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.
Even the slightest rise on the road was enough to make me sigh at the extra effort I had to put in. This is how I was on my very first cycling trip to the Orkney Isles. I was not sure that I liked cycling that much and each time there was a hill (and they are not big ones on Orkney) it made me wonder if cycling holidays were actually enjoyable.
Now look at me!
I have cycled up some of the toughest hills in Scotland and I even enjoyed it. What changed me since that first trip to Orkney?
I think it was a gradual transformation. I simply got used to hills the more that I rode my bike, but it took a bit of time. The annual cycling trip with my friend Paul became a tradition and for the first few years I still dreaded roads that went up. I often gave up and walked my bike as I just did not have the motivation to pedal harder.
Then one day, I don't remember exactly when, I tackled a hill and didn't moan. It was fine. I didn't feel too exhausted. I even enjoyed it.
Then hills just became normal, a fact of cycling life.
I grew to appreciate that it was the power in my own legs that was getting me to the top of a hill and that there was a great feeling of satisfaction in that. I was never going to get that same feeling driving a car or sitting on a bus.
The best thing about going up a hill is that you get to speed down the other side. This is incredible fun that will make you smile all the way. There is nothing quite like it.
So, if hills are putting you off cycling don't let them!
Iain Banks is on a quest to find the perfect single malt whisky. He travels all over Scotland to most of the country's distilleries and samples many different malts. The book appealed to me because it is about travelling in Scotland and visiting distilleries, two things I love to do. I looked forward to reading Banks' view of many of the places that I have visited.
Iain Banks was a Scottish fiction and science fiction writer who died in 2013. Raw Spirit was his only non-fiction book.
He was a self-confessed petrol-head and much of the book is about the different vehicles that he used to get to the distilleries. He devoted several pages to describing the various qualities of these cars. I was misled by the blurb on the back page that he also used bikes to get around- this turned out to be one journey on a motorbike. So, quite the opposite of the cyclingscot website!
The book is also about the friends that Iain Banks travelled with and reminiscing about good times with them. The Iraq War had just begun at the time of his journey and he states his personal opinions about this, despite it having nothing to do with whisky.
When he is sharing his experience of the distilleries he describes the architecture, surroundings and ambiance just right. His visit to the Islay distilleries brought back happy memories of my trip to these gorgeous buildings:
"They look elegant. They have whitewashed walls, black roofs and black detailing, pagodas standing proud, clipped lawns and a general air of discreet pride."
I like his witty observations and honesty, particularly when discovering that after visiting so many distillery visitor centres they start to feel very similar:
"There is now a kind of Visitor Centre Vernacular, a recognisable, getting-on-for industry-wide style of layout and furnishing...There will probably be lots of wood and sometimes quite a lot of exposed stonework, there will be a darkened area where you can sit or stand and watch a visual presentation which will tend to major on sparkling streams gurgling across moody moors and over bulbous boulders swaying sunlit fields of barley, gleaming great stills, old buildings wreathed in steam and atmospherically lit barrels in dark warehouses."
The way that he describes tasting the whisky made me want to go out and buy a bottle right away and dive in. Macallan was one of his favourites, even before embarking on this quest:
"There's honey, Christmas cake, Heather, a whole fruit bowl of citrus tones, smokiness, syrup, peat (usually fairly elusive, but pocking its head out of the thickets of other tastes now and again), vanilla, leather, straw, ginger and even other sorts of wood beside the oak you'd expect in there; cedar is one, and I thought I smelled something like the balsa wood we used for the initial few lessons we used in first year woodwork class."
I would have liked a bit more about the landscapes and scenery that is travelled through, but this is largely a description of the roads and how good they are for driving on. Even so, the writing still gives a good impression of the beauty of Scotland. The passion that Banks has for Scotland and whisky comes across throughout the book.
An enjoyable book that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in learning a bit more about whisky in an easy to read and witty prose.
If you are wondering what his favourite whisky is, you will just have to read the book to find out. I am not going to spoil the ending!
You can buy it from the link below. It takes you to Amazon.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.