Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Loch Lomond, Stirling Castle and Glengoyne Distillery

Today the weather looks much better and it will be partly sunny and in the mid 60's. We have an organized tour today through Rabbies (http://www.rabbies.com) of Loch Lomond, Stirling Castle and Glengoyne Distillery. I booked it online a month or so before our trip. I had originally purchased a tour from a different company to Loch Lomond that cruised on the Loch. I cancelled it as a boat trip might not be fun if it rained. The other tour also did not visit a distillery.

After getting ready we went downstairs for breakfast.The hotel offers a continental breakfast and a full cooked breakfast. For some strange reason it is £1 less for the Continental (total of £7) but you get more food. The items available were not mind blowing but adequate to start our day.

Indigo Breakfast
We enjoyed our leisurely breakfast and then departed for our 9:15 am rendezvous with Rabbies. It was overcast but not raining as we walked the 4 -5 blocks to the meeting spot at George Square. We cut through part of Buchanan Street to get there.

Apple Store
When we reached Monteith Street in front of George Square there were other tours departing from the same location. We were 20 minutes early but wanted to make sure we arrived on time. Directly across the street from the meeting spot is George Square.

George Square is the city's central plaza and dates from 1782. It is named for King George III. The City Chambers (headquarters of the Glasgow City Council) is located in the square and it is a grand building with tons of Carrara marble inside. There are also important statues and monuments flanking the square, including those of Robert Burns, James Watt, Sir Robert Peel and Sir Walter Scott.

In advance of the 2014 Commonwealth Games which will take place in Glasgow, they are renovating the entire square and removing the red bricks. They are being replaced with gray pavers. They are also adding some grassy areas that apparently were removed some years ago. The first phase is due to be completed in September at a cost of £500,000. This will restore the square to its original appearance. Some Glaswegians have previously referred to the area mockingly as "Red Square".

George Square under renovation
In quick succession, some of the other tour guides came to pick up their passengers and escort them to the bus. Not long after Rabbies showed up and we checked in to find out which of the two mini Mercedes buses we should board. We were on the second bus which holds 16 people, and our guide/driver is named George.

The bus has single seats on the left and double seating on the right. We sat on the right and it was a bit snug for the all day tour. We were ready to depart but needed to wait for two more people who had not shown up. George was very patient and was about to call the office for permission to leave when our two wayward stragglers arrived. They were a Canadian mother and her 12 year old son. The mother said they got lost and walked way beyond the meeting point. However, later on the mom mentioned she and her son are staying in Glasgow with her sister for 3 weeks. My guess is they overslept. In any event they were very nice and I glad they made it in time.

As we departed the city, George pointed out some of the historic tenement buildings. Many of these buildings were torn down and replaced with modern apartment blocks. It was nice to see they are not all gone.

Tenement Style building
Soon we were on the motorway heading to Stirling Castle. George was a great guide and gave us excellent information during the journey about the tour and and also about Scotland and its history. He said he usually doesn't do this tour and had just returned from a 5 day tour of the Isle of Skye.

In preparation of our visit to Stirling Castle, George shared information about Scottish history and the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. This was a historic victory for Scotland's independence. This battle was portrayed in Mel Gibson's movie Braveheart. George played a short snippet from the film over the PA system.

Scotland has had a storied past. In addition to their territorial disputes with England, they have achieved great prominence in areas as diverse as literature, business and medicine. Scottish literary luminaries include Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J M Barrie and more recently J K Rowling.

The number of Scottish is inventors is jaw dropping. Steam Engine - James Watt, Tar road surfacing - John McAdam, the bicycle - Kirkpatrick Macmillan, Light bulb - Bowman Lindsay, .Antiseptic - Joseph Lister, Telephone - Alexander Graham Bell, Television - John Logie Baird, Penicillin - Alexander Fleming, Radar - Sir Robert Watson Watt, fax machine - Alexander Bain, lawnmower - Patrick Bell. Two of the World's best known capitalists are Scottish, Adam Smith and Andrew Carnegie. Least we forget that the game of golf was invented here too. Quite impressive!

It took about 35 minutes to reach the outskirts of Stirling. There are many farms in the area and the setting is gorgeous. The castle is quite impressive perched up on Castle Hill.

Approaching Stirling Castle
We drove through the small town of Stirling which looked quaint with lots of grey stone buildings. The roads are quite narrow as we meandered up toward the castle. George parked the bus and lead us past the cemetery to the ticket office of the Castle.

Large graveyard

Stirling Castle admission is not included in the Rabbies tour price but Rabbies participants get a discount, saving a few pounds.

Ticket office
The ticket office had 4 separate ticket counters. After we purchased our tickets, George informed us we had a little over an hour to enjoy the castle and be back at the bus. Stirling Castle offers a free guided tour on the hour and we were just in time to scamper and catch up with them. Only one other couple joined the tour as everyone else with Rabbies decided to see the Castle at their own pace.

The Princes Tower
Stirling Castle was founded in 1110 and the oldest surviving structures were built in 1380. Stirling is one of the largest and historically important castles in Scotland. Several Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary Queen of Scots in 1542.

Stirling Castle was the scene of at least 8 battles during the Wars of Scottish Independence. In 1296 Edward I of England invaded Scotland beginning a long history of land capture and retrenchment between the Scots and the English that would last for 60 years.

Almost all the present buildings in the castle were constructed between 1490 and 1600 during the Stewart kings (James IV, James V and James VI) Renaissance. The architecture of the new buildings is an eclectic mix of English, French and German influences.

Rear of the Royal Palace

The Royal Palace is at the south side of the inner Close (courtyard) and was the work of King James V. The French inspired building is covered with carved stone and is very beautiful. The castle was closed to the public for many years. A £12 million project to recreate the grandeur of the Royal Palace was completed in June 2011. The work took a decade of research and craftsmanship. The six royal apartments were restored as they may have looked in the 1540s, when this was the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots. The painstaking process of restoring the seven hand-woven unicorn tapestries was completed in 2013.

Statue of Soldier on the South Parapet
The tower below shows signs of a gun battle with bullet holes.

Bullet ridden tower
The juxtaposition of the Royal Palace building and the yellow-gold colored Great Hall is striking. The Great Hall was built by James IV in 1497. The Renaissance building has five fireplaces and large lead glass windows.

Royal Palace and the Great Hall
We made our way to the Great Hall and our guide provided some information on the building and how it was originally used by the King. Apparently it was plastered yellow as the German style represented a contemporary look at that time.

Great Hall
We walked up the side staircase to enter the building.

Entrance to the Great Hall
The Great Hall is connected to the Royal Palace building by a passageway.

The large windows with crest inserts flood the room with light.

Beautiful windows
There is a  throne for the king and queen but no other furnishings.

Dias for the King and Queen

The Stirling guide explained the history of the building as we walked around. Afterward, we departed the Great Hall and headed to the King Old's Building. Our castle guide is pictured below. He reminds me a little of Sir Ian McKellan.

King Old's Building
The King Old's building is the oldest part of the Inner Close and was completed around 1497. In 1855 the north end of the building burned down and was rebuilt in a Baronial style. Inside the building there are costumed docents who answer questions about the bed chambers as well as pose for photos.

King's Bed Chamber
It was very crowded in the apartments and a little hard to see everything. The restoration work is wonderful though and you can imagine what the castle looked like hundreds of years ago.

Apartment with restored unicorn tapestries

Many people wanted to pose with the costumed docents which created a bit of a bottleneck.

We exited the building and took a walk around the exterior to take in the views of the castle and the countryside.

The sun was struggling to breakthrough the clouds. It was getting warmer and was about 70 degrees. The grounds and views of the countryside were beautiful.

View from Stirling Castle
I can only imagine what it looked like from here when the English were approaching to attack the castle. They definitely could see them coming!

We took a peek in the impressive gift shop. They had for sale books, black Scottie stuffed animals, miscellaneous gifts and a whisky section. I was tempted to buy a cute book on Scottish phrases but decided not to as I didn't want to make my bag any heavier.

Gift Shop

Scottish Whisky selection
It was now time to make our way back to the bus.

Royal Palace, Forework (entrance) and the current gift shop 
We passed the ice cream truck on the way to the parking lot.

Scottish Ice cream
Back at the bus everyone showed up on time and we departed for our visit to Loch Lomond. George answered some questions about the castle and played some Scottish music during the drive to the Loch. We passed through a little town with cute houses along the way. I love how they cover the houses with foliage.

Cute houses
In the town, which I think was Callander, we passed a pretty church and some shops.

Driving by the church
I found the hardware store sign very funny.

How appropriate!
It was a quick pass through the town before we made a pit stop at Doune Castle. This castle is perhaps best known as the setting for the 1975 movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The film is a comedy and is loosely based on the legend of King Arthur. This stop was not included on the tour so perhaps it was requested from the 12 year old Canadian boy. He seemed to have a pass with him that he had printed online. It was only a 10 minute break and we could stretch our legs again.

Doune Castle from Monty Python fame
The castle charges a fee to enter so we walked to the entrance and took a peek inside. It is basically a ruin.

Mission accomplished, we assembled back on the bus for the 25 minute drive to Loch Lomond. On the way we passed a beautiful hotel called Tigh Mor. George pulled the bus over so we could get off and take some photos.

Tigh Mor Hotel
We made a couple short stops at a loch  (cannot remember the name) and also to see a pair of Highland Cows before reaching our destination.

Loch in Trossachs National Park

Hamish (tan) and his "wife" Amy (black)
The cows are very friendly and actually walked over to say "hello". They seem very well cared for.

We are now in what is known as the Trossachs. It is very green and there are beautiful hills and opportunities for hiking.

Trossachs National Park is one of two national parks in Scotland. It was established in 2002 by the Scottish Parliament. The Trossachs are a mountainous region with deep cut glens, shimmering lochs, purple heather and green forests. The park is the fourth largest in the British Isles with a total area of 720 square miles. It includes 21 munros (mountains over 3000 ft), 2 forests and 57 nature conservation sites.

We arrived in Balmaha in the Trossachs which is a small town on the banks of Loch Lomond, George guided us down the road and then those that wanted a better view of the loch could climb the steps to the top of the hill.

Walking to the Loch
There is are steps up the hill and then after that a path that goes up still higher.

Path to viewpoint
Due to all the foliage from ground level you cannot get a good vantage point of the lake. I joined the group that climbed the steps to the view point overlooking the Loch. My mother, the Canadian mother and 5 other people stayed behind.

Loch Lomond is the largest loch (lake) in the UK. It is 24 miles long, 5 miles wide and up to 600 feet deep with 38 islands. The loch is watched over by Ben Lomand, a mountain of 3,192 feet. Ben Lomand is very popular with hill walkers and it takes 4 -5 from top to bottom roundtrip. There is a famous song about Loch Lomond reputed to be about two of Bonnie Prince Charlie's soldiers who were captured in 1745.

The story says one of the soldiers was to be executed and the other released. The ghost or spirit of the dead soldier would makes it way home to loch lomond on the "low road" before the other soldier was released. He would have to take the long way home over the hills and mountains, or the "high road".

The song has been popular in Scotland for many years but in 1991the Scottish band Runrig played a massive outdoor concert on the shores of Loch Lomond and the song exploded. The second verse is probably familiar to most people:

Oh ye'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road,
An' I'll be in Scotland before ye',
But wae is my heart until we meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond

This is a link to the Runrig concert: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzQ1pNfbe3Q

Beautiful Loch Lomond from Balmaha
It was not a hard climb but I went up fast to keep up! I was a little out of breath. I moved quickly as I wasn't sure how long it would take but it was only about a 5 - 7 minute climb. The view was spectacular. However, I was getting a little worried about the 12 year old as he was getting very close to edge and it just drops off. I was fearing we would have to explain to his mother what happened to him! George didn't seem fazed. I am guessing he thinks this is what young boys do.

While at the top I spoke with two of the people on our tour. I was surprised that they were from Brittany. I told them how much we enjoyed seeing Dinard, Dinan and St. Malo last spring. We actually started talking when I remarked the walk up the hill was much easier than last winter in Halong Bay, Vietnam when I needed help to get down. They had also visited Vietnam but during the summertime.

The descent here was not difficult but I was careful so as not to slip and fall and injure myself. One of the other tour participants kept up the rear to make sure I was okay on the way down.

We rejoined the group and my mother told me that while we were on the hill, the Canadian mother all of a sudden started to have a bit of a panic attack about her son and if he was okay. How she could sense he was almost dangling off the top of the precipice I have no idea!

Map of Loch Lomond and the park
At the visitor center their is a small office and a map of the area. The view of the loch at ground level doesn't compare from the hilltop. We have been very lucky with the weather today. Supposedly tomorrow it is going to rain.

Loch Lomond at ground level
On the way back to the bus we passed some people walking their dogs. The one with four dogs was very impressive. I have enough trouble just walking two.

Great day for a walk

We boarded the bus again for the drive to Aberfoyle where could have lunch. It was only about a 20 minute drive. The countryside was very pretty during the drive. However, I noticed the best views were on the left side of the bus. We were on the right side so I didn't get many good photos and it was a little frustrating.

Trossachs on the way to Aberfoyle

I spotted a lot of livestock as well as horses during the drive.

During the journey to Aberfoyle we asked George how he felt about the vote and referendum next year for Scottish independence. He had served in the English army for 8 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has spent a lot of time with the English. He was careful not to boast but it was clear he was going to vote in favor of Scotland going their own way. It will be interesting to see what happens in September 2014.

We pulled into Aberfoyle, a small town in the Trossachs with a wool mill shopping center, lots of restaurants and hotels. George suggested a few places for lunch and told us what time to be back. We only had about an hour. I had read about the Quack Commando show with a sheep dog and ducks and true to form they were straight ahead as we walked toward the main building.

Char (Charlie) and his ducks
Charlie "Char" the Border Collie was truly enamored with his ducks. He would not take his eyes off of the them. The show takes place at 1:00 pm daily and we had about 5 more minutes before it started. Charlie's owner was explaining the different varieties of sheep on view but I was only interested in the dog and his ducks.

Varieties of sheep

Finally it was time for the show and Charlie quickly got to work! He is 10 years old and is still quite spry. He listened intently to his master as he directed the ducks through and obstacle course. He is an amazing dog!

Char herding his ducks!
We didn't stay for entire show or else we probably would not get to eat. We went across the road to look at a fish & chips shop and also considered the Coach Inn, before finally selecting to eat at The Forth Inn.

The Forth Inn - our lunch spot
It was a very cute restaurant that was divided into two sides. We chose the less crowded one and the menus were the placemats so that sped up the ordering process.

Forth Inn Interior
We both chose to have the fish & chips. I had a cider and my mother had a glass of wine. We also shared an order of yummy onion rings. We told the server we were sort of in a hurry and they expedited the order.

Yummy Fish & Chips
Lunch was a success and we were stuffed! They processed the payment quickly too so we didn't have to wait. We finished our meal with only about 10 minutes remaining before the bus was due to depart. We took a quick look inside the Wool Mill and the surroundings on the way to the parking lot.

Wool Mill Shopping
I snapped a few more photos before getting back on the bus. I didn't realize until we boarded that we were the last people to arrive.

A cute Hebridean sheep

We departed Aberfoyle for our last and final stop, the Glengoyne Distillery. It has been a long day but the pacing has been excellent and it is so much easier to do this with a guide.

Leaving Aberfoyle
The Glengoyne Distillery is on the way back to Glasgow. We were told it would take about 25 minutes to get there. George is a terrific guide and a great driver. I am very happy we took this tour.

As we approached the distillery it looked like we were in the forest. The foliage was very lush and abundant with lots of tall trees.

Glengoyne Distillery was founded in 1833 and is the most southern distillery in Scotland producing Highland single malt whisky. The distillery is located right on the line separating the highlands from the lowlands. It is one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland.

Map showing the boundary between the Highlands and the Lowlands. 

The white building is adorable and because the distillery is small it provides more of a cozy feeling, that is if you can discount the large number of tourists taking the tours.

We purchased our tickets for the tour and were then led into a lounge to watch a short video and have a tasting of the 10 year old whisky. The 12 year old boy and 2 other teenagers did not do the tasting but were offered water instead. Lorna, our guide was excellent and very enthusiastic. She was very proud of Glengoyne distillery and it showed.

Lorna gave a short description of Glengoyne and why it is "special" and differs from other Scottish distilleries. To begin with they do not use peat in their maturation process. Other distilleries will use peat smoke to dry their barley. At Glengoyne they use warm air. This gives the whisky a clear bright appearance and distinctive flavor.

Before we were led out of the room to tour the distillery, Lorna informed us that no photos are allowed inside the building.

Glengoyne Distillery buildings

Special Casks

We entered the building with the large oak barrel tubs (I think there were 6) and Lorna lifted the top so we could all take a whiff. It looked very soupy and actually smelled quite nice. This room was very warm and a little humid. We next went up the little metal staircase to the Still area of which there are 3. Lorna explained that it takes months to make one batch and everything is done by hand. There is no computer or other mechanization. We walked by the little book with pencil markings noting the schedule. Making whisky is a painstaking process!

As we exited the building we were told we could take a photo looking in from the outside. The Stills are very pretty.

Whisky Stills

Whisky Distillery

This part of the tour now complete, we were led back to the gift shop where Lorna explained the different whisky varieties they sell.

Lorna explaining the different ages of Whisky they make
My admission price also entitled me to a tasting of the 17 year old Whisky which has won quite a few rewards. I definitely liked it better than the first one. It was much more smooth.

Whisky Display


Carafes and other merchandise for sale
We looked around the shop at the merchandise but did not make any purchases. We did complete a card to enter a raffle with the prize being a £3,000 bottle of Glengoyne whisky.

We enjoyed the tour of the distillery and slowly wandered back to the bus. I am happy we soon be back in Glasgow. It was fun but tiring day.

Heading back to Glasgow
The drive back was uneventful and once we arrived we tipped George and told him what a great job he did. We would gladly sign up for any of his other tours. If we had more time, four days in Skye sounds terrific!

Going to dinner
It had apparently rained in Glasgow during our absence. The pavements was wet as we trudged down Mitchell Street to find Lychee Oriental. I had pre-booked this Chinese restaurant for dinner. I contemplated having Scottish food but I don't think we will be having much Asian food during the remainder of the trip.

Lychee Oriental
Lychee Oriental has been open for about a year and the reviews I read online were glowing. Again we are early for our dinner and arrived at 5:00 pm. The owner, a nice Chinese woman showed us to a table. The restaurant is very modern and since we are early, they had a happy hour menu plus the full regular menu. We immediately ordered libations, Lychee Bellini for me and wine for mother.

Lychee Bellini

We decided to order off the regular menu. We shared the dim sum sampler first. The sauce was a little too pungent but the dumplings were very good.

Dim Sum
Service was excellent and the rest of the order soon arrived.

Chicken Katsu Curry
I had the Chicken Katsu Curry, while not Chinese I been having a craving for it. My mother had the Duck with plums and lychees. Both dishes were delicious.

Duck with Lychee and Plums

We also decided to order a dessert to share. I let my mother choose and she selected the fried Banana with Coconut Ice Cream.

My serving of the Banana and ice cream

The woman and her son who own the restaurant were wonderful. We loved our meal and hope to be back.

Lychee Oriental bar area (mother and son in the background)
I convinced mother that we could walk back to the hotel as it was only on the opposite side of the train station. She wasn't happy but complied. In less than 10 minutes we were back at the hotel.

Back at the Indigo Hotel
Back in the room we quickly changed into our PJ's and used the free wifi before going to bed. My mother also watched a little television.

Tomorrow we will check out in the morning and fly from Glasgow to London Gatwick. We will spend one night in England before boarding the Ocean Princess the following day. We have enjoyed Glasgow very much and very glad we came.

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