Friday, March 12, 2010

More tea please!

As promised yesterday, the rest of the tea story. Tea as a drink, has been around for about 5,000 years. The story goes, that the Emperor of China, Shen Nung, discovered tea. It was very common for all water to be boiled before use, and one day when the Emperor was visiting a distance part of his empire, they stopped for a rest. The servants set about boiling water when some leaves from a camellia sinensis plant fell into the pot and became infused. When the servant who first tried the brew, did not drop over dead, the Emperor proclaimed "tea".
Tea was an important drink in the East for thousands of years before it started making its way West. In the early 1600's, the Dutch, who were considered "Kings of the Seas", started bringing back tea with them in their trade with the East. Tea caught on in the Dutch court and in the mid 1600's tea was introduced to New Amsterdam (later new York)in the American Colonies and became very big business.
Tea had also become very fashionable in Russia, traveling across the continent by camel caravan. To this day, Russian Caravan Tea is very popular. Tea was also very fashionable in Portugal. About this time, teas was introduced to Great Britain but was offered as a medicinal drink and did not catch on.
It was only when Charles II married a portuguese princess named Catherine de Broganza that tea caught on in the United Kingdom. Catherine brought a trunk of tea with her as part of her dowry and it soon became all the fashion. Tea at this time was still very expensive and was only popular with the elite, who were the only ones who could afford it. A pound of tea in the United Kingdom cost about $500US.
By the mid 1700's, tea was actually the national beverage of the American Colonies. American had been used to getting their tea from the Dutch becaue theEnglish and Dutch had been in a war. When the war ended, England cut out the middle man and started tea trade with the colonies. When George III took over the throne in 1760, he was amazed at the amount of tea that was being exported to the colonies and decided he needed to capitolize on it as he aquired a huge defecit. In 1773 he raised the tax on tea from 12% to 119%! Not just a little jump, but a huge jump. What resulted was the Boston Tea party, which effectively ended America's love affair with tea and led to the Revolution of 1776.
Tea had however, caught on quite well in Great Britain and by 1797 English tea drinking hits a rate of 2 pounds per capita annually, a rate that increases by five times over the next 10 years. By the mid 1800's, the Ceylon, Darjeeling and Assam regions of India were being cultivated for tea production and for the first time the majority of tea is no longer coming from China. This of course, decreased the cost of tea and it became even more popular and quickly surpassed ale as the national drink.
Today, green tea has become very popular, but no matter wether it is green, oolong or black, the only way it can be classified as tea, is if it comes from the original camellia sinensis plant. We have many different variaties that come from this plant and the differences are dependent on what region and how the plant is cultivated. Difference can also be based on the elevation the plant is grown at, the time of year the plant is grown and picked, and the location of the leaf on the plant itself.
We also have today many herbal infusions but these are not tea. You can only call it tea, if it comes from the camellia sinensis plant. And yes, all tea has caffeine and this includes green tea. And yes, black tea is as beneficial as green tea because once again, they come from the same plant.
Most tea in the States today is drank iced. You can credit this to Richard Blechynden. He decided that he would reintroduce tea to the American public, but had no idea that there would be a heatwave at the 1904 St. Loius Worlds Fair, where he intended to do this. He thought all was lost, but noticed a really good trade at the lemonade stands and decided to offer ice tea. It was a big hit.
Thomas Sullivan is inadvertenty responisble for the tea bag. He was sending samples to clients in small silk bags and they thought they were suppose to steep the tea in the bag. Thomas Lipton thought it a wonderful way to use the chaff or what was left over after using the best leaves of the plant. Before this, the chaff was discarded. He saw a way to capitolize on this by putting he chaff into tea bags. Today, most tea sold in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the States is sold in tea bags.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tea, Glorious Tea!

Only 2 more days and I am off to Ireland! I am so excited and I can't wait to get to Bunratty and have a nice cuppa! Having had a tearoom for so long and also making my own blends of tea for many years has aroused quite a curiosity for tea and all things tea. We always think of tea as being very British, and this is ri...ghtfully so, as they have done more with tea than anywhere else in the world, but Britain actually came quite late to tea. The British Isles of course does have the distinction of drinking more tea than anywhere else in the world.
The British Isles is made up of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Ireland is a Republic all unto itself, and having worked so hard to get there, they do not like to be included in this category. You will notice that in my posts I always say, The British Isles and Ireland. For clarity we will call Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England the United Kingdom as that is the appropriate title. This land grouping is small enough to fit into the state of Michigan, and yet they drink almost 200,000,000 cups tea daily, for every day of the year!
Ireland, however, holds the distinction of drinking more tea than any other country in the world. They average 7 cups of tea per person per day! I have never been anywhere in Ireland where the first thing that is done after greeting you, is putting the kettle on for tea. What a wonderful way to welcome someone to your home! The Irish are not particularly fond of flavored teas or herbal infusions. Irish Breakfast Tea is primarily Ceylon tea, which is a very small, dark tea leaf and produces a very dark cup of tea which much more resembles coffee. And the Irish want their tea strong!
In both Ireland and the United Kinggom almost all tea is served with milk but much fewer take sugar, only about 30 percent. You generally want to use milk and not cream, as cream masks the taste and milk enhances it.
I started blending tea about 10 years ago, and although there is no possible way that I could be labeled as a master, I have learned a tremendous amount about tea. I started blending tea for my tearoom and wanted blends that would reflect the areas of the British Isles and Ireland that I love so much. My very first blend I called "Wildflower Cottage", which was the name of our tearoom. It is a black tea blend of wild blackberry, rose, jamine and vanilla. The second blend is called "Queens View" after my very favorite view in the Perthshire area of Scotland. It is an assam blend with huckleberries and butterscotch.
It took quite a while for my "Isle of Skye" blend to come about, but in the process I came up with a few more blends. I have "Irish Morning", which is a ceylon tea blend with raspberries, cream and grenadine. "Yorkshire Dales", which is a darjeeling with pear, caramel and cardamom. "Mystic Glen", which is an assam with rhubarb and ginger. "Pembrokeshire Peach", which is black tea blend with peach, apricot and ginger. "Strawberries and Cream", which is funnily enough, strawberries and cream!And finally "Isle of Skye" came together. I wanted it to have an earthy taste and remind me of our ancestral homein Scotland. It eventually turned out as an assam with apples, cinnamon and vanilla!
I drink tea on a daily basis and I am always thrilled when magazines and newspapers come out with "new" ways that tea can be beneficial to you! Things tea blenders have know for years. Tomorrow I wil talk a little more about the origins of tea, its course from China into the Western World, the differing teas, tea leaves, and where they come from.
When I first get to Ireland however, I will raise my first cuppa to all my wonderful readers, who I will be thinking of fondly!

Shannon McDonald Tate

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Slieve League Donegal Ireland

For all of you who love the Cliffs of Moher, please do not get me wrong as I love them as well but they are not nearly as impressive as Slieve League in Northern Ireland! The cliff are not nearly as well known as the Cliffs of Moher and that is part of their attraction. They are not easy to get to either and this leaves a very unspoilt landscape. And the best part of all, a visit to the cliffs will not involve opening your wallet!
The cliffs are about 30 miles from Donegal traveling through Dunkineely, Killybegs, Kilcar and to Teelin where you found a narrow, winding, single lane road with hairpin turns and sheer drops. There is no margin for error and no barriers on the seaward side. Until just recently, the road wound around the cliff side with dramatic rises and falls that would leave even the most stalwart explorer breathless. In the past year the road was leveled out but it is still a one lane road that hugs the cliff side and can be a wee bit dangerous if you are not paying attention. I actually preferred the road more before they leveled it out, but it is much safer now, and now our minibus can even make the climb!
When you get to the car park at Bunglas Point, you can walk across a green meadow which abruptly stops and you will then be rewarded with a cliff side view that has a sheer drop to the Atlantic Ocean below! You can then look across and see the highest point of the cliffs which rise almost 2000 feet out of the ocean! From the car park there is still so much to see by walking the 1 1/2 miles to the cliff top.
As you walk towards the terrifyingly high top of the cliffs, you have spectacular views of the Sligo Mountains and Donegal Bay. A short walk will take you to the right of the cliff face of Bunglas (which literally means, the end of the cliff) which rises over the raging ocean below. There are a number of cairns to see as you travel along the cliff top before you drop down and cross One Mans Pass, which is a narrow ridge that will take you to the summit.
The ruins of a church with some early Christian hermitages lie near the pass. Returning from the summit by foot, one will pass the ruin of a watchtower at the end of Carrigan Head. This watchtower was constructed to defend the northwest coast during the early 19th century when there was the threat of Napoleonic attack. Walking on the eastern side of Slieve League there is a magnificent wilderness of rocks, streams and a deep rugged valley to your left.
No matter if you just want to take in the view from the car park or have a more adventurous view, the cliffs are awesomely spectacular/ If you are lucky enough to be here at sunset, the rock face is streaked with changing shades of red, amber and ochre and is truly stunning!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Carrigaphooca Castle

Another favorite castle in Ireland is Carrigaphooca Castle. This castle, Caisleán Carraig a' Phúca in Irish, means Castle on the Rock of the Fairy. Carrigaphooca was built in 1436, by Donal McCarthy of Drishane and is a ruined five storey rectangular tower house, situated on a steep-sided rock and overlooking the River Sullane. It is located 3 miles west of Macroom in County Cork, Ireland.
The castle went through some restoration in the 1970's. The ground floor chamber is lit by small off-center windows, and is flanked by a straight mural stairs which rises as a spiral to the 4th floor level. It is a very simple building with a single room on each of its five levels. The windows are very plain in form, small and narrow, and like other early tower houses, there are no fireplaces or chimneys.
The most interesting thing about the castle is that is known locally as one of the most hauinted in Ireland, and of course haunted by a Phooca, which is a ghost or a spirit. As I was doing a haunted tour in Ireland, I tried to learn a bit about the castle but could only find information that said it was haunted by a malicious spirit. I did read one story that said it was haunted by 24 phoocas!
I decided I must investigate and new the best way to see it, would be to add it to an upcoming tour. I think that is why our tours are so popular, we always leave room for a bit of exploring. When we arrived in Macroom, I did something very unmanly and stopped into a local pub to ask directions. The whole pub immediately surrounded me and began to tell me ghost stories of the castle and how to get there. They said that I could not miss seeing the castle, as it sat high upon Fairy Rock.
They were right, as we could not miss seeing it but we had no idea how to get there! We drove all around the castle, seeing it in the ditance but finding no way to get to it. I decided I would do the unmanly thing again and I stopped at a farmhouse to ask how we get to the castle? The owner greeted me warmly and said he would be back to me in just a moment. He returned to the door and handed me a key asked that I be sure to loch up when we left.
As the only way to the castle was through the farmyard and a field, we carefully picked our way through the sheep droppings and made our way to the castle. We had to go up a short flight of stairs so that I could unlock the door. At the top of the stairs we all immediately felt a whoosh of cold air fly by us and the hair on the back of our necks stood up! Might have been that is was October! I unlocked the door and we carefully made our way inside. Wow!
I am like a kid in a candy store when it comes to castles and I had the key! We could explore to our hearts content and we undertook to do just that. The lighting was not great on the lower floor and the lower floor was all dirt. Unfortunately it had several grave like holes that had been dug into the floor. Well, after a bit of checking out what looked like graves, I had enough of the ground floor! The feeling was very much like the feeling I get in Leap Castle, which is well known as Ireland's most haunted castle. Only difference was that nobody lived here in this castle and we were all alone!
We had a grand time exploring and scaring each other silly. We all felt that we were being deterred from climbing the stairs but carried on anyway. The views from the top of the castle were incredible and were well worth fighting off all the spirits that hindered our way! What an experience!

Just another day in the life of a small group tour operator.

Shannon McDonald Tate
Scottish Dream Tours

Picture of Carrigaphooca Castle near Macroom, County Cork, Ireland.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Another of my favorite coastal villages is Lossiemouth, or just Lossie as the locals say. It is known as the jewel of the Moray Firth. It has also become a favorite of my family and as a srop while on tour with our group tours. The town began as a port at the mouth of the River Lossie to help the town of Elgin in trading. The port is now a busy town itself and a marina has developed in the twin basined harbour.
The first time I was in Lossie, it was a cold brisk March day, but I was immediately enchanted anyway. The area is generally favored by a Gulf Stream that provides for quite mild days but today it was not apparent. Upon arriving from Elgin, our first sight was the wee main street of Lossie that soon gives way to the harbour where we first caught a glimpse of the brilliant white sandy beaches that stretch for miles east and west of town. Further on we saw the spectacular yachting marina and a resident fishing fleet where fishermen continue to bring in their daily catches to the fish market.
To the west, this splendid beachfront stretches for 3 miles, while to the east, this beach characterised by its sand dunes which run parallel to the sea and the river, stretches even further. It is reached by a wooden pedestrian bridge over the river Lossie. The bridge was built originally to encourage day trippers on the old Moray Railway to visit the town in the summer months, as there was once a railway between Elgin and Lossie. The dunes on the beach were made from old railway carriages to protect the seatown from heavy seas.
The second time I was in Lossie was with a group I was leading. Again, it was a cool crisp day but in September this time around. As we crossed the bridge to the beach, one of the ladies on the tour kicked of her shoes and raced in to the firth! I was chilled to the bone just watching her, but it was her first sight of Atlantic waters and she was not going to let the moment pass! The sun was out and dogs were racing up and down the beach while the kite fliers and windsurfers were having the time of their lives!
The third time I was in Lossie, it was a glorious summer day. The sky and the sea were in competition to see who could outshine the other. We were on tour and we had 2 delightful elderly ladies with us. Their names were MaryLou and Yolanda but had become YoYo and LuLu! I had sat with them on a bench overlooking the beach while we had an ice cream. They said it was the perfect place sit because they had a good view of all the eligible men coming from both directions down the beach. They later on decided to write about their exploits while on tour and call it "YoYo and LuLu do Scotland". We had so much fun with them!
There is a lovely bakery in Lossie, a few pubs along with a couple of other good eateries, a fisheries museum, a library and a smattering of other local shops. There are many trails and designated paths so you can enjoy coastal or countryside outings and you can take sea excursions to see dolphins and seals. I have learned over the years, that no matter the weather, Lossie is a perfect little spot to spend an hour, an afternoon or the whole day.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Northeast Coast of Scotland

I love small coastal villages and those especially on the north coast of Scotland inbetween Inverness and Fraserburgh. My favorite spot in particular is the lovely villages of Cullen, Portknockie and Findochty.
We quite often hire a cottage for a week in Portknockie and just relax, explore and unwind in this heavenly area of northeast Scotland where we always feel like part of the villages themselves. The total population of all 3 villages is around 3800 which is just perfect for me and here you will find the real Scotland. These villages are full of character but they are not dressed up for tourists and do nothing in particular to cater to them as they are delightful all on their own!
Findochty is a true fisherman's village as it is centered on the harbour and sprinkled with an abundance of fisherman's cottages all jostling for position. In the early 1400's the village of Findochty was crowded around the natural harbour known as Crooked Haven. It expanded as a fishing port through the 1700s and 1800s, and by 1850 was home to 140 fishing boats. The late 1800's saw the expansion of nearby Buckie and by the middle of the 1900's most of the fleet was operating from Buckie instead. The end result, was this traditional fishing village became a haven for lesiure sailors and one of the prettiest villages I have ever been in!
Portknockie is inbetween Findochty and Cullen. While Findochty is built around the harbour Portknockie differs in that it lies above on the cliffs. These spectacular cliffs drop dramatically to the shore below. Portknockie's harbour is naturally sheltered by the rocky bluff of Green Castle which was once a Pictish stronghold. With a history going back to 1677, most of the village stands above the harbour is predominatly the smaller fishermen's cottages. Here you will also see the larger captains houses that came about in the propserity of the late 1800's. No pretension here, as Portknockie is very much a residentail community that does not have to rely on tourism to survive but has en easy charm that captivates.
If you walk along the clifftop path that leads around from above the harbour you will find Bow Fiddle Rock. The rock is a wave-cut natural arch which provides a dramatic roosting place for gulls and cormorants. Further on in the walk you get some great views over Cullen Bay to Cullen. You can either walk along the beach or along the cliff which wanders beside Cullen Golf Club. This is a traditional links course which has amazing views over the Moray Firth and if you are lucky, you may see a dolphin or two!
Cullen is a very attractive town built around the Burn of Deskford. I love to wander around the Seatown area where all of the cottages have a wonderful patchwork look. The render between the stones is a differing color of the stones themselves and the effect is quite lovely. Cullen was established in 1189 and has a church that was built in 1236. Its wealth in the 1700s was built on textiles, and threadmaking in particular. The village really came into its own with the herring boom of the early 1800's. Cullen is well known for the traditional Scottish dish "Cullen Skink". This is a chowder like soup of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. "Skink" merely comes from the Gaelic word for "essence". If for nothing else, come for the ice cream, as the shop in town is regarded by many as the best in Scotland!
This area is home to some amazing fish and chips shops that you will find as you wander through these beautiful villages. The local pubs are also a great place for a good meal and catching up with the locals. The best gossip in town can be found of course at wee shops in each village and you will find no lovelier coastline anywhere!

Picture of Bow Fiddle Rock, Portknockie.

The call of Scotland

Hello all.
I am in the beautiful city of Seattle this weekend and the sun is shining and it is a breathtakingly beautiful day! Seattle is one of my favorite places to visit. I travel all over the world and I can easily say that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, as my mother would say. it's not Scotland!
For those of you who have been to Scotland, live in Scotland or have an overwhelming call to visit Scotland, you will know what I am talking about. And Scotland does call. I believe it actually has something to do with the earth itself and a strong connection between our physical bodies. I have been all over Ireland, Wales and most of England but I only get this feeling in Scotland. I think Ireland is absolutely beautiful and I love every moment that I am there. If I could not live in Scotland, Wales would be a very close second but still, they don't call to me quite the same way. I can and do spend days traipsing through the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and the Cotswolds and there are all magical wonderful places that I love dearly but they do not call to me to come home!
Why is the feeling so strong and where does it come from? I have pondered it many times but have yet to find a real, logical answer that does not involve emotion.

Shannon McDonald Tate
Scottish Dream Tours

Picture is from Glencoe in winter.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


As a McDonald, Glencoe has a very strong connection with my ancestry and the massacre that took place here on 13th February 1692. But today we will talk about Glencoe itself, as it is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland and is without doubt, one of Europe's scenic highlights. At times it is a haunting beauty and earns it's title of "the valley of the weeping" but at all times it is breathtakingly beautiful and serene.
My first sight of Glencoe was in the spring. The bracken fern turns a golden color in the winter and combined with the silver birch and their new purple buds sets up a pallet of remarkable colors. The sky is brilliant blue and lends its color to the ponds that shimmer all along the top of the pass. The ponds are ringed with white sand and the effect is dazzling. Golds, purples, blues, silvers and white all trying to out do each other in there struggle to break free from winter's tight embrace.
The colors change as we pass from spring into summer and the bracken begins to stand up and turn green again as the purple of the heather breaks out of its browned confines. The yellow of the gorse is startling against the crisp green hillsides and the pools of blue darken and lighten as the clouds float lazily by. Could there be anything more spectacular?
I truly did not think so until my first trip through the pass after a light dusting of snow. The sparkling white of the hills with the massive angular peaks breaking through was a contrast of colors that delighted and amazed. The deep dark blue of the ponds in striking contrast with the pure white snow defied description!
Is is any wonder that this area has wrought so much myth, legend and history? It is easy to understand Robert Louis Stevenson's inspiration for Kidnapped as well as a Hollywood background for much of the Highlander series, Braveheart and Rob Roy being filmed here.
With so much of natures abundance in one unspoiled and unforgettable location, one thinks at first that it would be best kept a secret. But the best things in life should be shared and I love sharing my Scotland with you!

Shannon McDonald Tate

Friday, February 26, 2010

Iona Abbey and St. Oran's Chapel

As I am putting in place the last few details for our upcoming Highlands and Islands tour my thoughts of course turn to some of my very favorite places. The first time I was on the Isle of Iona I felt as if I had just had the wind knocked out of me. The feeling was more intense than I was expecting even though I was expecting to be hit pretty hard. It is one of the most peaceful places on earth and it is easy to understand why St. Columba used it as his base for Christianity in Scotland when arriving in the year 563.
Even more powerful than that was the feeling, I got when I stepped into the wee small chapel next to Iona Abbey. St Oran's Chapel is the oldest intact building within the religious settlement at Iona. It was built in the 1100's by Somerled, Lord of the Isles, as a family burial chapel. It stands in Reilig Odhrain burial grounds where the remains of 48 Scottish Kings were laid to rest along with those of Norway and Ireland. Kings such as Macbeth and Duncan I, as well as later Lords of the Isles. Being a descendant of Somerled makes this a very special place and I love to sit in the chapel and ponder the history of my family.
Looking across the north wall of Reilig Odhrain you can see a medieval roadway leading to the Abbey. After repeated attacks by Norse invaders, little remains of Columba's early Christian monastery today. The present Abbey was built around the year 1200 for Benedictine monks and it was dedicated to St. Columba. After the reformation much of it had fallen into ruins but was restored at the start of the 20th century. In 1938, George Macleod, a minister in Glasgow, founded the Iona Community and the long process of rebuilding was begun. Today Iona Abbey and the surrounding buildings serve as a spiritual center under the jurisdiction of the Church of Scotland.
You can't help but be moved by the Abbey. The atmosphere is filled with the weight of the centuries and the very stones seem to tell the story. There are grander Abbeys to be found in Scotland but none quite so solemn, humble and modestly elegant.

Shannon McDonald Tate

Thursday, February 25, 2010

 "Several years ago, when I earned my crust as a policeman, I was chasing a gang of deer poachers across the North Yorkshire moors at dawn as the sun rose from the sea. Just as the diamond tip broke over the hill, the old bobby with me stopped and looked down to the valleys that stretched into the distance. "Look," he said, as if he had seen something for the first time. "God's kingdom, Adam's land - no finer place will you ever find."" ~~ Graham Taylor

James Herriot's Yorkshire

I have always been an avid reader and as a child found myself entranced by the books of Alf Wight writing as James Herriot. Every few years, I pick up the books again and read all about this country vet and find that my love for these books only grows as I grow older. 'All Creatures Great and Small', 'All Things Bright and Beautiful', 'All Things Wise and Wonderful' and 'The Lord God Made Them All' are still treasured volumes in my personal library.
I was so inspired by his description of the Yorkshire Dales, that I knew some day I would journey to this magical place and become as delighted with the Dales folk and the lovely countryside just as he was. My Yorkshire experience came 60 years after James Herriot's but I was thrilled to find so much of still just as he had written it. 

I still remember vividly the first time I saw the centuries-old stone walls crisscrossing the hillsides while sheep grazed in nearby pastures, totally oblivious to the spectacular scenery that they were part of. As we drove up winding country roads and swooped down into enchanted small villages, I felt as if I had gone back in time and I would soon meet James, Siegried or Tristan passing by in an old jalopy.
I could not wait to get to the village of Darrowby(Thirsk in real life) where James, Helen, Tristan and Siegfried lived and also had there vetrinery practice at Skeldale House. 23 Kirkgate is still there and is now the World of James Herriot where you can take a journey back to the 1940's and to the life and times of these country vets.I have now visited these places many times and the magic only continues to grow.
I still take excursions through the Dales searching out new tearooms and adventures and finding new spots to add to our tours. I love to visit Thirsk and Skeldale House, the lovely tearooms and museums in Reeth, the Wensleydale Cheese Factory, Castle Bolton, Castle Howard, Ripley Castle and Skipton Castle. I love the picturesque villages of Hawes, Ripon, Osmotherly, Helmsley, Pickering and Malton. I love the city of York with its Minster, the Shambles and Whipmawhopmagate Road. The Yorkshire area of England is one of the most lovely of the entire country and always holds a very special place in heart.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Fortingall Yew

There is a tree growing in Scotland that may be the oldest living organism in the world. It is definitely the oldest in Europe. It is called the Fortingall Yew as it is in the small village of Fortingall in the heart of Perthshire. It stands at the entrance to Glen Lyon, which is my very favorite glen in all of Scotland. The yew tree which grows there has been estimated to be as old as 5,000 years. It's girth at one stage was over 56 feet when measured in 1769.
In the last few hundred years, souvenir hunters began to take large sections of the tree and eventually a wall had to be built round it to protect it. Some of its branches only survive because they are propped up. It is a mystical magical place and I am in awe of it every time I visit.
Next to the Yew is a small church which is not old but has seen a lot of history never-the-less. Fortingall has been a Christian centre from a very early date and Adomnán, Abbot of Iona Abbey from 679 to 704 visited Fortingall where crop marks suggest there was an early monastery close to the site of today's church. A hand bell dating from the 7th century is on view in a niche in the church.
There are other relics in or around the church as well. Outside the church are several gravestones with at least one believed to date back to the 7th century. Near the porch is a stone font from the 8th century which stood inside the old church. On display inside the church are fragments of three Pictish cross slabs dating back to the 9th century. They were discovered during the demolition of the old church in 1901. The stones are thought to be associated with the early monastery on the site, and the rear of one is carved with figures thought to be monks. The incorporation of the carved stones into the structure of the church was a common medieval practice, and while this led to the fragmentation of the stones, it has also meant they were protected from weathering for a number of centuries.
Close by is a unique triangular formation of megalithic stone circles. Legends coming down through the ancient oral tradition, say that Pontius Pilate was born at Fortingall. There are also stories linking Fingal, the ancient Caledonian warrior king, with this same area.

Did you know?

The Quaich (pronounced "quake") has a rich heritage in Scotland and are a uniquely Scottish invention. This traditional Scottish drinking cup was used to offer a guest a cup of welcome and also as a farewell drink, usually a dram of whisky. Travelers would often carry a quaich with them. Although they were primarily used for whisky and brandy some larger quaichs were used for ale. It is thought that the very first quaich was fashioned from a scallop shell, in which drams of whisky were taken in the Highlands and Islands. Shells were wide and holly and lent themselves to the distinctive shape that has been around for more than four hundred years.
Traditionally quaichs were made of wood and were a shallow cup with a pair of small lug handles on opposite sides of the rim. The centre of the bowl was usually decorated with a silver coin or with coat-of-arms, initials or motto. In the late seventeenth century quaichs began to be made in pewter, silver and gold. Silver quaichs are first mentioned in the 1660s.
The Quaich in 1745 travelled from Edinburgh to Derby with the Scottish Army in Bonnie Prince Charlie's canteen. Its bottom was made of glass so that the drinker could keep watch on his companions. A more romantic Quaich had a double glass bottom in which was kept a lock of hair, so that the owner could drink to his lady love. In modern times, the Quaich has been used as a favour at many Scottish weddings, being presented to all at the top table. 

The Quaich has a unique history surrounded with myth and mystique. In ancient time it is believed that the Druids filled the quaich with blood from the heart of sacrificed humans. It has a special place in the heart of all who know something of its history and is a prized possession of many people who have an association with Scotland. It will always be remembered as a visitor's welcome or farewell cup by proud clan chiefs, worthy merchants or humble crofters with its simple but beautiful shape and friendly purpose.

Monday, February 8, 2010

New Tour Concept

I am so excited about a couple of new tours we are offering for 2010. I have long wanted to do this but wanted to make sure I had all the details set before offering the tours.
For many years my family has visited Scotland on holiday. We rent a cottage for a week in one location to take full advantage of everything that
 area has to offer. Then we rent a cottage in another location for a week and do the same thing. It is a wonderful time of sharing, eating some meals out and cooking some meals in. We visit our favorite castle and do all of our favorite things.
Well, I have finally duplicated this in a tour. For one week we rent a luxury Highland country house and for one week we rent a luxury Lowland country house. We will take day trips and experience everything these areas have to offer. On returning home from our travels we will have teas and scones in the drawing room. Three to four times a week we will have gourmet meals at home in the formal dining room. The meals will be prepared by myself using my many years of restaurant experience. You are welcome to join me in the kitchen for cooking lessons as well. These evenings will be followed by a musical evening, whisky tasting, games night or murder mystery evening. We will have a few meals out including at the local pub and we will also have a garden barbecue and a garden afternoon tea. We will visit the local theatre and attend a Highland Dinner and Show.
We will stay in large beautiful homes with drawing rooms, formal dining rooms, informal sitting rooms, billiard rooms and music rooms. They are on huge estates with informal and formal gardens, woodlands and forest walks. You will have your own lovely bedroom with your one bathroom, breakfast each morning and everything you need to have a lovely holiday in Scotland.
We are so excited to be offering these two tours and I cannot wait for the dates to arrive. We have a few spots open on each tour.
The first tour is May 30th - June 11th.
The second tour is June 27th to July 10th. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Did you know?

When St. Andrew, one of the twelve Apostles, was being crucified by the Romans, he is said to have asked to be placed on a cross with a different shape from that of Jesus. His relics (bones) were said to have been brought to Scotland after St. Regulus had a vision telling him to take them to a far-off land. He landed at a place then called Muckros, later called Kilrymont and, later still, renamed St. Andrews.
According to legend, before a battle between a combined army of Picts and Scots and the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria at Athelstaneford, a formation of white clouds in the form of the cross of St. Andrew appeared in the blue sky.
The Northumbrians were defeated and St. Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland. The white cross on a blue background later became the Scottish national flag. It is also known as the St. Andrews Cross or the Saltire Cross although the term Saltire actually refers just to the cross rather than the whole flag.
In the 14th century many Scottish foot soldiers had a white cross on their tunics but it was not until the 15th century that the national flag came into widespread use. While the origins may not be completely known, the Scottish flag is regarded as one of the oldest country flags still in existence.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reflection on the coming year

As I am getting ready to start our ninth season of tours I have to reflect on how far we have come. My first foray into tours was to allow me to spend more time in Scotland and I really never expected it to grow into the full time business that it has. I was so nervous with my first tour but when I saw others fall in love with Scotland and find the magic and beauty in all the places that were so special to me, I knew that I wanted to do this for as long as possible. I designed tours to just reflect the places I loved to go to and doing the things that I found exciting so I was thrilled that others loved this as well.
From the very first tour, we have used small locally owned restaurants and accommodations. We have visited historic sites that meant something to me and places that stirred my emotions. We have found that others love this as well and made us promise not to change. I am very proud to say that we have people this year who are on their second, third, fourth, fifth and even 6th tour with us! I had no idea we would have so much repeat business. I would like to think that I can take the credit for this but I know it is the countries, people and places that we visit that are responsible.
We generally do not use accommodations that have more than 8 - 12 rooms and try to use only family owned establishments. We occasionally use a castle if it fits our criteria but we want you to experience the real people of Scotland, Ireland and Wales and they generally don't live in castles or mansions. We want you to feel like part of the family and experience how people actually live and this is best done in small, intimate places. We try to use as many different kinds of accomodations as possible so we mix things up with coaching inns, guest houses, country house hotels and farmhouses all in the same tour. One of my favorite places to stay in Wales is in a 400 year old farmhouse! We never use large hotels or chain accommodations where you become just another number and the only people you come into contact with is other tourists.
We love to use unique tearooms and small cozy pubs and restaurants. Our favorite place to eat in Glasgow only has 26 seats! Again we try to use family owned and operated establishments so that you are meeting the real people and eating where the locals eat. We quite often eat out in 400 and 500 year old pubs that are mostly local haunts. We find people love to eat dinner in the homes that we are saying in where the owners are preparing our meal in their kitchen and serving us like guests in their home. We love this too of course.
We try never to have any early morning starts or any late nights. Occasionlly we are on the ferry operators schedule and can't control this. If we put something into an itinerary it will be an actual stop. There are some places that you will have wanted to linger longer but we give enough time to get the full experience. We try as much as possible to make our tours feel like a family outing. We know this is not everybodys preference but that is why there are other tour operators out there offering different experiences. We find that when we love what we do, that others love it too.

Shannon McDonald Tate

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Three of my favorite ancient monuments of Scotland

I think my top three most amazing historic sites in Scotland would have to be the Callanish Standing Stones, Skara Brae and the Sun Honey Stone Circle.
I could not wait to get to the Isle of Lewis and see the stones that I had heard and read about forever. I have been to many stone sites all over the British Isles but C
allanish still remains one of my very favorite. I am not sure why I had such an affinity with Callanish before I had even laid eyes on it but I wanted it to be as awesome as I imagined.Callanish is a cross-shaped setting of standing stones erected around 2000 BC and one of the most spectacular megalithic monuments in Scotland.
Within a few miles of Callanish I started to see the stones on the hilltop and a thrill started at the base of my spine and zinged its way up to the top of my head. As I got closer and closer the tingling intensified and I knew that I would be totally awed! I was not disappointed.The stones, of Lewisian gneiss, were buried in about six feet of peat before they were cleared in the year 1857. Prior to this time, nobody even knew they existed!
Upon reaching the monument you see that it is a ring of large stones about 40 feet in diameter that enclose a huge monolith at the centre. Running north from the stone circle are two parallel lines of stones forming an avenue about 80 yards long. There are now 19 stones in the avenue and entering the site from the north you will feel impelled to walk up this avenue to the circle. Also in the middle of the ring is the remains of a chambered cairn which looks to have been added later. Local tradition says that giants who lived on the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were turned into stone as a punishment but as with most monuments of this age very little is really know.
Another site that I could not wait to visit was Skara Brae on the main Island in the Orkney Islands. I wanted to see the site as I knew that it is Europe's most complete Neolithic village and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was still not prepared for what I was about to see! As with Callanish, before the mid 1800's nobody even knew it existed. In the winter of 1850 a great storm hit Orkney and the combination of the wind and the high tides uncovered a stone village that had been hidden for thousands of years.
Skara Brae is believed to be about 5,200 years old. Older than the great pyramids of Egypt! Because of the protection offered by the sand that covered the settlement for 4,000 years, the buildings and their contents are incredibly well-preserved. Not only are the walls of the structures still standing, and alleyways roofed with their original stone slabs, but the interior fittings of each house give an unparalleled glimpse of life as it was in Neolithic Orkney. Each house shares the same basic design - a large square room with a central fireplace, a bed on either side and a shelved dresser on the wall opposite the doorway. It is amazing to see how advanced this civilization was and is still perfectly preserved for us to enjoy!
My third site today is the Sun Honey Stone Circle not far from Aberdeen. What? You have never heard of Sun Honey? Well then, you are in the majority. The area around Aberdeen is resplendent with recumbent stone circles and I was out monument hunting one day and was looking for a particular circle. It was remaining quite elusive and so I stopped to ask for directions. I know, I know...very unmanly of me, but what can I say. Anyway, I was directed to a stone circle that I did not know even existed. It was not the one I was looking for but far beyond anything I had imagined. This 4,000 year old stone circle sits out in the middle of a farm with limited access.
When we arrived, we found a small copse of trees that looked as if they had never been entered and we stepped back in time. We were immediately awed as it did not look as if anybody had been to the site in years and this recumbent stone circle was surrounded by a ring of aging trees.There are nine stones in the circle, plus the recumbent and then two stones that flank its side. The recumbent has fallen over and part of it has broken off. The recumbent stone is marked with approximately 30 cup marks. There are suggestions that these cups held blood from sacrifices made on the recumbent stone or are plans of circular huts, or even mason's marks but this is all purely speculation. What I love best about this stone circle is that it has not been manicured in any way and remains very untouched and magical.
I have quite an imagination and what I like so much about sites like this is so little is known and so my imagination can run wild. These are a very few of my favorite places in Scotland as they do stir my imagination and it thrills me to be able to walk where others walked thousands of years ago.

Shannon McDonald Tate

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Big city or small town?

Having talked about Edinburgh and Glasgow yesterday I wanted to talk about the small places today. Although I love being in the city I am enthralled with small towns and countryside. I love places with pedestrianized main streets where you only need to dodge foot traffic and not have to worry about cars. I especially like main streets with unique small shops, cute bed and breakfasts and local tearooms. You have to have at least one fish and chip shop, one ice cream and candy store, one woollen shop and one souvenir shop.
Places that immediately come to mind are Pitlochry, Callander Portree and Peebles although unfortunately the main street is quite busy with cars. Pitlochry is in the north central area of Scotland and one of my favorites. You have your choice of tearooms and I love to have afternoon tea at the Atholl Palace Hotel. Pitlochry has a lovely theatre and a place called Heathergems where they actually make jewelry from the stems of the heather plant! Pitlochry has plenty of woolen shops, ice cream and fish and chips. You are absolutely spoilt with accommodation choices.
Callander is in the Trossachs region of Scotland and is quite central. Callander is a perfect base for visiting Stirling and Doune Castles and Dunblane Cathedral. It has several woollen shops, tearooms and ice cream shops and just a short hop away from the 400 year old Lion and Unicorn Pub. Callander also has a wonderful Toy Museum and the Rob Roy Macgregor Visitors Centre.
Portree is the main town on Isle of Skye in the Hebridian Islands. Portree has a good selection of accommodation choices, great fish and chips and a wonderful harbour. It is in need of a good tearoom however. Most of the shops of Portree lie above and behind the harbour where you find Somerled Square, home to the mercat cross and war memorial. Much of the shopping is to be found in the roads leading from Somerled Square towards the harbour.
Peebles is in the Borders region of Scotland about 22 miles south of Edinburgh. Peebles was established almost 2,000 years ago by the Romans and so is quite historic. I love the 350 year old Cross Keys Hotel and the 800 year old tower of St. Andrews Church. There is a woolen mill, tearooms and a museum. Nearby is Neidpath Castle and Traquair House, one of the oldest continuously lived in castles in Scotland with its own brewery.
I also love the wee fishing villages of the Kingdom of Fife. I especially love Anstruther where they lay claim to the best fish and chips in Scotland. They also have a 500 year old pub called the Dreel Tavern and a lovely waterfront with a maritime museum. Pittenweem is just up the road and if you are an early riser you will see the boats bringing in their early morning catch. Also worth exploring are Crail, Elie, St. Monans, Upper Largo and Lower Largo.
Places that do qualify for pedestrianized main streets are Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. Although quite remote I love this wee village where everyone is happy to see you and more than willing to help you in any way. For such a small place it is quite bustling with more than enough to see and do. I also love Kirkwall in the Orkneys. The main street is quite lovely and dominated by St. Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137 by Norse Earl Rognvald Kolson in memory of his uncle Saint Magnus. The Cathedral contains their remains, marvellous medieval grave markers and noted stained glass. There is many quirky craft shops and cafes and tearooms to choose from.
I also love Dumfries in the south and Kirkcudbright just south of there. Fort William at the start of "the Road to the Isles" and Mallaig at the end. I very much like Crieff in central Scotland, most well known for producing Ewen McGregor! I quite like Falkland, Auchtermuchty, Kirriemuir and Aberfeldy for their tearooms. I love Dufftown, Edradour, Fettercairn, Buckie, Macduff, Rothes and Elgin for the whisky. I love the seaside towns of Rothesay, Tobermory, Portnockie, Lossiemouth and Findochty for their harbours.
I know that I have left many out but they will have to wait for another day. I just thought of several more while I was writing this but they will keep. My main point is that no matter where you go in Scotland, you will find a lovely little spot just waiting to be explored. I am sometimes accused on our tours of taking people only to the good places but truth be told, they are all over Scotland!
Shannon McDonald Tate

Monday, February 1, 2010

Glasgow or Edinburgh

There has long been a wee bit of rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow and I am always asked which I prefer. Although I feel more of a kindred spirit with Glasgow the best thing is that I don't have to make a choice! I think of Edinburgh for culture, entertainment and history and Glasgow for architecture, food and fun. Edinburgh more touristy and Glasgow more local. Edinburgh for museums and art, Glasgow for shopping, theatre and music.

Glasgow (pronounced Glaz Go) is the largest city in Scotland and third most populous in the United Kingdom. The city is situated on the River Clyde in the country's west central lowlands. The city centre is home to most of Glasgow's main cultural venues including The Theatre Royal, homee of Scottish Opera, The Scottish Ballet, The Pavilion, The King's Theatre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow Film Theatre, Gallery of Modern Art, Mitchell Library, the Centre for Contemporary Arts, McLellan Galleries and The Lighthouse Museum of Architecture, Design and the City. The city centre is also home to four of Glasgow's higher education institutions: The University of Strathclyde, The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow Caledonian University.
Glaswegian, otherwise known as the Glasgow patter, is a local variety of Scots. People from the far East (Edinburgh) refer to Glaswegians as "weegies". While Glaswegians reciprocate with "Edinbuggers". Glaswegians tend to be bit more outgoing, friendly and generous and pride themselves rightfully so, on their sense of humor. Edinburgers are a bit more reserved and keep more to themselves but this is partly to do with the overwhelming amount of tourists during the summer months.
Edinburgh (pronounced Ed in Burra) is the capital city of Scotland. It is the second largest city in Scotland and the seventh most populous in the United Kingdom. Edinburgh is the seat of the Scottish Parliament. The city was one of the major centres of the Enlightenment, led by the University of Edinburgh, earning it the nickname Athens of the North. Edinburgh is well known for the annual Edinburgh Festival, a collection of official and independent festivals held annually over about four weeks from early August. The number of visitors attracted to Edinburgh for the Festival is roughly equal to the population of the city. The most famous of these events are the Edinburgh Fringe (the largest performing arts festival in the world), the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
I love walking about in either city and feel very much at home whether I am shopping on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow or sightseeing on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. As the cities are only about 45 minutes apart by train, you can enjoy the best that both have to offer and never have to make a choice.
Shannon McDonald Tate

Sunday, January 31, 2010

More of my favorite castle of Wales

We will start off today with Cardiff Castle in the center of Wales capitol city, Cardiff. Spanning over 2000 years, the Castle has been a Roman Garrison, a Norman stronghold and in Victorian times a Gothic fairytale fantasy. In the early 19th century the castle was enlarged and refashioned in an early Gothic Revival style for John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute by Henry Holland. But its transformation began in 1868 when 3rd Marquess of Bute commissioned William Burges to undertake a massive rebuilding which turned the castle into a 19th century fantasy of a medieval palace. This relationship culminated in dazzling architectural triumphs of which Cardiff Castle is the greatest of all. Not to be missed in the castle are the Winter and Summer Smoking Rooms, the Chaucer Room, the Arab Room, Lord Bute's Bedroom and the Roof Garden. Each time I am in the castle I wander around in awe at the incredible wealth and beauty it represents. The castle is administered by the Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
Just a short drive from Cardiff we find Castell Coch. What was created at Cardiff Castle was done on a much smaller scale with the creation of Castell Coch. The castle is a fairy tale come to life and was built reproducing a small medieval Welsh chieftain's stronghold. Another collaboration of the 3rd Marquess of Bute and William Burges it was built in the 1870's and has the most remarkable interior decoration. Burges was given free rein on this castle and the result is a delight! The Drawing Room and Lady Bute's bedroom have ceilings and wall paintings that are almost equal to those at Cardiff Castle. Although the castle was never meant to be a permanent residence, I find that I could move right in tomorrow and be quite happy! The castle is administered by the Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
Our ninth castle is Bodelwyydan Castle in Denbyshire in the north of Wales and is reputed to be one of the most haunted! The castle has been the subject of two episodes of television's "Most Haunted" and Sci Fi's "Ghost Hunters International". The history of the house and estate dates back to before 1460 but the association with the Williams family only from around 1690. As well as being a historic house and museum, the Castle are resplendent with large areas of formal garden and natural woodland. Bodelwyddan Castle is a regional partner of the National Portrait Gallery, housing many wonderful portraits from the 19th Century collections of the London national museum. In addition, the Castle displays collections of furniture from the Victoria & Albert Museum, and sculpture from the Royal Academy of Arts. The castle is run by a charitable trust and is open to the public.
The 10th castle in this series is Chirk Castle in the Northeast of Wales. As one of Edward I's ring of castles, Chirk has been occupied continuously as a castle and stately home for almost 700 years. It was built in the late 13th century by Roger Mortimer, Justice of North Wales. The castle was sold for 5,000 UK pounds to Sir Thomas Myddelton in 1595 and his descendants continue to live in part of the castle today. The interior of the castle includes the Gothic style Cromwell Hall, with oak panelling and impressive arrays of arms and family heraldry. The neo-classical Grand Staircase is a hugely impressive feature, hollowed out of a circular tower and hanging in the gallery a fine collection of family portraits. The state dining room boasts a ceiling with fine plasterwork and mythical images as well as exquisite period furnishings. One of the most impressive of the older sections is Adam's Tower, which housed a former dungeon where French prisoners from Agincourt were locked up. The castle is managed by the National Trust and is open to the public.
Another National Trust Property is castle number eleven, Powis Castle. Powis is a medieval castle, fortress and grand country mansion located near the town of Welshpool in Mid Wales. The residence of the Earl of Powis is known for its extensive, attractive formal gardens, terraces, parkland, deerpark and landscaped estate. The 1660's State Bedroom still survives and is the only one in Britain where a balustrade still rails off the bed alcove from the rest of the room. Such a design derives from the days when the English gentry wished to emulate the elaborate etiquette that regulated the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. A visit to the castle by Charles II is still part of the family tradition. The window latches in the shape of the Prince of Wales's feathers commemorate the visit of the future King Edward VII. His son and daughter-in-law (later King George V and Queen Mary, visited in 1909.
The last castle in this series is The Hall at Abbey-Cwm-Hir near Llandrindod Wells in mid Wales. Built in 1834 by Thomas Wilson the great Victorian improver, the house was doubled in size by the Philips family in 1869, who then added the snooker room in 1894. The architects were Poundley and Walker of Liverpool. Paul and Victoria Humpherston bought the Hall in late 1997 and spent 9 years restoring it to a building of Gothic splendour; boasting stunning interiors and fascinating collections. They have also restored 12 acres of Victorian gardens in a beautiful setting above the ruins of the 12th C Abbey of the Long Valley. The Hall has appeared on many television documentaries on historic houses including "Discovering Welsh Houses" and "How the other Half Lives". The Hall is very much a family home and guided tours of the 52 rooms are conducted by a family member. Tours must be booked in advance.
Remember that this is not a complete list of castles in Wales or a complete list of my favorite Welsh castle. Happy castle hunting!

Shannon McDonald Tate.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some of my favorite castles of Wales

Today I am going to try something almost impossible and that is to name only twelve of my favorite castles in Wales. I will list six today and six tomorrow. Wales has more castle per square mile than anywhere else in the British Isles. I cannot conceive of a list that does not include Edwards I's mighty four. Nor can I think of leaving out the fairytale castle designed for the Marquess of Bute. Then there are the castles that are not just castles but also stately homes like Chirk. This listing is in no particular order and is not a full list of my favorite castles. I am only listing castles and no other historic sites. I  will start in the North with the mighty four - Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris.
Even after seven hundred years, Harlech's might and defensive stength are still evident. As it is situated almost in the center of town, every time I am there I think what it must be like to have a castle in your backyard as many towns folk do! The castle is designed on a concentric plan with a small but powerful inner ward dominated by an impressive twin-towered gatehouse and four round corner towers. Designed by Master James of St. George, the castle combines a marvellous sense of majesty with great beauty of line and form and was part of King Edward I's second campaign of castle bulding in North Wales. It was part of a ring of castles stretching from Aberystwyth around to Flint insuring Edward there would be no resitance to his rule. The views from the top of the castle are breathtaking. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
Next of the mighty four is Conwy Castle, also designed by Master James of St. George and part of Edwards ring of castles. The castle is built on a rocky outcrop controlling the crossing of the river Conwy and has been called "one of the greatest fortresses of medieval Europe." It is easily as impressive as Harlech but unlike Harlech, Conwy Castle and town are surrounded by a well-preserved wall lending an additional sense of strength to the site. The eight great towers and connecting walls are all intact, forming a rectangle as opposed to the concentric layouts of Edward's other castles in Wales. The castle is well preserved and offers spectacular views of the town, surrounding coastline and countryside. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
Our third of Edwards mighty four is Caernarfon which is architecturally one of the most impressive of all of the castles in Wales although its defensive capabilities were not as overt as the other three. The castle was designed to echo the walls of Constantinople, the imperial power of Rome and the dream castle of Welsh myth and legend. After all these years Caernarfon's immense strength remains unchanged. Edward intended this castle to be a royal residence and seat of government for North Wales. The castle's symbolic status was emphasized when Edward made sure that his son, the first English Prince of Wales, was born here in 1284. In 1969, the castle gained worldwide fame as the setting for the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
The fourth of the mighty four, Beaumaris, was begun in 1295 and was the last and largest of the castles to be built by Edward I in Wales. Regarded by many as the finest of all the great Edwardian castles in Wales, the brilliant Master James of St George brought all his experience and inspiration to bear when building this castle, the biggest and most ambitious venture he ever undertook. In pure architectural terms, it is the most technically perfect castle in Britain. The castle has a perfectly symmetrical concentric 'walls within walls' design, involving no less than four successive lines of fortifications. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and open to the public. 
My fifth castle is the mighty castle of Pembroke in the southwest. Spectacularly set on the banks of the river estuary, this mighty fortress is largely intact. With its endless passages, tunnels and stairways the castle is great fun to explore. Once the seat of a succession of major barons who played leading roles in shaping Britain's history, this historic showpiece is the birthplace of Henry Tudor, father to the infamous Henry VIII and grandfather of Elizabeth I. The fine series of round towers and the remarkable gatehouse made the defences of the outer ward almost impregnable. The main gatehouse, with its two portcullises, stout doors, three machicolations in the vaulting and its series of arrowslits, is one of the finest and earliest of its kind. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
The sixth castle for today is in the southwest. Raglan Castle, with its great multi-angular towers and Tudor styling, is unlike any other castle in Wales. The main stone used in construction of the castle is a pale, almost yellowish sandstone from Redbrook on the Wye river. The other sandstone is local Old Red Sandstone which is red, brown or purplish in color and used in the Tudor work. From a distance, Raglan seemed to have a reddish cast, although on approaching the gatehouse, the castle's yellow sandstone becomes obvious. Raglan Castle is one of the last true castles ever to be built in Wales. Construction of the castle began in the 1430s by Sir William ap Thomas. William was a Welsh knight and was responsible for building the Great Tower at Raglan, which became known as the Yellow Tower of Gwent. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public. 

Tomorrows list will include castles of less might with their primary function being comfort rather than defense although some of them were built with defense in mind as well.  

Shannon McDonald Tate

Wales Castle, Pub and Tearoom Discovery Tour

Thursday, January 28, 2010

More family adventures...

I said yesterday that today I will talk about my family trip to the Yorkshire Dales. We love many areas of Great Britain, but for us, there is no place like Scotland. I was talking yesterday about my niece Callyn who is now fifteen but was only about seven years old on her first trip to England. My sister Pam and three daughters Hayley, Kelsey and Callyn along with Cameron, my mother, a family friend and myself had spent two weeks in Scotland sightseeing and castle hunting. Knowing that everybody planned to be in the UK for three weeks, I planned a one week outing in the Yorkshire Dales as it is one of my very favorite places on earth.
We were traveling in two cars and had just crossed the border when I looked behind me and saw that my sister had pulled her car over. i was pretty sure why she had pulled over because as soon as my car crossed the border everybody in my car had tears in their eyes. I went back to my sister's car where everybody except Callyn was sobbing. She was so worried and wanted to know what was happening? I asked her if she had seen the big boulder with "England" written on it? She said yes and asked me what that meant. I told her that it meant that we had just crossed the border out of Scotland and into England. She immediately broke into tears and asked me why?
I now had two full carloads of sobbing people and a whole week planned in the Yorkshire Dales. Well of course after we got there everybody had a wonderful time and fell in love with Yorkshire as much as I had. They made me promise that in the future if they gave up any of their Scotland time it had to be at the beginning of the trip. They wanted to make sure that Scotland was the last sight they saw before going home.
We had many adventures in the Dales and in the city of York. York itself is completely walled with four main gates into the city. You can walk most of the walls. The city is dominated by York Minster, a Gothic cathedral that is one of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe. Built over the span of 200 years, the cathedral is about one tenth of a mile long and went through five different architects. York has many other historic buildings and a small street with a mishmash of 15th century buildings called "The Shambles".
The rest of the dales is full of rolling hills, delightful villages, wonderful tearooms and warm, friendly Dales folk at every turn. For those who loved the stories of the country vet James Herriot there is much to see and do along with Wallace's (of Wallace and Gromit) favorite cheese factory, The Wensleydale Cheese Factory. There is also a plethora of castles, abbeys, cathedrals and historic sites. The Yorkshire Dales for me is one of the most magical and mystical places on earth and impossible to describe in just a few words.

Shannon McDonald Tate

York, Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Remembering Scotland

After reading Mario's blog yesterday I was remembering my first trip to Scotland as well. As I blogged about earlier, I was a late in coming to Scotland.  It was definitely on my list but there were so many other places I wanted to see as well. I had no idea that Scotland was going to affect me the way it did. I was told by several members of my family that I would be overwhelmed but it still did not prepare me.
On my first trip I prepared very heavily and I rented a cottage in central Scotland for several weeks so that family members could come and go as they were able. I wanted to make sure that I found someplace very central so that we could make day trips from a good location. Much to my surprise upon arriving to the cottage we were informed that the tower in the next field marked that exact center of Scotland! Over the years we have rented several cottage but that first month in central Scotland made the area very much home.
For the first week we were at the cottage it was just my mother and I. We were spending seven weeks and so we really made ourselves at home. As the Lion and Unicorn pub was just up the road we knew we had to try it for dinner. The pub is almost 400 years old and is often in the top ten. We of course have returned several times over the years. We also fell on love with Doune and Doune Castle, Stirling and Stirling Castle and the lovely wee village of Callander.
I was remembering a trip that my brother Cameron joined us as well as my sister Pamela and her daughters Hayley, Kelsey and Callyn Rose and of course mom. On the first trip that Callyn was on we went to Loch Ness as it was high on the girls list. I think Callyn was six at the time. We hired a boat captained by John Minshull. We had the whole boat to ourselves and John had Callyn piloting the boat all around the loch. The most amazing thing about this was that we were at Loch Ness six years later with the girls and Callyn was twelve years old then. John immediately recognized her and said he hadn't seen her since she was half that size? What an amazing memory! Callyn once again piloted us around Loch Ness.
We went for a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train that is also known as the Harry Potter Express as it is used in filming the movies. I booked a car for us but war really not thinking about Harry Potter. Once we were on the train we had many little faces pressed upon the windows to see into our car as it was where most of the filming took place. I had no idea, I just stumbles upon in. A year later we were at Loch Shiel taking a boat trip on the Loch and found that we had missed the Potter kids by two days as they had been filming on the loch and had used that boat. I think with the girls we have been to almost all of the Harry Potter film locations. We have had many adventures that happened purely by chance. I had booked us a journey on the Strathspey Steam Railway one day and found ourselves in a rail car that had been retired in 1954 and had been renovated and just returned to service that day! Tomorrow I will have to share the story of when I tried to take the girls across the border and into England!
The adventures continue to happen and that is why I love taking people to Scotland and to the rest of the British Isles. Either family members or people who have joined our tours. We started our tours to resemble our family holidays and as it is so popular we continue on today was we started out 9 year ago.

Shannon McDonald Tate

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Highlands and Islands of Scotland

We have 2 spots left on our Spring Highlands and Islands Tour of Scotland from May 1st - 15th. Our fall Highlands tour has been sold out for almost a year but the spring tour has been quite stubborn with the last 2 spots. This is one of my favorite tours to do primarily because the history is so amazing.
We start out the tour in one of my favorite towns in Scotland, Oban. Oban is a lovely little seaside village which is a perfect jumping off place for an islands tour. While in Oban we take a short ferry ride across Firth of Lorne to the Island of Mull. On Mull we visit Duart Castle before continuing on to Iona. Duart has been the ancestral home of the Clan Maclean for over 400 years.
There is probably nowhere in Scotland that is more lovely and spiritual than Iona Abbey on the Isle of Iona. lona Abbey is a celebrated Christian centre and the burial place of 48 early Scottish kings. The Abbey and Nunnery grounds house one of the most comprehensive collections of Christian carved stones in Scotland, ranging in age from 600AD to the 1600s. The abbey itself is over 800 years old!
We then journey through Glencoe, the site of the 1692 massacre of the McDonald Clan before a visit to Fort William. From Fort William we are off to the Isle of Skye, my ancestral home. We visit the grave site of Flora Macdonald as well as Dunvegan Castle and Portree. After 2 days on Skye we cross the water to the Islands of Harris on Lewis.
Once on Lewis we visit the Callanish Standing Stones. The stones have to be seen to be understood. I have visited the site on numerous occasions and they still install awe every time. The stones are of Lewisian gneiss and are 4500 - 5000 years old! The stones are a complex arrangement of some 50 stones. At their heart is a circle of 13 stones between 8 and 13 feet tall, surrounding the tallest stone on the site. This stone is 16 feet high and weighs in at about 5.5 tonnes. Some time later a stone tomb was added to the centre of the circle.
After leaving Lewis behind we are back to the mainland for a visit to one of my favorite fishing villages, Ullapool. We then head north through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. Majestic peaks, pristine lochs and breathtaking coast lines until we find ourselves in Thurso. While in Thurso we take the ferry to the Orkneys where we visit Skara Brae, a stone age village. Older than the pyramids. A sand storm left the village covered for over 4000 years leaving the buildings and their contents incredibly well preserved. Not only are the walls of the structures still standing, and alleyways roofed with their original stone slabs, but the interior fittings of each house give an unparalleled glimpse of life as it was in Neolithic Orkney.
Then we are back to the mainland to visit one of my very favorite castle, the Castle of Mey. Queen Elizabeth's mother decided to rescue this castle after the death of her husband King George XI. After a loving restoration the castle is a perfect seaside home that was a favorite of the Queen Mum's and a favorite of everyone who walks in the door.
We now head south to Inverness for a day and then to my favorite place in Scotland, Pitlochry. Queen Victoria call Pitlochry, the loveliest spa village in all of Europe. We visit castles, take afternoon tea and visit the theatre while hear before we spend our last 2 days in Glasgow.
Although most well known as an industrial city, there is so much more to Glasgow. Named the European city of Architecture and Design in 1999 it more than lives up to its reputation. An 800 year old cathedral, 500 year old Lord Provost's house and the second best shopping in the UK make this a very enjoyable city and one of my favorites.
These are just a few of the highlights on this wonderful 15 day tour. Join us for an unforgettable journey to my ancestors and to history that you could only dream about.

Shannon McDonald Tate