Smailholm is a classic example of a defensive tower house that was once common in the Scottish Borders. For 500 years the border between England and Scotland was a treacherous place with wars and raids a constant threat to residents. It was essential to build a home that could withstand attacks and Smaiholm provides an opportunity to visit one of these dwellings. The tower is a 10 mile cycle from Tweedbank station on the Borders Railway.
How to get there
Step One: Take the Borders Railway from Edinburgh Waverley to Tweedbank (55 minutes). Bicycles are carried free.
Step Two: Cycle 4 miles from Tweedbank to the Leaderfoot Viaduct, via Melrose. You can read the details of this route in my Leaderfoot Viaduct blog.
Step three: Cycle 5 miles from the Leaderfoot Viaduct on the C78 road.
Beware that the start of this road involves an uphill slog. The C78 has very low traffic volume, less than B-roads. It was almost deserted when I rode it, which made for glorious cycling. It did not matter that the scenery was not particularly outstanding, just fields, because I had a wide road, well-surfaced, all to myself. At one point a vole scurried across the road in front of me, its legs moving at a furious pace.
After 5 miles you will find the sign for Smailholm that directs you onto a single-track road. After one mile you will arrive at the tower. On a field adjacent to this road I found a group of sheep lying exhausted with the remains of turnips scattered around them. They had been feasting and were too exhausted to run away from me when I pulled over to take in this scene of over indulgence.
On the final approach to the tower the road becomes a rough, gravel track.
The landscape becomes increasingly rocky and totally different to the farmland that you have left behind. It comes as a surprise that such a craggy land exists in south Scotland. It feels like somewhere in the Highlands.
It seems like the owners of the tower managed to seek out the only rocks in the Scottish Borders so that they could stick it on top of one.
It was for good reason that the tower was built here. The border between England and Scotand was a place of strife and it was essential for homes to be fortified. Smailholm was attacked by English raiders many times in the 1540s.
It was only in 1548 that the attacks stopped because John Pringle, the Laird, made a promise not to attack England or to interfere with English raids into Scotland. In return his lands were guaranteed to be left alone.
The Pringle family had built the tower around 1450. They were one of the wealthiest families in the Borders, making a living from farming. Smailholm was their farmhouse and it really says something about the world they lived in when a farmhouse has to be a tower with 2.5m thick walls.
The Pringles sold Smailholm to the Scott family in 1645. The most famous member of this family was none other than Sir Walter Scott, Scotland's renowned novelist. He spent time here as a child, recovering from polio, and this place inspired his love of the Scottish Borders.
For me the outside of the tower is more impressive than inside. Its situation on top of the only rocky outcrop in the area, standing guard over the farmland is mesmerising. Just look at the size of the stones that have been used in its construction. Look up the side of the tower to the sky. This is a formidable building.
The only way into the tower is through this small door:
The building has five stories linked by a spiral staircase with a rope banister. I loved how the age of the tower was written into this staircase with the wear on the steps and the scores and indents on the central pillar.
The the rooms are mostly empty, apart from an exhibition of figures that feature in Walter Scott's ballads. This means there is no furniture or objects to take up your time. There are interesting architectural features like the vaulted ceilings, window seats and fire places.
For me the highlight of a visit inside the tower is that you can access the rooftop. From here the views are incredible. You can clearly make out the oddness of this landscape- that this rocky ground is truly a one-off because it is largely surrounded by mainly flat farmland.
It does not take long to look inside the tower. It is the outside that is the best aspect of Smailholm. The tower on top of the rocky outcrop looks fantastic and you should take the time to walk around and capture it from every angle.
Other Things to See
Don't leave the area without a look at Smailholm Church, in the nearby village. It is very pretty and can be dated back to 1150.
On the return journey the road crosses over the Leader Water, not far from the Leaderfoot Viaduct. There is some lovely walking here with a path heading through the forest and alongside the water.
More on the Scottish Borders...
Just a 25 minute train journey from Edinburgh and you are deposited onto quiet country roads that feel much further from the city than they are. A four mile cycle and a short hike brings you to a wonderful castle in an isolated location.
Highlights of this Cycling Route:
Take a Train to Gorebridge
Gorebridge is a stop on the Borders Railway. It takes about 25 minutes from Edinburgh Waverley.
When I got off the train I found a small station garden with spring flowers. Nearby is the 'Station Garage' that has a vintage-style sign. It made me imagine that it was the 1930s and there were cars, like Austins and Morris', inside being attended to by mechanics wearing peak caps. Another mark of Gorebridge's past was the house, in the village centre, with the faded 'dairy' sign on it.
Gorebridge has all the hallmarks of a commuter town. It was very quiet because everyone was at work in the city. I cycled passed housing estates, several under construction, presumably to take advantage of the new rail link.
Into the Countryside
It was not long until I found myself on single-track roads, surrounded by fields and views of the Pentland Hills. There were daffodils brightening the verges and sheep in the fields. I sat on the side of the road and ate a croissant. It was utter peace; not one car passed me. I loved it here. Such a short distance from the capital and it was possible to be alone like this. Who would have thought it?
This area has a little network of farm roads that you can explore, so this is great for a quick fix of biking escapism.
A word of warning- there are a lot of hills, but these are compensated for by fun descents.
Speeding to the Castle
One of those descents happens when you get first sight of the castle. You reach the top of a hill then drop down and all of a sudden the majestic castle comes into view, on the right-hand side (check out my video that features this fast descent). It sits in a valley, surrounded by a barren, grassy landscape. The downhill is incredibly fast and you will zoom past this castle view unless you pull the brake levers and slow it down.
The road ended at a field of yellow rapeseed where I turned right to reach the castle. The bike must be left behind as the final approach to the castle is by foot, about 600 meters.
This castle looks mightily impressive and I couldn't stop staring at its imposing walls, turrets and windows. I suppose all Scottish castles look pretty amazing, but there was something about this one that really struck me. It had presence. When you dream of a ruined Scottish Castle it probably looks something like this and you presume it to be somewhere deep within the highlands, not this close to the capital city. This isolated location, so close to Edinburgh, makes this a special experience.
I walked up to the walls and put my hands on them. They felt sturdy, but soft. This is sandstone and is easier for stonemasons to carve. The stone carving is one of the standout features of this castle.
In the courtyard the columns supporting the archways are stunning and look like something you would find in an abbey cloister. The most distinctive feature is the diamond-carved wall that looks like something you would see in a 1970s shopping centre, but was actually very stylish in the late sixteenth century. It was installed by the Earl of Bothwell who had seen an Italian palace with a similar design.
The castle has a very special staircase. It is straight. 'Big deal!', I hear you say. Well, look at the stairs in any Scottish castle and the chances are that it is spiral. Crichton was the first castle in Scotland to have a straight staircase.
When it comes to Scottish castles there is one question that always comes up. Does it have a connection with Mary Queen of Scots? And, yes, Crichton does! She attended a wedding here.
The castle was first built by the Crichtons in the 14th century. They were an influential family- William Crichton was Chancellor of Scotland. When ownership of the castle passed to the Earl of Bothwell this is when the extravagances like the diamond wall were added. He was also responsible for the building that is adjacent to the castle.
I thought that this other building was a chapel, but I was surprised to discover that it is a stable. It is so elegant that it is hard to believe this was a mere home for horses. Look up at the horseshoe shaped doorway. Have you ever seen such elaborate decoration on a stable? The Earl of Bothwell wanted the world to know that he was wealthy enough to lavish attention on his stables.
Crichton Collegiate Church
At the start of the walking path that leads to the castle there is a gorgeous church, also built by the Crichtons. Collegiate churches were commonly established by devoted wealthy families in order to have a team of priests praying for their souls. There were about 40 such churches in Scotland. In 1449 the Crichton family built this church and paid for a provost, eight priests, two choirboys and a sexton to work in it.
There was beautiful cherry blossom in the churchyard and the door to the church had ironmongery in the shape of a thistle. It was locked, but a man appeared and invited me in. "The choir are about to start rehearsing, but come in."
I was immediately impressed by the windows, "Yes," said my host. "It's very well endowed with stained glass for a church in the middle of nowhere."
The height of the ceiling is incredible because I did not expect this from how small the church looks from the outside. It gives it the stature of a cathedral.
The kind man gave me a newsletter to take away, "this is what we're about." I read about the services and concerts, including one that was part of the Edinburgh International Festival. There was also a visit from one of Britain's leading lichenologists who had discovered 160 different species of lichen on the church and the gravestones!
Coffee at Vogrie Country Park
There is no cafe at Crichton Castle, but there is a place nearby. Vogrie Country Park is just 2.8 miles away. I took the road back the way I came, so this meant a steep uphill then a howling downhill. I used the single-track roads as far as I could to avoid using the the B6372. This meant more uphills, but the views of the Pentland Hills were simply stunning. I saw a rabbit scamper across the road and a deer hiding in the trees.
The cafe is inside Vogrie House. This is a magnificent Baronial building and there are some original architectural features to lookout for whilst you have your coffee, such as the carved faces on the roof beams.
The park and the cafe are very much child friendly, so be prepared for lots of noise! There is a children's soft pay area in the cafe. There is a good menu and I have to say that the Malteser slice was the best I ever tasted- it had a layer of caramel goo that was spectacular.
I had a walk around the park. There are ponds, woods and lots of bright flowers. There is even a miniature railway (open only on Sundays).
There was a short, heavy rainfall, but afterwards it felt so fresh and the sun came out. I love that after rain feeling, like the place has just had a good clean. I think it is a similar feeling to crawling into a bed with brand new clean sheets.
Leaving the park I cycled 3/4 mile down a forest trail to Newlandrig. The trees and plants sparkled like silver after the rain. It was magical. This path meant that I could avoid the B6372 road for a bit, but once on this road it was fine. The traffic volume was average, but newer cyclists may not be comfortable with this road. It is about 2 miles to get back to Gorebridge Station from the park.
For more cycle journeys in Midlothian head to my Edinburgh and Midlothian page.
Are you looking for that perfect Scottish castle ruin? A place that you can have all to yourself? A place that has magnificent scenery? Morton Castle could be just what you are looking for. And you don't have to travel for miles and miles to get there-it is just a few hours from Glasgow.
Morton Castle is so remote and challenging to find that you will easily feel that you are deep in the Scottish Highlands, but you may be surprised to learn that it is in the south of Scotland, in Dumfries and Galloway.
To get there take a train from Glasgow to Sanquhar. In just 1 hour and 20 minutes you are deposited in this tranquil town surrounded by fine countryside.
Find out more about Sanquhar in my travel feature on the area.
You can use this map to get to Morton Castle from Sanquhar.
This map also includes directions to Drumlanrig Castle which is on the way and worth visiting. From Sanquhar it is 14.5 miles to Morton castle, a bit less if you choose not to visit Drumlanrig. The route is on single-track lanes that are little troubled by vehicular traffic. It is glorious cycling with forest, fields and impressive panoramas of lush, green hills. There is a great variety of scenery within a relatively short distance, making this one of the best short cycle routes that I have found in Scotland.
The final few miles requires the crossing of two A-roads, but at the time of my visit there was no traffic and it was easy to cycle across to the other side.
There is a distinct lack of signage to the castle, so you may feel that you are lost or you have travelled too far. But just keep going and you will find it.
The last stretch of the road is lined with trees, so there is no clue to the magnificence of the landscape that the castle sits in. This means that it takes you by surprise. One minute you are on a straight road, quiet and unmemorable. The next minute you find yourself deposited somewhere with a loch and hills. Is it the Scottish Highlands?
That's the funny thing. The Scotland of the imagination is a place where travel north, to the Highlands, seems the only way to discover glorious scenery and fairy tale castles. The south of the country is somewhat undiscovered, but Morton Castle goes to show that you can find the Scotland of your dreams in this area.
This castle has no visitor centre, cafe or shop. In fact, there is very little to see, but that keeps it free of crowds and probably means you will have it all to yourself.
You can go inside the ruin and have a wander, but it is just a shell with no interior walls or roof.
Little is know about the castle's history. It was probably built around 1300, but nobody knows for sure. There is also no certainty about who built the castle, but it came into the hands of the Douglas family until it fell into ruin in the eighteenth century.
The castle sits on a triangle of land, jutting over Loch Morton with the sweep of the Lowther Hills on the horizon. This setting is breathtaking and the reason that this castle is so special and worth seeking out.
This is the kind of place to bring a picnic and spend a day enjoying the peace and quiet. It is so easy to get here from central Scotland that you could easily do this as a day trip and that makes it a perfect escape from city life.
Spend longer in the area and visit Drumlanrig Castle or cycle to Scotland's highest village at Wanlockhead.
As you make your way around Blackness Castle you will notice indestructible iron gates. locks, slots for guns, and thick walls. Henry VIIIs ambassador described the castle as 'impregnable' and this is certainly the impression you get from a visit. It sits on a promontory of the River Forth with the walls forming a 'V' shape into the water that mean the castle is often called the 'ship that never sailed'. It is a fun castle to explore with plenty to keep you occupied in the form of walkways with breathtaking views over the water, towers, spiral stairs and vaulted rooms with fireplaces.
Highlights of this Cycle Route
Take a train to Linlithgow and start cycling along the canal
Linlithgow is only 20 minutes from Edinburgh, 30 minutes from Glasgow. The canal is just one minute from the station. Once on the canal you turn left and cycle for 3 miles.
You are looking for a path that branches away from the canal at Philipstoun and takes you through a small housing estate. You emerge onto a minor country road with minimal traffic that leads you under the railway and then over the M8 motorway.
This country road deposits you on the A904 where you turn right. This road can have steady traffic, so you need to be reasonably confident to ride it, but you are only on it for about 200 meters as you take the first left onto a minor road called Mannerston Holdings.
This road is next to a wall that has the grounds of House of the Binns on the other side. This house is very much worth a visit and you can read more about it in my previous blog.
The final stretch of road into Blackness is downhill where you will pass an unusually shaped church on the left, the Blackness Mission Church. Turn right at the bottom of this road to proceed along the shore towards the castle entrance.
This castle is a lot of fun to explore because of the many staircases, passages and rooms to walk around. This is what makes Blackness stand out when compared to some other castles which may not have as much to explore. There is enough here to keep you occupied for a good while and fire up your imagination about what it must have been like to live and work at Blackness.
The architecture of Blackness is all about defense. One of the key features in its arsenal is the caponier which is a passageway between the inner and outer walls. Soldiers could descend through a trapdoor into this corridor to fire through slits at any enemy that managed to breach the outer wall. You can imagine that it must have been total carnage for any opposing force caught in this area.
The castle was also well designed to resist attack from the sea with immense walls that had canons pointing out of them. It was only when technological advancements in artillery made it possible to batter the walls substantially that the castle surrendered to an enemy. This happened in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell attacked simultaneously from land and sea.
The building is well endowed with iron gates, bolts and padlocks:
As you explore you can hear the sea lapping against the walls and there is a wooden jetty at the castle's seaward door which takes you a good distance over the water to a crane. This was added in the 1870s when the castle was being used a munitions store when Britain feared a French invasion; boats docked to collect supplies for gun batteries along the Forth.
I found the most fascinating part of the castle to be the natural rocky surface on the floor of the courtyard, a part of the original landscape that had been here long before this building ever was. This is the perfect illustration of that combination of the natural and man made that composes the structure of many of Scotland's castles.
It was tricky to scramble over these rocks and it was likely to have be covered with some sort of platform to make life easier for the castle inhabitants.
Among this craggy surface there is a tower. It feels like it has been plonked in there, not being attached to the rest of the structure. Or, a castle that found itself surrounded by another castle. This tower was used as a prison and you can go inside for a good look around.
You will notice that this prison tower is surprisingly well appointed with fireplaces, toilets and even storage areas for belongings. This is because it was for wealthy prisoners, people of high standing who had fallen out of favour with the King. These people were allowed to go for daytime walks up to 3 miles away from the prison and were allowed their own servants to tend to their needs. They could also bring their own books, furniture and tapestries into the tower.
There was also a pit prison in the castle which could not be further from the luxury of the tower. Here, lower ranking prisoners lived in misery with no fires, rats for company and waiting for the daily high tide to wash away their toilet waste. In 1924 a manacle was found in the pit, still with the wrist bone of some unfortunate attached to it.
The keeper of the castle was well paid for looking after the prison. His apartments were luxurious and you will find a grand hall with a high ceiling and fireplaces.
The castle's battlements provide superb views of the River Forth and you can spot the famous rail and road bridges:
Once you have finished exploring the castle it is worth taking a walk down to the grassy area on the shoreline. It is a pretty spot for a stroll and a good area to view the castle jutting out into the river.
There is no cafe at Blackness Castle, but there is a good place nearby. Mannerstonsfarm shop and cafe is a couple of minutes cycling on the A904.
This is a popular place where you can buy vegetables, fruit, cheese, meats eggs, jams and other farm produce. They also do a fine selection of homemade ice cream. The cafe provides tastyhome baking and I can recommend the Victoria sponge cake. There is outdoor seating to make use of on sunny days.
Make sure you don't miss their delivery bicycle parked in the entrance way.
Blackness is located in the West Lothian region of Scotland. Find out more about what there is to see and do on the Visit West Lothian website.
The world-famous Edinburgh Castle is not the only castle in the city. There is another one, less well-known and without the crowds. Craigmillar Castle is only 3 miles from the centre of Edinburgh, but feels like you are deep within the countryside because it is surrounded by extensive parkland that was once royal hunting grounds. The castle is great fun to explore with a network of staircases and nooks and crannies. Make sure to get onto the rooftop where the views are among the best in the city. It is easy to reach the castle by bicycle.
How to get to the castle
Follow the cycle route from Edinburgh to Musselburgh on my blog. This has directions and a map. At the point where the route crosses Duddingston Road West you turn right onto this road and continue straight on for 1 mile to reach the castle.
The road's name changes to Craigmillar Castle Road and goes through a housing estate. Just at the end of the housing estate there is a cycle path that heads into Craigmillar Castle Park, so that you can avoid the rest of the road. The road is not heavy with traffic, but it can get busy at the junction with Peffermill Road.
Patch of Countryside in the city
The location of the castle is incredible. It is surrounded by parkland that creates the impression of being in a rural location, certainly not within a city.
You will find an information board with a map of Craigmillar Castle Park showing just how extensive it is. The map has a picture of a kestrel and a rabbit, creatures that you can spot in this park. If you want to feel that you have left the city for some tranquility and countryside you don't have to go far.
It is worth walking around the outside of the castle as this provides the best views of the structure and allows you to appreciate the surprisingly large amount of parkland in this city location.
The castle can be dated to the early 1400s with the building of a tower house by the Preston family. One of the most interesting items in the castle grounds is the remains of an ornamental pond in the shape of a 'P', believed to stand for Preston. The ultimate status symbol. It once had two islands in the loop of the 'P' that were planted with hawthorn trees.
When Mary Queen of Scots stayed at the castle she would have spent time in the gardens around the pond, enjoying her hobbies of archery, horse riding and hawking.
The way into the castle is through a doorway in the outer wall which takes you to a large grass lawn that leads up to the impressive bulk of the curtain wall with its towers. Aim for the arched doorway and this will take you into the inner courtyard.
The inner courtyard is a wonderful place to walk into because of the yew trees growing there. They come as a bit of a surprise among all this stone. Sun makes the leaves golden and songbirds bring music to this tranquil space.
In such peaceful surroundings it is difficult to believe that a murder was once planned in this castle. The 'Craigmillar Bond' was a plot to kill the husband, Lord Darnley, of Mary Queen of Scots. It was signed at the castle in 1566.
Where to go to next?
There are several doorways leading off the courtyard. Choose your door and enjoy exploring.
There are so many nooks and crannies to discover. In most of the rooms you will find not just one, but several doorways from which to choose from. It takes a while to cover all of the routes and make sure that you have seen everything.
In many of Scotland's castles there is only one single direction you can go and not many rooms to see, but Craigmillar is an exception. This makes it one of the best castles to visit in Scotland.
Some of the rooms have magnificent fireplaces that are a clear indication of the wealth that was once on display in this castle. The quality of the decorative stone carving at these fireplaces is particularly impressive.
Although the rooms of the castle are now bare and empty they would have looked very different in their heyday. Instead of bare stone walls the place would be alive with colour in the form of wall-hung tapestries and painted ceilings.
The highlight of the castle is the view from the top. Edinburgh is famous for its beautiful skyline and there are many viewpoints to see it from. Craigmillar Castle is one of the best. You can see all of the city landmarks and out to the waters of the Firth of Forth.
After you have finished with the view come back down and walk around the outside of the curtain wall where you can get close up views of the towers.
There is also a fascinating little device that was used to capture rain water for the castle's occupants- a simple overhanging stone well on the outside of the wall.
Craigmillar Castle is a great place to spend a few hours. With it being so close to the centre of Edinburgh it would be a shame to miss it. It is cheaper than Edinburgh Castle, less crowded and the views just as good.
Why not include a visit to the castle as part of a cycle ride to Musselburgh?
The castle can be reached via a one mile detour from the Edinburgh to Musselburgh cycle path. The cycle path is mainly traffic-free and follows an old railway line, the Innocent Railway, for much of the way.
Read more about this cycle route
Edzell Castle's most striking feature is the walled garden. It is a beautiful arrangement of decorative hedges and flowers. The castle dates from the 1500s. It is located just outside the village of Edzell, about 5 miles north of Brechin, in the Angus region of Scotland.
Here are 5 reasons you should visit:
1. Glorious Garden
The garden is a delight. It was created in 1604 and consists of a very neat arrangement of hedges, some with immaculate patterns. Climb the stairs in the ruined tower to get the best views of the garden and then go for a wander on the perfectly trimmed lawn.
2. Summer House
This is the cutest place you could ever dream of spending summer evenings. That is exactly what the Lindsay family did when the castle was their home and you can go inside to get an idea of what that was like. Do not miss the spiral staircase taking you up to the second floor.
3. The Resident Peacocks
As you explore the grounds of the castle you will have the peacocks to keep you company. They are quite used to people and might even put on a magnificent display of their feathers.
4. Flower Compartments
The walls of the garden have niches that are filled with flower boxes that create a pretty display and enhance the already breathtaking garden.
5. Fine Stone Sculpture
The garden walls are also adorned with stone carvings that portray the Seven Cardinal Virtues, the Seven Liberal Arts and Classical Gods. It is incredible that they have survived in reasonable condition after more than 400 years.
How to get there
Edzell Castle is a 10 mile cycle from Laurencekirk, the closest train station. Or cycle from Montrose station, about 13 miles. My travel feature about cycling to Glen Esk has a map with directions to the castle.
Interested in Scottish Castles?
Try a visit to Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland: 10 Reasons to visit Dunrobin Castle
An easy to access 7 mile traffic-free cycle route transports you to the pretty town of Dollar and the spectacularly located Castle Campbell.
Hop on the train to Alloa
Convenient rail access makes this an easy day trip from central Scotland. Direct trains from Glasgow to Alloa take around 55 minutes. From Edinburgh it takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes with a brief change of trains at Stirling.
The final 12 minutes of the journey between Stirling and Alloa is very scenic. Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument loom into view and there is a panorama of the Ochil Hills.
This outlook onto the hills is what makes this cycle path special. Route 767 is signed from Alloa station, so you can quickly leave behind the large car park, huge supermarket and uninspiring surroundings.
The Devon Valley Railway closed to passengers in 1964 and now you can cycle where there were once train tracks. It must have been a treat sitting in a carriage with these views of the hills. It is just as good on a bicycle and during my visit the hills had blobs and lines of mist that added to their mystical beauty.
A photographer had his tripod setup alongside the path to capture the scene- there is something about hills with mist that stirs your emotions. Later I spotted a robin hopping from branch to branch and low flying blackbirds crossed from one end of the path to the other. A friendly horse strolled up to the fence and I gave him a pat.
There are some remnants of the railway to look out for. Bridges are the most obvious, but there is also a gradient post with the black writing still very clearly announcing "1 in 436." And at Dollar the cycle route sweeps alongside the remains of the gently curving platform, now with patches of moss.
Possibly the most impressive relic is at Glenfoot, near Tillicoultry, where the pillars are all that remain of a dismantled bridge. The old track bed, raised above the surrounding fields, follows on from the old bridge with a backdrop of forest and steeply rising green hills. It is magnificent and a poignant reminder of a once extensive rural rail network.
A Moment in Nature
Autumn is a perfect time to experience this route because it is thick with trees that turn golden. The air is fresh and earthy from the fallen leaves that crunch when your tyres run over them. At one point a shower of leaves fell and some hit off my head. It was a magical moment in nature. I happened to be there at that exact time when these leaves detached from the tree.
The route provides access to Stirling Mills Outlet Shopping Village where there are retail chains and somewhere to get a coffee. Despite a large number of cycle racks it is a place geared to car drivers where they can park up and then walk around a pedestrianised "village" of retail units, designed to mimic a high street. I found it boring and lacking in atmosphere, so I would recommend pushing on to Dollar, which is much more pretty and has a real high street.
Dollar is characterised by neat gardens, cottages and Victorian villas. The most distinctive feature in the town is the burn that runs down the middle of two streets. It is tree-lined and crossed by stone bridges.
There is a small clock tower, a memorial to a doctor, William Spence. It has a plaque that pays tribute to 'his skill and kindness of heart.'
Coffee and Cake
The High Street is well stocked with a deli, baker, bridal shop, bathroom shop, antique and gift shop. I recommend Cafe Des Fleurs for a coffee and snack. I had a really good, strong cappuccino and a moist lemon drizle cake. Next time I would love to try the 'special hot chocolate' that has a tantalising description in the menu- 'with a layer of delicious melting confectionery.' The interior is vintage style with mismatched furniture and side tables made from old travelling trunks.
To the Castle
The castle is signed from the town, but be prepared for the ridiculously steep road. This road will test the toughest of cyclists and I had to walk the last part of it.
Having seen a great many of Scotland's castles I feel that each castle needs to have something unique about it to make it memorable for me. With Castle Campbell it is the location above Dollar Glen that is the standout feature. From the approach road the view of the fortress, peaking from the tree tops is a moment you will always remember.
The Campbell family once owned a large number of castles and estates in Scotland, choosing the method of strategic marriages to acquire this wealth. This castle, once named Castle Gloom, was their main stronghold in the lowland region. It dates from the 1400s.
There is a lot of fun to be had exploring the staircases, tower house and gardens. It is not a large castle and will not take very long to visit every nook and cranny.
From up here you can see as far as the River Forth, the thick woods of Dollar Glen in the foreground. On the other side of the tower it is completely different with the Ochil Hills looking quite barren in comparison.
There is a slit window in the castle's toilet closet that allows you to hear a nearby waterfall and birdsong, a clear reminder of a peaceful location that is at odds with the castle's owners expectation of being attacked.
I loved the gardens where there is a lawn with picnic benches, gorgeous flowers and buzzing insects. This is a place to spend some time relaxing.
Outside the castle entrance there are walking trails into Dollar Glen. I took a steep staircase into the depths of this beautiful world of trees, waterfalls and wildflowers. Spending longer in this glen is a reason for me to return here one day.
How to get here
Take a train to Alloa (details are at the beginning of this blog). Route 767 is signed from the train station. Google maps is not correct for the beginning of the route as it does not have the bridge over the railway, so my advice is took for the Route 767 signs around the station and just follow these.
The cycle path is mostly tarmac and totally flat. It will not take long to cover the 7 miles to Dollar. It is a further mile to reach Castle Campbell by way of a very, very steep road.
Alloa is home to William Brothers Brewing Company, so why not try to sample one of their beers after your ride? One of my favourites is Fraoch Heather ale and you can read my review of this.
Enjoy cycling old railway lines? Why not try the Edinburgh to Penicuick route?
Read my blog about the Edinburgh to Penicuick cycle route
This ruined castle, once visited by Mary Queen of Scots, sits on a peaceful spot next to the River Tyne. You can explore the great hall, the vaulted kitchens and enjoy the views over the river and the surrounding countryside. The grassy area in front of the castle is a perfect picnic spot. Hailes castle is on National Cycle Route 76 and easy to reach from Haddington.
My previous blog describes the route from Longniddry train station to Haddington. Use this route to connect with the route from Haddington to Hailes castle- the castle is 4.3 miles from Haddington. Look for the Route 76 blue cycle signs in the town and these will send you in the right direction. You can also use the map at the end of this blog.
Once you leave the town you will be on quiet country roads. This is flat farming country, the only exception being one hill- Traprain Law- that dominates the horizon. You will see it continually as you head towards the castle.
The final one mile to the castle is on a very narrow road. Whenever a car appeared in front or behind me it was necessary for me to stop and pull right over to let it pass.
The entry to the castle is completely charming with a path crossing a tricking stream. Several people were using the grassy area as a picnic spot and children were having a fantastic time running around and exploring the castle.
This is one of the oldest castles in Scotland, dating from the early 1200s. It does not take very long to look around. There are some staircases to go up and down, some doorways to go in and out and plenty of window holes to gaze out from.
The great hall is intact, but roofless. Perhaps Mary Queen of Scots feasted here when she spent one night at the castle in 1567. She was on the way to Edinburgh for the wedding to her third husband, James Hepburn.
I have seen many Scottish castles, so I cannot help to compare them and look for what is unique and special about one particular castle versus others. Hailes is far from the most exciting that I have visited because it is small and does not take long to explore. Its best feature is the tranquil location by the river with the grass lawn being a superb place to relax in the sun for a few hours. I also enjoyed the narrow road that takes you to the castle, thick with trees and dotted with farmhouses and cottages.
Where to go next?
Cycle two more miles to the village of East Linton. My next blog will show you what to see and do there.
Dunrobin, home to the Dukes of Sutherland, is one of Scotland's best castles to visit. Here are 10 reasons why you should visit:
1. It looks like a fairytale castle
'Fairytale' is a word often applied to Scotland's castles, but in the case of Dunrobin it couldn't be more appropriate. Slender turrets and pink stone make it look like something from a storybook.
2. A cup of tea next to a roaring fireplace
If there is a chill in the air nothing beats walking into the castle and warming up next to one of the fires. Try to get a table next to the fireplace in the tearoom.
3. Falconry displays
Take a seat and watch a Peregrine Falcon soar inches from your head. Falconry displays take place twice a day in the castle gardens and give you a chance to learn about some magnificent birds of prey.
4. The location
The castle is perched above a walled garden, overlooking the shore of the North Sea. Behind the castle there are forests and majestic hills.
5. The Connection with the Houses of Parliament
Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament in London, designed the gardens and the Victorian extension of Dunrobin Castle.
6. A library of 10,000 books
The sycamore lined library with its portrait of Duchess Eileen is one of the magnificent rooms that you can see on a self-guided tour of the castle.
7. Meet the man in red tights
The castle is home to an impressive art and furniture collection. Look out for the portrait of Hugh O'Neil, 2nd Earl of Tyrone in the music room. I challenge you to find a man with tights as impressive as these ones.
8. Stroke the castle cat
A friendly black cat likes to spend time in the castle grounds and you are bound to come across it during your visit.
9. A museum of hunting trophies
A stark reminder that it was once acceptable to shoot magnificent creatures for sport, the museum in the castle grounds is full of taxidermy. It also has a collection of Pictish carved stones and other interesting curiosities.
10. The castle train station
Dunrobin Castle has its own train station with a curious English Arts and Crafts architecture. Trains still call at the station and there is a collection of railway memorabilia inside.
Read more about the station in my blog
How to get to Dunrobin Castle
The castle is 50 miles north of Inverness on the A9. You can also get there by train. The castle station is a 5 minute wallk from the entrance to the castle and trains from Inverness take about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
For cycling to the castle read my travel feature
Exploring Dumbarton Castle is a magical, fairytale grotto experience. The castle can be reached from the Clyde and Loch Lomond Cycleway. If you are taking the train on the West Highland Line to reach destinations further north then it is possible to do a stopover at Dumbarton Castle.
From Glasgow to Dumbarton on the Clyde and Loch Lomond Cycleway (Route 7) is 15 miles. The route passes through East End Park in Dumbarton. Head south through the park, passing by Dumbarton East station, to reach the castle.
Dumbarton East train station
There are two train stations in Dumbarton- Central and East. Dumbarton East is the closest to the castle. As the train approaches the station you will notice the castle perched on the chunk of volcanic rock.
The station has some architectural survivors from the Victorian era. This includes this decorative iron railing on the staircase that takes you down to street level.
The entrance and exit to the station is under the railway bridge. Take a closer look because it is magnificent! It is a triple archway; grand and decorative. It is somewhat lost and forgotten in the dingy atmosphere under the bridge, but this archway could easily be at home on a Parisian monument.
It will take just 6 to 7 minutes to cycle from here to the castle.
Sons of the Rock
The route takes you passed an attractive square of grass, trees and benches surrounded by Victorian cottages, villas and tenements.
After passing Dumbarton Football Club, which is nicknamed 'sons of the rock', the volcanic rock upon which the castle sits begins to dominate your horizon. It is a formidable and rugged piece of geology; all the more striking because of the flatness and urbanity of the town through which you have just passed through. Yes, this is a world away from the trains, delivery lorries, pubs, hairdressers and takeaways that are just minutes behind you.
Take a few moments to look up and marvel at the rock and then enjoy the view of the tranquil River Clyde.
The castle was so impenetrable that it took James IV two attempts to capture it in 1489. He was only succesful because he dragged the biggest cannon available, Mons Meg, all the way from Edinburgh Castle.
Walking through Dumbarton Castle is like no other castle experience. What came into my head when I tried to describe it was 'fairytale grotto'.
Stairs and archways lead you up and up through the interior of this living volcanic rock. There is lots of greenery, songbirds and a trickling water course that flows under the portcullis. You feel like you are in a magical rock garden.
The castle has been built to fit within the rock, taking advantage of the natural contours of the rock. It means that there are stairs and pathways cut into the rock, buildings stuck between the rock and sometimes you have to squeeze by rough chunks of rock to continue on your way.
This combination of fortress and nature is what makes Dumbarton Castle unique and exciting to explore.
When you get to the top of the rock this gives the best impression of the wildness of this place. The highest point is 74m. You feel like you are on a Highland mountain or lonely moor and that you should have brought hiking boots and a windproof jacket. The steward at the ticket office had told me "if it is bad weather it can get really bleak up here."
The views from up here are worth the effort. You can see Ben Lomond on the horizon, which was snow covered during my vist.
I enjoyed walking the outer wall to the Bower Battery. From here cannons could fire onto the route up the river. It was so calm and peaceful when I visited with barely a ripple on the water and the only sound came from seagulls.
The vast majority of the visit is outside. There are few interiors to explore. You can go inside the guardhouse where there are information panels and I spotted a fireplace with coats of arms as decoration.
The most distinctive building within the complex is the Governor's House which was covered in scaffolding during my visit. I noticed that there were curtains on the windows of the top floor, "so I asked the steward if anybody lived there. He said "the property manager used to, but there are roof problems and other issues, so it will take a few years to fix."
Getting here using the train
From Glasgow it takes about 30 minutes to reach Dumbarton East. Services are frequent at four per hour.
If you are using the West Highland Line and want to stop off to visit Dumbarton Castle be aware that the West Highland train only calls at Dumbarton Central, not Dumbarton East. This means that you will need to cycle to Dumbarton Central, just over one mile from the castle, to get a West Highland train. There is a lunchtime departure of a West Highland train from Dumbarton Central, so you could spend the morning at the castle and then catch the train northwards.
One of Scotland's most dramatically situated castles can be reached easily from Edinburgh using the train and a bicycle. Tantallon Castle is perched on a rocky coastline, surrounded by cliffs, and has stunning views of the Bass Rock with its 150,000 gannets.
From Edinburgh Waverley station take a train to North Berwick (35 minutes). North Berwick station is the end of this line and once had stone buildings and an elegant canopied roof, but this was all demolished in the 1980s. Today there is little more than a small kiosk with a sign stating "confectionery and newspapers."
Take the A198 to the castle
You have to cycle 6km on an A-road that has a steady amount of traffic, but the road is wide enough for safe overtaking. For a large part of the road a pavement runs alongside it. Although this is not marked as a cycle path it is not heavily used by pedestrians. Unfortunately it does not go all the way to the castle and there is no choice but to use the road for a final, short stretch.
This is a coastal road, giving views across golden fields to the blue sea and the Bass Rock. On the return trip the view is even better because you can see Berwick Law, a hill that dominates the landscape for miles. The surrounding area is mainly flat so Berwick Law looks mountainous and gives the impression that it towers over the town.
On reaching the castle car park you have to leave your bicycle here and then purchase a ticket from the kiosk to enter the castle. The approach to the castle involves a walk across this bridge.
The castle has a stunning profile with towers, the sea behind it and the Bass Rock to the left.
There is another wooden bridge to cross to get inside the castle:
The bridge crosses a wide, deep ditch that was an inegral part of the defences. This view shows the ditch and the mighty towers that have stood here since the 1350s:
Once you are through the door and inside you will find this an exciting place to explore. There are plenty of spiral stairs, with rope handrails to grab onto, narrow passages and hideouts.
On leaving the castle I commented on the stairs and passages to the steward and he said, "yes, it's a good fitness regime." If you are disappointed by the short cycle on this route, then fear not! The castle itself is going to give you plenty of exercise.
I peered down a 32 meter deep well and discovered the shaft to be thriving with jungle-like foliage. It was like a lost world down there. The plant in the well is hart's tongue fern.
It turns out that the castle provides a home for many flowers and plants. The old stone walls are like a rock garden for wild thyme and wall pepper, a plant whose leaves have a peppery taste. So, the castle walls are a good place to pick up salad ingredients!
The castle ditches also provide nourishment in the form of scurvy-grass, a plant rich in Vitamin C that sailors once munched to ward off scurvy.
I found a narrow passageway to a latrine where I looked through the hole to a view of the sea lapping far below. I liked the idea of a bathroom with the sound of the sea below.
The sea was gentle during my visit. It made a soothing, calming sound as I made my way around the castle.
There are many windows that give views over the grassy courtyard, out to sea and the Bass Rock.
When you walk out into the courtyard and turn around to look at the castle facade it is equally as impressive as the landward view of the building.
The landside view from the castle looks across fields towards Berwick Law. I could hear geese from a nearby farm and watched two horses grazing. It was peaceful now and almost impossible to imagine the siege of 1491 when King James IV brought catapults and dug trenches. This siege and others failed to take the castle, a testament to the strength of the building.
How to get there
Making use of the train and a bicycle makes it easy to visit the castle, otherwise you need a car or plan a journey using train and local bus to get there as a day trip from Edinburgh.
The train takes 35 minutes from Edinburgh and it is a 12km return cycle trip,
If you want more of a cycle you could ride from Edinburgh to Musselburgh and then take the train to North Berwick.
Andy Murray, Monty Python and Ken Loach. This cycle route has it all! The cycle path between Dunblane and Doune makes it easy to see both the stunning interior of Dunblane Cathedral and have a tour of the distillery that featured in Angel's Share, a film about whisky.
The route proceeds through housing estates with large properties, reflecting the wealth of the area. Then a muddy lane with potholes-a-plenty where I disturbed some pheasants rustling noisily in the bushes- they made a panicked and clumsy escape.
Further ahead the path was blocked by pupils from Dunblane High School. "Bike!" One of the girls shouted. "Make way people!"
Then a teacher shouted "Move to the right!". But they all moved to the left. The teacher looked at me and shrugged, "I say right and they go left!"
There was still a group of boys that I had to pass and they were completely unaware, so it was time for the girl to shout again, "Move! Murray!" This time they heard and moved to allow me to pass. I thanked them and they all said, "no problem."
After this I reached the disused railway path, a flat and straight route, flanked by trees and bushes.
This line had linked Dunblane to Callender until closure in 1965. There are several bridges along the route, which are about the only physical remnants of the railway.
The path provides good views when it gets closer to Doune. I found a bench to sit in the sun and eat my tuna roll from a Dunblane bakery, songbirds creating a lunchtime concert.
Doune Castle featured in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is an entry fee, but you can look at the outside for free.
Doune has a narrow main street with small cottages. There is a particularly striking red house, adorned with window boxes.
My favourite building in Doune is a white house on George Street with quirky architectural features. There are archways, narrow windows, triangular bay windows and a turret like a witches hat. The house is called Pudden Wynd.
This house is passed on the way to Deanston Distillery, which is only 1.3 miles from Doune. This distillery building is more industrial and functional than the poster boy distilleries that adorn coffee table books, postcard racks and tourist brochures. There are no pagodas or gleaming white-painted warehouses, but it has a pleasant location next to the River Teith where heron's can be seen fishing.
If you are thinking that the taller building is perhaps reminiscent of an old mill you are correct. Deanston was originally a cotton mill. It operated from 1785 until its closure in 1965. A new use was found for the site as a whisky distillery.
The great thing about the Deanston guided tour is that you can take photographs which many other distilleries prohibit.
I have been on several distillery tours, so I tend to look for things that are different, things that might be unique to a particular distillery. At Deanston they include something that I had not seen before on a distillery tour- the room where they fill the whisky barrels. I was quite surprised to see that the device they use was like a petrol pump and putting whisky into a barrel was just like filling up a car.
There were also containers full of the wooden stoppers that are used to plug tha barrels shut. I learned that the stoppers are made of poplar.
I also discovered that Deanston generates its own electricity from water power, the only distillery to do so. The surplus electricity is sold back to the National Grid.
A visit to a distillery is an assault on your senses. There is noisy machinery, heat and humidity and unusual smells. In particular, the washbacks, the large containers that contain fermenting liquid, is very fruity, like ripe bananas.
In the warehouse there is a whisky barrel signed by the cast and crew of the film Angel's Share. This is a Scottish film directed by Ken Loach with a mixture of comedy and drama. Whisky features heavily in the film and some scenes were made at Deanston.
All distillery tours end with a tasting. This is quite a basic affair compared to some other distilleries I have visited. At Deanston you drink your dram standing up in the shop, whereas some other distilleries have dedicated tasting rooms with leather armchairs.
Deanston is not a smoky whisky. It is smooth, sweet and fruity. I purchased a miniature which was wrapped in tissue with a classy sticker featuring a picture of the distillery buildings. There is a water wheel in the picture, a nice way to remember the cotton mill that was originally here.
The first part of this blog is about Dunblane and can be read here.
Distances and Directions
This is a ten mile return trip from Dunblane. Being a short cycle means that there is plenty of time to visit Dunblane and its Cathedral and take a tour of Deanston Distillery. Dunblane takes around an hour to reach by train from Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Most of the cycle route is on a dedicated path, but once you reach Doune there will be some road cycling. To reach Deaston on leaving Doune you have to turn left onto the A84, which can be a busy road, but you are only it for a few minutes.
The traffic-free cycle route from Dunblane to Doune is not yet on Google Maps, so I have not shown this on the map, but have added the route from Doune to Deanstone Distillery.
When you have seen as many Scottish castles as I have you begin to search for something that is a bit unique, something that makes each individual castle standout from the crowd. With Castle Fraser, in Abderdeenshire, it is this turret that I will always remember. It is perhaps my most favourite castle turret.
What is so great about this turret, I hear you ask?
Well, just look at the top of it. There are two layers of tiny little windows that go all the way around the circumference. I haven't seen that before on a turret. Normally you just have the single windows at regular intervals from top to bottom. That collection of small windows at the top is what makes this turret unique and why it is my favourite in Scotland.
This turret is also clamped on to the side of a much larger turret. It looks to me like a parent turret with a little baby clamped onto its back.
Inside there is a staircase and when you reach the top of the staircase there is plenty of light flooding in from that profusion of miniature windows.
Opening that white door takes you onto the rooftop terrace of the larger turret. Not all Scottish castles have visitor access to the roof, so reaching the top is a moment to cherish.
From up here there is the scent of wood smoke from the fire burning in the Great Hall far below. You can look over the castle courtyard and out towards the tree-lined avenue.
In the other direction you can see some gentle hills with a crown of trees.
I should also point out that the turret has a brass rooster weather vain. Yet another reason why this is my favourite Scottish castle turret.
Castle Fraser was completed in 1636 as the home of the Fraser family and is filled with their portraits, fine furniture and other treasures. Now a National Trust property you can visit the interiors and gardens. From Inverurie train station it is about an 8 or 9 mile cycle to get there.
This Easter Sunday I faced the choice of cycling to Balmoral Castle or to Corgarff Castle. Everyone knows that Balmoral Castle is one of the homes of the British Royal Family and many people would love the chance to visit. Most people will not of heard of Corgarff Castle. Which would you choose?
If you were hoping to read all about Balmoral then I am sorry to disappoint you. I decided to go to the place that nobody has heard of. What persuaded me was this photograph:
Ever since I saw that photo I knew that I had to go to this place. The combination of a brilliant white castle and green and brown wild mountains captured my imagination. The castle is the only sign of human life for miles around and the remoteness appealed to my sense of adventure. The castle had been used as a barracks in the eighteenth century for Government troops and this is when the unique star shaped perimeter wall was added. The wall had slits for muskets to be fired out of.
I could not help but imagine a big screen film with red coat soldiers outnumbered by highlanders. The soldiers are trapped inside the castle with limited supplies and ammunition and desperately defending the perimeter wall with their muskets.
Back to real life. The castle was never actually attacked and was primarily used as a base for patrols that searched for local people wearing kilts (which had been made illegal) or apprehending smugglers.
I was staying in Ballater, Deeside. From here I cycled the 15 miles along the A939 to the castle. Despite being an A-road it was fairly light on traffic, but it has its fair share of hills. At the road's highest point there is barren moorland with hills like an unmixed cake mixture of swirling greys, greens, browns, pale yellow and aubergine.
The landscape is spectacular. It was quite tough cycling, but this made it even more worthwhile and special to arrive at Corgarff Castle.
You cannot drive or cycle right up to the castle entrance. There is a car park to leave your transportation so that you can walk up a steep path where you must watch out for the sheep droppings.
Inside the castle there is not that much to see and a 30 minute visit is easily enough time, but that is not the point. The magic of Corgarff is the location and imagining what it must have been like to be a soldier stationed here. Right at the top of the building the windows rattled in the wind and I imagined what it must have been like to be here in the depths of winter, miles and miles from the nearest town.
Corgarff Castle certainly lived up to the imaginings that the photo had conjured up. I was glad that I had chosen it over Balmoral. Do you think I made the right choice?
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle. Follow my blog on Facebook: