Friday, 29 July 2016


Another week, another outdoor adventure. This is getting to be a habit.

Though I love Scotland dearly, and enjoy the great outdoors it has to offer, there's one thing I really hate. Midgies. A tiny biting insect similar to a mosquito, or what the New Zealanders would call, no-see-ums. They can ruin a trip away. But the more east you go the less chance of encountering them, so Pauline and I planned a two-day cycle run down the east coast, starting out of Stonehaven.

Like most small villages down the east coast, Stonehaven was a fishing port, and had grown up around an Iron Age settlement. Our landmark for the start was just on the outskirts of the village in the shape of the ruins of Dunnotar Castle. It commands an imposing view, perched atop a natural stone formation, and you can see how well they could have defended it. So much so, in the late 13th century during the Wars of Independence, the Scottish crown jewels were hidden here.

It was late morning as we set off into a strong headwind, south toward Montrose, 27 miles away, our destination for the day. We were mainly following Route 1 of the National Cycle Network, and enjoyed quiet narrow country lanes, twisting and winding their way down the coast, but with the sea constantly in sight to our left. At one point we took an alternative off-road route along the coast, hugging the shoreline. Despite bouncing along like riding atop cobbles, it was fun to be on a narrow path next to the sea.

Just a few miles from journeys end we stopped for a wander through the dunes to the National Nature Reserve of St Cyrus. Shielded by a natural barrier of inland cliffs and the dunes, the natural grasslands are protected from the worst of the weather and the wildlife flourishes here. Beyond the dunes on the seaward side is a 3km long beach, but with the south easterly wind bringing a chill to the air we didn't stay long, but pledged to return on a warmer summers day. 

Soon we were in Montrose, and we made our way immediately to another nature reserve, that of the Scottish Wildlife Trust Montrose Basin.

A natural circular formation some 4km square, the basin is home to an astonishing 50,000 migratory birds! It wasn't quite the time of year to witness such an event, but it was fun to watch those that were nesting on the shoreline and out on purpose-made rafts. In the far distance, through a powerful telescope, I watched an Osprey tuck into a large fish it had recently caught, atop a tree stump sticking out of the water.

Before we set off to find a camp spot for the night there was one other feature to visit. Down by the harbour is a bronze sculpture of a St Bernard dog called Bamse.

He was a heroic sea dog of the Norwegian navy in World War 2 and became their mascot. His heroic acts were in saving crew members who had fallen overboard, or were injured in an attack. One of his "jobs" among the crew was to round them up and escort them back to the ship when needed, and he did this by traveling on public transport unaccompanied! The crew even bought him a bus pass, and he would jump on board the bus at Broughty Ferry, journey to Dundee then wander to a local bar called Bodega to fetch them.

We retraced our route a little north of the town to a forest, where, sheltered by the dunes, we camped for the night.

The following day the wind had died down, and although still a headwind it was barely noticeable. Back on small quiet back roads we headed for Arbroath, home of the famous smoked haddock called, not surprisingly, an Arbroath Smokie. But there was 10 miles to cycle to get there, and roughly half way I spotted a the remains of a ruined castle.

At least at first glance I thought it was a castle, but officially it had been a "fortified house". Confusingly it was called Red Castle. I took a few photos and didn't think much more about it. Once in Arbroath I used the wonder of Google to find out a little more. It turns out it had been built in the 12th century for William the Lion but was then taken by Robert the Bruce and given to the Earl of Ross. In the mid 1500s, the son of the Earl of Grey (yes, the very same one the tea is named after) was responsible for its eventual demise. He had married Mrs Elizabeth Beaton, who owned the castle, but had fallen in love with her daughter, so he threw him out. Presumably in revenge, he laid siege to the castle and burnt the occupants out, leading to it's present state. I thought it was great to find a mostly forgotten property with links to such rich Scottish history, tucked away on a little back road.

As if that wasn't enough history for one day, on the outskirts of Arbroath stands a bronze statue to the Declaration of Arbroath. This marks the moment, when, in 1320, a letter written in Latin was sent to Pope John XXII declaring for the first time in writing Scotland's status as an independent nation and its right to defend itself. Though upheld by the Pope in persuading the English king to make peace with the Scots, it was short lived, and just eight years later they would once more be fighting each other. It seemed nothing had really changed, and here we are, almost 700 years on, still fighting for the right to independence. I wonder if in 2020, the 700th anniversary, this will come to pass, influenced by recent events in leaving the European Union.

The last 20 miles of our cycle adventure was a complete joy, following a dedicated cycle path all the way. We zipped along, through Carnoustie and Broughty Ferry, and by mid afternoon we were on the platform in Dundee waiting for our train home.

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