Alba recently.

I have a bit of a Netflix habit and luckily I will find time to cuddle up with my iPad and watch some shows I’ve downloaded.

That’s just a few of the things which make me happy. No doubt you will have your own list. This year I hope to find time for each and every one of these, for Moments of Zen each and every day, even if I might have to be creative to find time for them.

This will be one of two posts today, since I am in the happy position of having loads of posts ready to go. Tonight, the December digest will appear here. We also have a suggestion for the 400th post. If anyone has any others, please send them my way, either by e-mail or commenting below.

Best of 2017


Yay, it’s Christmas time! In this time of repeats and newspapers full of filler material, here’s a blog post written a fair bit ahead of time with the highlights of my year travelling around this fine land. Like last year and the year before, this post sums up my 2017 with some awards for the best experiences I’ve had this year. There are eight categories:

Best museum

Best art gallery

Best historic place

Best library

Best place to watch football

Best fish supper

Best park

Best beach

2016 was a very busy year for me. I also covered more ground than this year. I went to England a lot more and also to Ireland. This year I haven’t been that far. Far enough but not enough to earn Airmiles, if such a thing still exists. I have been very busy with work. I now work full-time. I am also studying and writing a lot. In between all that, I go to the football and try to live a rich and full life, occasionally succeeding in that regard. This year has been a consolidation of those things I am and enjoying those places I love, occasionally getting to new ones along the way.

Best museum –

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh –


The National Museum of Scotland is a place I know very well, having visited regularly since I was a kid. I’ve been known to slag it off but my recent visits have brought me back in love with the place and its great and varied exhibits. I am always due a return visit but that’s always the case, even if I’ve only been there the previous day or week.

Runner-up –

McManus Galleries, Dundee –


A very fine place. It has art in it too but I think of it more as a museum. Very fine it is too, with a clear sense of Dundee and its place in the world as well as giving a broad appreciation of its local area, in its history, science and nature. The hall upstairs with artefacts from various societies is glorious, while the room downstairs about the modern history of Dundee is excellent, with the cases on local politics a particular highlight. Go to the McManus, if only for the cafe and of course the architecture.

Best art gallery –

Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy, Fife –


My favourite gallery on the planet. I have that in common with Jack Vettriano, the Leven-born artist who lists his two favourite art galleries as the Uffizi in Florence, and Kirkcaldy.  I went there on my birthday this year. I tend to get there at least three or four times a year, never getting sick of the 19th and 20th century art in its rooms, including the glorious McTaggart paintings and those by the Colourists and Glasgow Boys. McTaggart’s wave painting is endlessly soothing, while those of Iona take me back to that wonderful island. The Glasgow Boys exhibition at Kirkcaldy this year was excellent too, a selection of Fife’s own collection, creatively put together.

Runner-up –

Fergusson Gallery, Perth –

The Fergusson is always a favourite, even just for its building, an old water tower by the river Tay. It is like Kirkcaldy in that it is clear the curators are on the ball, putting together each exhibition with a great deal of thought and care. I was there a few weeks ago and enjoyed the exhibition about Fergusson and his friend, the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Best historic place –

The Battery, Victoria Harbour, Dunbar, East Lothian –


This was the hardest category this time. It could have been about three different castles or the walls at Berwick. In the end I picked the Battery because it is a place at the heart of my own history as well as being steeped in the history of where I grew up. The Dunbar Shore Neighbourhood Group has done an excellent job developing the Battery, putting in some apposite and beautiful art installations as well as interpretation boards about the surrounding harbour, sea and history. It was truly brilliant to be there and I long to be back again.

Runner-up –

Dryburgh Abbey, near St. Boswells, Scottish Borders –


I tend to get to Dryburgh once a year and usually it is on a beautiful summer’s day. This year’s certainly was and I loved just wandering around the stunning ruins and sitting awhile by the Tweed, reading and pondering. Scottish and British history intertwine at Dryburgh with the Abbey being the burial place of both Sir Walter Scott and Earl Haig. Even without the history, it is one of the great places of Scotland. Thank goodness it is a wee bit hidden away and it isn’t more crowded. Plus it sells ice cream.

Honourable mention –

Seton Collegiate Church, near Longniddry, East Lothian –


A return visit to Seton, which I had only been to once previously. Worth it for the peace, architecture, book-stuffed cludgie and little, apposite quotes dotted around the site.

Best library –

Glasgow Women’s Library –


Libraries are sacred places and the GWL particularly so. It nestles in a fine Carnegie library building in Bridgeton, recently restored, and houses a considerable archive and museum collection, in addition to a fair few books into the bargain. A truly amazing place, plus they offer you a cup of tea when you walk in.

Runner-up –

The National Library of Scotland –

Purely for the exhibitions. NLS do good exhibitions, most recently the one about the Antarctic. It’s always worth going to the Treasures gallery, usually housing manuscripts and books about authors, including Hugh MacDiarmid recently.

Honourable mention –

Any library I work in –

Well, obviously. The people make the place, ken.

Best place to watch football –

Easter Road Stadium, Edinburgh –


No Scottish Cup Finals this year. I just have to settle for the two derby victories I had the pleasure of witnessing from my very lovely seat high up in the East Stand.

Runner-up –

East End Park, Dunfermline –

Purely for the steak bridies. Never mind the football.

Best fish supper –

Tailend, St. Andrews or Edinburgh –

The Tailend is one of the finest chip shops in the nation and they have two branches, one in St. Andrews, the other on Leith Walk in the capital. A very decent fish supper can be had there, best consumed on a bench nearby.

Runner-up –

Giacopazzi’s, Eyemouth, Scottish Borders –

One from my youth. I’ve been there a couple of times this year and they do a very decent fish supper, best consumed looking over the harbour.

Best park –

John Muir Country Park, near Dunbar, East Lothian –


I had a particularly good walk in this dear, familiar place in April, ending up at Hedderwick before turning back towards Dunbar. The walk was varied, with views across the Tyne towards Tyninghame, the Bass and the May, as well as old WWII-era bunkers and of course loads of trees. It washed my spirit clean, in the best possible sense.

Runner-up –

Benmore Botanic Garden, near Dunoon, Argyll –


I was there in the rain but it was still amazing. The walk amidst the sequoias is braw.

Honourable mention –

Lochend Park, Edinburgh –

I often sit in Lochend Park before Hibs matches, most recently a few weeks ago working through a book with a fly often thwarting my progress. It is an urban park but one with a view to Arthur’s Seat and of course the Holy Ground.

Best beach –

Embleton Beach, near Embleton, Northumberland –


I was there in January. The beach is in a beautiful setting, overlooked by Dunstanburgh Castle. The path goes on for a fair few miles, running along the beach from Low Newton eventually to Craster. It is hard to successfully encapsulate how wonderful a place Embleton is. Go. Look at a photograph if you can’t go. It is one of those places.

Runner-up –

Bamburgh Beach, near Bamburgh, Northumberland –


Again, there in January, overlooked by a castle, though with incredible views to Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands. Cold, very bright day, blessed in that baltic afternoon to be alive.

Honourable mention –

Belhaven Beach, near Dunbar, East Lothian –


Where else? My favourite place on the planet. I couldn’t not mention it here.

So, that’s 2017. After I wrote the historic place section, I realised I didn’t mention two of the best places I’ve been to this year, namely Kilchurn Castle in Argyll and Dunnottar Castle, near Stonehaven. Both in very dramatic settings and with fascinating histories. Of those places I hoped to get to in 2015 and 2016, I managed to get to Dunnottar and Tantallon this year, still not to Oxford, Bristol and Stornoway. In 2018, I hope just to be able to travel anywhere. In an ideal world, I would love to get back to Northumberland but also finally to make it to Shetland. This year has been a rollercoaster ride, busy but worth it for the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met.

As ever, many thanks to all readers and followers for reading, commenting and everything else. It has been a privilege. If you celebrate, a very Merry Christmas, the best of wishes if you don’t, and a very peaceful and prosperous New Year when it comes. See you in January.