The Royal Hotel

In recognition of the fact that Canada came to our rescue in the last post, Second Cup, we thought we would come here to Comrie because it is twinned with Carleton Place in Ontario. Actually, that’s rubbish, it’s entirely coincidental, we are really visiting an aunt who lives nearby … but the twinning bit is correct. But first, please bear with us if we digress a little. Declaration of war 1914This is how the start of war was reported the day after it was announced in 1914. According to the headline, Scotland was not at war with anyone, yet somehow that trifling piece of misinformation didn’t matter – Scotland was most definitely at war. There is some equivalence in the here and now where, in spite of Scotland overwhelmingly wishing to stay in the EU, it is leaving anyway … simply because England wants to leave. We mention all this for no other reason than the fact that it was brought to mind by the trout, pictured below. It had spent the day when WWI was announced quietly swimming around Loch Earn, presumably just minding its own business … perhaps it was the last living creature to have died never having heard the words “World War” … that, along with its size, makes it pretty special.

20lb trout caught on Loch Earn at the Royal Hotel, Comrie
A bad day for this trout and the world. It couldn’t have imagined that the same fate awaited 17 million soldiers and civilians.

By way of compensation, however, this brownie has spent the intervening 100 or so years above the fireplace in the rather comfy surroundings of the lounge here at the Royal Hotel in Comrie. If it could talk, we think it would have a few stories to tell. 72 years earlier Queen Victoria may have sat in the same lounge during her stay in 1842, hence the name “Royal Hotel” … maybe she was eating a scone?Reception area at the Royal Hotel, ComrieComrie itself is a picturesque little village which, amongst other things, boasts a New Year Flambeaux procession involving birch poles of burning tar being marched through the village somewhat akin to Burning the Clavie at Burghead. The procession is followed,  in the wee small hours, by a fancy dress competition … sounds like fun, one of these years we might give it a try? A scone at the Royal Hotel, ComrieAlso, the village, by virtue of its location astride the Highland Boundary Fault, experiences more earth tremors than anywhere else in the UK and is often referred to as the ‘Shaky Toon’. Unfortunately our scones were a bit ‘shaky’ too. There was no cream but other than that there was nothing particularly wrong with them … just nothing particularly right with them either, so sadly they missed out on a topscone.

Picture of HMS Inflexible and HMS Devastation
c1890 pictures from the hotel. HMS Infexible could be used by PM May on her outward journey to EU negotiations and HMS Devastation  for the return journey.

Let us finish by continuing with the wartime theme. Comrie is home to the WWII Cultybraggan POW camp where Rudolf Hess is rumoured to have been held. Not something of which a village would be unduly proud, you would think. Last year, however, Heinrich Steinmeyer, a former Waffen-SS prisoner of the camp, left the village £384,000 in his will, as an expression of “my gratitude to the people of Scotland for the kindness and generosity that I have experienced in Scotland during my imprisonment of war and hereafter.” It is now over 70 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps but they had rather different stories to tell … well done Comrie!

ps: in the same edition of the Telegraph which features the headline, at the start of this post, the Harrogate correspondent recorded his disappointment: “war is somewhat upsetting the season, and a number of visitors have left for home”.

PH6 2DN    tel:01764 679200    The Royal Hotel

Second Cup

You all know by now that scones come in a variety of guises … some are so light you almost have to peg them down, others could be used as door stops. But scones are also incredibly versatile, e.g. we have just recently realised that they can even be used as a measure of cultural diversity. You would, of course, have to use a, yet to be invented, sconometer. With a scale of 1-10, it would scan the surrounding area and determine how many scone bearing establishments there were within it. Places like the melting pot that is the Portobello Road here in London might struggle to generate a 1 due to the lack of scones in its abundant cafés and restaurants … you can get all sorts of other strange and unrecognisable things … but not scones.

Photo of interior of Second Cup, Portobello Road, London
Downstairs eating area

We walked the entire length of the Market in subzero temperatures only to find that most of these places had barely heard of scones let alone serve them. We just got lots of quizzical looks, as if we were slightly mad? Okay, we know that a lot of you think that we are completely mad but bear with us. You see, some areas, such as our own home turf in Scotland, would probably generate a high reading, say 8 or 9, due to almost every café and eating-house offering scones as part of their everyday fare. According to the sconometer that area would be deemed to be not very culturally diverse … and compared to the Portobello Road, that would be completely accurate! See, not mad at all! These days the sconometer would have to take the form of an app which would, not only provide a scone distribution readout wherever you are, but would also lead you to the nearest or best scone … invaluable in places like this. Sooo, given our somewhat dire circumstances, who do you think ended up coming to our rescue? None other than a bunch of Canadians in the form of the Second Cup Coffee Company … ehh?Photo of interior of Second Cup, Portobello Road, London We have never come across Second Cup before but it has been around since 1975 and is run from Mississauga in the Toronto area and now has franchises covering 29 countries. When we did an initial visual sweep of the counter however we thought we had come across yet another scone desert but, when we asked, the assistant pointed to two solitary scones amongst all the other cakes and pastries … hallelujah!  It has to be said though that these lonesome items did not look particularly appetising, quite the opposite … but it had to be done! Would this count as our first Canadian scone?? Photo of a scone at Second Cup, Portobello Road, LondonWhatever they did to them between leaving their cabinet and landing in front of us, it looked like it would be our first grilled scone as well? Life on the edge, as always! When we looked over at the sad wee empty space these scones had vacated we felt that perhaps we should just have left them there … for their sake, and ours! When we started to eat them however we were very pleasantly surprised, they were very good and in spite of the ubiquitous tub of cornish cream we found ourselves swithering about topscone … really? It was an odd kind of place … friendly enough without anyone actually being particularly friendly … most staff were too busy on their mobile phones! Perhaps they were using the scone app to find out if anyone in the area was setting up in competition? Plus, you would think with a name like Second Cup they would offer a ‘second cup’ but no, they didn’t.  At the end of the day we decided that, although the scone itself was good, it was let down by everything else … no topscone. Photo of a coffee cup at Second Cup, Portobello Road, LondonThe scones here reminded us of Scotland’s position in relation to the rest of the UK … just a little scone surrounded by much bigger sticky pastries and flamboyant cakes, powerless to make itself seen, never mind heard.  With the recent Law Lords ruling the Scottish Parliament has been exposed as nothing other than the talking shop the UK government always intended it to be and powerless to carry out Scotland’s wishes! It’s time for change! As we were leaving Second Cup we glanced over  to the cabinet to see that … lo and behold, two new scones had replaced our ones, and it may have been our imaginations, but they seemed to be standing rather proudly among their glitzy neighbours … could it be a sign?

There are lots of pretty esoteric apps out there so, who knows, the sconometer app might yet become a reality … but in the meantime, thankyou Canada for rescuing us!

W11 1LJ    tel: 020 7460 0633   Second Cup Coffee Company

Fonab Castle (revisited)

As you are probably aware, we have long asserted that, in our humble opinion, the best scone in the world is to be found at Fonab Castle Hotel in Pitlochry. Since our first Fonab cream tea experience we have devoted much time and effort, not to mention expense, looking for a worthy challenger, but in spite of all our testing at places as far apart as Ackergill Tower in Wick and Claridge’s in London, Fonab has managed to hold on to its position  on the top tier of the cake stand as the topmost topscone. However, it is now almost two years since we made that rather bold assertion. In our minds Fonab shone like a beacon in terms of ambience, presentation, service and quality … okay it’s not the cheapest – it’s one of these “you know you’re worth it” places. But … perhaps, after such a long period of time, our combined memories were playing tricks on us … something that, in our advancing years, is not only possible but highly likely! Maybe the scones would be awful and we would have to find a new benchmark …. aaarrgghh! So it was with more than a little trepidation that we decided to return and reassess the Fonab scone … luckily we could still remember the location of Pitlochry.

Winter view across Loch Faskally from Fonab Castle, Pitlochry
View across Loch Faskally towards Ben Vrackie from Fonab

The trepidation was caused by fear of disappointment …  what if there was a new chef with a different recipe, what if they were just different? Picture of a cream tea scone at Fonab Castle Hotel, PitlochryYou may remember that, on one visit, we actually asked the chef what his secret ingredient was for a good scone … and the answer – “happiness in the kitchen!” Well, we need not have worried! This time around the service was impeccable, the ambience relaxing and comfortable, the views superb, the range of Scottish jams just brilliant, the coffee fantastic and the scones were just perfect … warm and light as a feather. Not only were they presented in beautiful white linen napkins but even the serving bowls had been warmed. This is how scones should be treated!Picture of cream tea presentation at Fonab Castle Hotel, PitlochrySo just to be clear – let this be a clarion call to every posh hotel, coffee shop, tea house and greasy spoon we visit on our travels … when you see us coming this is what we expect if you are to have any chance of dislodging the Fonab scone from the pinnacle of sconiness. At just under £11 for a cream tea, it may be expensive but it is soooo worth it! Not only that but it turns out that the chef we spoke to about ingredients has long gone, and yet the scones were still delicious … there must be a lot of happiness in that kitchen! Such scrumptiousness lulls you into a warm sconey world where the trials and tribulations of a mad Trump/May/Putin world seem far far away. With the PM delivering a speech on Brexit yesterday that completely ignores the wishes of us folks north of the border, it also clarifies the situation … Scotland is going nowhere until it takes control of its own affairs. Oh dear, sconey world is so much nicer. … if only we could stay for ever?

PH16 5ND     tel: 01796 470140    Fonab Castle Hotel and Spa

The Bothy Bistro

You can tell by the signs above the door … Afa Fine Coffee,  Fancy Pieces and Hamely Fare that we are quite far from home. We are, in fact, in Burghead on the Moray Firth at one of our all time favourite cafés, The Bothy Bistro. Why, we hear you ask, would you be in Burghead in the middle of January … surely it’s not just for a scone? Well, believe it or not, it is actually all down to Pope Gregory XIII who in 1582 decided that a new calendar was needed to better reflect the actuality of astronomical events, hence the Gregorian calendar we use today. It seems however that no one told the good folks of Burghead who still use the old Julian calendar. Soooo, having thoroughly enjoyed our own New Year celebrations, but being a bit down about having to wait twelve months for another bash, we decided that we would come here where you only have to wait eleven days. Their New Year is on the 11th January every year and is celebrated in some style with the Burning of the Clavie – click on the image below to get a wee flavour.

Burning the Clavie on Doorie Hill, Burghead
These guys are not warming scones up

Where else would you find a thousand people out at night in rain, freezing temperatures and  gale force winds that would cut you in half, thoroughly enjoying themselves? Definitive proof that “there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes”. Burning the Clavie, BurgheadThey are a hardy lot in Burghead and we had a brilliant time following the Clavie and delivering embers to homes around the town to bring them luck for the following year … eventually ending up at the Clavie’s final resting place on top of Doorie Hill. Burghead is fortunate in having some sort of force field surrounding the town that precludes health and safety officers from entering, otherwise we are sure that, anywhere else, throwing buckets of petrol onto a burning barrel of tar in a 50mph wind on top of a steep hill with lots of people standing around, would raise a few eyebrows … but not in Burghead. We feel priviledged to be able to share the fun and enjoy the hospitality of the local people. There is no food to buy in any of the local pubs and hotels  … it’s all free! We think the whole thing is best summed up in the words of poet Mary Harding:

“For all our science and technical skill,
We watch with hearts that hungry still
Leap with a wild primeval thrill
At the leaping flames on the Doorie Hill”.

The last time we were here we ended up doing a strip-the-willow in the main street with what seemed like the entire population of the town at 1.30am .. great fun! In spite of the best attentions of the Church and its strenuous efforts to have it banned this ritual has survived for centuries … long may it continue! Internal view of The Bothy Bistro, BurgheadLogo for The Bothy Bistro, BurgheadBut back to The Bothy Bistro! Burghead is fortunate indeed to have this place which could happily stand against opposition from many more sophisticated places in London and the like. Their bacon, marmalade and banana croissants are to die for and their exclusive range of wines is second to none. The scones, however, on this occasion seemed to have come out in sympathy with the Clavie itself … burnt! Bothy Bistro sconeDisappointingly, not a topscone. Everything else was fine and we enjoyed  being back here again but the scone was just too hard and too crunchy! Probably no more scones before Trump takes up the US Presidency … maybe no more after it either, the world might just be too weird … and that’s saying something after the 2016 we have just had. You get the feeling though that, in Burghead, they will just carry on regardless no matter what happens. Happy new year to all our readers … again!

IV30 5UE    tel: 01343 830006    The Bothy Bistro FB

Monachyle Mhor

It’s 2017, belated happy new year to all our fellow sconeys, we hope it will be a good one. Predictions for the year, however do not look too promising! The UK government continues with its headless chicken act over Brexit … problem is, it’s not an act! It seems that the Labour party’s new year resolution, particularly in Scotland, is to be even more irrelevant than last year … that’s a tough one but, under its current leadership, probably achievable. At least the Scottish government is giving all newborn babies a ‘baby box’ full of nice things so that they all have the same start in life … and all for no more than the cost of a banker’s bonus. Laudable as this is, rumour has it that the Tory government is investigating the ‘box’ to see if it qualifies as extra accommodation under the bedroom tax?

swings at Monachyle Mhor
swings at Monachyle Mhor

Before we all get too cynical maybe we should get on to the good news … it’s a brand new scone year and where better to kick it off than back in Rob Roy country in the splendid isolation of Monachyle Mhor. We’re here with a couple of young Dutch friends who, having been here a couple of years ago, wanted to return. Also, I used to spend my childhood holidays in Balquidder, where my uncle was head forester, so for me it was a great chance to revisit old and fond memories … two birds with one stone so to speak!Lounge at Monachyle MhorThis working hill farm has 2000 acres of fabulous scenery overlooking Loch Voil and Loch Doine enabling it to provide walking, hunting and shooting holidays. Since the old days when it was just a farm and I used to come here to get the milk, Monachyle Mhor has become a ‘destination’ for foodies – watch this video to see how they do it. You can even come for lunch by seaplane if that’s what floats your boat, otherwise it is a somewhat tortuous drive along an ever diminishing road which eventually peters out completely at Inverlochlarig, just a few hundred meters further on from Monachyle Mhor. Scones at Monachyle MhorWe were welcomed into a lounge where the log burning stove was promptly set ablaze for our comfort and the twenty minutes we had to wait for our scones to be freshly baked was taken up with playing Billie Holiday tracks on a record deck … there is definitely something special about vinyl! Before long our scones arrived beautifully presented on silver cake stands. There was plenty jam, butter and cream and the scones themselves were wonderfully warm and fresh … we couldn’t wait to get started! If there was a criticism it was that they were too big … and there were two each!! Pat also felt that, even with them being freshly baked, they were slightly doughy in the center and our friends from Amsterdam agreed … I was outnumbered. As we have already said, the scones were too big and too many and, though we didn’t have to eat them all, you know how it is … none of us needed much to eat that evening.

Antler christmas decoration at Monachyle Mhor
a typical Monachyle Mhor christmas decoration hanging above the reception desk

No topscone award unfortunately but overall we thoroughly enjoyed our visit and it was great to be back in this neck of the woods. As the Mhor empire continues to expand with a chip shop, a bakery and a motel, we wish it well … it is great to see such entrepreneurial flair in this part of the world. Many thanks to our readers for unstinting support throughout 2016 … here’s to more scones in 2017 … cheers!

FK19 8PQ    tel: 01877 384622    Monachyle Mhor