21 Sept 2010

The simple extravagance of Scottish mussels

You know when you eat out at a restaurant and one course is so good it almost causes you to stop breathing? My Scotsman and I recently enjoyed an overnight stay at a hotel in the highlands, where he ordered Scottish mussels in a white wine and cream sauce.

We loved it so much that once we were home we couldn’t stop talking about it and decided to have a go at cooking mussels ourselves.

Yesterday we bought a wee bag of mussels that had been grown in Loch Roag in the Outer Hebrides. JP lifted a recipe from the Internet for a white wine sauce and went for it.

In a word: exquisite. And with buttered crusty bread to sop up the aromatic sauce, this is definitely a meal to make again.

Scottish mussels are a treat not to be missed. Wild mussels are in season between September and March and are at their best in February. Whether you are making them yourself or out at a restaurant (have a read through The List’s Eating and Drinking Guide for recommendations), Scottish mussels just feel like an extravagance. Yum.

To learn more about Scottish mussels, visit Eat Scotland.

20 Sept 2010

Sand, sea and history at Lunan Bay

Driving towards Lunan Bay on the Angus coast, there are glimpses of the beach stretching out from Boddin Point to Lang Craig. But this doesn’t give you the real sense of scale.

This only happens once you have parked the car and are making your way up over the dunes. Distracted by the sand already pouring into your shoes, you hit the crest of the hill unprepared for the two-mile smile which suddenly glows up at you.

Despite being named one of Scotland’s best beaches, there are so few people around that you feel a bit like an intruder. But once you step onto the beach itself, this feeling changes and suddenly you are a part of the scene, one of the pieces moving inside the painting.

If you had the magical ability to move through time, you could tug yourself back a thousand years and watch Viking ships coming ashore here before the marauders are beaten back by King Malcolm II’s army.
Move a hundred years or so into the future and you could see the slow and steady construction of Red Castle, which today resembles a giant stone Tetris piece.
Like any beach, Lunan Bay invites exploration. Stand still and almost breathless until the seabirds forget you are there and resume their shallow water puttering and their sudden, mad squabbles over scraps of food.

Spend time walking with long, slow strides, casting your eye over the barrage of pretty pebbles in search of the agates and gemstones that often reveal themselves here.

As the sun creeps out once again from behind a bank of cloud, leave the Red Castle behind and head north towards the crumpled cliffs that wear green hats and crusty patches of yellow over their faces.
As you draw closer your heart begins to race as the word “cave!” bellows in your mind.

Yes, you are a pirate, come to seek the treasure you have heard was hidden here hundreds of years ago.

Moving into the shadows you study every inch, imagining how you would tuck yourself in during a storm and whether the tide would reach the tiny ledge in the very darkest corner.

By the time you head back there will be so much sand in your shoes there is no point in fighting it. Instead, climb around the dunes and watch the wind carve grandiose shapes from the sand, one grain at a time.

Finally it’s time to go. You have only be gone a few short hours, but it feels like days. Does it get any better than that?

19 Sept 2010

Calendar winners!

Ben Buie, Scotsman Calendar (June)

This has been the most fun I have had with a giveaway so far. The responses to where you would most like to set up your cameras around the country has really inspired me.

I think between us we’ve covered the country coast to coast. If you haven’t had a chance to browse the comments, I encourage you to do so.

I have given up cutting bits of paper for the hat of treats, and have succumbed to using random.org to select the winners. However I still get my Scotsman to press the magic button!

Thanks to everyone who shared their stories and ideas. Also thank you to the Scotsman for sponsoring these gifts.

The three winners are:

Gabrielle, who sent in this answer by email: "I would set up my camera in Edinburgh, high enough to capture the quaintness of the city, and well as the beautiful and stoic Edinburgh castle."

Maybelinne in California who would love to travel in time in order to photograph her grandparents' Edinburgh home in 1965.

Julia C who emailed: "I would set up my camera on top of the Wallace Monument in Stirling. When I was there, the sight I saw in front of me was stunning. I could see all of Stirling, with Perth in one direction but seeing it made me realize just how vast Scotland is but at the same time, how small it was. I could see the hills and the energy windmills from far away. There were clouds behind the hills but there was also sun. Every time I think of where I stood, I get teary eyed and would love to take pictures of it again."

Hooray! I shall gather the snail mail addresses of our winners and send off the calendars this week.

Don’t forget, the Scotsman gives away free calendars every month so if you haven’t entered their giveaway already, click here to put your name in the hat.

15 Sept 2010

The 2011 Scotsman Calendar is here

Every year for 79 years, the editorial team at the Scotsman has poured over photographs from around the country, whittling down hundreds of options to just 12 magnificent images that highlight the diversity and beauty of Scotland’s landscape. These calendars are sold around the world to people eager to keep a bit of Scotland close at hand.

The 2011 Scotsman Wall Calendar has just been released and I’m bursting with excitement because they have just become my first giveaway sponsor!

The folks at the Scotsman have provided me with THREE beautiful calendars to give away! There are gorgeous photos from all over Scotland, including Glamis Castle in Angus (March), Ben Buie on the Isle of Mull (June), and Arrochar Alps in the Trossachs (November). The photos I've posted here are the ones used for the 2011 calendar. You can see them all on the Scotsman Calendar Web site.
This is an airmail friendly giveaway so anyone can enter. The only person who is not eligible to win a calendar is the winner of last month’s giveaway (sorry Pat!).

To enter, please answer the following question: If you could set up your camera anywhere in Scotland to take a photograph, where would it be? You can leave your answer in the comments or by emailing me at scotland4thesenses@gmail.com and including “Scotsman Calendar” in the subject line.

The deadline for entries: Saturday 18 September. I shall announce the three winners on Sunday, 19 September.

Along with this blog giveaway, anyone can enter to win a free copy of the calendar through the Scotsman’s Web site (10 winners are chosen each month). Click here for more information.

14 Sept 2010

Try one pie and you'll want Mhor

If you are ever driving through Callendar in the rain, find a place to park and wander the high street until you find Mhor Bread.

If you are packing for a picnic (it can’t rain all the time) pick up a loaf of their artisan bread. But if all you want is something tasty to take away, allow yourself to be drawn towards the pastry case where a small tower of savoury pies are waiting.
The steak pie comes highly recommended by the staff, but Mhor Bread has also won awards for their traditional Scotch Pie. This will make your decision more difficult, however if you are lucky the lovely Sally will help you make your selection.

I went for the scotch pie and am delighted to report a peppery filling and crunchy pastry. Next time I will sample the steak pie and perhaps a loaf of olive and rosemary bread.

Also, do not leave the Mhor bakery without a package of buttered bannocks. JP didn’t enjoy the way the flavour lingered between that of a biscuit and an oatcake but I absolutely adored them, finding them extremely moorish and perfect with a sweet cup of tea. I can’t wait to make them for myself.

Anyone have a favourite grab-and-go Scottish food?

12 Sept 2010

The many rewards of a hike in Dollar Glen

I have dozens of failed photos from our visit to Dollar Glen. There seemed no way to capture the depth of the place, the layers of green.

Massive ferns brushed our skin as we walked under tall trees, the rustling leaves constantly shifting the light at our feet.

The moss, sponge-like and dripping, clung in vast carpets over sheer rock faces and wrapped itself like a sleeve around fallen logs.
Everywhere around us the sound of streams and waterfalls added to the Glen’s atmosphere of luxurious clutter. Not surprisingly, Dollar Glen is one of the most popular walking destinations in Clackmannashire, Scotland’s smallest historic county, which borders Perth and Kinross, Stirling and Fife.

The relatively easy uphill climb is made all the more wonderful when you emerge at the top to see a ruined castle rising up through the trees.
Originally known as Castle Gloom, the land and castle were taken over in 1465 by Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll, and it has been known as Castle Campbell ever since.

After being destroyed by royalists in 1654, it was left to fall into ruin, but today it still makes an impressive sight, nestled as it is among the forests at the top of the Glen.

Castle highlights include the cobbled entrance into the gardens, where the last of the summer roses still blooming against the high walls.

The trap door leading to the pit prison has been propped open so visitors can gape down into the cold, dirt-lined space and imagine what it would have been like to sit there alone in the dark for days or even weeks.
But the thing I adored most of all had to be the two carved masonry masks in the top floor ceiling.

At one time oil lamps would have hung from their mouths and I couldn’t help thinking that modern light fittings simply do not compare.

The castle’s tower can still be climbed and offers spectacular views over the valley below and over to the Ochil Hills behind.

The lure was too great and despite the threat of rain we couldn’t resist a hike up to Bank Hill. We had only just hit the bottom when the wind started to howl and the rain swept over us, but there was no stopping.

Nearing the top of the steep slope, my clothes wet, my chest heaving and my legs rubbery with fear as much as exertion (for I am a supremely lacking in confidence when it comes to climbing), I looked up to see my beaming Scotsman, engaged in an enthusiastic rendition of the Rocky dance.

It is easy to see why hill walkers around the country are drawn to this area, where even a short hike can reward visitors with dramatic views and the sense of being blissfully alone in the world. It is places like Dollar Glen and the Ochil Hills that make me all the more passionate for Scotland.

We are finally off to the Highlands for a couple of days - what a way to start the week!

8 Sept 2010

Edinburgh's ancient outdoor fitness mecca

This is the perfect time of year to get out for a hike after work, to stretch out those hours of daylight as far as they will go.

In Edinburgh the hills around Holyrood Park are slowly changing from summer green to autumn gold. In the late afternoon of a sunny day, Arthur’s Seat looms above the city like a gentle giant.

One of the things I love about Arthur’s Seat and the entire landscape of Holyrood Park is it is a place for everyone, whatever your fitness level.

There I was, lumbering slowly upwards, stopping again and again to catch my breath and take photos, while members of the super fit clan ran past us up the hill and other returning walkers meandered back to the city.
I couldn’t help wondering who would want to spend time in a gym when an extinct volcano is available and free for anyone to use. Aside from the cardio (wheeze, wheeze), the hike can also be filed under strength training and even balance work as you (carefully!) traverse some of the more uneven sections of trail.
Even at my snail’s pace it only takes about 45 minutes to get to the top. Along with the views of the city and the beautiful undulations of the hills, there is the added bonus of people watching.

I love how people interact with this place and the strange sense of community that takes over me when I am there at the top with others who have made the climb.
Grinning tourists, out-of-breath dog walkers, artists hunched over sketch pads - everyone apart but together in this moment of being on top of the world.

I have never been at the top during the summer solstice sunrise but it is something I would love to do because I think the feeling of kinship would be intensified when everyone has gathered there for a single purpose.
If you are visiting Edinburgh you cannot miss the chance to walk the hills of Holyrood Park and climb Arthur’s Seat. There is something magical about the place and it is sure to give you a whole new perspective on Scotland’s Capital.

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