1910 – The Far North & Orkney
AT A GLANCE
Welcome to this exploration of the far north of Scotland, its gardens, its vast landscapes, spectacular coastlines and its warm and genuine hospitality, and welcome too, to The Orkney Islands, an archipelago of some 70 islands lying off the north-eastern tip of Scotland. Orkney brings a particular and extraordinary dimension to this tour, and we have two days to explore its unique and daily-unfolding heritage.
This tour is a scenic progress around the very top of Britain, visiting stunning gardens in breathtaking locations, learning something of its heritage, and enjoying a good deal of excellent Highland hospitality.
The far north
The far north is a vast, sparsely populated area with a few, mostly single track roads, crossing a remote and wild landscape. It is stunningly beautiful, with huge, strange shaped mountains, remote lochs and enormous skies – this is truly the Highlands, not just an ill-defined area on a map, but a mindset and a way of life. A little understanding of the Highland Clearances, the seminal event of late-18th and early-19th century Scottish history will not go amiss, and it is also worth noting that Sutherland, this most northerly region, is so named because it was the 'southern land' of the Norse raiders!
Five thousand years ago on Orkney, prehistoric man began constructing extraordinary stone monuments, a series of important domestic and ritual monuments which, individually, are masterpieces and, collectively, represent one of the richest surviving Neolithic landscapes in western Europe. We will spend a day in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, learning a little of this fascinating ancient past. More recently, Orkney's chief influence, like that of Sutherland, was Norse and, together with its northern neighbours in the Shetland Islands, Orkney remained a Norwegian province until 1469.
A superb three-part BBC series, 'Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney', was screened in the UK in 2017 and if you are able to watch it*, I heartily recommend it.
*It is now no longer available on the BBC, but search Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney and it can be found on Vimeo and on YouTube
Despite its remoteness and its northerly latitudes, the far north has a surprising number of excellent gardens, and we will take you to a selection of the very best ones – a range of gardens encompassing different styles and sizes – unhurriedly, at our own pace. The charitable organisation Scotland's Gardens has a useful website, and I remain indebted to Kenneth Cox and his wonderful book Scotland for Gardeners.
Sleeping & Eating
On this grand tour of northern Scotland we stay in just three establishments – all of which are individual, independent and in the Good Hotel Guide – and all three of which we know. We spend the first night of our tour, on our way north, at Coul House Hotel, Stuart and Susannah Macpherson's rambling 1820's mansion, where we stayed for the first time in July 2018, and the following three nights in Ullapool, at The Ceilidh Place, a mildly quirky establishment, where we have stayed several times before, and which I particularly enjoy – not least for its lovely residents' lounge, its honesty bar and its great range of local beers!
We return to The Foveran, an award-winning restaurant-with-rooms, for our three nights on Orkney, which has the best table in town, stunning views across Scapa Flow, and comfortable, cosy bedrooms and wonderful, friendly staff. Lastly, we return to Coul House Hotel, en route south to Edinburgh, for our final night.
All three establishments have more than competent kitchens, and we will dine-in on both evenings at Coul House Hotel, on the first and last evening at The Ceilidh Place and, likewise, on the first and last evening at The Foveran – leaving the middle evenings in Ullapool, when we will dine-out locally, and on Orkney, when we will dine-out at Skerries Bistro.
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18 – 26 July 2019 | 9 days
Gardens = GREEN Hotels & Restaurants = RED Transport = BLUE Other Attractions = ORANGE
DAY 1 – THU 18 JUL
Tim will collect you from the Hilton Hotel Edinburgh Airport, from where we will drive north, crossing the River Forth on the newly-opened Queensferry Crossing, through Perthshire for lunch in Pitlochry, a bustling Highland town at the foot of the Cairngorm Mountains. From Pitlochry it is about a 90-minute drive to Cawdor Castle (pictured), a late-14th century fortress built by the Thanes of Cawdor around a legendary holly tree. Cawdor boasts three different gardens, each with their own history and which, over the years have become the Walled Garden, the Flower Garden and the Wild Garden.
It's then another hour or so to Coul House Hotel, where we will arrive in good time to relax, enjoy a stroll around their gardens, before drinks and dinner at Coul House.
We have chosen Hilton Hotel Edinburgh Airport as a departure point because of its proximity to the airport and because it affords customers, who are not staying at the hotel, a comfortable environment in which to wait and, because we plan to depart at about 10am, there is plenty of time to get to the hotel from both Edinburgh and Glasgow city centres.
Today's driving is about 200 miles/320 km
DAY 2 – FRI 19 JUL
Today's journey takes us across Scotland, to the west coast at Charlestown and then north, to the wonderful gardens at Inverewe (pictured). Created in 1862 by Osgood Mackenzie, on the 2,100 acre/850 ha estate his mother bought for him, Inverewe is a botanical garden noted for the breadth of its collection on the eastern shores of Loch Ewe. Gifted to the National Trust for Scotland in 1952 by Osgood's daughter, Mairi Sawyer, the garden, today, covers some 50 acres/20 ha and has over 2,500 exotic plants and flowers, including the most northerly planting of rare Wollemi trees.
We spend much of the day at Inverewe, and we will learn a little of its secret wartime past, as the principal assembly point of the Arctic Convoys to Russia and, if time permits, we will visit the neighbouring Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, which honours the sailors of those wartime convoys.
Then we continue north, stopping at the Corrieshalloch Gorge to see the Falls of Measach, to Ullapool and our hotel The Ceilidh Place, in good time to relax before drinks and dinner at The Ceilidh Place.
Today's driving is about 110 miles/180 km
DAY 3 – SAT 20 JUL
We start today with a leisurely breakfast and a drive south, backtracking along the coast road we arrived on, yesterday, to visit two private gardens. Firstly, to the House of Gruinard, the most idyllically situated of houses, where head gardener, Fiona Clark, will show us around this amazing seaside and riverside garden. This is one of our favourite gardens, and it was featured in last June's The English Garden magazine, and here is a link to the article.
We will take a picnic with us, or venture off to find some lunch, before our second visit, to Dundonnell House (pictured), where head gardener, Will Soos, formerly head gardener at Inverewe, will conduct us around this magnificent garden. We visited Dundonnell for the first time, in July 2018, and it immediately became everyone's favourite garden, and I hope you will see why. It is, essentially, a glorious walled garden, dominated by a truly wonderful and ancient yew tree, and Will's very clever gardening.
We will dine out, en route to Ullapool, possibly at the Aultbea Hotel, just south of Dundonnell.
Today's driving is about 90 miles/145 km
DAY 4 – SUN 21 JUL
The Summer Isles is a group of about 20 islands, rocks and skerries off the Coigach peninsula. There is a RSPB reserve and the islands are home to seals, otters and seabirds, including over 2000 breeding pairs of storm petrels. The largest island, Tanera Mor, is some 800 acres/300 ha and is the only island permanently inhabited. In the 18th century it was the centre of a thriving herring fishing industry, and many centuries before that its sheltered harbour was home to Vikings.
We will assemble at The Ceilidh Place for drinks and dinner.
DAY 5 – MON 22 JUL
We say goodbye to Ullapool and make our way inland, driving north and east through a stunning mountain landscape, to Lairg, a popular village on the shores of Loch Shin, where we will stop for morning coffee at the Pier Cafe and, if time allows, at the Falls of Shin, one of the best places to see salmon leaping on their upstream migration.
Continuing north, we emerge onto the coast at Tongue, and drive east to the Castle of Mey (pictured), the late Queen Mother's private Scottish residence. Built by George, the 4th Earl of Caithness, in 1573, the castle was improved by the 12th Earl in 1819, and bought by The Queen Mother in 1952, who renovated the castle, its garden and grounds. The great treat, in visiting the castle, is being conducted around by many of the Queen Mother's former staff, all of whom talk of her with reverence and great fondness.
We have a little time before boarding our ferry to Orkney, time enough for the statutory group photograph at John O'Groats and, possibly, a brief visit to Dunnet Bay Distillers for a quick sip of some very decent gin! It's then time for the late-afternoon, one-hour crossing to Orkney with Pentland Ferries, and to The Foveran, our home for the next three nights, where we arrive in time for dinner.
Today's total driving is about 170 miles/270 km
DAY 6 – TUE 23 JUL
Armed with our Orkney Explorer Passes, we start the day in the far northwest of Mainland, Orkney's main island, with visits to the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island, reached by a causeway, with Pictish, Norse and medieval remains and the Broch of Gurness (pictured), an impressive Iron Age complex and one of the most outstanding examples of a later prehistoric settlement in Scotland.
Then to Kirkwall, Orkney's largest town and capital, for lunch, and a stroll around and visits to the Bishop's & Earl's Palaces and the majestic St Magnus Cathedral, before heading southeast, to visit the Italian Chapel and onward, over the Churchill Barriers, to the islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay, for dinner at Skerries Bistro.
And, by way of explanation, today's itinerary is particularly flexible, partially because the Brough of Birsay is a tidal islet, and we have to time that visit accordingly, and partially because the cruise ship, Disney Magic, with about 2800 passengers is visiting Orkney today, and we want to keep out of their way!
Today's driving is about 100 miles/160 km
DAY 7 – WED 24 JUL
Our second day on Orkney is devoted to exploring the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprising excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, the principal Neolithic monuments nearby and the settlement at Skara Brae, together with a number of other burial, ceremonial and settlement sites – a significant prehistoric landscape, depicting life in this remote archipelago some 5,000 years ago.
Our plan is to start the day at Skara Brae, a thriving village long before Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids were built, and the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe, and then visit the incredible excavations at Ness of Brodgar, where we shall have the services of one of the archaeologists to act as guide. Nearby are the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar (pictured) and Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, one of Europe's finest chambered tombs, and we shall visit each of these in turn. It is a truly fascinating day, glimpsing, as we do, the life of our ancestors fifty centuries ago.
We return to The Foveran for a relaxed evening over drinks and dinner.
Today's driving is about 60 miles/100 km
DAY 8 – THU 25 JUL
We depart Orkney on the late-morning Pentland Ferries ferry from St Margaret's Hope, allowing a visit to the Workshop & Loft Gallery, before we return to the mainland, for an early-afternoon's private visit to the gardens at Dunbeath Castle (pictured). Head gardener, Neil Millman, will take us around the two walled gardens – either side of the drive leading to the 14th-century clifftop castle – one designed by Chelsea gold-medal winning designer, Xa Tollemarche. Beautiful gardens in a stunning location, and widely regarded as among the best of their kind in Scotland.
We continue south for a brief visit to Dunrobin Castle, seat of the Dukes of Sutherland, and easily the largest house in northern Scotland. The current house, inspired by French châteaux with a Victorian twist, sits high above steep terraces, leading to two parterres, each laid out around circular fountains.
It's then an hour's drive to Coul House Hotel, where we will enjoy a pleasant evening and our end-of-tour dinner.
Today's driving is about 140 miles/225 km
DAY 9 – FRI 26 JUL
We set off from Coul House Hotel and retrace our steps of a week earlier to Edinburgh Airport, where we plan to be by mid-afternoon, in time for late-afternoon and evening flights, and to the city centre for late-afternoon and evening trains from Edinburgh Waverley Railway Station, or your Edinburgh city-centre hotel.
If you are staying on in Britain and don't wish to return to Edinburgh (pictured), but would rather be dropped off elsewhere, then please let us know, so that we may assist you in getting to your next destination and we will arrange transport for those of you wishing to go to Glasgow (Airport or City Centre), though this will be at the customer's own expense.
Today's driving is about 200 miles/320 km
During our tours we endeavour to be as faithful to our itineraries as possible, but sometimes changes do occur, either necessarily or unavoidably.