We all know that Britain is full of little-known corners where a great holiday awaits the more enquiring. Many of us return to favourite places and smugly congratulate ourselves that few people know about them. Mrs Hudson likes to find places on the edge of the tourist map and devotes herself to visiting historic sites. Here’s her diary from a trip to Angus and Fife, reputedly the sunniest and driest part of Scotland.
Heading for Scotland for a whistlestop tour down the East side with faithful hound, Walpole. The A90 will be my yellow brick road for this trip, 70 mph all the way from Edinburgh to Aberdeen slowing only for Dundee and the roadworks.
5pm in coastal Montrose and left along the side of the Montrose Basin, sparkling clear and lustrous in the evening sun. First sight of the HOUSE OF DUN on a rise above the water, a child’s picture of a house, four square and symmetrical.
Arrive just in time to meet the last car leaving the car park. Up to South Stable Cottage, now rather smarter than when the grooms and coachmen would have slept here above the stables – not a trace of straw.
Walpole wants to explore so head right out and into the garden. No one about but us, through the gate into Victorian wilderness garden, all ferns and mossy stones.
Long walk around Montrose Basin, Walpole straining after sandpiper and dunlins. Wonderful vista of the William Adam house above.
Potter around the courtyard, investigating potting shed and gamekeeper’s bothy and the Angus Handloom Weavers’ looms where linen is still woven. Alarmed by lady who sells me thistle embossed napkins; mistook her for a mannequin like the gamekeeper.
Afternoon tour of house, built by Edinburgh judge, David Erskine in 1730 and great example of the work of William Adam, father of the more famous Robert. Saloon perfectly proportioned with heroic and martial plasterwork and a view better even than the one from my bedroom.
Through the door to the dining room and portraits of all the Erskines; the NTS’ best family portrait collection. One generation wiped out at Flodden and another poisoned by relatives but calm arrived with Lady Augusta Kennedy-Erskine, who created the surviving Victorian interiors and sewed a fair proportion of the upholstery.
Illegitimate child of Hanoverian King William IV, who’sall around the bedrooms in little portraits and left his shaving chair behind. Mum was actress Mrs Jordan; playbills on a landing recall her as the Keira Knightley of her day.
Pause for a gallery of fine furniture and paintings of the Scottish Colourists, then encounter with vernacular poet, Violet Jacob (neé Erskine), revealed as a considerable painter too. Down to cosy servants’ quarters.
Relieved to see 1890s photograph of 19th Laird at home in room full of fishing rods, guns and stuffed birds; obviously more his habitat than his formal portrait upstairs. Out to the gardens to watch group of visitors mastering croquet on fine summer evening.
Drive 10 winding miles through skeins of mist to DUNNINALD, gothic revival house of the Stansfeld family. Am told fog is a ‘sea haar’; not very haha groping up the drive.
Friendly welcome to Dunninald, designed by James Gillespie Graham in 1824. Characteristic ogee arched niches and exquisite plasterwork ceilings particularly in lovely round tower room. Fine needlework here too, chair seats worked by present owner’s grandfather while a prisoner of war in Germany using wool unravelled from fellow prisoners’ socks; he’s here in a 1945 portrait but can’t see his socks.
Some lovely portraits and first class Jacobean furniture, plus charming patchwork quilt of 1825 inherited by only the girls of the family. Luckily there’s a daughter; the first in 5 generations. Nice to see modern commission too, a David Linley gothic table, wedding present for today’s Stansfelds.
Haar lifts and walled garden tempts with profusion of roses and lavender in deep borders around fruit trees. Just time for a cup of tea and rather good cake in Mrs Stansfeld’s kitchen before leaving for dog walk on the beach and half hour drive to KINBLETHMONT. Overnight in West Lodge at the gates with tree lined garden for Walpole to frolic.
Quick call to Mrs Ramsay who shows me rare Pictish carved stone in Victorian Kinblethmont House.
Afternoon 6 miles to ARBROATH ABBEY, massive red stone ruin glowering over the town. Curious to see home of The Declaration of Arbroath – a bravado bit of diplomatic posturing by Robert Bruce in 1320.
Massive ruined abbey church of 1178 dedicated to St Thomas Becket by William the Lion of Scotland to annoy Henry II of England; all 3 grew up together. Climb West front for long view of 90m nave with townsfolks’ graves jostling at the edge. Abbot’s lodgings remarkably unchanged from time of notoriously corrupt and luxury loving Cardinal Beaton; his decor partly survives as does his private door to town and mistress. Recorded voices read translation of the Declaration; lyrical prose and stirring sentiments.
GLAMIS CASTLE, home of the Earl of Strathmore and famous for Macbeth and the Queen Mum. Every red stone and turret redolent with history. Mediaeval fortress adapted for comfort and show in the 1680s.
Fellow visitors only interested in photos of contemporary royal family (my favourite is Queen Mother in a mac inspecting fire damage aged 16), so overlook wonderful Bowes Lyon family portraits by all the best artists including two of the 3rd Earl sporting rather revealing flesh coloured leather armour in 1686; a six-pack to remember.
Watch trapped butterfly in painted chapel; the same dark rich colours. David Linley commissioned here too; his marketry screen of Glamis tucked on the stairs. Castle full of ghosts and treasures; not sure if dolls house or airblade in the loo impresses more.
Opt for a picnic on the grass with Walpole supplied from The Hub café. Spend the afternoon rambling around the grounds and gardens, I like the formal paths of the Italian Garden; Walpole likes red squirrels on the woodland walks.
Onto A90 again an hour south into Fife to St Andrews, pilgrimage centre of mediaeval Scotland. Drawn here for the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University in 1412; it is still hard to unravel town and gown.
Best view of the charming Old Town requires panting up 300+ steps of St Rule’s tower in the cathedral precincts. The shattered ruins of ST ANDREW’S CATHEDRAL only hint at the soaring, many towered church that was the premier ecclesiastical site in Scotland until the Reformation.
Here the town has taken over; gravestones of Patersons, Gillespies and Watsons fill every corner. Rain squalls send us scurrying into the visitor centre for astonishingly ancient Pictish stone reliefs of beardy King Oenuist hunting deer.
Along the cliffs to ST ANDREWS CASTLE; Walpole waits outside while I get caught up in the ruin’s romance. Here Edward I first interfered in Scottish politics; here hated Cardinal Beaton was stabbed and defenestrated; here Scottish Protestantism first raised a flag and
John Knox was sent to the galleys; and here is the infamous bottle dungeon, a dripping hole with no exit.
I chat to a Bolivian lady, appalled by human cruelty. I’m back on the tourist trail here, for most heritage takes second place to golf. A short 12 miles to HILL OF TARVIT near the market town of Cupar and a damp night at Middle Cottage, nestling among the trees.
Breakfast reveals a sunlit view and a stroll takes us to Kingarrock golf course, 9 holes set out by the sports mad builder of Hill of Tarvit. Watch golf being played with hickory clubs just as it has been for 100 years, (plusfours are encouraged here) before a walk through scabious and thistles to the first house here, SCOTSTARVIT, a perfect 14th century tower house on a knoll with spectacular views.
PM at the main house, commissioned from architect Robert Lorimer in 1906 by Dundee jute baron, Frederick Sharp. Perfect Edwardian country house; comfortable, convenient, beautiful and varied. Money and good taste are reflected here from the white French Empire drawing room to the Palladian dining room and its neighbouring servery and kitchens. Lorimer shows his class, particularly in the plasterwork ceilings, a nod to the Renaissance ceilings of Kellie Castle where he grew up.
The Sharps favoured 17th century Dutch portraits, ruffs standing out against the black clothes, and landscapes, particularly early golfing scenes. They also had an eye for Scottish portraits – Ramsay and Raeburn – as well as Japanese bronzes and blue and white porcelain.
I finish off with unusual blackberry & nettle teabread with a cuppa in the bright Conservatory tea room before holiday’s end.
An hour back to Edinburgh, tired out by 9 centuries of Scottish history, kings, priests, embroiderers, Picts and golfers, fresh air and a little too much cake.