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.
This is a lovely, charming book all about the experience of using bothies and also a practical guide about where they, how to get there and what facilities are available. What makes this book a joy to read is that the author has included a diary entry with each bothy describing her experience of staying there. These entries spark your imagination and make you want to make the journey to the bothy.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of a bothy it is a building in a remote location that is free to stay in. They are maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association:
"The easiest way to describe bothies is simply as stone tents. They may look like country cottages from the outside- pretty enough, with a ramshakle type of charm to earn them a spot on chocolate boxes- but inside it's a different story. With no gas, no electric, no running water, no bathroom, no beds and certainly no TV, these are as basic a shelter as they come."
Bothies can be found all over Britain, but the vast majority are in Scotland, so most of the entries in this book are north of the border. Bothies tend to be used mostly by walkers and climbers as they are in rural areas, usually far from roads. They are not as convenient for cycle tourists unless you are using a mountain bike.
You have to enjoy roughing it a bit to get the best out of a stay in a bothy. You might have mice for company, you might arrive to find it full with other walkers and have to stay outside and you might even have to carry your own fire wood or coal. But this book convinces you that there are more pros than cons to using bothies.
It is a beautifully presented book with plenty of idyllic photos and crammed full of the author's personal experiences of staying in the featured bothies. These stories are wonderfully written and really capture the magic of the bothy experience. There are also maps, GPS coordinates, information about fuel and water sources, suggested walking routes to get to the bothy and the wildlife that can be spotted. There is a detailed description of how many rooms and exactly what is inside the bothy, which in most cases, is not very much.
This is a lovely book for anybody curious about bothies and for walkers and climbers looking for a serious guide.
You can buy the book by clicking on the Amazon image below:
This book celebrates the bicycle from its invention to Victorian trick cyclists and from BMX bandits to Le Tour de France. It is presented in an easily digestible format with plenty of photos and a well-written, chirpy text. Absolutely everything to do with bicycles is in here and it is a joy to leaf through the pages.
Just have a look at the contents of this book and you will see that nothing has been missed in the story of the bicycle. This includes the bike in art, film and books, the birth of the mountain bike, cycle racing and record attempts. There are also features on iconic bikes like The Chopper and the Dawes Galaxy. It is a chunky book, but presented beautifully with loads of interesting pictures and illustrations. There is even a guide to fixing punctures. If you love bicycles and want to know lots of interesting things about them then you will love this book.
You can buy the book from Amazon by clicking on the image below:
The location of the Bettyhill Hotel is breathtaking. It overlooks Torrisdale Bay on the far north coast of Scotland, around 100 miles north of Inverness. It is on the route of the North Coast 500, Scotland's version of Route 66, so ideally placed for visiting this beautiful area. The rooms are modern and comfortable and the food is excellent.
If you manage to bag one of the rooms with a sea view you will be mesmerised by the stunning blue bay and its golden sands. On a sunny day you would be forgiven for thinking you were elsewhere, perhaps Australia. The view is just as good from the restaurant. The hills across the water are green and golden; golden because they are peppered with sand all the way to the top, the cause of powerful storms spraying the hill with the grains.
Traditional meals like haddock and chips are cooked perfectly. Desserts like chocolate torte are gorgeous and indulgent. The breakfast is solid with the usual choices and my scrambled egg on crostini was perfection.
The hotel building is traditional 19th century architecture and painted immaculate white. It sits right on the main road, but don't worry as this is a very quiet place at night. There are 20 bedrooms, some with shared bathroom facilities, so if you want en suite make sure to check before you book.
The hotel has an interesting history. It had originally been affiliated with a petrol station - look out for the gate posts with the stone shell emblem, representing a certain oil company. The hotel would have had a petrol pump and appealed to wealthy fishing clients who expected high standards of service that included shoe shinning and an onsite hairdresser. These affiliated hotels were once common across the Highlands, so it is nice to know that you are staying in a place with heritage.
The owner had told me about the building's past- the friendliness of the staff is another plus point of the hotel.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the Bettyhill Hotel is one of the most outstanding locations in this part of Scotland. That view of the bay is to die for.
I stayed in the Bettyhill Hotel during my cycle ride from Kildonan to Cape Wrath.
This incredible sculpture stands on a remote hilltop in Sutherland, 100 miles north of Inverness. The journey to get here is well worth the experience of standing next to this 8 foot giant.
Near the village of Bettyhill you will find Borgie Forest. Here there is an uphill path to the sculpture. It takes your breath away because it is such an unlikely sight in a remote forest. The long legs, the sturdy rib cage and the big feet will enthrall you. You will want to stand next to it and walk around it.
Take a look at the head and what the giant is looking at. Is it just checking out the view or perhaps looking towards its home, the place it once lived?
The Unknown is representative of the outcast figure that features so prominently in Scotland's history, people like William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the families of the Highland Clearances.
The sculptor is Kenny Hunter who is renowned for many well-known works across Scotland and elsewhere. The firefighter figure outside Glasgow Central Station is one of his, as is the goat standing atop packing crates in Spitalfields, London. The Unknown is undoubtedly the most remote of his works, appropriate for these outcast figures who were typically banished to distant lands.
You can read more about my experience of visiting this sculpture, including a map and details about cycling there in my travel feature about the area.
My name is Colin Baird and I want to see all of Scotland by bicycle.