Our town, Crieff, lies on the southern edge of the Scottish Highlands. Hills and mountains rise up dramatically behind the town, and can be glimpsed from our garden. It is a short walk up into the hills, where there are beautiful views. Here are some photos taken this winter (the castle is Castle Monzie):
A few miles down the road from Crieff, we visit the village of Comrie, which boasts impressive waterfalls and wild Highland scenery.
We also take our visitors deeper into the Highlands. We visit the pretty town of Aberfeldy (great cafes!) with its famous waterfalls walk – Birks’ Walk – immortalised in song by the great songwriter and poet, Robert Burns:
-Bonie lassie, will ye go,
Will ye go, will ye go,
Bonie lassie, will ye go
To the birks of Aberfeldy!
Here is the great Robert Burns himself, sitting next to one of our visitors as he admires the scenery.
And then on to the beautiful Loch Tay, where you may want to visit the Scottish Crannog Centre – a reconstructed prehistoric loch-dwelling. It’s also a good place for wild swimming.
Hogmanay is Scotland’s New Year’s Eve, and it’s quite a big deal in Scotland. For 400 years the Scots weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas, because it was associated with the Catholic Church. So Hogmanay was their big mid-winter celebration. The traditions date back to Viking times.
Last year we went to Stirling’s Lantern Festival, and then enjoyed a fireworks display at midnight. This year we took advantage of a full house of visitors to put on a murder mystery evening (no-one guessed who the murderers were), and then went to Comrie’s famous Flambards Procession. This was a mixture of ancient and modern. The Flambards – poles which have been set on fire – are carried through the village by strong young men, and then thrown into the river. They are accompanied by bagpipes, and on this occasion by a cavorting Donald Trump figure.
Beautiful weather, stunning Autumn colours, and 2 of the best Scottish festivals – all in one week.
Late October/ early November is also a school holiday in much of Europe.
This year we introduced children from France and Russia to the fun of Halloween (31st October). In Scotland, children dress up as witches or monsters and go “guising” – visiting neighbours to recite a poem or sing a song, in exchange for sweets. The neighbours seemed to enjoy their introduction to Russian poetry, in Russian but with a useful explanation in English. Our visitors also decorated the house with “spider webs” and a skeleton, and carved pumpkins into scary faces, lit up by candles. Then Helena demonstrated the traditional Halloween games of bobbing for apples and (once your face is wet) fishing for money in a bowl full of flour.
5th November is Guy Fawkes’ Night. This festival is unique to the UK. Bonfires and fireworks celebrate the failure of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament – in 1605. In the words of the nursery rhyme:
“Remember remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
Guy Fawkes was hung, drawn and quartered – not a nice death. 400 years later, we enjoyed Crieff’s massive bonfire and impressive fireworks display.
The popular Rough Guide travel book series has held a vote among its readers – for the most beautiful country in the world. The runners up are Canada, New Zealand, Italy, South Africa and Indonesia. Scotland gained the most votes, and in the words of Rough Guide:
“Who can deny that these wild beaches, deep lochs and craggy castles are some of the most wonderful and beautiful sights in the world?”
Rough Guides has also judged the Scottish Highlands to be the best region in the UK for cycling – so why not add a few days’ cycling to your homestay holiday?
“Wild swathes of largely deserted mountainous terrain give way to clear, well maintained roads perfect for a bike ride, with few cars joining you along the way. The scenery around is astoundingly beautiful, and you’ll find yourself cruising through deep valleys and past inky-blue lochs.”
And Edinburgh is the best place in the UK for architecture. Edinburgh is an easy day trip from our homestay in Crieff.
“Edinburgh Castle’s fairytale towers are a reminder of the city’s ancient roots, while sleek, urban design in the city centre gives the the city a decidedly cool edge. Take an architecture tour to explore the Old Town’s winding Reformation-era streets and the elegant Neoclassical buildings of the New Town. Modern highlights include the controversial Scottish Parliament building and the swirling Edinburgh Landform. When you’ve had your fill of the city from the ground, head to the top of Calton Hill to take in the skyline from above.”
25 January: BURNS NIGHT. A very special night in Scotland, commemorating the birth in 1759 of Robert Burns, the great poet and song-writer. Book a seat at one of the many Burns Night suppers and enjoy the traditional humorous speeches, live poetry, songs and bagpipe playing, and a meal of haggis, tatties and neeps, often accompanied by whisky (or the much loved bright orange Irn Bru for children). Dancing is optional.
13 February: SHROVE TUESDAY. The day before the start of Lent is celebrated as Pancake Day. Lots of pancake making and eating, and traditional pancake races – you have to run and toss a pancake from your frying pan at the same time.
14 February: ST VALENTINE’S DAY. A big night for lovers, and for restaurant owners. Take your boy/girlfriend or husband/wife out for a romantic meal. And don’t forget the card, flowers and chocolates.
1 April: APRIL FOOLS’ DAY. The day on which you are positively encouraged to play pranks on your friends and family. The newspapers often join in too, trying to fool their readers into believing some highly unlikely news story.
1 April: EASTER DAY IN 2018. Celebrated by the consumption of large amounts of chocolate egg. Small eggs are hidden around gardens by the Easter Bunny. Visitors who stay with us over Easter will take part in a traditional Easter egg hunt, and eat a traditional Sunday roast. Not to forget that this is the most important day in the Christian calendar – you may want to attend a church service at Crieff Parish Church, or at Dunblane Cathedral.
23 June 2018: COMMEMORATION OF THE BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN (1314). This includes a march to the site of the battle in Stirling (at which the English were defeated by the Scots army, led by king Robert the Bruce), with laying of wreaths and political speeches in favour of Scottish independence.
August: THE EDINBURGH FESTIVAL. The biggest arts festival in the world. We tend to go to events on the hugely varied Edinburgh Fringe, including theatre, musicals, stand up comics, magic shows, circus, classical music, acapella, cabaret, etc etc. There are 100s of shows every day, from all over the world, and the streets are full of crowds watching the street performers. The dates for 2018 are: 3-27 August. We take our child visitors to the Edinburgh Fringe, and adults can choose to spend their free day in Edinburgh to attend the formal Festival (high level music and theatre) or the Fringe. The famous EDINBURGH MILITARY TATTOO runs at Edinburgh Castle over the same period. Crieff often manages to entice some of its performers to the Crieff Highland Gathering.
August – date to follow: THE CRIEFF HIGHLAND GATHERING. A great day out, with the strong man competition (mainly consists of throwing various extremely heavy weights, while wearing a kilt), running and cycling races, tug-of-war, competitive Scottish dancing, Scottish bands, bagpipes and drumming. If you miss this one, there are other Highland Games dotted around the region throughout spring and summer.
23 August: ANNIVERSARY OF THE EXECUTION OF WILLIAM WALLACE (1305). A great day to visit the Wallace Monument, where actors commemorate the brutal death of the great Scottish hero (he was hung, drawn and quartered, which is even worse than it sounds). He is smiling in our photo, as he shows off his sword.
11 September: ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF STIRLING BRIDGE (1297). A chance for supporters of Scottish independence to meet up at the site of William Wallace’s great victory against the English. Flag waving, speeches, patriotic singing.
31 October: HALLOWEEN is special in Scotland. The tradition of “guising” goes back centuries, and is alive and well today. Children dress up and knock on neighbours’ doors, yes, but they are also expected to sing, tell jokes, put on a short play… If they do this to the satisfaction of the householder, they get their sweets! There is also often hot punch, dressing up and ghostly house decorations for accompanying adults to enjoy.
5 November: GUY FAWKES NIGHT. This is my favourite British festival! To commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder plot to blow up James I, the first of the Stewart (Scottish) Kings of England. Guy Fawkes being the most notorious of the conspirators. Bonfires and fireworks. The Bridge of Allan Fireworks Night is held against the background of Stirling’s lit up castle.
25 December: CHRISTMAS DAY. The children leave a stocking at the foot of the bed on Christmas Eve. Father Christmas visits during the night and stuffs it with toys, sweets and the traditional tangerine. After a walk or treasure hunt and church, we eat a Christmas roast with steamed Christmas pudding (not to everyone’s taste). Play games. Open the presents under the tree. Sing some carols. The children’s favourite day of the year.
31 December: HOGMANY. Scotland’s version of New Year’s Eve. Comrie celebrates with a procession of flambards, which are then thrown into the river. Stirling does a great Lantern procession, and there are many fireworks displays at midnight, including one from Stirling Castle. The famous Auld Lang Syne is of course a Scots poem by the great Robert Burns, written in 1788. In Edinburgh, the celebrations run for 4 days.
Technically, neither Scotland nor England is a country. The kingdoms of Scotland and England became one kingdom in 1707 – through the Act of Union.
But the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in 1997, with important devolved powers, eg over education, healthcare and housing, encouraged a taste for political independence. Since 2007, the Scottish National Party (SNP) have been the dominant force in the Scottish Parliament. Their main aspiration is for independence for Scotland.
The 2014 Independence Referendum resulted in a 55% vote for staying in the United Kingdom. In the 2016 EU Referendum, 62% of Scots voted to stay in the European Union. Would the decision of the UK Government in London to leave the EU result in a stronger vote for independence if another referendum were held now? The recent General Election results suggest not. Many Scots just want the SNP Scottish government to get on with the “day job” of running Scotland, and to stop focusing on Scottish independence.
I lived in England until last year, so I feel well qualified to answer this question, but obviously with a degree of subjectivity.
Scotland feels a long way away from England. There is a lot of almost empty countryside to cross, as you drive or take the train between the built-up north of England and Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Living in central Scotland, it feels spacious, uncongested, unpolluted. It is also green and wild, and the temperatures are significantly lower. The Scots are noticeably relaxed and friendly, in my view, compared with “down south” (although some parts of England are known for their friendliness too). Strangers often strike up a conversation.
There are plenty of differences in terms of how the country is run – for example the education system – and there is a slightly different legal system.
Politically, Scotland is traditionally left-wing, with England tending to be more right-leaning.