Stirling Highland Hotel

Internal view of Stirling Highland HotelIt is Halloween, a celebration of ghouls and ghosts that we are at a loss to understand. We were brought up on Guy Fawkes and bonfire night, ‘penny for the guy’ and all that, but don’t remember such a brouhaha about halloween. Could it just be us being completely out of touch or could it be … perish the thought, just another hellish import from the US? Afternoon tea at the Stirling Highland HotelWhatever it is you would not think that it would have any impact at all on, the altogether more wholesome world of, sconology … but you would be wrong! If you come here to the Stirling Highland Hotel and book an afternoon tea for two you will understand. Afternoon tea is supposed to be civilised and civilising, relaxing, romantic even, but in this hotel, some twisted, devilish mind has designed an afternoon tea with three of everything … it has to be some sort of macabre joke? If anything is going to produce disharmony and discord it is providing three scones for two people, what on earth are they thinking about? Guess you could decide to have one and a half each … but really? A scone at the Stirling Highland HotelThere was also three of each kind of sandwich? Luckily we survived the experience without any blood being spilled. In fact, overall it was quite enjoyable but definitely not one of our finest afternoon tea experiences … and we’ve had a few! This building used to be the High School of Stirling. The original school was situated in Castle Wynd for over 300 years (now the Portcullis Hotel) and moved here in 1854 before moving to a brand new building in Torbrex village in 1962. The Torbex building was demolished in 2008 after a mere 46 years, so, if history teaches us anything, it certainly doesn’t teach us anything about building schools.

The view towards the Wallace Monument from the Stirling Highland Hotel
View from the hotel towards the Ochil hills and the Wallace Monument

To prove the point, the current school, near the University of Stirling, was built under one of Labour’s dreaded PFI initiatives so no matter how long the building lasts we will be paying for it whether it stands or not … heyho! One thing which sets the Stirling Highland Hotel apart is a fully functional observatory on the roof … not a lot of hotels can boast of that.

External view of Stirling Highland Hotel
The entrance to the hotel

If history does teach us anything, it has to be that history doesn’t teach us much at all. When America declared independence in 1776, Lord North’s UK government made exactly the same noises, almost word for word, as the Madrid government is making towards Catalonia today … and see where that got us … halloween!

FK8 1DU    tel: 01786 272727     Stirling Highland Hotel

The Café by Benugo

When we were on Orkney we got a real sense of community. People supported each other by making local crafts and selling local produce … staff had time for a chat and all that. There was just a certain honest homeliness about the island and the people so we were not surprised to learn that it was voted best place to live in the UK, five years in a row … in spite of the wind! Today’s venue is about as far away as you can get from that … this could easily be where the Great God of Consumerism actually lives!

View from John Lewis' Café by Benugoby Benugo
View from Café by Benugo

It is, of course, Buchanan Galleries in Glasgow. Even the name of the cafe at the John Lewis store, ‘The Cafe by Benugo’, sounds a bit pretentious. Turns out that ‘Benugo’ is a company founded by Ben and Hugo Warner (see what they did there) in London in 1998.

Portrait of founder of John Lewis
John Spedan Lewis

They now service all the John Lewis stores as well as many others and have over 2,000 employees … well done Ben and Hugo. The John Lewis stores themselves are perhaps not too far removed from the community spirit we found on Orkney. They are run by the John Lewis Partnership, set up by John Spedan Lewis in 1920. After the store had been operating for over fifty years he had the revolutionary idea (for the time) that staff would be better motivated if they had a say in running the company and a share in the profits … something which continues to this day, all staff are ‘partners’ in the company. The JLPartnership also runs the Waitrose supermarket empire and is now a multi £billion business … a far cry from its first day’s takings of 16s 4d (82p) in 1864. What about the scones by Benugo? It is self-service and the seating area is spread around a vast glass balcony overlooking one of the busy concourses. Internal view of John Lewis' Café by BenugoWe opted for a ‘cream tea for two’ which at £8 seemed like good value. It was slightly odd, however, in that, usually with these things, you can have whatever you like to drink … not here! Pat wanted peppermint tea, no problem, but I felt like a coffee …. no, it had to be tea or nothing. A scone at John Lewis' Café by BenugoNo big deal but it just seemed like a slightly illogical  bit of inflexibility. The scones themselves were good though a little on the sweet side for our taste … no topscone unfortunately. Illogical inflexibility seems to be the order of the day with The Spanish government having just removed Catalonia’s autonomy … surely a massive blow to democracy and, unbelievably, it’s happening within the EU. Goodness knows where they will go from here but you can’t help feeling that it will all end in tears. Scotland should beware … devolution is currently under threat with the repatriation of powers from Brussels, many of which may never reach Edinburgh if Westminster gets its way. Hopefully Spain will take lead from John Spedan Lewis and get into some sort of partnership with the Catalans … it worked for him.

G1 2GF     tel: 0141 353 6677       The Café by Benugo

Storehouse of Foulis

The trip back from John O’ Groats to home is a good six hour drive so sustenance of some kind is called for along the way. We have passed this place, just off the A9 on the banks of the Cromarty Firth many times but, until now, have never managed an actual visit. Exterior view of Storehouse of FoulisThis is Munro country … not hills over 3000 feet, but actual Clan Munro country and, at one time, this was the centre of their empire. The first chief of Clan Munro was Donald O’Caan, Prince of Fermanagh, who came with his followers, from the River Roe in N. Ireland, to help King Malcolm drive out Viking Invaders. In thanks, the King granted Donald all the land between Dingwall and the River Alness and even today, one thousand years later, it’s still known as ‘Donald’s Land’ and it’s still home to many Munros. It is rich agricultural land and this storehouse was built in 1740 as a central collection point for tenants of the estate to bring their oats and barley. These were then distributed to farm workers as wages or sent off to markets further south by boat together with things like timber and salmon … boats could land on the gently sloping beach, load up, and then take off at the next high tide. Today, the horses,  carts and sloops of yesteryear no longer come, now it is a large farm shop/restaurant with lots of car parking … it is busy, busy! Interior view of Storehouse of FoulisAlthough it goes like the proverbial fair it runs like a well oiled machine … lots of people serving and lots just clearing tables and making sure everyone is looked after. We decided to have a spot of lunch and then just share a scone. Normally we would have had a plain or a fruit scone but, just because they had them and in the interests of sconology, we plumped for the chocolate and banana scone??? … life on the edge! A scone at Storehouse of FoulisLunch was fantastic … and the scone? Perhaps it is a little unfair because we think, if we had chosen one of their more common place scones, it would have got a topscone award however the chocolate and banana just didn’t do it for us … near the top in the weird scone category, though! When we look out across the water from the big bay window we can see Nigg and its associated oil platforms parked just offshore.  We don’t believe that Scottish independence should be predicated on oil … far from it, it should be based solely on the right to self determination that all other countries, except Scotland, enjoy. Nevertheless it is annoying that, during the independence referendum of 2014, oil was depicted as “running out within a few years” and as a “real problem” for the Scottish economy. In fact, production since 2014 has increased by 16% and within the last few weeks a new field (the biggest ever) has been discovered and will come on stream in 2019 delivering billions more barrels … but we barely hear about it. We wonder why? Could it be that it falls into the banned “good news for Scotland” category? The Prince of Fermanagh would have had something to say and he wasn’t even from Scotland! The Storehouse is great, highly recommend!

IV16 9UX    tel: 01349 830038      Storehouse of Foulis

Judith Glue Café

It’s our last day on Orkney and although the wind is still blowing as hard as ever we are already feeling sad at the prospect of leaving this magical island.

The Gloup, Orkney
The Gloup

We haven’t managed to get onto any of the smaller islands like Hoy or Papa Westray, partly because there is just so much to do and see on Mainland and partly because of time constraints. Also the weather has done absolutely nothing to encourage us to board a small boat and head out across the sea! Perhaps another visit with more time is called for? The Brough of Deerness, another prehistoric settlement, was to be our target destination today but when we reached the beginning of the path it became pretty obvious that the clifftop route in such strong winds would just be too tricky. Instead we contented ourselves with a visit to The Gloup, a long sea cave where the roof has collapsed … if you would like to visit just click here. Close by is the Covenanter’s Memorial where, in 1679, more than 200 Scottish Covenanter prisoners were drowned when their ship ‘The Crown of London’ was dashed on the rocks as they were being transported to Jamaica to become slaves. All the crew escaped but the prisoners were battened down in the hold with no hope of escape … there was no compensation for escaped prisoners. Cruel, we know, but do you think the captain might have been a Tory? Scone time meant we had to go back to Kirkwall and this time to Judith Glue’s Real Food Café. It is directly opposite St Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1135 and known as ‘The Light in the North’ … truly magnificent! Interior of St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall,OrkneyJudith Glue comes from a very entrepreneurial family that has stuck together (sorry) to run lots of businesses around Orkney and further afield. This is actually quite a large shop selling everything – clothes, art, jewellery, antiques, and complements another shop she runs in Inverness. At the back of the shop you come to the café/retaurant area which is quite big in itself. They pride themselves on supporting the local community and 60% of everything they sell is from the island and that includes the clothing, the jewellery and the food. Would we find Rhodda’s Cornish Cream here, no! We decide to have what they call a ‘Peedie Cream Tea’. In this part of the world you see the word ‘peedie’ everywhere and applied to all sorts of things … transpires that it simply means ‘small’. A scone at Judith Glue, Kirkwall, OrkneyOur Peedie Cream Tea cost about £8 and for that we got two sandwiches of our choice as well as a scone of our choice together with jam and cream and tea or coffee. It was all perfectly delicious and would you believe it, another topscone! That makes a clean sweep of topscones for Orkney … testament, we think, to their old fashioned believes in good friendly service and self reliance. The toilets here have interesting signs for the ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ … we think both look particularly attractive.Viking man and woman at Judith Glue, Kirkwall, OrkneyAlso a great advert for Old Orkney whisky.

Stromness whisky advertisment at Judith Glue, Kirkwall, OrkneyPat ended up with her bird list totaling a very healthy forty nine … excellent considering we didn’t see any of the usual culprits – blue tits, chaffinches, sparrows etc. Perhaps our biggest surprise was the number of swallows still flying around at this time of year, they have a much longer journey than us ahead of them!

This really is a wonderful island which has been full of surprises … not least of which was the following morning at 7am when we drove from Stromness to St Margaret’s Hope to catch our ferry … in a flat calm! C’est la vie!

KW15 1DH         tel: 01856 874225     Judith Glue Real Food Café

The Strynd Tearoom

The wind is still blowing with wicked enthusiasm however, in spite of that, our plan for today is to visit the west of Mainland … Skara Brae and all that, and end up in Kirkwall, the capital. Most sconeys will know something of the rich archaeology of Orkney.

Skara Brae and Skaill House at Sandwick on Orkney
5000 year old Skara Brae neolithic village with Skaill House in the distance

Up here they were building houses and having a high old time of it long before things like the Pyramids and Stonehenge had even been thought of. However, our abiding memory of Skara Brae will be of getting sandblasted by the wind coming off the beach … certainly gives you a rosy complexion. Road sign to the village of Twatt, Orkney

Stormy weather at Skara Brae at Sandwick on Orkney
Orkney weather is dramatic and changes every five minutes

Another problem with the wind is holding your binoculars steady enough to identify birds … we had no problem though with a brilliant view of a female hen harrier not far from Skara Brae. It is a thrill to see these relatively rare birds because they rather stupidly nest on the ground and, as a result, their young usually fall foul of predators before they can fledge. Pat’s list is now over forty which she is thrilled about but her joy was such that it was all I could do to stop her stealing a road sign to one of the local villages. Completely cobweb free, we eventually made it to Kirkwall and the Strynd Tearoom. Interior view of the Strynd Tearoom, Kirkwall, OrkneyLike Stromness, Kirkwall also has lots of wee lanes and this tearoom takes its name from the lane where its located. When we asked how to pronounce ‘Strynd’, it seemed to be “Strand’ but with the strangulated pronunciation that maybe a South African would use. It is a tiny place but lovely and everything is home made. Once again we were made very welcome and once again our scones were excellent. A scone at the Strynd Tearoom, Kirkwall, OrkneyWe are developing a theory that the further north you go the better the scones are because we have had nothing but topscones recently. The Strynd scone was warm and served with nice pots of jam and cream. The scone itself looked as if it would be crunchy but wasn’t, it was gloriously soft and absolutely delicious … another topscone! Now, while most of you will have heard of the Ring of Brodgar and other Orcadian archaeological gems, how many of you have heard of The Big Tree? Or how many have heard of the Heimskringla? Thought so … let us explain.  The Big Tree in Broad Street, Kirkwall, Orkney Heimskringla is a book of Old Norse sagas written in Iceland  in the 12th century … you’ve probably read it. The Big Tree is the only one left of three that were planted by Robert Laing, father of the Heimskringla’s translator, in his garden over 200 years ago. When they widened the main street by demolishing Laing’s walled garden this tree was left standing in the street. When you look at it you might wonder why its called The Big Tree? Well, in Orkney terms, it is … and it is obviously much loved because it still supports a luxurious head of leaves although largely hollow and supported by steel girders inserted in its trunk to keep it upright. What else has been happening in the big bad world while we have been enjoying ourselves on this island where you quickly feel kind of snugly insulated from everywhere else? The media is still largely ignoring the biggest political conference in the UK … the SNP one, and are concentrating instead on the sexual indiscretions of a Hollywood director that few have heard of and no one could care less about. Theresa May is still clinging on like a barnacle while Britain skillfully negotiates a “no deal‘, Brexit deal. Catalonia seems to have rather skillfully blindsided the Spanish government … for the moment! Trump’s big golf courses in Scotland seem to be loosing a fortune … bad! Scotland’s football team is no longer eligible for another pointless World Cup competition because of our DNA according to the manager … good! Well, well, well … the Big Tree has seen it all before.

Scapa distillery, Scapa, Orknay
Scapa distillery in the distance on the shores of Scapa Flow

KW15 1HG       tel: 01856 871552     The Strynd Tearoom

Julia’s Café & Bistro

When you leave South Ronaldsay you have to cross several causeways to get to the Mainland … confusing for simple folks like us because, as far as we were concerned we had left the mainland far behind at John O’ Groats. On Orkney, however, an archipelago of over 70 islands (the 20,000 population is spread over 20 of them) the largest island is called Mainland. When you become aware of the intricate system of small ferries and flights going to and fro between these islands it is easier to understand why, in this very self contained and independent community, they would think of their biggest and most populated island as “the mainland”. To get there, all we had to do was drive across four causeways from South Ronaldsay to the island of Burray, then the island of Glimps Holm, then the island of Lamb Holm and we were there … simple. Simple yes, exciting .. very! The storm meant that waves were crashing right over all the causeways … we just closed our eyes and hoped for the best. The Italian Chapel, OrkneyOn Lamb Holm we came to the Italian Chapel. Amazing to think that this entire church was created by Italian prisoners of war, from a Nissen hut and nothing other than scrap materials e.g. the lanterns were made from corned beef tins. The Orkney Wine Company is right beside the Chapel … we had to buy some of their ‘Tattie Wine’, hand crafted from three varieties of Orkney potatoes and matured in whisky barrels. “Discover more with every sip” it says … we’ll let you know.

A view of Stromness, Orkney
Stromness with a Northlink ferry in the middle distance

Eventually we reached Mainland and Stromness where we were lodging for the duration of our stay. Driving in Stromness is almost as exciting as driving the causeways. High Street Stromness, OrkneyThe main street, which bears seven different names, appeared more like a lane and we were not sure if we were supposed to drive along it since it was only about the width of a car … no problem. It is actually two way and no one here seems to have the slightest difficulty with it … never even heard a horn being honked!

Login's Well, high Street Stromness, Orkney
Login’s Well on main street where Capt Cook watered the Resolution and Discovery in 1780 and Sir John Franklin watered his ships Erebus and Terror in 1845 … names to fire the imagination

By this time a scone was definitely called for and it was Julia’s Café Bistro that rode to the rescue. It is situated at the harbour where the big NorthLink Ferries leave for Scrabster on the mainland .. that’s the mainland mainland! Again the service was very friendly and helpful and yet again the scones were fab. A scone at Julias café, Stromness, OrkneyOur second Orkney scone was served with little disposable pots of jam and cream and although not too crunchy on the outside they were delicious .. another topscone. Apparently there is another café in Stromness but we couldn’t find it … it is doubtless tucked away in the plethora of tiny back lanes. We did find the An art exhibit at Stromness Art Centre, OrkneyPier Art Centre however which is a state of the art building with a wide variety of exhibits, one of which you can see here. All a bit beyond us but great to find such a modern and dynamic facility in Stromness. We spent quite a long time perusing and it was great to be out of the wind which was still blowing a hooley … will it ever calm down? When you speak to Orkney folk about things like Hurricane Maria you usually just get a raised eyebrow … hardy, no nonsense folk!Interior view of Julias café, Stromness, OrkneyKW16 3AE        tel: 01856 850904             Julia’s Café Bistro

Again on main street we found a functioning K6 hiding in a corner next to the museum … made in Falkirk.A Falkirk K6 in Stromness main street, OrkneyPat, by the way, is now at thirty two with her bird list and still a few days to go.


Robertson’s Coffeehoose

As we headed out from the shelter of Gills Bay near John O’ Groats on the Pentalina ferry we could think of no better description of what lay ahead of us than that of Neil Gunn “beyond the mainland the blue of the sea was more intense than the blue of the sky, and the Islands of The Orcades lay at anchor like fabled ships: long shapes, with clean prows to the west, with sheer sides, not riding the sea but crouching to it with that odd menace which, like tenderness, is for ever at the heart of strength”. Gunn also says that “all adventuring races have been drawn to these islands”, so, after the Romans and Vikings, now it was to be the turn of sconologists! In the name of ornithology (Pat has started a new list) and sconology, we were enduring the remains of Hurricane Maria … boy, it was windy. So it was that, somewhat relieved, we sailed into St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay and our first ever encounter with an Orkney scone at Robertson’s Coffeehoose … just the spelling announced that we were somewhere  a little bit different. Interior view of Robertson's Coffeehoose, St Margaret's Hope, OrkneyThe interior reminded us of Ireland.  When we lived there you would go into a grocery store and find a few beer pumps gracing the end of the counter … it was the same here. Turns out that it used to be the general store but has recently been converted into a café/bar and now plays a significant role in the local night life. We were served by a young girl who not only made us feel very welcome but also regaled us with stories of the history of Robertson’s and The Hope, as the town is known locally. The town may have got its name from Margaret, Maid of Norway and uncrowned Queen of Scotland, who died here from the effects of seasickness in 1290 on her way to her coronation. Luckily, we had no ill effects on the crossing but we deeply sympathise. A scone at Robertson's Coffeehoose, St Margaret's Hope, OrkneyIt may have had been the warmth of the greetings or maybe it was to do with the ‘hard to stand up in’ weather outside, but our scones were particularly welcome and tasted delicious. They were warm and served with butter and a generous pot of jam … no cream but hey, we were out of the storm so who cares? All things considered we thought that this scone just slipped into the topscone category … well done Robertson’s.  After the Maid of Norway’s demise the disputed succession sparked the Wars of Scottish Independence. When we read of the extraordinary goings on in Catalonia, you realise that it should be so much easier for Scotland to become a self respecting independent country. After all, that is what most people under sixty  want and, as stated in the Treaty of Union, the UK is a union between two equal countries, Scotland and England, so Scotland is already a country in its own right.  However, in 1707, when the Speaker of the House of Commons  said “we have won Scotland … and we will bind her fast” he wasn’t joking … the democratic deficit, designed to subjugate Scotland, has worked well in ensuring just that. Of course, in Catalonia there’s also a lot of unionist sentiment but we can’t help feeling that, like Scotland, the problem will not be resolved with anything less than independence. A K6 from the Saracen Foundry on South RonaldsayIn our previous post from Hotel Montefiore in Israel we reported on a K6 made in the Saracen Foundry. Lo and behold, on our way to the Tomb of the Eagles at the southernmost tip of South Ronaldsay what should we come across but another. This one was being used as an exchange library for books, CDs and DVDs.

Be warned, we are on Orkney for a few days so there may be more Orcadian scones to follow. By the way, the Tomb of the Eagles was closed so not even a dead eagle for Pat’s list!

KW17 2SR      tel: 01856 831 889        Robertson’s Coffeehoose FB