Firstly, let us wish you all a good new year, may it be a great one … in spite of all the dodgy politics.
Now, what you have all been waiting for … the first scone of 2018! It wasn’t the balmy -1°C temperature that drove us in here in search of woolly underpants, but simply that we were out and about on a beautiful sunny day enjoying the scenery and this is where we ended up … quite by accident. It was a bit nippy though! For those unfamiliar with Kilmahog (quite a few we suspect) it is just outside Callander at the junction of the Trossachs and Lochearnhead roads. It’s a tiny hamlet of just a few houses yet manages to sport two woollen mills … the Trossachs Woollen Mill and the Kilmahog Woollen Mill as well as a pub (The Lade Inn) with its own microbrewery. At one time the Oban railway ran through here but it is now a cycle track and popular as part of the Rob Roy Way. Still standing at the road junction is the 19th-century toll-house where Queen Victoria once had to cough up some money in order to continue her journey.
Best of all though, on the small hill opposite Kilmahog there is a massive rock, known locally as Samson’s Putting Stone. Legend has it that, Samson, one of the Fingalian giants threw it three miles, from his home on Ben Ledi during a competition with rival giants. Some say he actually threw it from Ben Lawers … a phenomenal twenty three miles. Yet others say it is a glacial erratic left by a receding glacier … but, to us, this explanation seems slightly far fetched. One thing is clear … these giants did not tidy up after their games! The woollen mill itself is pretty big and, of course, stuffed full of everything tartan you could imagine … yes, underpants! The café part is quite big as well and obviously is set up to deal with bus parties in the summer. When it’s busy you probably would not notice the rather utilitarian nature of the place but when it’s quiet it becomes rather obvious. The service was what we would normally describe as ‘surly‘ and far too Scottish for our liking. With Brexit on the horizon we had better get used to it … no more of our eastern european friends eager to work and giving excellent happy service … what an idiotic world we live in! On the upside, our somewhat low scone expectations were confounded when it turned out to be surprisingly good …. fresh and slightly crunchy on the outside. They charged a fortune for the jam but the cream was plentiful and good. On its own, this could have maybe squeezed into the topscone category but the overall experience let it down badly … shame! Expectations were further confused by a warning sign in the toilets. It seemed to suggest that you would only get hot water if the wind was blowing from a certain direction, or the moon was aligned with Mars … or, maybe it was simply down to Samson being in a good mood … who knows? It certainly heightened anticipation when using the cold tap. So our first scone adventure of the year had mixed outcomes … good to be on the hunt once more on such a lovely day but a frustratingly disappointing scone experience over all …. things can only get better! Or maybe not … as Theresa May gets on with rearranging the deckchairs we hope that at least she, unlike the local giants, will at least tidy up after herself because it is bound to end up in a mess no matter how much she shuffles them. In the USA, Oprah Winfrey is thinking of running against Donald Trump. We have no wish to take anything away from Ms Winfrey but how on earth did it get to this?
Because we have been badly neglecting our sconological duties of late we thought we should at least do something for the festive season to remind readers that we are still alive and that we wish them all the best for Christmas and 2018. This post is simply to do that rather than bring you a new exciting scone …. sorry! We certainly haven’t eaten 2017 scones though by the time we get through the festive season we may feel as if we have. Some of our correspondents, however, have been much more diligent. The title picture was sent by our London correspondents. Since it is almost two years since we reported from Claridge’s they thought that they should check that standards had not slipped in our absence. They are posh-place specialists and elected to take our latest granddaughter, aged 5 days, along as an adjudicator in the event of a split decision. Thankfully, everything was hunkydory and the new arrival did not have to be pressed into service … phew!! Our old friend, the Pedant, found a website that bemoans the use of weird objects to serve food on rather than plates. It is aptly named www.wewantplates.com and he pointed out, given our interest in such things, what he thought might be a good way to serve scones … a miniature telephone box (K2) used to bring little sandwiches to the table. Thanks for the suggestion but we want plates as well! During the past year we have had the great pleasure of visiting many lovely parts of the UK and discovering lots of wonderful scones … and, of course, some not so wonderful. Have we learned anything in our travels? Notably, we came to the conclusion that scones improve the further north you go. We realise that sconeys in Devon and Cornwall might find this contentious however it has to be said that in the far north, including our visit to Orkney, we found nothing but topscones. We were also pleased that readers took such an interest in what became a something of a hot-topic … telephone boxes and, in particular, where they were manufactured, Falkirk, Glasgow or Kirkintilloch. We received pictures of K6s from as far afield as Buenos Aires and Tel Aviv.
On our own travels we came on many K6s reinvented as libraries, defibrillator stations and greenhouses … a sign of the times perhaps that even in the most remote locations they no longer serve their original purpose. It’s called progress but that is not something that abounds these days. Quite the opposite in fact, at times the whole world seems to be going backwards. The only constant seems to be that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. As Theresa May loses yet more of her cabinet colleagues you might be forgiven for thinking that our Brexit negotiations might as well be conducted by headless chickens. Even though they claim to be making progress you cannot help but ask yourself what progress turkeys voting for Christmas can actually make? Forgive all the poultry analogies, it’s that time of year. Elsewhere, after all the kerfuffle over Catalonia, it looks like ending up back exactly where it started with a cessationist government … Spain has headless chickens as well. On the other side of the pond, Donald Trump impersonators continue to do better impressions of The Donald than he does of himself … and you might be better off taking them more seriously. Perhaps the world would be better governed by headless chickens … or is it already, is that what we are not understanding?
On that cheery note we will bid you a fond farewell for this year. Thanks to to all our readers and a special thanks to all our correspondents who venture fearlessly into the world’s nether regions on your behalf. And for 2018, may all your scones be top ones.
Gosh, it’s been a while. We have both been so caught up with other things that scones have had to take a back seat … disgraceful, we know. Yesterday, however, we managed to tear ourselves away from building works to attend a St Andrews Day book launch at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum and it just so happened that, in the Gallery Café, they had scones … back in harness. The launch was for a new book by Lachlan Munro on the political speeches of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. Regular readers will know that we have a bit of a soft spot for Graham. He is a national hero in Argentina, where he was a gaucho for many years, yet remains a relatively obscure character at home in Scotland and the UK. He was a landowning aristocrat who lived only a short distance from Stirling and during his flamboyant and adventurous life became friends with George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Keir Hardy and the likes. He tried to get justice for oppressed people wherever they were, be they crofters, miners, women or even Sioux Indians. He hated politicians but became one and managed to get himself thrown out of Westminster on three occasions for disrespecting the House … an mighty achievement in itself. He even spent time in jail for taking part in a Trafalgar Square march in support of Irish home rule. His ability to ruffled feathers gave rise to the book’s name “An Eagle In A Hen-House”. Although a founder of both the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish National Party the launch had politicians from all parties reading extracts from the book. There must have been a couple of hundred people at the launch so when formal proceedings came to a close they all descended on the Gallery Café at the same time … chaos! Eventually we managed to get a scone … the first we had had in ages. It was nowhere near a topscone but given the time since our last one, we thoroughly enjoyed it. No cream but plenty jam and butter … and the coffee was excellent. The Stirling Smith was founded in 1874 from money given by local artist Thomas Stuart Smith and has continued as a public-private partnership to this day for the benefit of the citizens of Stirling, Dunblane and Kinbuck … long may it continue! As we were leaving to go home we were alarmed to come across what we initially thought was the disembodied head of our prime minister … turned out to be nothing more than a left-over from halloween … phew!FK8 2RQ tel: 01786 471917 The Gallery Cafe FB
Dornoch is a beautiful little town and, over the past few years, we have already reported on two other scones here, Gordon House and Dornoch Castle, so it was a something of a surprise when our Trossachs correspondents gave us a heads up on yet another … at the Carnegie Courthouse. Many people come here for the town’s history, or the beach or just to wander among the cafés and antique shops … so it’s quite busy even at this time of year. This scone like the other two are in a cluster around the Cathedral. Although the courthouse was built in 1849 it only began life as a tearoom/shop in 2013. It was named after Andrew Carnegie who was not only the richest man in the world at one time but lived locally in Skibo Castle and was a great benefactor for the town. The tearoom features a mural depicting the courtroom as it would have been when in use and portraying some of the local faces. It is great that as well as the likes of Carnegie, the Duke of Sutherland, Madonna (she got married in the Cathedral) and Tom Watson the golfer, there is also Janet Horn (the last witch burned in Dornoch), Bill Wright the local milkman and, most importantly, Carol MacKay the proprietor of the tearoom
So what was our third Dornoch scone like? Very good actually so there was not too much difficulty making a topscone award. Pat had cheese and I had fruit but they were both deliciously crunchy on the outside and wonderfully soft and light inside. The whole place has a good atmosphere and we were very well looked after by the staff. As you can probably gather we are fond of this town so who knows when we might find ourselves returning … yet another Dornoch gem not to be missed. But what would these good folks in the above courtroom have made of the current state of the UK government? Just after the last General Election we asked you to guess how many scone blogs there would be before Theresa May had to resign. There have been quite a lot more than we had imagined and, wonder of wonders, she is still hanging on, albeit by the skin of her teeth. It begs the question though … just how bad does her administration have to get before she is sufficiently ashamed and does the decent thing? There are two problems a) she doesn’t seem to have any shame and b) who would replace her? Chances are, unimaginable as it is, it could be worse. In the courtroom, you can almost see the perplexed looks on their faces
It 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? Whatever 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? There 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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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. We 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. No 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.
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. This 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! Although 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! Lunch 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!
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.
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! Judith 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’. Our 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.Also a great advert for Old Orkney whisky.
Pat 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!
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.
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.
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. Like 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. We 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. 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.
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. On 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.
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. The 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!
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. Our 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 Pier 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!KW16 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.Pat, by the way, is now at thirty two with her bird list and still a few days to go.
by Bill and Pat Paterson and is about finding good scones throughout the world, with a little bit of politics