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