Friday, 17 August 2012

My Favourite Place in Scotland

I've just posted my entry to BBC Radio Scotland's Out Of Doors Programme and Scottish Book Trust competition to write about 'my favourite place in Scotland' in 1,000 words or under.

Here's my entry:


My Favourite Place in Scotland 

What a difficult task the Out of Doors Programme and Scottish Book Trust have set.

To write about 'my favourite place in Scotland' sounded simple enough, until I actually started to think... Just what is my favourite place?

I know – Orkney! I've been only twice but long to go again: birds, sealife, incredible coastal cliffscapes. Gentle inland farms, numerous small isles. Ancient history, archaeological digs. On the Brough of Birsay tidal island it all comes together as fulmars and rock doves glide and dive around sheer flagstone cliffs. A wheatear flitted amongst the stones of the 12th-century monastry (built atop a 9th-century Viking settlement). There's a Pictish stone there that's older still.

The Ring of Brodgar stone circle - Jennifer and I cycled here aided by a powerful tailwind. Returning to our Bay of Skaill cottage the tailwind became a headwind too strong to cycle in. Mrs Poke's husband collected us in his farm truck. In nearby 3,000 year-old Maes Howe chambered tomb the Historic Scotland ranger mistook us for a married couple, discovered we weren't and offered to perfom the ceremony there and then. The awkward situation was averted when I pointed out that we had no cake.

Rackwick Bay on the Isle of Hoy - Stopping part way at the huge Dwarfie Stane - what apart from faerie magic could possibly have so crisply carved its two-celled interior? The walk from Rackwick to the Old Man sea stack - mountain hares in mahogany-grey-white summer coats watched us intelligently. Great skuas -bonxies- circled overhead. At the headland fulmars wheeled below and beside us.

In Kirkwall we marvelled at the red sandstone of St Magnus Cathedral and had hot chocolate and a kitkat each in a quiet church cafe.

In Stromness we ate wholemeal pasta in the living room of our hostel and played Scrabble as the evening sky darkened outside. Quirky buildings, giftshops and galleries of the cobbled main street. Elegant stringed instruments in a window near the museum. Artist Tim Wootton in his wildlife art gallery - told me of a Sandhill Crane sighted on a nearby island. Cycling out of the town to look at fossilised wave-ripples on a flagstone shore. From a derelict gun emplacement I sketched a distant lighthouse and watched curlews that flew low across the waves.

That's Orkney.

I also rather like the area around Montrose, where my mum has a static caravan. Miles of pristine white beaches, river estuaries, red-earth landscapes. Just walking up the dunes from the caravan you spot eiders and cormorants, guillemots and gulls. In spring and summer terns flap balletically and scree scree their creaking calls as they dive for little silver fish. Come here if you're into birds - the Scottish Wildlife Trust's Montrose Basin visitor centre overlooks the tidal lagoon. One evening they led a dusk walk and a brown hare came leaping and bounding towards our group, closer and closer through stubble field, completely unfazed. We listened to pipistrelle bats on electronic detectors then walked in the dark to the old Bridge of Dun where a tawny owl glided silently away towards a group of barns.

In woodland above the Basin a ruined mill offered its treasures in the stream that bubbled below what must have been a midden. Coloured glass and copper buckles, pitted and greening. Clay marble stoppers to keep the fizz in lemonade and a glass jar with three bears prowling around its sides - one little, one middle, one large. A white doll figurine less than an inch high - to carry in a purse, or hide in a special steam pudding?

Yes, Montrose is the place.

Or... what about the north-east coast, between Aberdeen and Peterhead... The cliffs are what you go here for. Arches and caves and a giant stone-walled cauldron known as 'the pot'. A mile or two north of Cruden Bay are the ominous ruins of Slains Castle. You can see why Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula here. The drop from the tallest tower is the height of the castle then the same again, down near-vertical rockface to crashing waves below. On a spring day I painted here and counted 15 bird species in an hour. Short-eared owls flew to and fro, rising from coarse grasses to quarter over field and cliff. One came directly towards me and hovered above for a few wingbeats before uttering a single shrill shriek and flying back the way it had come. I don't know whether or not I passed its test …

Below the cliffs between Cruden Bay and Peterhead boulder-floored caves resonate with the otherworldly wails of colonies of seals. If any map should still show the words 'here be dragons' it's the Ordnance Survey Explorer 427 of Peterhead & Fraserburgh.

And seabirds nest all around - razorbills and kittiwakes, guillemots and shags, lesser and greater black-backed gulls. Fulmar and of course the iconic -and comic- rainbow-beaked puffin. My best ever views of a peregrine falcon - a lone bird sitting surveying the grasslands. I sketched it over and over before it flew to the cliffs to give me perfect close-up views of its cadmium yellow talons and eye ring, its puffed white chest speckled with dark and that wonderful but terrifying hooked bill.

Shortly after the peregrine I heard far below a splashing blow... A whale! I looked just in time to see a long blue-black shape slide below the water, heading north. Rushing that way I saw its dark mass break the surface several more times, ploughing a straight line through calm water. Finally the curved blades of the tail flipped right up vertically before the whole thing disappeared completely. It must had dived.

But wait, I nearly forgot - Linlithgow, my hometown! Our winter starling roost in the station monkey puzzles, and the springtime displays of great crested grebes on the Loch...

Oh dear.

Is it cheating to say that Scotland is my favourite place?


  1. Hi Leo good to finally meet you yesterday having heard of you so much. Best of luck with your entry.

    Your birds made me think of an artist who has a love of birds as well

    Brigid Farmer

    click on 'online shop' to see her artworks

    There's an interesting how to section on her blog too mainly regarding printmaking

  2. Thanks Aine. It was good to meet you too. Great to finally see around the Dunfermline Printmakers and to be reminded how much I enjoyed printing at college.

    Brigid's work is really interesting. I like it a lot. She achieves the freedom and spontaneity that I'm trying to find in my own.

  3. Hi Leo,

    A pleasure to have met you in sunny Aberdeen. You are exceptionally talented - the scene you were painting will no doubt be exceptional.

    Regarding the Scotland list on your blog, have you ever visited Skye? Coastal views that I think you would like.

    Look forward to revisiting regularly, website added to my favourites.

    You never know,I might bump into you again!


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