Scotland did you know - Greyfriars Bobby's nose and more.
Lots of fun Scottish facts. Where is the Venice of Scotland? What castle is in the Hamlet movie? And David Hume's lucky toe.
Scotland: Did You Know...
I’ve been dealing in Scottish fun facts of the 'did you know' variety for a long time now, writing them for guidebooks, tourism promotional stuff, online etc. So I thought I would have a look through my archive, especially in out of the way places in my digital attic.
So I’ve dusted down some facts about Scotland and – in quite a few places – added in new comments, often of the ‘what the heck was I talking about.…’ variety.
While looking through all this material, I even came across a new Scottish fact (to me). I found it, not in my archive, but on a website originally published by the BBC in the days of steam-driven computers. It's the first one here.
So here goes with some Scottish did-you-knows:
* Apparently, Loudon Hill in Ayrshire is a really good spot for practising your golf swing with potatoes.
Now, did you know that? I didn’t – though it does seem an awful waste of potatoes. However, it does bring together traditional sport and Scottish food and also sheds a light on a part of Scotland, uhmm, not on every visitor’s list.
Some quirky facts about Edinburgh
We’ve got a list of Edinburgh must sees here, but here are a few random things I have noted down about our capital city.
* The most famous dog in Edinburgh’s story is Greyfriars Bobby. His faithfulness in watching over his master’s grave is recalled by his statue on George IV Bridge
Yes. And, please, the city authorities would like you to stop rubbing Greyfriars Bobby’s nose for luck. You’re wearing it away. They fixed it in autumn 2013 and it only lasted two days. So, it’s not a tradition, they say. Sorry, but it is now. A bit like touching the toe on the statue of philosopher David Hume for luck, a recent tradition established by local students ahead of exams.
(Pictured here) The philosopher Hume is on the Royal Mile. Or, at least, a portion of him.
* On a recent archaeological dig at Edinburgh Castle, chewed herring bones carbon-dated to 800BC were found – the earliest evidence of Edinburgh’s long tradition of good seafood restaurants.
Oh, this is just the sort of twee thing I used to write for tourism brochures.
* The Assembly Rooms, today a major Fringe venue, was the place where Sir Walter Scott, at a grand dinner, publicly announced he was the author of the Waverley novels.
I bet they all spluttered into their claret in astonishment. The old Tory buffer then went on to create a tartan bedecked romantic vision of a Scotland that never existed. Later in life, he also opposed the extension of voting rights and also once threatened to use his sabre on a group of miners protesting about their slave-like working conditions. (All of this is treated most fairly in the revamped Abbotsford House, home of Scott, and its excellent visitor centre. You should visit.)
* The Edinburgh football team Heart of Midlothian is named after the novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott. In turn, Scott’s title refers to the city’s now vanished Tolbooth, whose site – strictly speaking, doorway – is marked by a heart in the roadway near St Giles in the Royal Mile.
Ho-hum. Locals spit on the heart-shape for good luck, though some say it was originally expressing contempt for the Tolbooth as a prison and symbol of authority. Anyway, a fun fact about Scotland maybe, but it’s even less hygienic than touching Greyfriars Bobby’s nose or David Hume’s toe.
* The lowest part of Princes Street Gardens was once a loch, part of the Castle’s defences.
Ho-hum again. Tour guides always add that when they drained it they found lots of female skeletons – the witches that had been drowned there over the centuries. Does this qualify as a fun fact about Scotland?
One Glasgow fact I have alluded to elsewhere – on the Glasgow must sees page – is the persistent appearance of a traffic cone on the statue of the Duke of Wellington’s head. I love that. It’s so much more of a statement than Edinburgh’s dog nose rubbing. However, I must say that, in my picture here, the usual cone, by the horse’s leg, has been replaced by a much larger festive-looking model. Nope, don’t know why. But it's a Glasgow icone (ho-ho).
* It is less than 30 minutes by road from Glasgow city centre to the ‘Bonnie Banks’ of Loch Lomond.
I must have first written that years ago. These days, it takes a bit longer – but the point is, when you get there, you arrive at the large carpark at the large shopping concourse of Loch Lomond Shores. So there is plenty for you to do.
* Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, exhibits what art experts have called the finest civic collection of British and European paintings in the UK.
What was I talking about here? And who are these art experts? Anyway, it’s a very popular attraction for visitors and residents alike. Johanna insists I mention the free daily organ recitals as well.
* The Glasgow School of Art is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, first built in 1897 to a design revolutionary in its day.
Oh, yes, Glasgow makes the most of its Charles Rennie Mackintosh connection, of which there are several more. The disastrous fire of May 2014 and the ongoing restoration is part of the story now told at the Window on Mackintosh Visitor Centre opposite the original building.
* Glasgow boasts the UK’s first Versace and Armani shops outside London
Och, that’s just Glasgow all over – it’s marketing phrase was 'Scotland with Style' though it seems to be 'People Make Glasgow' now.
Slightly wacky facts about South of Scotland
OK, I admit the potato golf on Loudon Hill (mentioned above) gets my vote, but I found some others on my files.
* Gretna Green on the Scottish border is not the only place associated with eloping couples. The old toll house at the Scottish end of the Tweed Bridge at Coldstream formerly had the same function.
Maybe, but it doesn’t have the commercial developments of Gretna Green – there are more than 50 designer outlets at this Scotland inlet – it’s a real ‘magnet attraction’.
* Some visitors rate the view from Hume Castle (a mock fortress) in the Scottish Borders (near Greenlaw on the A697) as the finest in Scotland.
Now, what was I on about here? I think I must have got bored with the way that the Scottish Borders tourism folk always bang on about Scott’s View (aargh – it’s him again) of the Eildon Hills, as if there weren’t any other views. Wait a minute, perhaps there aren’t….anyway, the rampart view is pictured here. Green, isn't it? Inevitably, the Eildon Hills appear on the skyline.
* The Ballochmyle Viaduct, near Mauchline in Ayrshire, carrying the Dumfries-Kilmarnock railway line, is thought to have the longest single masonry arch ever built (181 ft 55m).
I must have wanted to write something obscure that day. (And succeeded, don't you think?) You do understand that that is different from the once record-breaking single arch concrete span at Borrodale on the Fort William to Mallaig railway line? Now, where did I put my anorak?
* The grand gardens at Castle Kennedy near Stranraer were built by the 2nd Earl of Stair. As a military commander he instructed his troops to help when they were supposed to be hunting Covenanters!
It’s true, you and I would have made do with a gardening trowel and a wheelbarrow. Being a toff, he got the soldiers to do some pretty large earthworks. And the Covenanters? Ah well, long story, but as it is all to do with blood spilt in the name of religion in 17th-century Scotland we’ll leave it for another day. The gardens probably qualify as a Galloway must see.
* Dorothy Sayers Five Red Herrings is set around Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse-of-Fleet, while John Buchan used the Galloway moors nearby, around Cairnsmore of Fleet, for the chase sequence in The Thirty Nine Steps.
Yes, literary Scotland – a rich source of material for tourism copywriters.
* (Pictured here) Crichton Castle in Midlothian contains a range of buildings decorated with diamond-faceted stonework, unique in Scotland. While in Sicilian exile, the Earl of Bothwell saw the style and copied the work.
Crichton Castle is quite interesting. Worth a look, though debatable if ‘diamond-faceted stonework’ would tip you one way or the other. The nearby roofless stables are said to be haunted. Well, you can’t have a castle without a spook or two in haunted Scotland.
* One of several Scottish former spa towns, Innerleithen’s St Ronan’s Well is noted for its sulphurous waters – said to have acquired their taste because the saint caught the Devil and held him under water!
Don’t ya love Scottish legends? Oh, and Johanna says it has a good ice cream shop too (Caldwell’s). I’m so glad she’s looking over my shoulder.
* Kirkcudbright in Galloway was once described by Lord Cockburn as ‘the Venice of Scotland’.
Now, what on earth made me write that? Still, it’s quite an attractive town and we more than mention it on the Galloway touring page. Galloway has the oldest working post office (Sanquar 1763), the world’s first savings bank (Ruthwell 1810 – now a museum) – and the only Buddhist temple in Britain (at Eskdalemuir). And - hah! - common error amongst Scottish tourism information writers, I see. No. For ‘Britain’ read ‘Scotland’ – the Kagyu Samyé Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre is still the only one in Scotland – but there are quite a few south of the Border.
Quirky facts about central and northern Scotland
There’s a whole lot of Perthshire tree facts as a kind of sub-division of the following Scottish facts. For instance, there’s hardly an ancient oak in Perthshire that hasn’t had some Scottish character or other sitting under it – Neil Gow’s Oak, by Dunkeld, for instance; or Eppie Callum’s Oak in Crieff. (I heard that Bonnie Prince Charlie once tried to hide inside it, but found William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and Rob Roy all hiding in it already.)
* Rob Roy Macgregor (1671-1734), cattle dealer, Jacobite and outlaw, became ‘a legend in his own lifetime’.
Yes, he really did, apparently after 1723 when Daniel Defoe wrote a fictionalized account of his life called Highland Rogue – though it is also said the work wasn’t by Defoe at all. Heck, this is tricky.
Anyway, more information on Rob Roy on that link at the top of the paragraph. WH Murray’s Rob Roy Macgregor: his Life and Times is the best of the modern books. (That's an Amazon link.)
* Mel Gibson’s movie Hamlet was filmed at Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven (pictured above), while the earlier Local Hero with Burt Lancaster used the pretty coastal village of Pennan near Banff and also Camusdarroch beach near Arisaig.
Scotland as a film set is heavily promoted quite and covers a whole range of movies. Glen Etive for Skyfall, Skye for Macbeth and many, many more...My favourite movie did-you know though is the reason that the old Scottish stereotyping movie Brigadoon wasn't filmed here because none of the potential Scottish locations were Scottish-looking enough!
* The largest soft fruit growing area in the EU is around Strathmore, the hinterland of Dundee. It’s got the right combination of moisture and sunshine.
NB ‘moisture’ is tourist brochurese for ‘rain’. Unless you love strawberries, can I nominate that as the dullest fact about Scotland on this page?
* Dennis the Menace, one the most famous figures in modern children’s ‘literature’ (in Scotland, at least) was born in Dundee – as ‘The Beano’ is one of the local publishers D C Thomson’s stable of comics. You’ll also find a statue of Desperate Dan in the city centre.
As Dennis was born in 1951, he qualifies for free transport on buses – one of the advantages for the over 60s living in Scotland.
* The alpine coltsfoot (Homogyne alpina) is arguably Scotland’s rarest plant. It grows only in one spot high on a hill in the Angus glens.
I have subsequently found out that it is also called purple coltsfoot and – shock horror, there is even a website that hints darkly that it was actually planted in Scotland. Crikey. Anyway, it’s fortunately common in other parts of Europe. (Eh? What’s that you say? Aye, I have actually visited the Scottish location where the thing grows. There's quite a path to it!)
* Slains Castle south of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire is thought to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. He used to holiday nearby.
It has to be pointed out that the town of Whitby in England also makes exactly this claim. Slains is on an awfully bare and bleak bit of Aberdeenshire. I think I prefer Whitby.
* The Colonel’s Bed is a rocky cleft in Glen Ey, west of Braemar. It got its name because the local Jacobite Colonel Farquharson hid on a ledge, a few feet above the torrent, after the failure of the 1689 uprising.
It's well worth a walk into this glen if you find yourself up in Deeside, west of Braemar. Follow the track and you may spot the little signpost that directs you to the spot. It is a gorge, however, and great care is needed. I have a memory as a teenager of getting down to water-level but since then part of the gorge-wall has collapsed. Do not attempt the descent.
* The Picts were finally confronted by the Romans at the Battle of Mons Graupius, ‘below a mountain, within sight of the sea’.
Unfortunately, nobody knows where the battle site is – though some suggest near the landmark hill of Bennachie, north-west of Aberdeen.
* Look out for the Moray Firth’s colony of bottle nosed dolphins, often seen leaping quite near the shore.
The additional fact here is that these beasties are the largest bottle noses in the world because the water is cold and the feeding is rich. So they basically carry a layer of insulating blubber, in common with many other Scots. The Moray Firth's dolphins get a whole page to themselves on that link.
* Fort George near Nairn is the finest example in Europe of an 18th century military fortification. Built to ensure there would be no further Jacobite uprisings, it has never fired a shot in anger.
Worth a visit because, basically, it's a pretty weird place - a completely intact, huge fort. Still in the hands of the military as well. Fascinating. See it in the context of Culloden Battlefield, also close at hand.
Facts about places in Fife
I found these facts on Fife and can’t remember why I wrote them. So, here goes…
* (Pictured here) Falkland Palace, below Fife’s Lomond Hills was a favourite hunting lodge of Mary, Queen of Scots. Today it is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
Yes, of course it’s haunted. Nice herbaceous border, as you can see.
* The finest Norman architecture in Scotland is said to be the chancel and apse of Leuchars Parish Church near St Andrews, surviving 700 years of turbulent Scottish history.
Most folk, however, are preoccupied with the town of St Andrews - so the church probably doesn't get many visitors!
* St Andrews (skyline pictured here) has the only surviving medieval town gate still in use in Scotland today.
Dundee has a restored one as well but it isn’t actually in use. In mediaeval times, St Andrews was an important place of pilgrimage. Pilgrimages continue today, usually for golf, or by royal worshippers drawn by the Kate meets Wullie story.
* St Andrews Castle has a unique feature – a mine and its counter-mine, really a tunnel built by the attackers and opposed by the defenders of the castle in 1546-7.
Visit it if you are not claustrophobic- though it has electric light now! There’s a page on the town and the St Andrews Castle mine and counter mine on that link.
* Pittenweem, an attractive Fife fishing village, got its name through its association with the 7th century shrine of St Fillan in a cave still seen today. Pittenweem means ‘the place of the cave’.
And I love the fact that Fillan had a luminous arm, apparently. Really useful. He used it to help him write up his good deeds for the day when darkness fell, I expect.
* The first Tay rail bridge, linking Newport in Fife with Dundee was finished in 1877 and was around 10700ft (3264m) long. It blew down in the famous gale of 1879. Its steel-built replacement still stands.
Gosh, I don’t know what I was implying here. But I must say, if you travel to Dundee or Aberdeen from Edinburgh and cross both the Tay and the Forth rail bridges, the Tay does seem the less substantial. Och, you’ll be fine…I’ve crossed it all my life.
* 15th-century Ravenscraig Castle overlooks the wide Firth of Forth on the outskirts of Kirkcaldy in Fife. It was the first castle in Scotland built to withstand artillery.
King James II was involved in its design, so it’s ironic the poor chap was killed by an exploding cannon in 1460 while besieging Roxburgh Castle.
* The 18th-century Lady’s Tower stands on the sea edge east of the attractive Fife village of Elie. Built as a summer house and bathing hut for Lady Janet Anstruther of Elie, this noted beauty always sent a bellman round the village when she went for a dip, warning the locals not to peep!
I wonder...was she really worth peeping at?