Sunday, January 31, 2010

More of my favorite castle of Wales

We will start off today with Cardiff Castle in the center of Wales capitol city, Cardiff. Spanning over 2000 years, the Castle has been a Roman Garrison, a Norman stronghold and in Victorian times a Gothic fairytale fantasy. In the early 19th century the castle was enlarged and refashioned in an early Gothic Revival style for John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute by Henry Holland. But its transformation began in 1868 when 3rd Marquess of Bute commissioned William Burges to undertake a massive rebuilding which turned the castle into a 19th century fantasy of a medieval palace. This relationship culminated in dazzling architectural triumphs of which Cardiff Castle is the greatest of all. Not to be missed in the castle are the Winter and Summer Smoking Rooms, the Chaucer Room, the Arab Room, Lord Bute's Bedroom and the Roof Garden. Each time I am in the castle I wander around in awe at the incredible wealth and beauty it represents. The castle is administered by the Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
Just a short drive from Cardiff we find Castell Coch. What was created at Cardiff Castle was done on a much smaller scale with the creation of Castell Coch. The castle is a fairy tale come to life and was built reproducing a small medieval Welsh chieftain's stronghold. Another collaboration of the 3rd Marquess of Bute and William Burges it was built in the 1870's and has the most remarkable interior decoration. Burges was given free rein on this castle and the result is a delight! The Drawing Room and Lady Bute's bedroom have ceilings and wall paintings that are almost equal to those at Cardiff Castle. Although the castle was never meant to be a permanent residence, I find that I could move right in tomorrow and be quite happy! The castle is administered by the Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
Our ninth castle is Bodelwyydan Castle in Denbyshire in the north of Wales and is reputed to be one of the most haunted! The castle has been the subject of two episodes of television's "Most Haunted" and Sci Fi's "Ghost Hunters International". The history of the house and estate dates back to before 1460 but the association with the Williams family only from around 1690. As well as being a historic house and museum, the Castle are resplendent with large areas of formal garden and natural woodland. Bodelwyddan Castle is a regional partner of the National Portrait Gallery, housing many wonderful portraits from the 19th Century collections of the London national museum. In addition, the Castle displays collections of furniture from the Victoria & Albert Museum, and sculpture from the Royal Academy of Arts. The castle is run by a charitable trust and is open to the public.
The 10th castle in this series is Chirk Castle in the Northeast of Wales. As one of Edward I's ring of castles, Chirk has been occupied continuously as a castle and stately home for almost 700 years. It was built in the late 13th century by Roger Mortimer, Justice of North Wales. The castle was sold for 5,000 UK pounds to Sir Thomas Myddelton in 1595 and his descendants continue to live in part of the castle today. The interior of the castle includes the Gothic style Cromwell Hall, with oak panelling and impressive arrays of arms and family heraldry. The neo-classical Grand Staircase is a hugely impressive feature, hollowed out of a circular tower and hanging in the gallery a fine collection of family portraits. The state dining room boasts a ceiling with fine plasterwork and mythical images as well as exquisite period furnishings. One of the most impressive of the older sections is Adam's Tower, which housed a former dungeon where French prisoners from Agincourt were locked up. The castle is managed by the National Trust and is open to the public.
Another National Trust Property is castle number eleven, Powis Castle. Powis is a medieval castle, fortress and grand country mansion located near the town of Welshpool in Mid Wales. The residence of the Earl of Powis is known for its extensive, attractive formal gardens, terraces, parkland, deerpark and landscaped estate. The 1660's State Bedroom still survives and is the only one in Britain where a balustrade still rails off the bed alcove from the rest of the room. Such a design derives from the days when the English gentry wished to emulate the elaborate etiquette that regulated the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. A visit to the castle by Charles II is still part of the family tradition. The window latches in the shape of the Prince of Wales's feathers commemorate the visit of the future King Edward VII. His son and daughter-in-law (later King George V and Queen Mary, visited in 1909.
The last castle in this series is The Hall at Abbey-Cwm-Hir near Llandrindod Wells in mid Wales. Built in 1834 by Thomas Wilson the great Victorian improver, the house was doubled in size by the Philips family in 1869, who then added the snooker room in 1894. The architects were Poundley and Walker of Liverpool. Paul and Victoria Humpherston bought the Hall in late 1997 and spent 9 years restoring it to a building of Gothic splendour; boasting stunning interiors and fascinating collections. They have also restored 12 acres of Victorian gardens in a beautiful setting above the ruins of the 12th C Abbey of the Long Valley. The Hall has appeared on many television documentaries on historic houses including "Discovering Welsh Houses" and "How the other Half Lives". The Hall is very much a family home and guided tours of the 52 rooms are conducted by a family member. Tours must be booked in advance.
Remember that this is not a complete list of castles in Wales or a complete list of my favorite Welsh castle. Happy castle hunting!

Shannon McDonald Tate.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Some of my favorite castles of Wales

Today I am going to try something almost impossible and that is to name only twelve of my favorite castles in Wales. I will list six today and six tomorrow. Wales has more castle per square mile than anywhere else in the British Isles. I cannot conceive of a list that does not include Edwards I's mighty four. Nor can I think of leaving out the fairytale castle designed for the Marquess of Bute. Then there are the castles that are not just castles but also stately homes like Chirk. This listing is in no particular order and is not a full list of my favorite castles. I am only listing castles and no other historic sites. I  will start in the North with the mighty four - Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris.
Even after seven hundred years, Harlech's might and defensive stength are still evident. As it is situated almost in the center of town, every time I am there I think what it must be like to have a castle in your backyard as many towns folk do! The castle is designed on a concentric plan with a small but powerful inner ward dominated by an impressive twin-towered gatehouse and four round corner towers. Designed by Master James of St. George, the castle combines a marvellous sense of majesty with great beauty of line and form and was part of King Edward I's second campaign of castle bulding in North Wales. It was part of a ring of castles stretching from Aberystwyth around to Flint insuring Edward there would be no resitance to his rule. The views from the top of the castle are breathtaking. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
Next of the mighty four is Conwy Castle, also designed by Master James of St. George and part of Edwards ring of castles. The castle is built on a rocky outcrop controlling the crossing of the river Conwy and has been called "one of the greatest fortresses of medieval Europe." It is easily as impressive as Harlech but unlike Harlech, Conwy Castle and town are surrounded by a well-preserved wall lending an additional sense of strength to the site. The eight great towers and connecting walls are all intact, forming a rectangle as opposed to the concentric layouts of Edward's other castles in Wales. The castle is well preserved and offers spectacular views of the town, surrounding coastline and countryside. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
Our third of Edwards mighty four is Caernarfon which is architecturally one of the most impressive of all of the castles in Wales although its defensive capabilities were not as overt as the other three. The castle was designed to echo the walls of Constantinople, the imperial power of Rome and the dream castle of Welsh myth and legend. After all these years Caernarfon's immense strength remains unchanged. Edward intended this castle to be a royal residence and seat of government for North Wales. The castle's symbolic status was emphasized when Edward made sure that his son, the first English Prince of Wales, was born here in 1284. In 1969, the castle gained worldwide fame as the setting for the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
The fourth of the mighty four, Beaumaris, was begun in 1295 and was the last and largest of the castles to be built by Edward I in Wales. Regarded by many as the finest of all the great Edwardian castles in Wales, the brilliant Master James of St George brought all his experience and inspiration to bear when building this castle, the biggest and most ambitious venture he ever undertook. In pure architectural terms, it is the most technically perfect castle in Britain. The castle has a perfectly symmetrical concentric 'walls within walls' design, involving no less than four successive lines of fortifications. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and open to the public. 
My fifth castle is the mighty castle of Pembroke in the southwest. Spectacularly set on the banks of the river estuary, this mighty fortress is largely intact. With its endless passages, tunnels and stairways the castle is great fun to explore. Once the seat of a succession of major barons who played leading roles in shaping Britain's history, this historic showpiece is the birthplace of Henry Tudor, father to the infamous Henry VIII and grandfather of Elizabeth I. The fine series of round towers and the remarkable gatehouse made the defences of the outer ward almost impregnable. The main gatehouse, with its two portcullises, stout doors, three machicolations in the vaulting and its series of arrowslits, is one of the finest and earliest of its kind. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public.
The sixth castle for today is in the southwest. Raglan Castle, with its great multi-angular towers and Tudor styling, is unlike any other castle in Wales. The main stone used in construction of the castle is a pale, almost yellowish sandstone from Redbrook on the Wye river. The other sandstone is local Old Red Sandstone which is red, brown or purplish in color and used in the Tudor work. From a distance, Raglan seemed to have a reddish cast, although on approaching the gatehouse, the castle's yellow sandstone becomes obvious. Raglan Castle is one of the last true castles ever to be built in Wales. Construction of the castle began in the 1430s by Sir William ap Thomas. William was a Welsh knight and was responsible for building the Great Tower at Raglan, which became known as the Yellow Tower of Gwent. The castle is owned by Welsh Historic Trust and is open to the public. 

Tomorrows list will include castles of less might with their primary function being comfort rather than defense although some of them were built with defense in mind as well.  



Shannon McDonald Tate



Wales Castle, Pub and Tearoom Discovery Tour

Thursday, January 28, 2010

More family adventures...

I said yesterday that today I will talk about my family trip to the Yorkshire Dales. We love many areas of Great Britain, but for us, there is no place like Scotland. I was talking yesterday about my niece Callyn who is now fifteen but was only about seven years old on her first trip to England. My sister Pam and three daughters Hayley, Kelsey and Callyn along with Cameron, my mother, a family friend and myself had spent two weeks in Scotland sightseeing and castle hunting. Knowing that everybody planned to be in the UK for three weeks, I planned a one week outing in the Yorkshire Dales as it is one of my very favorite places on earth.
We were traveling in two cars and had just crossed the border when I looked behind me and saw that my sister had pulled her car over. i was pretty sure why she had pulled over because as soon as my car crossed the border everybody in my car had tears in their eyes. I went back to my sister's car where everybody except Callyn was sobbing. She was so worried and wanted to know what was happening? I asked her if she had seen the big boulder with "England" written on it? She said yes and asked me what that meant. I told her that it meant that we had just crossed the border out of Scotland and into England. She immediately broke into tears and asked me why?
I now had two full carloads of sobbing people and a whole week planned in the Yorkshire Dales. Well of course after we got there everybody had a wonderful time and fell in love with Yorkshire as much as I had. They made me promise that in the future if they gave up any of their Scotland time it had to be at the beginning of the trip. They wanted to make sure that Scotland was the last sight they saw before going home.
We had many adventures in the Dales and in the city of York. York itself is completely walled with four main gates into the city. You can walk most of the walls. The city is dominated by York Minster, a Gothic cathedral that is one of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe. Built over the span of 200 years, the cathedral is about one tenth of a mile long and went through five different architects. York has many other historic buildings and a small street with a mishmash of 15th century buildings called "The Shambles".
The rest of the dales is full of rolling hills, delightful villages, wonderful tearooms and warm, friendly Dales folk at every turn. For those who loved the stories of the country vet James Herriot there is much to see and do along with Wallace's (of Wallace and Gromit) favorite cheese factory, The Wensleydale Cheese Factory. There is also a plethora of castles, abbeys, cathedrals and historic sites. The Yorkshire Dales for me is one of the most magical and mystical places on earth and impossible to describe in just a few words.

Shannon McDonald Tate



York, Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Remembering Scotland


After reading Mario's blog yesterday I was remembering my first trip to Scotland as well. As I blogged about earlier, I was a late in coming to Scotland.  It was definitely on my list but there were so many other places I wanted to see as well. I had no idea that Scotland was going to affect me the way it did. I was told by several members of my family that I would be overwhelmed but it still did not prepare me.
On my first trip I prepared very heavily and I rented a cottage in central Scotland for several weeks so that family members could come and go as they were able. I wanted to make sure that I found someplace very central so that we could make day trips from a good location. Much to my surprise upon arriving to the cottage we were informed that the tower in the next field marked that exact center of Scotland! Over the years we have rented several cottage but that first month in central Scotland made the area very much home.
For the first week we were at the cottage it was just my mother and I. We were spending seven weeks and so we really made ourselves at home. As the Lion and Unicorn pub was just up the road we knew we had to try it for dinner. The pub is almost 400 years old and is often in the top ten. We of course have returned several times over the years. We also fell on love with Doune and Doune Castle, Stirling and Stirling Castle and the lovely wee village of Callander.
I was remembering a trip that my brother Cameron joined us as well as my sister Pamela and her daughters Hayley, Kelsey and Callyn Rose and of course mom. On the first trip that Callyn was on we went to Loch Ness as it was high on the girls list. I think Callyn was six at the time. We hired a boat captained by John Minshull. We had the whole boat to ourselves and John had Callyn piloting the boat all around the loch. The most amazing thing about this was that we were at Loch Ness six years later with the girls and Callyn was twelve years old then. John immediately recognized her and said he hadn't seen her since she was half that size? What an amazing memory! Callyn once again piloted us around Loch Ness.
We went for a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train that is also known as the Harry Potter Express as it is used in filming the movies. I booked a car for us but war really not thinking about Harry Potter. Once we were on the train we had many little faces pressed upon the windows to see into our car as it was where most of the filming took place. I had no idea, I just stumbles upon in. A year later we were at Loch Shiel taking a boat trip on the Loch and found that we had missed the Potter kids by two days as they had been filming on the loch and had used that boat. I think with the girls we have been to almost all of the Harry Potter film locations. We have had many adventures that happened purely by chance. I had booked us a journey on the Strathspey Steam Railway one day and found ourselves in a rail car that had been retired in 1954 and had been renovated and just returned to service that day! Tomorrow I will have to share the story of when I tried to take the girls across the border and into England!
The adventures continue to happen and that is why I love taking people to Scotland and to the rest of the British Isles. Either family members or people who have joined our tours. We started our tours to resemble our family holidays and as it is so popular we continue on today was we started out 9 year ago.

Shannon McDonald Tate

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Highlands and Islands of Scotland


We have 2 spots left on our Spring Highlands and Islands Tour of Scotland from May 1st - 15th. Our fall Highlands tour has been sold out for almost a year but the spring tour has been quite stubborn with the last 2 spots. This is one of my favorite tours to do primarily because the history is so amazing.
We start out the tour in one of my favorite towns in Scotland, Oban. Oban is a lovely little seaside village which is a perfect jumping off place for an islands tour. While in Oban we take a short ferry ride across Firth of Lorne to the Island of Mull. On Mull we visit Duart Castle before continuing on to Iona. Duart has been the ancestral home of the Clan Maclean for over 400 years.
There is probably nowhere in Scotland that is more lovely and spiritual than Iona Abbey on the Isle of Iona. lona Abbey is a celebrated Christian centre and the burial place of 48 early Scottish kings. The Abbey and Nunnery grounds house one of the most comprehensive collections of Christian carved stones in Scotland, ranging in age from 600AD to the 1600s. The abbey itself is over 800 years old!
We then journey through Glencoe, the site of the 1692 massacre of the McDonald Clan before a visit to Fort William. From Fort William we are off to the Isle of Skye, my ancestral home. We visit the grave site of Flora Macdonald as well as Dunvegan Castle and Portree. After 2 days on Skye we cross the water to the Islands of Harris on Lewis.
Once on Lewis we visit the Callanish Standing Stones. The stones have to be seen to be understood. I have visited the site on numerous occasions and they still install awe every time. The stones are of Lewisian gneiss and are 4500 - 5000 years old! The stones are a complex arrangement of some 50 stones. At their heart is a circle of 13 stones between 8 and 13 feet tall, surrounding the tallest stone on the site. This stone is 16 feet high and weighs in at about 5.5 tonnes. Some time later a stone tomb was added to the centre of the circle.
After leaving Lewis behind we are back to the mainland for a visit to one of my favorite fishing villages, Ullapool. We then head north through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. Majestic peaks, pristine lochs and breathtaking coast lines until we find ourselves in Thurso. While in Thurso we take the ferry to the Orkneys where we visit Skara Brae, a stone age village. Older than the pyramids. A sand storm left the village covered for over 4000 years leaving the buildings and their contents incredibly well preserved. Not only are the walls of the structures still standing, and alleyways roofed with their original stone slabs, but the interior fittings of each house give an unparalleled glimpse of life as it was in Neolithic Orkney.
Then we are back to the mainland to visit one of my very favorite castle, the Castle of Mey. Queen Elizabeth's mother decided to rescue this castle after the death of her husband King George XI. After a loving restoration the castle is a perfect seaside home that was a favorite of the Queen Mum's and a favorite of everyone who walks in the door.
We now head south to Inverness for a day and then to my favorite place in Scotland, Pitlochry. Queen Victoria call Pitlochry, the loveliest spa village in all of Europe. We visit castles, take afternoon tea and visit the theatre while hear before we spend our last 2 days in Glasgow.
Although most well known as an industrial city, there is so much more to Glasgow. Named the European city of Architecture and Design in 1999 it more than lives up to its reputation. An 800 year old cathedral, 500 year old Lord Provost's house and the second best shopping in the UK make this a very enjoyable city and one of my favorites.
These are just a few of the highlights on this wonderful 15 day tour. Join us for an unforgettable journey to my ancestors and to history that you could only dream about.

Shannon McDonald Tate

Monday, January 25, 2010

Robert Burns


Today marks the anniversary of Robert Burns birth in Alloway, Scotland in 1759. Also referred to as Rabbie Burns, Scotland's favourite son, the Ploughman Poet and the Bard of Ayrshire, there is no other person in history, past or present who's birthday is celebrated the world over as is Scotland's National Bard. Burns Suppers will be celebrated in thousands of locals this evening in the time honoured fashion which includes the eating of a traditional Scottish meal, the celebration of the haggis, the drinking of Scotch whisky and the recitation of works by, about, and in the spirit of the Bard.
At the age of fifteen, he fell in love and shortly thereafter he wrote his first poem, primarily in the Auld Scots Dialect. The collection was an immediate success and he was celebrated throughout England and Scotland as a great "peasant-poet." He is also well known for over three hundred songs he wrote which celebrate love, friendship, work, and drink with often hilarious and tender sympathy including, "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose", "Ae Fond Kiss" and "Auld Land Syne."
Over his very brief life, Robert fathered fourteen children and not all to his wife Jean Armour, the love of his life and affectionately called "Bonny Jean". Burns died in Dumfries at the age of 37, on the morning of 21st July 1796. The funeral took place on Monday 25th July 1796, also the day that his son Maxwell was born. Over 30,000 people paid their respects.
In Dumfries you can visit his grave site at St. Michaels Kirkyard. You can also visit Burns' House where he lived with his beloved Jean Armour. The poet's autograph is scratched in the window with a diamond ring, and you can see the room where he died. In Dumfries you can also visit the Burns Centre and stop by the Globe Inn which was one of Burns' favorite haunts. Have a "wee dram" and visit the site of the first Burns Suppers in 1819 in this 400 year old inn where every corner is steeped in the history of Robert Burns.
Not far from Dumfries you can visit Burns' farm at Ellisland where he tried his hand at farming. “Typically, Burns chose this place more for its romantic, idyllic setting than the quality of the soil,” says Les Byers, the curator of Ellisland Farm.
In Alloway you can also visit Burns Cottage and Museum, a two roomed thatched cottage his father built and where Burns was born. Just down the road in Mauchline there is the red brick Burns House where the poet lived from 1788 with his wife Jean Armour. It was about this time that his poems were first published. A prized copy of the Kilmarnock edition survives along with personal artefacts, letters and manuscripts.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some more of my favorite castles in Scotland


As promised today, castles seven through twelve. Remember, this is by no means a complete list of my favorite castles or neccesarily my top twelve. When we are conducting our tours, I like to include a really good mix of castles to give a full example of all the types of castles you will find in Scotland and this list reflects that.
First on todays list is Elcho Castle just outside of Perth in central Scotland. There are several castles in the area that are very similar but this castle captivated me from the moment I walked in. The castle is not one of Scotland's most well known or visited castles and that may be part of the attraction. Elcho is a 16th century z-plan tower house that although in ruins is very well preserved and gives great insight into how its residents lived. It is fully open to the public and is a great castle to go exploring in. The castle has one of the largest and grandest staricases anywhere in Scotland and you can still see decorative plasterwork in many areas. Elcho is owned by Historic Scotland and open in the summer months.
Second our our list today is Kilravock Castle just a short ways outside of Nairn in the north. This castle also operates as a bed and breakfast and I have had the pleasure of staying here a few times. Kilravock is the ancestral home of the Clan Rose and although the castle was built in 1460, six generations of the family lived on the grounds before that time. This is not a luxury hotel as many of them have turned into but an actual castle where you stay in the original rooms. You can even stay in the room at the top of the tower that dates back over 500 years ago! The room just below it is where Mary Queen of Scots stayed when she visited the castle and it has been preserved in that era. For a true castle experience, this is one of the best. Kilravock is open as a bed and breakfast and also for tours by appointment where you can hear tales of the past, see the room that Mary Queen of Scots slept in, view the bowl that was used by Bonnie Prince Charlie during his visit in 1746, inspect the dungeon and view historical artefacts from the battles of Culloden and Bannockburn.
Our third castle listing is Thirlestane Castle in the Borders region of Scotland at Lauder. Thirlestane's history goes back to the 13th century but it was rebuilt as the Maitland family home in 1590. In 1670 the Duke of Lauderdale greatly enhanced it in the Scottish Baronial style. He introduced the two front towers and the grand staircase and oversaw the transformation of the interior, the most remarkable feature of which is the rich plasterwork of the State Rooms. in 1840 it was extended and refurbished with the addition of two new wings and now resembles a palace more than a castle and it is truly stunning. I love ceilings and the ceilings in the drawing room and dining room are breathtaking! You can also view the Duke's grand bedchamber and the room where Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed. The castle also offers self catering accommodation. The castle is privately owned and open May through September.
Our fourth offering today is Braemar Castle in the Grampian Mountains at the start of Royal Deeside. Braemar is an early 17th century castle and is the ancestral home and seat of Clan Farquharson. The building is a five storey L-plan castle with a star-shaped curtain wall of six sharp-angled salients and three storey angle turrets. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in charm and style. The castle was gifted to the community of Braemar by the Farquharsons and reopended in 2009 following a short restoration. There is now 12 fully furnished rooms on show filled with personal memorabilia of the family spanning over 250 years of the Farquharson family The Hanoverian troops garrisoned here after the Battle of Culloden ensured their place in history by graffiti-ing the wood panelling. The castle in open to the public.
Our fifth castle is Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull and home to Clan Maclean. This castle is well know as the film location for Sean Connery's Entrapment. While taking the ferry from Oban to Mull the castle sitting on its crag is visible long before the fery docks. For me, the biggest delight of the castle is that on almost any day, you can see Lord Lachlan walking the grounds, greeting people to the castle or playing with his grandchildren. Although the seat of the Clan Maclean for over 400 years, it is also very much a family home. In 1350 Lachlan Lubanach, the 5th Chief, married Mary Macdonald, the daughter of the Lord of the Isles and she was given Duart as her dowry. After extensive restoration the castle is open to the public. Visitors may walk through the dungeons and state rooms at their leisure, ending on the top of the keep where it is easy to appreciate the strategic site of the castle.
Our final castle is Ballindalloch Castle in the heart of the Speyside region of Scotland. Ballindalloch is one of the most beautiful and renowned castles in Scotland and know as the Pearl of the North. Ballindalloch is one of the few privately owned castles to have been lived in continuously by its original family, the Macpherson-Grants who have resided here since 1546. The Castle is very much a lived-in family home and is filled with family memorabilia, as well as a fine collection of 17th century Spanish paintings collected by Sir John Macpherson-Grant in the mid 19th century. From the moment you walk in the door you feel as if you could move right in. The Castle was originally built in the traditional Z plan, but has been much altered and enlarged over the centuries. Ballindalloch Castle exemplifies the transition from the fortified tower house necessary in 16th century Scotland to the elegant and comfortable country house so beloved of the Victorians in the Highlands. Ballindalloch is privately owned and open to the public.

Shannon McDonald Tate

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Some of my favorite castles of Scotland


As you can probably guess by now, I love castles! Today I'm going to list 12 of my favorite castles in Scotland. This was much harder than I thought it would be as I have so many favorites. These castles are not in any particular order and are not necessarily my top 12. I am going to present to you a mix of ruins, complete castles, fortifications, some open to the public and some inhabited. I did not include abbeys, cathedrals or any other type of historic sites. A castle is defined as private fortified residence of a lord or noble. What is the difference between a castle and a palace or mansion house? Palaces and mansions are stately homes, while a castle is built for fortification. Castles of course can also be stately homes but their main purpose is to protect and defend.
I am going to start appropriately enough with the first castle I ever visited in Scotland, Doune Castle. Doune is a 14th century stronghold in the central area of Scotland near Stirling. It is best known as the setting for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail but that is not why I like it. Most castles over the years go through many changes and updates but Doune has remained relatively unchanged in almost 700 years and gives a wonderful insight into castle life in medieval times. You can easily see where the family would have lived and the area of the castle for soldiers and servants. The kitchen with an oven large enough to walk into is one of my favorites. I have been to Doune numerous times and it still holds the same delight that it did for me on my first visit. Doune is owned by Historic Scotland and open to the public.
Next on the list is Caerlaverock Castle in the south of Scotland on the Solway Firth and was home to the Maxwell Clan. Caerlaverock is a 13th century moated castle built in a triangular plan with an immense twin tower gate house and imposing corner towers. I know of no other castle in Scotland with this shape. Although in ruins, there is enough of the castle left not only to marvel at its mighty presence but also to imagine its grandeur defined by the ornamental stonework that still dominates the interior of the castle. This castle is owned by Historic Scotland and open to the public.
Third on the list is the Castle of Mey. Constructed on a z-plan, the castle was built between 1566 and 1572 with corbelled turrets and jutting towers very typical of that period of the 16th century. I love anything to do with the Queen Mum who passed away in 2002 at the age of 101. In 1952 following the death of her husband, King George the VI, she heard that the castle was to be abandoned and decided to save it. She fell in love with its isolated charm as so many others have since. And isolated it is, as it is the most northerly inhabited castle on the British mainland. The Queen Mother renovated and restored it and for almost half a century she spent many happy summers here. As you walk in the front door you can almost see her standing on the stairway welcoming you in. This castle is privately owned and open to the public.
Fourth on the list is Glamis Castle as is only fitting since we have been talking about the Queen Mother who grew up in this castle. Glamis is the ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore and has been their home for over 600 years. Glamis is a fairytale castle but also has the reputation as the most haunted castle in Scotland! The castle has seen many additions, alterations and reconstructions as each generation of the Strathmore family attempted to make their mark. The end result is a romantic stronghold complete with turrets, towers and castellations. In the great hall, two small chairs flank the fireplace and were favorite seats of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Princess Margaret was born here in the apartment that was designed for the future Queen Mum and King George by her parents. This castle is privately owned and open to the public.
For our fifth castle we go back to ruins with Dunnottar Castle. This dramatic cliff top fortress is in a truly spectacular setting. Just outside of Stonehaven which is about 15 miles south of Aberdeen on the east coast, visiting this castle is not for everybody. After traveling the footpath from the car park you are met by a steep pathway with numerous steps that will take you down to the water only to be met by another set of steps that you must climb to the top of the cliff to visit the castle. The climb is well worth the effort if for nothing else but the views. The site of Dunnottar goes back in history thousands of yeas and the present castle played host to William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, the Marquis of Montrose and the future King Charles II. Most famously though, it was at Dunnottar Castle that a small garrison held out against the might of Cromwell's army for eight months and saved the Scottish Crown Jewels from destruction. Dunnottar is privately owned and open to the public.
Our sixth castle is Crathes, a delightful fairytale castle with glorious formal gardens. Not far from Dunnottar in Aberdeenshire, this beautiful 16th century castle is one of the best preserved castles in Scotland and home to the Burnetts of Leys for over 350 years. With its portraits, oak ceilings, heraldic shields, Elizabethan fireplace and Jacobean painted ceilings, this castle interior is splendid! One of the most historic objects in the castle is the Horn of Leys, a jewelled ivory horn given by Robert the Bruce to the Burnetts in 1323 when he granted them the Lands of Leys. Crathes is managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is open to the public.


Tomorrow, castles seven through twelve. I have tried to provide what we do on our tours which is a mix of castles of differing ages, uses and construction.


Shannon McDonald Tate

Friday, January 22, 2010

Castles, Castles, Castles

I love castles! At this point I don't think I could comprise a full list of castles I have visited as the list is quite long. I do have my favorites though, including ones I love to visit again and again. I was remembering a story today of several years ago when I was on a castle hunt in Scotland with my sister and 3 nieces. I have a castle map which lists all the castles in Scotland....over 2,000 of them! The list includes ancient castles, new castles, castle ruins, fairytale castles and castles that are private homes. I try never to trespass onto anybodies private land but this particular map just listed the castle and not their condition. As we drove up the road to the castle there was a wee bridge that crossed a burn that went around the castle. At this point, I realized we were at a private home and I attempted to turn the car around by backing off the bridge and alongside the burn. Unfortunately I immediately sank to my axles in the bog! We tried everything to get the car out including my pushing while my sister drove. I asked her to give it a little gas but my sister never did anything by halves and I received a wave of mud that covered me from my toes to my nose. At about this time the Laird arrived home with his wife. They both seemed to be in their 70's and had just returned home from church. He told me in a very gruff voice that he would go up to the house, change and then come back down with the range rover. He came back down in a range rover that seemed to be as old as he was and proceeded to chain my car to the rover. I could see that he had done this before and at this time I could also detect a little twinkle in his eye but never a smile...just like my grandfather. We pulled the car out and in the same gruff voice he said "well, you're already here so you may as well come on up the house and have a look". I had just discovered a new way to get myself into private castles!
Another time my mother, sister, 3 nieces, Mario and myself were visiting a castle called Duffus Castle which is a ruins of a castle in the north of Scotland. We had been discussing the name of the castle with many jokes before we arrived.  I had been there before but nobody else had. There was about a half inch of snow on the ground and the castle sits up on a small hill. I told everybody that there was a walkway that went around the hill and you could easily access the castle from the back. I then began climbing up the side of the hill as I will always take a short cuts if I can. I heard a holler and looked behind me to see my sister go down. Then they all started going down like dominoes much to the delight of the people who were watching us from up at the castle. I was the only one not to fall. We were all laughing hysterically when my sister said "now we know where the name came from...all those people up there are thinking what doofus' we are for not taking the path to the castle."
On one of my very first castle hunts my brother Cameron and I were exploring Blair Castle in the central Highlands. This is a fully furnished castle owned by the 11th Duke of Atholl. There are guides all over the castle wearing the Murray tartan trews(trousers) with a green sweater. We always like to explore from top to bottom and learn as much as possible about castle and historic sites. This is much easier to do in an uninhabited castle of course but that never stops us. We were on a mission when we walked by a doorway as a man was just coming out dressed in the same trews and sweater. We talked with him for a moment and then hurried on our way. A few rooms later on we came to a room with family portraits and much to our surprise, there he was, the 11th Duke of Atholl staring back at us form a portrait. We just blew off the owner of the castle thinking he was a guide! We learned that day to always check to see if the family flag is flying which lets you know the family is in residence.
Tomorrow I will talk about my favorite castles of Scotland and why they are on my favorites list.

Many happy travels,

Shannon McDonald Tate

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Scotland - Differences between Highlanders and Lowlanders


I am often asked why someone can't find a tartan or plaid for their "clan" which of course leads to a discussion on the differences between Highlanders and Lowlanders. A task I find easily undertaken as my mother's family were Highlanders and my father's family Lowlanders which allows me a somewhat unprejudiced view. Most things that people in North America associate with Scotland such as clans, tartan, bagpipes, speaking Gaelic etc is not really a Scottish way of life but a Highland way of life. Prior to the 19th century there was a clearly defined line between the Highlands and Lowlands marked by difference of race, religion, and customs that can still be observaed today.
Lowlanders did not have a clan structure as they considered Highlanders to be feudal, uncivilized heathens who were fiercely clannish. They perceived the Highlanders as a self-sufficient and independent breed that eyed the rest of the country with suspicion. Lowlanders wore trousers as they would not be caught dead in a kilt and bagpipes was only so much noise. Highlanders of Western Scotland and the adjacent islands were of Celtic origin and the Gaels of the Highland clans were originally of the same Celtic stock as that of the native Irish prior to being conquered by England. The term "Scots" is in direct reference to the Highlanders and not to the whole of Scotland. Unlike the Highlander, the Lowlander were a mix of Romans, Frisian, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Norwegians, Normans, and Flemings just as the Englishman immediately to the south of them were.
So why do we think of these things as being Scottish rather than the Highland way of life? On April 16th 1746 the last battle to be fought on British soil was held at Culloden Moor just outside of Inverness. The battle was over in an hour and effectively ended the Jacobite movement to restore a Stewart to the Scottish Throne. The goal of the government forces led by the Duke of Cumberland also know as Butcher Cumberland was to get the unruly Highlanders under control and return Scotland to full British Rule. Approximately 2,000 Jacobites lay dead on the field of Culloden but that was nothing compared to what Butcher Cumberland ordered the government forces to do following the battle. Indiscriminate killing went on for days, with all men bearing arms hanged on location and their women raped and children killed so that they would not grow up to bear arms. Families fled from their scorched hovels and were left to starve. In total, over 20,000 head of livestock, sheep, and goats were driven off and sold at Fort Augustus, where the soldiers split the profits.
In the years following Culloden there were laws put into place that outlawed the wearing of tartan and kilts, playing bagpipes, Highland dancing and speaking Gaelic. The estates of those lords and clan chiefs who had supported the Jacobite rebellion were stripped from them and then sold with the profits used to further trade and agriculture in Scotland. This eventually led to the period of time called the Highland Clearances from the 18th century and into the first part of the 19th century when thousands of Highlanders were displaced so that the more profitable venture of raising sheep could transpire. This lead to the complete collapse of the clan structure.
It was not until later in the 19th century when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began spending so much time at their Highland home of Balmoral that all things "Scottish" were back in fashion. The wearing of the kilt was again very popular but not the same kilt that would have been worn by the Highlanders. Everybody in Scotland wanted to belong to a clan and have a clan tartan so many Lowland families commissioned tartans. Tartan had become so popular that many States in the US and Providences in Canada have also commissioned their own tartans. Bagpipes were once again very popular along with Highland dancing. Everybody wanted to be "Scottish"! This popularity continues right up to today and everybody likes to be able to find a little Scots background.
I guess that is why I love doing what I do so much. It is great fun to help others find their Scottish connection or if they do not have one, to be able to share mine with them.


Shannon McDonald Tate

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Grandfather, Scotland and our ancestry


My grandfather's name was Angus McDonald which is about as Scottish as you can get. Living close to my grandparents resulted in growing up very Scottish but I never realized how much so until I started spending so much time in Scotland. The many things that I viewed as peculiarities of my grandfather proved to be just Scottish! From the way my grandfather spoke to the foods we ate and the customs and traditions we observed. It was very important to my mother to continue these traditions and customs during our upbringing. I still remember so vividly my first day in Scotland and feeling that everything finally made sense. I had an immediate connection that is just as strong today if not stronger.
I had long heard the stories that my family were descendants of Somerled who was the very first Lord of the Isles in the 12th century. It was his grandson Donald who started the McDonald Clan which was the largest and most powerful clan in the Highlands. Having the name McDonald of course suggests that I must have come from the original McDonald line but I always had some loose ends in my ancestral search. Last year I did some DNA testing and was thrilled to learn that yes, we were indeed descendants of Somerled! I am a 26th direct generational descendant of Somerled. My cousin Richard who's surname is McDonald is a direct paternal descendant of Somerled. I can now trace both sides of my family back to 12th century Scotland.
I have always been proud of my Scottish ancestry but having the data to back up the stories that have been passed down through the generations is like icing on the cake.

Shannon McDonald Tate

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Scottish Dream Tours


It has been almost 9 years since I offered my first tour and many people want to know how and why I started offering tours. As I have posted earlier, my mother and I ran a wee Scottish Tearoom  for several years. We would always close in April and take 6 -7 weeks to go to Scotland each year. Upon our return we would have an armchair tour of Scotland at the tearoom and talk about our trip and our favorite places in Scotland. At one of our armchair tours I was asked why I didn't take an actual tour to Scotland and I thought, what a wonderful idea! As with everything I do, I immediately jumped in with both feet and was offering my first tour to Scotland just a few months later. I never intended to offer a full tour schedule at that time. I thought if I offered a tour in the fall, I could go to Scotland twice a year and would not have to wait a whole year to go again! In my family, I was a late comer to Scotland. I always new I would eventually go but it was never at the top of my list. My sister Pamela had been urging me to go for several years. When I finally arrived in Scotland I could not believe that I waited so long to go and knew that I never wanted to go anyplace else! Until I started doing tours it was very hard to give up any of my Scotland time. I eventually started taking in Ireland, Wales and areas of England as well.
Even prior to my first tour I had been thinking along those lines but had not really made a firm decision. There were many things that prompted this. I remember being in the Borders area of Scotland visiting one of my favorite abbeys and watching a tour bus pull in. Only about 15 of the 60 people on board got off the bus and took a picture. I asked one of the tourers why nobody else was getting off and he said that they only had a few minutes and it took too long to get on and off the bus. I know not all tour groups operate this way but I was so dismayed that this was how all of these people would see one of my favorite places! Another time, my family and I had just pulled into a hotel in the Highlands at about 10:30pm when a tour bus pulled in behind us. My brother Cameron and I ran into several bewildered ladies wandering about the hotel looking for their rooms. We spent about an hour helping people get to their rooms and helping them with their luggage. They also had an early start in the morning and would need to have their luggage outside their door at 6:30am with breakfast at 7:00! Once again I was so dismayed that people were experiencing my beloved Scotland this way. My first thought was...I could do this much better...and so I did.
I knew immediately that we would have no early mornings and no really long days. I also knew that I wanted to offer small, family accommodations and restaurants that would give the real flavor of the country. I also know that if I was going to put something into the itinerary, we were going to properly visit it! My only concern was how was I going to economically provide this with only 8 - 10 people on each tour. I did not want to use any chain hotels or large places that would offer price breaks nor did I want to limit people on their menu choices. I also wanted to make sure there was a very limited amount of extra costs but I knew there was no way I could offer all this at the prices that the major tour companies could. I am a firm believer that you get what you pay for! Our tours encompass places I like to go, things I like to do and what I would hope for in a tour and I think we have managed this very, very well. I think our large number of return customers is the best endorsement of this.

Shannon McDonald Tate
Scottish Dream Tours

Monday, January 18, 2010

2011 Tour Schedule



Yes, we have finally posted our 2011 tour schedule! I have found it very hard to contemplate 2011 when I have not yet adjusted to it being 2010. We have the usual suspects in our tour line up for the coming year. We start off our schedule with our St. Patrick's Ireland Discovery Tour in March. This is a very fun tour to do as the Irish really know how to celebrate and the music pubs are at their very best. We then have our Wales Discovery Tour at the end of April and into May. I could easily live in Wales with its many contrasting terrains and splendid castles. We then have our spring Highlands and Islands Tour in May. The Highlands and Islands tours are very popular and so we offer 2 of them a year with a second one in September. You will never see more spectacular scenery anywhere! At the end of May and into June we have added our Cotswolds, Devon and Cornwall Tour. The Cotswolds region of England is one of my favorites and you have not lived until you have had a Devonshire Cream Tea! Next in June we have the first of our Luxury House Friends and Family Tours. I am so excited about theses tours and can't wait until June 2010 when we offer our very first one! We offer a second of these tours at the end of September and into October. At the end of June and into July we have our York, Yorkshire Dales and Lake District Tour. The Yorkshire Dales is one of my most favorite places on earth and I love doing this tour! In July we offer our Ireland Discovery Tour. We are so happy to include the beautiful Northern Ireland region into this tour. At the end of August and into September we have our Whisky, Pub, Castle and Tearoom Tour. This tour covers many of my favorite places in Scotland and is one I really like leading. In October we have our Scotland and Ireland Discovery with a week in each country. And rounding out our schedule at the end of October we have our Haunted Scotland Tour.

For a full schedule of 2011 tours click here.

Afternoon Teas, High Teas and Cream Teas


Although tea as a beverage has been around for thousands of years the idea of having tea as a meal has only been around since the mid 1800’s. The idea has been credited to Anna the 7th Duchess of Bedford. Before the industrial revolution at the turn of the 19th century most of the commoners of the British Isles were farm workers and accustomed to just 2 meals a day…breakfast just after sunup and dinner just before sundown. Anna, who you may have guessed, was neither a commoner nor a farm worker, felt that 2 meals a day was not quite enough. Even the elite were quite used to having a very late dinner and Anna just could not wait as she quite often experienced a sinking feeling in her stomach in the afternoon. She discovered that if she had a pot of tea along with some sandwiches and a plate of cakes and scones brought to her chambers this would tide her over until dinner. As Anna thought this idea should be shared, she immediately told all her friends and afternoon tea became all the rage. Ladies were encourage to use their best china and linen when inviting friends to tea and to be creative with sandwich fillings and sweets. Anna at one time was a hand maid of Queen Victoria and the Queen was enamored of the idea and so it gained further popularity.
It was not until a few decades later in the 1890’s that tea became popular with the general population. Mostly because before this time it was not acceptable for woman to go out and dine on their own and they were often left to amuse themselves in hotel lobbies while their husbands did business. The hoteliers got very smart and set about offering a light repast for woman to enjoy in the lobby. This was a very grand affair with china, linen and lovely three tiered stands with an abundance of sandwiches, scones with jam and cream and small sweets. Tea was served on a low tea table and everyone wanted to be part of the afternoon tea crowd. Afternoon tea is still served all over the British Isles from around 2 – 5:00 in the afternoon as a light repast. This elegant affair can be called an afternoon tea, a sweet tea or a low tea.
As the industrial revolution got into full steam people were moving out of the farm land and into the cities. They were no longer working from sunup to sundown and the work day had settled into 8 hour shifts. It was at this time that the common working man decided that he wanted to get in on having a third meal everyday as well. Queen Victoria is credited with the idea of high tea which was the working man’s third meal he would have after returning home from work. High tea is served around 5:30 or 6:00 and gets its name from the table from which it is eaten. When tea became a popular meal in the home it was no longer taken from a low tea table but generally in the dining room at a high table. Thus the term “high tea”. High tea is still the main meal of the day in the British Isle and generally consists of meat and potatoes(often fish and chips) bread and butter and sweets. This working man’s meal can be called a high tea, a meat tea or a full tea.
As tearooms became fashionable they would offer an afternoon tea but would also offer a menu for lunch time foods. For people who just wanted to stop for a quick bite, cream teas were added to the menu. A cream tea is a plate of scones with cream for the scones and tea. As cream tea became more popular different area of England would offer their own version such as a Devon Cream Tea or a Dorset Cream Tea. Many tearooms also offer a glass of champagne with their afternoon tea.
We are so excited that tearooms have had a resurgence in recent years and we are adding a few more of our favorite Scottish tearooms. Miss Bentley’s in Edinburgh, Sir Walter Scott Tearooms in Edinburgh, Bradford’s in Glasgow, The Willow Tearooms in Glasgow, Angus Tearoom in Kirriemuir, Moon and Sixpense in Aberfeldy, Trumperton Forge in Letham, Gordon’s Tearoom in Braemar, The Tea Room in Stirling, Tannochbrae Tearoom in Auchtermuchty just to name a few.


Tea and Tearooms





I have often been asked the nature of tearooms in our tours. There are some very good reasons for using tearooms in our tours but I would guess the main reason is that you have to eat somewhere anyway! I grew up with the tradition of having Afternoon Tea ( why I am not sure but in the States this is called high tea) each day upon returning home from school. Afternoon tea is the tradition of having a light repast in the afternoon to carry you over until a later dinner. This is served with proper tea cups and good linen. Afternoon tea foods include finger sandwiches, scones with jam and cream and wee small sweets such as millionaire’s shortbread, fairy cakes, lemon curd tarts, jam tarts, strawberry meringues and other assorted goodies. As an adult, my mother and I owned a wee Scottish Tearoom that we ran with my sister Pamela and brother Cameron along with other family members as needed. It was while running this tearoom that Scottish Dream Tours was born. Although we no longer run the tearoom we still enjoy the experience of tea and so I try to incorporate tea and the tea time ritual into our tours as much as possible. We try to include luncheon teas, cream teas and afternoon teas as well as high teas(I will explain the differences in a later post) into most of our itineraries. Some of my favorite places for tea include The Bridge Tea Rooms in Bradford-Upon-Avon. Badgers Hall in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. Atholl Palace Hotel in Pitlochry, Scotland. The Kilkenny Ormond in Kilkenny, Ireland. Cupan Tae in Kenmare, Ireland. Samling Hotel Windermere, Lake District. Ashmount Country House Haworth, Yorkshire. Betty’s Tea Rooms York and Harrogate, Yorkshire. Bro Meigan Boncath, Wales. I could list many many more but as you can tell, we like our tea!

My favorite tearoom tours are listed below.
Shannon McDonald Tate




Ireland


I was just reminiscing about my first trip to Ireland and being so amazed at how green it was. I have always know it as the Emerald Isle and had seen many pictures but I was still not prepared for the abundance and varied colors of green. I have since learned that it is impossible to try and explain this to someone who has not experienced it, since after all “green is green” right? Even though I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I had not yet experienced Irish green.
My mother and I rented a cottage for a week while we did ancestral research of her grandmother Mary Mahoney. We had a bit of a problem finding the cottage as it was more remote than I first thought. I stopped as a house to ask for directions and was greeted by a tiny little elderly woman who was busy baking bread. Although it was a brisk day, all of the windows were open and the wind was swirling flour all around her while her hair swirled round her head. When I asked her for directions she said “Oh, you must be the tourists” as indeed we were. She pointed us up the road just a short ways(in Ireland, a short ways can mean anything from 1 -5 miles).
After settling in, I went up to the little shop for a few groceries and found out that the woman baked bread for this little shop. It was at that time that I also discovered Irish Butter. Again, I am sure that you can say that “butter is butter”. But this would be said only by someone who has never experienced Irish butter! And the bread was to die for. We decided the we could live the whole week off of homemade bread, Irish butter and jam. This began my love affair with Ireland. Since then I have been to Ireland more times than I can count. Although I have no family left in Ireland, I have been adopted by a few families.
Ireland for me is all about the people, green hills, sparkling locks and a history that goes back thousands of years. I am awed by the historic sites that you can visit and find yourself immersed in an ancient world that was only in my dreams before. One of my favorites is the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery outside of Sligo in the northwest of Ireland. Carrowmore is the second largest cemetery of megalithic tombs in Europe and is among Ireland’s oldest. Archaeologists have found over 65 tombs, stone circles, passage graves and standing stones. The site is thought to date back to 4000BC. Another favorite site is Newgrange burial tomb. Newgrange is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt, having survived over five thousand years. Almost 300 feet in diameter and 30 feet in height and covering an area of almost one acre, the main burial mound of Newgrange is surrounded by the remains of three smaller passage graves. It is situated on a low hill and commands breathtaking views of the Boyne Valley in the east of Ireland and just a short distance from the Hill of Tara. Tara was once the ancient seat of power in Ireland with 142 kings reigning here in historic times. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront the ancient religion of the pagans at its most powerful site.
Ireland is also well know for its pub culture and Irish music nights. My favorite areas for these are in Sligo, Galway and Ennis where the music culture is still thriving. Ireland is also well know for its coastline and amazing cliffs including the Cliffs of Moher and Slieve League which is the highest cliff base in Europe. Equally stunning is the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland offers some of the most spectacular coastal drives to be found anywhere on the Island.

Please join us for a spectacular journey to the home of my ancestors. A journey you will never forget.
Shannon McDonald Tate


Wales


I still remember my first trip to Wales and how excited I was! Fortunately that excitement has never died. As an avid castle hunter I was thrilled with a country that had more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe! And what spectacular castles they are.
Between the years of 1276 and 1295 Edward I had 17 castles built or repaired in the north of Wales in order to bring Wales under English rule. The list includes Aberystwyth, Beaumaris, Builth, Caernarfon, Conwy, Flint, Harlech, Rhuddlan, Castell y Bere, Criccieth, Dolwyddelan, Caergwrle, Chirk, Denbigh, Hawarden, Holt and Ruthin. Many of these castle are enormous in size including the four greats of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Harlech and Conwy just to name some of my favorites of the north while in the south we have Pembroke, Cardiff, Coch, Caerphilly, Raglan, Chepstow, Carreg Cennen and Kidwelly just to name a few. The history is as amazing as the castles and the two combined make Wales a brilliant find for any history buff.
But Wales is not just castles. With the great surge of coal production, the country became a vast network of narrow gauge railways which makes for a wonderful way to see the countryside. Wales also has spectacular beaches, majestic peaks and a beautiful coastline. To protect the environment certain parts of Wales have been designated as “National Parks” or as “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” which ensures many areas of unspoiled scenery and are the jewels in the outdoor crown.
Wales also has Cardiff, the capitol city. Within city centre you’ll find unique attractions, outdoor entertainment and quality shopping. Innovative architecture sits alongside historic buildings including Cardiff Castle which has been the site of continual occupancy for over 2000 years. The castle is also home to Medieval Banquets that showcase the best of young talent in the city. I can’t think of a better way to get the flavor of this amazing country than on a small group tour that highlights the best of what is on offer.

Shannon McDonald Tate




York, Yorkshire Dales and Lake District



From the first moment I read James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small  I knew that I must visit the Yorkshire Dales and what a surprise!! Everything was exactly the same as he had described in his books oh so many years ago. The lovely hills and dales with delightful villages nestled here and there against the hill side. I can’t get enough of it and it always beckons to me. Warm, friendly dales folk and more tearooms than anyone could every imagine. Amazing delights such as Reivaulx Abbey, Mt. Grace Priory, Fountains Abbey, Wensleydale Cheese Factory(favorite of Wallace and Gromit), Ripon Cathedral, North Yorkshire Railway and Castle Howard all amongst the spectacular splendor of the Yorkshire countryside. It almost has a magical quality about it that has to be experienced to be believed!
Although I love the countryside and small villages a trip to North England would not be complete without visiting the city of York. Renowned for its amazing architecture, tangle of quaint cobbled streets and the majestic York Minster, the walled city of York offers something for everybody. Take afternoon tea at Betty’s, time out to enjoy some of the country’s most talented street entertainers or simply watch the world go by while sipping a drink by the river.
There are many beautiful places throughout the English countryside but very few that can rival the Lake District. Once again a magical place that survives today due to the diligence of Beatrix Potter. As the creator of Peter Rabbit and her many friends of the forest and woods, Beatrix was intent on maintaining her beloved Lake District and keeping it always as a place of enjoyment for years to come. We visit the Beatrix Potter Gallery and her home at Hill Top as well as Williams Wordsworths Rydal Mount just short drive from Ambleside on Lake Windermere. We must of course pay homage to the Bronte sisters in Haworth as well.

Join us for a trip that you will remember and cherish always.
Shannon McDonald Tate





The first month of 2010 is well under way and I am still thinking in 2009! I am very excited about 2010 though because I am finally offering 2 tours that I have only dreamed about until now. It has always been my dream to offer a tour where we would stay in one location for a week and then a second location for a week. Well this dream is now a reality! These tours will include large country house mansions that offer luxury while at the same time keep the family outing experience that we are so well known for. I wanted to be able to include an itinerary that would allow for returning in the evening for a gourmet dinner in the formal dining room followed by a musical evening, games night, whisky tasting etc. We will also spend a few evenings out for dinner but since giving up my wee Scottish Tearoom I have missed being able to prepare wonderful meals that so reflected my upbringing and this affords me that opportunity to do so. Several evenings each week we will have three course gourmet dinners that offer the best in local produce, meats and seafood. My upbringing also including having tea every afternoon upon returning from school and we will have tea in the drawing room following outings where we are dining in. Fresh hot scones from the oven with jam and cream, shortbread and lovely teacakes! As with our regular tours our itinerary will be full of castle and historic sites as well as visiting the countryside and nature at its very best.

Please view the itineraries for these amazing new tours here.
Shannon McDonald Tate


Heart of Scotland Luxury Gourmet House Tour