In Scotland We Trust

by
Bruna Zanelli

 

I am probably the only Italian to get emotional at the sound of bagpipes so when I was invited to visit some of the National Trust of Scotland properties, I accepted, arriving in Glasgow on a sunny June morning.

Since my teenage visit, Glasgow has changed. Today, it enjoys a jazzy, cosmopolitan reputation; famous name Designer stores, outside cafes where office workers and tourists linger beneath brightly coloured umbrellas, enjoying a cappuccino. Glasgow, arguably, has more Latte bars than London! But it remains a friendly city. Stopping to study a road map, I quickly found myself surrounded by amiable Glaswegians, eager to help.

Glasgow is also a city of surprises. 3miles south of the city centre, I discovered Pollok House. William Adam, the foremost architect of his time, helped build the present Pollok House in 1740, erecting it upon the site where for six hundred years the Maxwell family lived in castles.

This gracious 18th century mansion houses collections of Spanish Art, including the famed ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’ by El Greco, works by Goya and William Blake, and an impressive Library, as well as stunning interiors. I loved the magnificent mahogany and marble Entrance Hall where I imagined a young bride in her flowing gown, stepping down the carpeted stairs of the double staircase, floral garlands festooned around the mahogany banisters. Pollak House is available for private functions, including weddings, and I could not wait to tell my God-daughter who is being married next year.

While I am no gardener, (plants wilt if I so much as look at them), I could not resist a stroll through some of the 1000 species of rhododendrons in the splendid gardens. Was I the only one, I mused, who imagined the Maxwells of past times strolling in the early evening, basking in the beauty of their home, a chilled glass of wine in one hand, enjoying the birdsong. And all just minutes from the city centre.

But a very different property is the Tenement House at 145 Buccleuch Street. Worn sandstone steps climb up to the front door and stepping inside was like stepping back in time. A friendly guide explained how in 1911, young Agnes Toward, and her mother, moved into the four roomed flat which she would occupy until, aged 73, sick and unable to care for herself, she was taken into hospital. The house was eventually sold to the NTS, thus preserving a vital part of Scotland’s heritage.

A tour of Tenement House reveals not the upper class refinement of Pollak House, but the ordinary domestic life at the start of the 20th century. In the bedroom, Agnes’s nightgown is on the bed while in the gaslit parlour, the table is set for afternoon tea. In the kitchen, the old wringer, attached to the sink, brought back a flood of childhood memories. It was so like my grandmother’s kitchen – even the perfume bottle of Amami Lavender Water! Washing dries over the wooden clothes pulley above a table littered with dishes and utensils, as if waiting for expert fingers to knead the dough for the scones. Little seems changed since Agnes left. A cupboard stores jars of homemade jam, the oldest labelled: Plum 1929! Mostly the fittings are original, like the black kitchen range, the coal bunker and bathroom. Several personal items on display preserve the sense of Agnes in the flat. Family photographs decorate the walls, alongside holiday picture postcards. I felt I knew her. I would certainly have enjoyed meeting her but I was being fanciful. There are no ghosts in the Tenement House ... are there?

I stayed at the Glasgow Hilton Hotel, where there is always a chance of bumping into a celebrity. Next morning as I was leaving, ex-EastEnder, Martine McCutcheon was arriving.

It began to rain as I headed for Burns-country: Ayrshire, to visit ‘Souter Johnnie’s’ cottage at Kirkoswald. (Souter Johnnie was the inspiration for Burn’s whiskey soaked Tam O’Shanter) Lifelike stone figures depicting characters from the poem, ‘live’ in the restored ale-house in the garden, while across the road, the Kirkyard provides a final resting place for many of Robert Burn’s friends and relatives. Nearby in the village of Tarbolton, is the 17th century cottage which once doubled as the debating Bachelors’ Club. Burns and his elite band of cronies would meet here regularly ‘to forget their cares and labours in mirth and diversion’. Today, the restored upper floor is again used as a Meeting Place. Every January 25, locals and famous speakers gather to celebrate the poet’s birthday at a Burns Supper.

12 miles south of Ayr (where, as a teenager, I had gazed upon the lifesize statue of handsome Robert Burns in the town square), the rain stopped. Ahead, I saw the road signs for Culzean Castle and Country Park. I love Castles and was eager to see Culzean (pronounced Cul-lean), and it did not disappoint. Overlooking the sea with tall cliffs on one side and a deep glen on the other, Culzean is spectacular! It must have been the perfect location for the smugglers of old when the fortified caves beneath the Castle were used to hide contraband from the Revenue Men.

A local lady, Meg, agreed, telling me that this corner of Ayrshire was about 290 acres of mixed woodland, gardens, ponds and rocky coastline with sandy bays. ‘It’s been called the most magnificent country park in Britain’. Then as if it were a secret, confided. ‘General Eisenhower had his own apartment at the Castle, you know. Lady Frances, the 4th Marquess’ widow, wanted to thank America for their help during World War 2.’

Today the Eisenhower Apartment is one of the NTS’s holiday properties.’

My final excursion was the one I was most looking forward to. My dream of visiting the Isle of Arran was to be realised. I boarded the ferry at Androssan, for the 55mins journey, finding a seat on the top deck to watch our approach to the island, and the imposing Goat Fell, the highest point in Southern Scotland.

Arran, seeped in history and legend, is Scotland in miniature locals proudly claim ‘it has everything.’ History buffs can explore the stone circles, the Pictish carvings, burial cairns and castles; walkers are spoilt for choice as there are numerous interesting and varied trails to take. The Arran Coastal Way, a circular route of 100km, is ideal for walkers of all abilities, even those out of shape like me! Of course, gardeners will be thrilled by the abundance of flora on the island and photographers need to carry lots of film because at every turn there is something spectacular to record, like seals at play or dolphins leaping high above the waves.

Scotland has been called the home of golf, and on Arran there are seven courses, one for each day of the week! The Arran Golf Pass, available from Brodick Tourist Information Centre, allows play on all seven courses. I thought of my golfing friend. If he ever came to Arran, he would think he had died and gone to Golfers Heaven! But non-golfers need not worry. Horse riding, pony trekking, quad biking and paragliding, are available, as are tennis, swimming and bowls.

Somewhat haplessly, I had agreed to a Heli-Tour, to experience the spectacular bird’s eye view of the island but when the slightly larger than dinky sized helicopter landed on the lawn in front of the Auchrannie Hotel, I felt a frizzle of anxiety. Joining two other visitors aboard, I stifled my scream as the helicopter tilted back 90 degrees before zooming off like a demented alien space ship from the film ‘Independence Day’. Of course, it was perfectly safe and the experience unforgettable. The pilot was friendly and very experienced and I cannot wait to do it again.

But for those who prefer their feet on the ground, or who live to fish, the waters around Arran will not disappoint.

Arran is the ideal holiday destination - there is even a Chocolate Factory! In ‘James’ Chocolate Shop’, a tiny shop with a big reputation for a variety of flavours and fillings in a superb and unusual range of chocolates, I watched chocolates and truffles being made by hand before buying from the beautifully presented selection.

It was time for a coffee-break so heading for the Brodick Bar, and forgetting the diet, I tucked into scones and shortbread. The food is made from local produce and later I visited some of the producers to sample the tasty cheeses or watch the salmon being smoked. However, not being a beer drinker, I gave the Brewery Tour a miss. I did buy some of Arran’s excellent whiskey and lots of biscuits and shortbread. How could I visit Scotland and NOT buy shortbread?

Too soon, it was time to bid farewell to Arran. I would be taking away memories of a warm and friendly people and memorable experiences. I’d also be leaving laden with packages and carrier bags stuffed into the battered suitcase, purchased from the local Charity shop, opposite the Ferry Terminal.

While on the island, I stayed at the Auchrannie Country House which is not only a hotel, but also a Spa Resort offering guests a fully equipped leisure facility. The hotel slogan says it all: the only thing we overlook is the finest scenery in Scotland.

'In Britain' magazine, Feb/March 2005.

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