Category Archives: Travel

Adventures that involve visiting things rather than eating them

Toothy’s Travels – Ayrshire: Dumfries House

About ten days ago, my mum and I took advantage of Scotland’s surprise three-day summer (that’s right, at the end of September – about flipping time…) and decided to go visit Dumfries House, a stately home in East Ayrshire (in Scotland).  If you watched Britain’s Hidden Heritage on the BBC in August, you may remember Dumfries House, which was featured in the first episode and has recently opened to the public.  If you had more interesting things to do than me didn’t catch it, chances are that you’ve never heard of this treasure-trove of a house.

The house was built in the 1750s for the 5th Earl of Dumfries, and is quite unique in that it was the first and only full house designed by the architect Robert Adams before he went on his Grand Tour of Europe (I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about architecture, but apparently a lot of architecture fans get rather excited about that).  The house was lavishly furnished to make it a family home, with many examples of the Thomas Chippendale’s earlier work as well as many examples of the distinguished Scottish cabinet makers Francis Brodie (father of the infamous Deacon Brodie), Alexander Peter and William Mathie.  Towards the end of the  19th century, two wings were added onto the house to increase the surface area.  The Victorian wings were designed by Robert Weir Schultz and, aside from a slight difference in the colour of the stone, are remarkably well integrated.

Through marriage, Dumfries House and its associated titles were joined with those of the 2nd Marquess of Bute.  Consequently, the family moved into their grander Bute properties, and Dumfries House was used as a stopping-off point as they travelled between their larger estates in Scotland and Wales.  When the family were not using the house, it was looked after by three live-in servants and since the family only stayed for brief visits, the furniture remained in excellent condition and did not require replacing.  The resulting time capsule-like nature of Dumfries House is one of the reasons that HRH Prince Charles helped to save the house at the last minute from being sold and its contents auctioned off.  HRH believes that the value of the house lies in the unique fact that almost all of its original furniture and decorations remain, complete with proofs of purchase in most cases.  Much of the furniture has now been renovated, such as the most important piece of Chippendale in the house, the ‘rosewood’ breakfront bookcase (seen against the wall in the photo of the Blue Drawing Room above) which I believe was valued by Christie’s at around £4 million.  Ya, £4 million.  Oh my god, £4 million?!  No biggie.

Another of the house’s great treasures can be found in the specially-built Tapestry Room in the west Victorian wing.  This room was specially built to house four magnificent tapestries gifted by Louis XIV from the Gobelins Manufactory (famous for their stunning tapestries) dating back to the early 1700s.  The wonderful thing about this room is that the tapestries are displayed in all their glory in full daylight because all the windows are fitted with UV filters to prevent the tapestries from fading further.  How amazing is that?!  Whilst much of the original furniture has remained the same, during the Victorian times, the white ceiling plasterwork was painted over, and some rooms have been left painted and some have been returned to the original all-white Georgian style – I found it really interesting to compare the two styles, and must admit that I distinctly prefer the all-white plasterwork.  I did, however, really like the Pewter Corridor in the west Victorian wing, as shown below, probably because the paintwork isn’t at all in-your-face.

There are, of course, many more exciting and interesting things to see in Dumfries House, and as the renovation work continues, more wonderful treasures should go on display.  I found the visit absolutely fascinating, and our tour guide was incredibly informative – in fact, I’m awed at how knowledgeable she was!  What was great about the house is that it really is somewhere that you can imagine living.  Assuming you like the rococo style of course, which I rather do (so uhm, if they need anybody to live there…).  Prince Charles also has plans to create specialised artisan training workshops on the grounds to create jobs for young people and also provide the skill set required for the upkeep of the house and its contents, which I think is a great way to involve the local community.

Dumfries House is near the village of Cumnock in East Ayrshire, so if would make a great day trip from Glasgow or Edinburgh, and I would definitely say that it’s worth a visit!  The house can only be visited by guided tour, which must be booked in advance (see here for details), but the grounds can be explored at your leisure (though I’d recommend wellies or hiking boots if you want to venture into the woods!) – maps of the grounds are available if you ask.

Although I took all the outdoor photos, photography is not permitted within the house, so all the indoor shots in this post are from the website.

Enjoy the rest of your day!


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Toothy’s Travels – Edinburgh: The Virgin Money Fireworks Concert

Sunday evening saw the spectacular finale of the Edinburgh International Festival, in the form of the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert, which is a fantastic 45-minute firework display set to a live concert played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the Fireworks Concert before, so I definitely wanted to watch it this year, particularly since I’d been on a super interesting behind-the-scenes tour of the preparations for it on Thursday evening (which you can read about here).

Whether I’d be able to watch or not depended on two factors, both entirely out of my control: that the weather stayed dry (I’m not a fan of standing in the rain for 45 minutes…) and that I managed to get back to Edinburgh in time (I went to Oxford the weekend and my train was due to arrive at Edinburgh Waverley about 40 minutes before the start of the fireworks).  Luckily the rain held off until the end of the concert and my train miraculously arrived on time (the station is conveniently right in the centre of Edinburgh so I didn’t have to go very far), so I was able to fully enjoy the concert – hurrah!

This year, the Edinburgh International Festival was celebrating Asia, and six pieces of music were chosen to fit in with this theme (although I feel that adding the Russian and Arab dances to the Chinese dance from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker may have been slightly tenuous, plus the Nutcracker always makes me think of Christmas).  Although the festival ends with the Fireworks Concert every year, I can’t help but think that it was especially fitting this year, with Asia as the theme, particularly since I found out on the behind-the-scenes tour that the majority of the fireworks for the show were sourced in China (though this is for financial reasons rather than anything else).

The fireworks are launched from Edinburgh Castle and the concert is played down in Princes Street Gardens, so we watched from Princes Street where we had an excellent view of the Castle but could also hear the concert from the speakers (well, mostly – fireworks get a bit loud occasionally).  I think the most impressive thing about the show (aside from the fact that it involves over 100,000 fireworks) is the way it makes use of the different levels of the Castle’s ramparts as well as playing around with lighting up the Castle in different ways, which makes it really quite unique and totally spectacular.

The great thing about the show being 45 minutes long is that they can really play around with and showcase a lot of different types of fireworks in all different colours.  Of course there are the standard huge ones that we’ve all seen before and Roman candles, but there were some really fun ones that I don’t remember having seen before, such as ones where, once the firework burst, the sparks zipped off in every direction like fireflies.  And of course, there’s the firework cascade that comes down the Castle wall – the resounding cheer from the spectators confirmed that it is, indeed, the most popular part of the show – though unfortunately I didn’t manage to get any decent photos of it.

I shall stop rambling on now, and leave you with a few more photos (I know you’re probably bored now, but fireworks are just so pretty…) and my conclusion that watching over 100,000 fireworks explode in the sky in time to a live concert was an excellent way to spend 45 minutes of my life, and if you’re ever in Edinburgh at the end of the Festival, I thoroughly recommend that you do the same (watch the show, not explode in the sky – I wouldn’t recommend that so much).

Well done – you made it through a lot of terrible pictures of fireworks.  You should give yourself a pat on the back! Here’s one last one (of the finale, appropriately enough), just for good measure:

Enjoy the rest of your day!

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Toothy’s Travels – Edinburgh: Behind the scenes at the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert

Every year the Edinburgh International Festival ends with a spectacular fireworks concert, which involves a concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the Ross Theatre in Princes Street Gardens, set against the backdrop of a fantastic fireworks display timed to the music and launched from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle.  This year’s Fireworks Concert is this Sunday evening (4th September) at 21:00.  This year, the event has a new sponsor in the form of Virgin Money, and in order to increase awareness of this, yesterday evening they organised a little behind-the-scenes tour of the firework preparations for interested Edinburgh bloggers.

Now, I realise that fireworks are a bit of a departure from the norm on what is primarily a food blog, but… uhm, hello, fireworks are awesome, of course I wanted to see behind the scenes!  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it was really rather interesting, particularly since I know absolutely nothing about fireworks, except that they’re pretty and can be dangerous.  The little tour was given by Keith Webb, the Project Director for Pyrovision who are responsible for putting together the display which involves over 100,000 fireworks (uhm, wow!).  Here he is showing us the set-up for a wave of fireworks that will make up a grand total of around 7 seconds of the 45-minute show.

What I found very interesting to learn about was the huge role of technology in the firework display.  Now, my grasp of electronics isn’t exactly fabulous, so here’s the disclaimer: whilst I took notes, I might be using totally the wrong terminology, but hopefully you’ll understand what I’m trying to talk about.  Keith explained that alternating fireworks on the frame above are on different circuits, in case something goes wrong, so that at least half the fireworks will still be able to go off for the show.  I’d never realised how much technology and electronics are involved in modern firework displays.  It totally makes sense, but I guess I’d never really thought about it – I may or may not have had a vague mental image of people running around with hand-lighters to light the fuses on the fireworks, kind of like you see in cartoons.  Like I said, I’d never really thought about it…

Every single firework in the entire display is set off by an electric match (I didn’t even know that such things existed) which is connected to a cable, which is ultimately connected to and controlled by a computer.  It’s totally mind-blowing, particularly when you consider that there are over 100,000 fireworks, plus spares, just in case.  That is one heck of a lot of cabling.  Obviously, there have been lots of technological advances since the Firework Concert first started, and the control of the display has moved from human fingers pressing buttons (or lighting fuses) to the use of computers to programme the display.  Keith explained that one of the huge advantages conferred by the use of computers is that it allows them to time the fireworks much more closely to the tempo of the music, particularly when the music reaches a tempo faster than a human would be able to press all the firework buttons.  Amazing!  Of course, this make it sound really easy – programme the fireworks, sit back and relax as they all go off in time to the music – but of course, the fireworks are timed to a live show and the tempo of the music depends on the conductor down in Princes St Gardens.  Therein lies the challenge – continuously monitoring and altering the tempo of the programmed display to match that of the music that the display is accompanying.

As well as monitoring the live music, the technicians (professional pyromaniacs?  Not really sure what their official job title would be) also keep an eye out on the weather and if the wind speed picks up too much (we’re in Scotland, so obviously that would never happen), they can cut off the really big fireworks from the display programme, in order to keep the display as safe as possible for the public.  As I briefly mentioned, there are plenty of spare fireworks and a lot of redundancy is built into the whole system and display, in case of technical failures and malfunctions, to ensure that the show still happens regardless.

I think Keith had planned to show us the apparatus to set up the firework cascade that comes down the North wall of the Castle, but sadly we ran out of time.  The cascade is by far the most expensive part of the whole display, but also the most popular (it is so impressive to see the sparks fall from the Castle’s ramparts and down the sheer cliff), and the timing of the cascade within the concert is a closely guarded secret.  We’ll have to wait until Sunday evening to find out when it will happen…

Which brings me onto my final note – the concert itself.  This year, the Edinburgh International Festival was celebrating the wealth and diversity of Asian cultures, and the Fireworks Concert pieces have been chosen along this theme (you can find the listing here).  Even though the Fireworks Concert happens every year, I can’t help but feel that the long history of fireworks in Asia (and I think particularly China) makes this event a particularly fitting end to the Festival this year.  Perhaps even more apt that most of the fireworks come from China (apparently it’s more cost-effective, but I’m sure they also produce really good fireworks.  They’ve been making them since the 7th century, so that’s quite a lot of practice!).

Setting up all the fireworks requires about 15 people, with an additional four on the night of the concert, supported by additional staff from the Castle.  I take my hat off to all of them for A) being able to understand all the cables and B) being able to put together such an impressive event, and look forward to an exciting Fireworks Concert on Sunday evening!  If you’re in or near Edinburgh, I strongly recommend that you try to watch the event – whilst access to Princes St Gardens is ticketed, I believe watching from Princes St is completely free, and if you’re watching from elsewhere in Edinburgh, I think that the concert is broadcast on local radio so that you can enjoy the music, too.

Thank you to Virgin Money for this wonderfully eye-opening behind the scenes tour!

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Toothy’s Travels – Edinburgh: The Pentland Hills Regional Park

My plan for today had been to share the recipe that I tried out for dinner last night.  This plan was thwarted by the dismal failure that came out of the oven.  Thankfully it did actually taste lovely, but that was the only good thing about it – it was an absolute pain to make, more or less fell apart before even going into the oven and wasn’t remotely presentable when it came out.  Clearly some serious recipe tweaking will be required.  So instead of sharing a recipe today, I thought I’d introduce a new feature on my blog, called Toothy’s travels.  This will basically just be a feature where I can share my adventures in and around Edinburgh and other places that I happen to visit and enjoy.  There’s a slightly more detailed explanation if you click on the link or the tab above the header.

When we lived in Norway, I often went hiking with the Guides – we were spoilt for choice when it came to mountains and scenic hikes.  After Norway though, we move to the Netherlands, which isn’t exactly famous for its hilly terrain, and I haven’t really done much hiking since.  I could have done plenty of hiking around Scotland whilst at university, but I never really quite got round to it.  Shame on me, I know.  So anyway, about two weeks ago (I’m obviously really on the ball with getting my posts up) my mum and I decided to take advantage of the wonderful sunny weather and go explore the Pentland Hills Regional Park.  Well, we only really went for a little 5km hike in a small area of the park, but it still counts as exploring because, despite the Pentlands being on our doorstep, we’d never actually been walking there.  I wouldn’t exactly describe my Scottish family as avid hill-walkers, so whenever we came to Edinburgh on leave, unfortunately we never really took the time to go for hikes.

If you’ve ever been to Edinburgh and looked southwards, you’ve probably noticed the artificial ski slopes, and in fact, that’s the area of the Pentlands that we explored.  As you can see from the little map (which I spent far longer putting together than I should have – I discovered that you can draw routes on OS maps online.  I’m easily amused…), we basically went up Caerketton Hill and back down again.  It took us about 2 ½ hours (I kept stopping to take photos and we faffed around at the cairn for quite a while) and we were treated to some fantastic views of Edinburgh, though the Firth of Forth was a bit hazy.  The heather was also in bloom, so we were treated to beautiful purple expanses at several points.

We parked on the main road near the turn-off for the Hillend snowsports, so we started off by walking towards the ski slopes.  It’s not particularly difficult to orient oneself in this part of the Pentlands since the ski slope and Edinburgh are pretty distinctive landmarks, so we were fine with just the map provided by the Regional Park, but if you’re going to venture further into the Pentlands, I would definitely suggest investing in an Ordnance Survey map, especially since there is a military rifle range within the park.

We knew we were aiming for the top of the hill, so as the ski slope came into sight (complete with people actually skiing.  In full ski gear.  In July.  I dread to think how disgustingly hot that would have been.), we just sort of struck upwards.  There are a lot of small paths that go upwards so this isn’t exactly difficult, and you can pretty much make your own path anyway.  As we were making our way up, several paragliders were taking off from the top, so it was good fun to watch them glide around on the air currents.

Once level with the top of the ski slope, you have to follow a fence for a little while to get to a crossing point, which is a good reminder that a large proportion of the park is actually used for pasture, so if you’re taking a dog with you, make sure that it doesn’t worry any livestock, particularly during the lambing season.  Whilst we’re on warnings, you should also be aware that it’s currently the grouse shooting season, and will soon be the partridge shooting season, but apparently (according to the website – I can’t actually vouch for this) areas to keep away from are signposted and marked out by the rangers every day.

According to the OS map, just before crossing over the fence, we were really close to the remains of an old fort, but I don’t think it’s particularly obvious, because we certainly didn’t notice it.  To be investigated next time…  We then continued upwards, up a very steep slope on which we discovered wild blueberries.  I love wild blueberries, but these ones were tiny and very tart, so rather on the disappointing side (I’m obsessed with food, of course I stopped and tasted them!).  Oh well, never mind.

Reaching the top of the slope, and thus Caerketton Hill, affords absolutely stunning panoramic views.  Not only are you treated to the sight of Edinburgh sprawled out beneath you with the remarkably pronounced mass that is Arthur’s Seat, with the Forth beyond, but there are also beautiful views of the rest of the Pentlands, stretching southwards.

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A little further along the path, there is a cairn.  Well, actually, I would describe it more as a haphazard pile of rocks and stones, but perhaps that’s what cairns are in Scotland.  I’m not sure – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Scottish cairn before – but if so, I have to admit, it’s a little disappointing.  My previous experience of cairns consists of Norwegian ones, which are stacked up properly like a tower and usually well-maintained.

Continuing past the pile of rubble cairn, the path continues along a sort of ridge, with the Caerketton Craigs below, although they’re more obvious and impressive from below rather than looking down.  You can continue along the path and climb to the top of Allermuir Hill and its viewpoint, but we were a bit short on time, so we decided to follow a vague path down the side of the hill towards Swanston instead.  It’s pretty steep, so good shoes (and knees) are recommended before going down that way.

Once at the bottom of the hill, directions to Swanston are well signposted, so off we went along the path, only to find our way blocked by a herd of hairy Highland cows with very pointy horns.  So we beat a hasty retreat (you can never be too careful around cows, especially ones with pointy horns), and took a little diversion.  As I said before, it’s easy to orient yourself in this part of the park, and we found our way to Swanston without any difficulty.

I’m not a huge fan of the word “quaint,” but I’m not really sure how else to describe Swanston, a small village where Robert Louis Stevenson spent several summers as a young man, on account of his health.  We emerged into a a group of white-washed cottages with thatched roofs, and they were just adorable.

As we made our way back towards the main road, we followed a path that was bordered by the Lothianburn Golf Course on one side, and fields on the other.  It turns out there’s a free-range chicken farm in Swanston, and they have some really nice-looking chickens.  (And how fancy are their coops?)  I don’t know if you can buy eggs and whatnot from the farm, but I feel it’s worth investigating next time…

So there you have it, a thoroughly enjoyable short walk in the Pentlands, and a long ramble of a blog post which is really just an excuse for me to show you some photos that, for once, have nothing to do with food (except that last chicken one.  Oh and the blueberries).  If you’re ever in Edinburgh and enjoy walking though, I would thoroughly recommend going for a little trip in the Pentlands!

Enjoy the rest of your day!

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