8 May 2010

Armchair travels: My favourite Scotland guidebooks

There is nothing like being stuck indoors on a beautiful day, with a cold that won’t quit. It started on Monday after we got back from Balquhidder and is just hanging on. To top off the sniffling and body ache, it has crept into my chest and I now have a terrible hollow cough.

As I sit here in my pathetic state, I think longingly of all the places I want to visit around Scotland. Helping my mind become a pinball game of ideas and inspiration is the small cascade of guidebooks I have managed to accumulate over the past 5 years.

The first book was a recent birthday gift from my Scotsman. It is not one I can lug around with me because it is 500 pages of hardcover goodness. Hamish Haswell-Smith’s The Scottish Islands details not only those islands popular with tourists, but all the uninhabited islands as well.

Each entry includes a map and information about the island’s geography, ownership, population, history, and wildlife. If you had a mind to visit all of the islands listed in this book you would have to make it your life’s work.

From the largest book to the smallest: I love my copy of Richard Rowe’s Wildlife Traveller for the Scottish Mainland.

The book is chopped up into five sections around Scotland, in which several of the best wildlife watching options are listed, complete with directions on how to get there, the best time of year to visit and things to look out for when you’re there.

Published by Pocket Mountains, this is one of a wide series of handy small guides for Scotland.

The next two guides are ones I often refer to and tend to carry around with me if JP and I are heading out for an adventure without a definite plan of what we are doing.

They are my property guides for Historic Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, which I received with my membership to both organizations. With my membership cards I can get in free to any of the properties, so I am keen not to pass up an opportunity to visit a building or site I haven’t seen before.

Both books provide directions and background to their properties, as well as area maps in which a multitude of sites are dotted to help visitors plan tours of more than one site in a day.

 I mean, if you’re already stopping at the Falkland Palace and Gardens, why not swing past the Royal Burgh of Culross?

Hot off the press for the summer is the 17th edition of The List’s Eating and Drinking Guide for Edinburgh and Glasgow. If you already like to eat out, this will make your life even more delectably difficult, as the magazine is nearly 200 pages of temptation.

After introducing this year’s Eating and Drinking awards, including the reader’s awards and newcomers of the year, the magazine launches into various “hitlist” sections for the two cities, covering arts venues and bistros, to world cuisine and even suggestions for best late night dining or eateries known for responsible food sourcing (local, seasonal and/or organic).

The “Scottish” section is also helpful for visitors looking for suggestions on where to eat in order to sample some of the best the country has to offer.
The book I take with me the most is my old, beat up copy of The Rough Guide to Scotland. It is outdated now (2004) but it remains a great general reference for places to see and bus/train information.

This is the book I had with us when JP and I attempted to camp up north last May and were forced to sleep in the car when a gale was battering our tent. The tent and the book were blown away in the night and while the tent did not survive the ordeal, my Rough Guide dried out on the dash board and now wears its warped pages like a an old battlehorse.

A note for foodies: I don’t find this the best reference when it comes to good places to eat, but there are other books for that.

Sue Lawrence’s A Cook’s Tour of Scotland is not officially a guidebook, but with its combination of recipes and stories from around the country, it is a perfect way to turn your kitchen into a taste-of-Scotland experiment.

From seaweed “tartare sauce” to Orkney fudge cheesecake, Fife miner’s stew and tattie soup, it remains my favourite cookbook of the past few years.

Filed under quaint and quirky comes one of my favourite guidebooks: Scotland Recommends.

Published by Edinburgh’s Luath Press, the book was born from a series of supplements in the Scotsman Newspaper in 2007. It features wonderful lists like “best high level drives,” “Wishing wells and trees,” and “places to fly kites.”

How else would I have found out about things like the Robert the Bruce yew tree in Inchlongaig, or that Brodick Castle and Country Park is one of the best places in the country to see Red Squirrels? From dive sites to delicatessens, caves to cathedrals, this wee book is a treasure trove of local gems. More information from www.scotsman.com/recommends

Finally, my favourite foodie guide, a new publication from The List and the Scottish Organic Producer’s Association. The Larder is the first place I turn for information on Scotland’s food and drink because it is thorough and showcases the best Scotland has to offer.

It’s not just a list of farm shops or restaurants; it provides background on the products themselves, like an overview of Scottish cheeses and two pages dedicated to “oat cuisine.” Highlights include a guide to cooking shellfish, where to find the best grass-fed beef, and a behind-the-scenes look at Scotland’s soft fruit industry.

The word is a second edition of The Larder should be out in September, and that a separate edition has been commissioned for the Kingdom of Fife.

I have a few more guidebooks besides these, but I thought I would just list the ones I use most often. The one book I don’t yet have, which I have heard that many Scots swear by, is Peter Irvine’s Scotland the Best.

Now it is time to get things organized for a bit of cooking, as I attempt to create a beef casserole cooked with the Hebridean Brewing Company’s Islander Ale. It is a simple casserole of beef and onions and the goal is to cook it in the oven for 4-5 hours at a low setting. Fingers crossed it turns out well.

Thanks for visiting me. Do you have any favourite guidebooks to Scotland?

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