Crowning Scotland’s Kings and More – Perthshire:
Despite my Scottish heritage, I’ve never spent much time exploring the East Coast to the north of Edinburgh. The MacLeans come from the Western Isles, specifically from Mull and so on family trips we generally turned left at Edinburgh or Stirling and head to Oban for the ferry. Of course, I’ve heard tales of the East and so I was delighted to be invited to spend a few days exploring Tay Country, the area around Dundee, Fife, Angus and Perthshire. The longest river in Scotland, the Tay emerges in the Scottish Highlands in Kenmore then winds its way to Perth and Dundee. It’s famous for salmon fishing – and home to some very special places as I was to discover.
Our first stop, rather fittingly, was Scone Palace in Perthshire. Originally an Abbey, 38 Kings of Scotland including Macbeth and Robert the Bruce were crowned on Moot Hill. The Abbey itself was destroyed in 1559 and all that remained was the Bishop’s Palace. That was taken over in 1580 by the Gowrie family. In 1600, James VI charged the family with treason and their estates at Scone were passed to Sir David Murray of Gospetrie. His descendants still live in the Palace, which was rebuilt in 1808.
The original Abbey was central to early Scottish history – Parliament was often held on Moot Hill and when a new law was passed the Abbey bell was sounded to let the people of the Kingdom of Scotland know. Scone means place of beauty in Gaelic – and it is indeed a stunning setting.
The story of the Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny is also shrouded in history and legend. Reputedly no king had the right to reign as king of Scots unless he had first been crowned at Scone upon the Stone of Scone. So, it was captured by Edward I and taken to Westminster Abbey, fitted into a wooden chair—known as King Edward’s Chair—on which most subsequent English and then British sovereigns have been crowned. And with that, Edward I claimed to be “Lord Paramount” of Scotland, with the right to oversee its King.
The public rooms inside Scone Palace are packed with treasures. There’s an extensive collection of Dresden and Sevres porcelains, stunning ivories dating back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in elephant and walrus tusk, and collected mainly by William David Murray, 4th Earl of Mansfield
There’s a vast collection of Scottish and British portraitures together with the famous and unusual piece of Scottish art by Sir David Wilkie called the Village Politicians which was commissioned and bought by David Murray, 3rd Earl of Mansfield.
The Zoffany painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray has a story behind it which has now been made into a film. Dido was the illegitimate daughter of 24-year-old Rear Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a black African woman, Maria Belle. Born into slavery in the British West Indies, when her mother died, Dido aged six was brought to the UK by Sir John, who persuaded his uncle to bring her up at Kenwood, alongside her second cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Lord Mansfield was one of the first champions for the abolition of slavery in the UK and his treatment of Dido, as part of the family, was a good indication of his own convictions.
There’s plenty more to see at Scone – from Queen Victoria’s bed to peacocks, both living and preserved! As an insight into Scottish history, it shouldn’t be missed and I’ll hope to return when I’m next north of the border.
On the way to Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery we stopped off at Iain Burnett, the Highland Chocolatier to take a look at his visitor centre. Delicious chocolates there and since all the tours and tastings are pre-recorded, it’s possible to visit any time the centre is open.
If Scone Palace marks one aspect of Scottish History, Dewar’s highlights a completely different one. Scotch Whisky and the ‘ distilling, rectifying and blending of spirits’ is Scotland’s number one international exporting industry by value. And, because the export market is strong without the success of Scotch, the UK’s trade deficit of almost £35bn would be 11% larger!
Given the popularity of Single Malt Whisky these days, you may be surprised to learn that blended whisky like Dewar’s actually accounts historically for far more of the market. While the distillery at Aberfeldy does make its own single malt, Dewar’s has it’s own place in history. We were given a potted version of the Ultimate Luxury Whisky Tour Experience (we got all of the Whisky but skipped the coffee and shortbread and the buffet lunch).
I was fascinated by the heritage exhibition on the site and really enjoyed getting a feel for this part of Scotland by walking up to the source of water used for Dewar’s – the Pitilie Burn – where we stopped to try various distillates of whisky and then a hot toddy.
We learnt that the distillery is sited at Aberfeldy, firstly because of the pure water source, secondly because of the siting of a railway line and thirdly because John Dewar was born just three miles away
Any visit to Scotland should include a Distillery tour in my view – and here we were taken through the various processes with a behind the scene tour before we moved on to the Blending room to learn more about the Whisky itself.
All Scotch Whisky production has to use oak casks and barrels to age the Whisky, but these are generally not new.
At Dewar’s they currently use bourbon barrels from the USA made from American white oak, burnt before using to open up the close-grained oak and sherry casks from Jerez in Spain which are just charred to give the toasty notes you get in a well-aged Whisky
We finished the distillery tour with a tasting and a cocktail,
Then, with more than just a wee dram behind us, we headed off to The Old Manse of Blair where we met owner Anne MacDonald. Her business is relatively new, she and her husband bought and restored the Manse House with the intention of hiring it on an exclusive basis. With a handful of rooms, it’s an intimate and friendly space which Anne with her background in event management has refurbished to create a luxurious base.
I stayed in a stunning suite on the first floor with views out over the estate. There are currently seven bedrooms available to accommodate fourteen residential guests. Each comes with a Nespresso machine, local Arran Aromatic toiletries, dressing gowns and slippers so that you have the trappings of a boutique hotel.
I loved my freestanding bath and rainfall shower and the stunning polished Jack and Jill steel sinks too. The room was beautifully decorated in that rather clever contemporary-meets-traditional style that I’d love to be able to pull off in my own home but just don’t manage to do.
We learnt that Anne is currently expanding the Manse, building more accommodation and refurbishing the Orangery to make the perfect setting for a small wedding or celebration. Now if only I could find the right person…
Anne’s business model is to provide the ultimate accommodation, leaving partners to provide a ‘restaurant’ service as required by the guests. That means she can tailor the offering so that if someone wants to self-cater bring their own staff, they can do so – or if they are planning to eat out and simply don’t need a restaurant. That means she doesn’t have the overhead and instead can focus on partnering with various levels of local restaurants and our evening meal and breakfast the next morning was provided for us by Ballintaggart Farm who have their own restaurant, cookery school and catering service.
It’s a model that worked extremely well for us. I learnt that the team from Ballintaggart had trained at Leiths and worked at St John’s before returning to Scotland. And that they developed their menus based on local supplies and foraged foods.
We feasted that night. First a Ballintaggart sharing board of cured meat, salmon and Ballintaggart breads.
Then a beautiful dish of Eassie farm asparagus with Inverloch goat’s curd, toasted almonds and herbs. One of those flavour combinations that just works so well, you wonder why you haven’t already tried it. And one which I’ve already seen some of my food blogger friends copying!
Monkfish with a spiced mayonnaise, pickled and fried fennel and clever and ground elder puree was a fresh, light main course
Followed by nutty Isle of Mull Cheddar with homemade fig and orange chutney and homemade sourdough crackers.
Then a chocolate and sweet cicily dessert with honeycomb and nettle shortbread.
We all slept peacefully in this remote setting, waking to dawn light and birdsong. The same team brought us breakfast – for me a dish of asparagus, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs – but there was a full Scottish breakfast, homemade granola, yoghurt, toast, porridge and more for those who wanted a heartier option.
So, my introduction to Perthshire was entirely positive and left me wanting to return. I know that Anne is considering whether to let individual rooms at the Old Manse of Blair and if she does so, I’d definitely be keen to stay there again. And I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a venue for a small wedding or family get together. I loved the food from Ballintaggart and will also be looking out for their hotel opening. They run a cookery school too and I’m planning on investigating that further. And of course, there’s Whisky. Apart from Dewars, there are plenty more distilleries to visit including Dalwhinnie, one of the highest in Scotland and Blair Athol, one of the oldest.
Thinking of visiting? Why not pin this post for later
We travelled as guests of Scotland’s Tay Country. For more about the region check their site
For more about Scone Palace
For more about Iain Burnett
For more about Dewars
We stayed at The Old Manse of Blair and our dinner was provided by Ballintaggart Farm