Enjoy a fascinating guided tour of this still lived-in National Trust Property followed by a walk in the grounds to the tower and views across the River Forth. At less than a 5 mile cycle from Linlithgow, mainly along the scenic Union Canal, this is an easy day out from central Scotland.
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. At the station take a moment to notice the top of the columns holding up the station's canopy. There is impressive decorative ironwork with three dimensional flowers.
The canal is just one minute from the station.
There is a good chance of seeing lots of canal boats, particularly if you take a closer look at the Linlithgow Canal Centre which offers boat trips, a museum and a tearoom.
Once on the canal you turn left and cycle for 3 miles. This path is not the smoothest you will cycle on as it is composed of gravel with quite large stones. It is also very narrow and in the summer the vegetation is very lush and overgrown, so you will need to slow down whenever another cyclists or pedestrian is passing in the other direction. Saying that, it is also very pleasant and enjoyable to potter along here.
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 to reach the entrance to the House of the Binns. This road can have steady traffic, so you need to be reasonably confident to ride it, but you are only on it for about 300 meters. If you don't feel up to it you could push your bike along the verge.
The Pink House
The house is really unusual with its pink colour and castle turrets. I thought that it looked like a modern replica of a castle, like something you might find in a theme park, so I was surprised to discover that it was built in the seventeenth century.
When I pulled up in front of the house I was greeted by none other than Tam Dalyell, former Member of Parliament and one of Scotland's longest serving MPs. Sadly he passed away in January 2017 and House of the Binns was his home. There is a unique arrangement with the National Trust that the building passed to their care on condition that the family was still able to live there.
Tam was wearing a white cable-knit jumper and pushed around a walker with a copy of The Times on it. He asked where I was from and how I travelled to the house, "Yes, my son used to cycle to Linlithgow everyday," he told me.
He greeted some more visitors and on discovering they were from China told them about his time in the country during the Cultural Revolution.
The views from the front of the house are magnificent with green fields descending towards the expansive blue of the Forth.
Books and Beards
Visits to the house are by guided tour and photography is not permitted. My guide was passionate about the house and was excellent at painting an idylic picture of life in this house. In the Blue Room she said, "you can imagine this being very cosy with the fire on and reading a book."
There are books everywhere in this house. Not just old books, but modern titles that add to lived-in feeling of the house. There is even a 'book balcony', a narrow corridor lined with cases of beautifully bound tomes.
We were shown a bedroom that was especially made for Charles I, who never actually visited. It has a spectacular plaster ceiling with thistles, vines and fruits. The guide asked the tour group, "wouldn't you just love to spend a night here and be brought breakfast on a trolley, sit on the window seat and look out at the view... I think you can tell I have dillusions of gradeur!"
The most colourful character in the story of the house is General Tam Dalyell (1615 to 1685). There is a portrait of him with an enormous beard and long hair. He vowed never to cut his beard until a Stuart monarch was restored to a throne. "You can imagine it must have been trailing to the floor," Our guide smiled.
In the dining room there is a display case with the biggest comb you have ever seen. This was for Tam's long beard! There is also a sword given to Tam by the Tsar of Russia as he served in the Russian army with distinction. I noticed many Russian things in the house, such as painted eggs, boxes of chocolates and vodka.
General Tam noticed that Russian soldiers had white uniforms to camouflage them in the snow. The concept of camouflage had not yet been developed by the British Army so when Tam founded his regiment, the Royal Scots Greys, he designed a grey uniform so that the soldiers would disappear into the mist of the Pentland Hills.
In the grounds there is a stone structure where General Tam used to go for a quiet smoke, to be alone and think things over. Perhaps this is where he came up with the uniform design for the Scots Greys.
The Mouse Hunter
As our tour group made its way around the house I was surprised by how small the rooms are. You expect huge, grand rooms in stately homes, but House of the Binns is the exception and it gives the place a homely feel. I noticed chessboards all over the house and the guide informed us that the family loved to play and you could easily imagine them sitting on the sofas to start a game because the house feels like a home and not a museum.
One of the best things about visiting National Trust properties is learning surprising things about the way people used to live. In the bake house the guide pointed out a small window, little more than a slit. She said this was for owls to fly in and eat any "nasties." It was an ingenious form of natural pest control. I loved that!
The grounds of the house are fun to explore. A walk through the woods emerges to a hillside overlooking fields of sheep and cattle. Down below Blackness Castle is on a promontory with the expanse of the deep blue Forth stretching across to Fife. The world famous Forth rail and road bridges can be seen.
The M8 motorway can be seen and heard up here; a reminder how busy this part of Scotland can be. However, this spot is proof that there are places in the central belt that feel remote and peaceful. I wonder how many of those drivers rushing to Glasgow or Edinburgh know that this is here. They will notice the tower on top of the hill because it can be seen for miles. I always wondered what it was when I was on the motorway or the railway and now I know.
The tower is simply a folly, the kind of thing that owners of grand houses built as amusing landmarks in their grounds.
There is no cafe at House of the Binns, but there is a good place nearby. Mannerstons farm 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.
House of the Binns is located in the West Lothian council region of Scotland. The area is easy to reach from both Glasgow and Edinburgh. You can find out more on the Visit West Lothian website.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.