August 30, 2011

The Isle of Bute

St Blane's Hill by lusobrandane
St Blane's Hill, a photo by lusobrandane on Flickr.

A little island located in the heart of the Firth of Clyde, Bute was once part of its own county: Buteshire. Nowadays it's been incorporated into the Council Area of Argyll and Bute, but it still retains a character all its own.

Stunning waterscapes characterize the photography of this region. It's a landscape-junkie's paradise! One town, Rothesay, is connected with the rest of the world by a ferry. Beyond that, you're in isolated Scottish heaven. There are too many gorgeous photographs to feature here, but I hope that you enjoy the ones I've selected for this post. Short of actually setting foot in this place, photographs are probably our best way to taste it!
Seamill Seaweed by antsplan
Seamill Seaweed, a photo by antsplan on Flickr.

According to "For such a compact island (15 miles long, 4 miles wide), Bute has some extraordinarily varied landscapes. From the lush, fertile and rolling hills of the island's heart to the craggy, heather-covered moorlands of the north and the delightful sandy beaches around the coastline, the island is a haven for walking, cycling, fishing and wildlife." 

Isle of Bute Jazz Festival, a photo by ufopilot on Flickr.
Strangely enough, Bute is home to an extremely popular jazz festival. For a few days every May, Jazz enthusiasts from around the world have been coming to this Scottish island for over twenty years to hear a little bit of New Orleans in the Firth of Clyde. 

Saxophones + Kilts = A match made in heaven.

August 29, 2011

St. Conan's Kirk

Good bye to St. Conan's by walla2chick
Good bye to St. Conan's, a photo by walla2chick on Flickr.

This delightful, bizarre, unique little church is filled with beautiful artistry and an intriguing history. When was it built, you ask? It's Norman, Romanesque, Saxon, and even has a ring of standing stones at the gate. It has rabbits for drainpipes, a cloister, a sundial terrace, flying buttresses, and a larger-than-life effigy of Robert the Bruce. It was first dedicated for worship in 1930.

Lovely St Conan's Church by walla2chick
Lovely St Conan's Church, a photo by walla2chick on Flickr.
The curious history of this kirk dates back to 1881 when Walter Campbell decided that his elderly mother needed a church closer to home than the one at Dalmally. So he built one of his own.

Campbell was an amazing architect, uninhibited by precedent and the confines of one single style. He spent years visualizing an ecclesiastical Scottish paradise--a place of extreme beauty and holiness that would awe and inspire visitors for generations.

Campbell and his sister Helen both worked tirelessly on the kirk, but it was not finished until both of them had died. It was finally used for worship in 1930, long after a Celtic cross was erected in memory of the Campbell's old mother. The completed church is far larger than any congregation that would meet in it, but it seems more like a monument than a house of worship. A flight of fancy, a feat of beauty, St. Conan's Kirk is certainly a sight to behold.

Survived a steamroller by walla2chick
Survived a steamroller, a photo by walla2chick on Flickr.

Scotland - Highlands - St Conan's Kirk - Stained Glass Window by dees003
Scotland - Highlands - St Conan's Kirk - Stained Glass Window,
a photo by dees003 on Flickr.
The stained glass windows were painstakingly designed and painted by Helen Campbell herself.

Walter Campbell's original vision was to build, "To the Glory of God, a House Beautiful." Do you think that vision was realized?

August 26, 2011

What's the Difference Between a Sultana and a Raisin?

Raisins and Sultanas by bongo vongo
Raisins and Sultanas, a photo by bongo vongo on Flickr.
It's pretty difficult to translate British recipes into American-ese to begin with, thanks to the old "metric vs. imperial" debate. The waters are further muddied, however, by the British insistence on the use of "sultanas" when most American recipes contain no such animal. What exactly is a sultana, and how does it differ from the similar raisin?
Some say that the only difference between a sultana and a raisin is $1.50 per kilogram, or the difference in American-English and British-English, but the matter goes a bit deeper than that. In fact, it's an incredibly messy and confused distinction! Here are a few points to keep in the back of your mental culinary database:
  • "Raisin" is the overall term for a dried grape, regardless of variety. Light or dark, tart or sweet, it doesn't matter.
  • A sultana is a specific kind of raisin, from the area of Turkey. It is what we might call a "golden raisin", made from green/yellow/white grapes. However, they do darken during the drying process. They are usually dried from seedless grapes of the Thompson variety. Sultanas are considered sweeter and juicier than most varieties, and look plumper.
  • Yet another idea of the "difference between" is that raisins are dried naturally, while sultanas are dried with vegetable oil and acid.
  • Now let's throw in something else for fun: currants! True currants are actually not dried grapes at all, but Zante currants are dried Black Corinth grapes. These are technically raisins, but are generally considered to be smaller and tarter than other varieties.
Let me guess, you're more confused now than you were before? So am I . That's why I'm giving you a yummy recipe that could use raisins OR sultanas OR currants!

August 25, 2011

Bits of Inveraray

Inverary again! by howbeg
Inverary again!, a photo by howbeg on Flickr.

Inveraray may look just like a Scottish town should. That's because nearly all of it was planned out from the beginning as one charming whole. 

Before the reconstruction of the grand Inveraray Castle, the town of Inveraray was little more than a jumble of relatively unattractive huts. All that changed with the duke of Argyll, however; he wished to move the entire town away from his lovely home. And so the new town of Inveraray was built.

Inverary by roger g1
Inverary, a photo by roger g1 on Flickr.

Much of the town's design was done by Robert Mylne, the celebrated 18th century architect. In the end there was a hotel, Town House, woollen mill, lovely housing, and a pier (the herring industry exploded here in years to come). Now it's an extremely photogenic coach stop for buses from Glasgow.
Romantic hotel by howbeg
Romantic hotel, a photo by howbeg on Flickr.

The Inveraray Jail is now a fascinating little museum, filled with frighteningly lifelike mannequins, ghosts, and plenty of information on life and punishment in the olden days.

August 23, 2011

How Accurate is the Film “Braveheart?"

Name the top five things that jump to mind when you think of Scotland. Whisky? Kilts? Bagpipes? Mountains? We've all got our individual frames of reference that would influence those top five, but if you've got any interest in history, or have a drop of Scottish blood in your veins, one of those 5 is almost sure to be William Wallace. His story was immortalized in the 1997 film, Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson--but was it actually William Wallace's story? Do the events of the film tally with true history?

The short answer is this: not one whit. OK, Mel did have a pretty fair Scottish accent (in my untutored opinion), WW did lead a rebellion against the English, and suffered a gruesome death. Beyond that, however, it's pretty slim pickings. Here's a quick Fact vs. Fiction:

  • Fiction: WW was always called the "brave heart" by his people.                                                Fact: Strangely enough, this was actually what they called Robert the Bruce!
  • Fiction: WW was a poor man who secretly married his one true love early in life.                       Fact: He was actually a landowner and minor knight. As far as we know, he never married due to his life as an outlaw on the run.
  • Fiction: WW was responsible for single-handedly inventing the spearhead to use against English cavalry.                                                                                                                                     Fact: The Scots had used spears since ancient times, it was nothing new.
  • Fiction: WW knew Princess Isabella on quite intimate terms.                                                     Fact: Isabella was about 10 years old when the courageous Scotsman died, and they never met.
  • Fiction: Primae noctis (law of the first night) was a Medieval practice allowing a lord to take the virginity of his serfs' maiden daughters.      

August 22, 2011

Glorious Gardens and My Own Bit of Earth

Argyll 03/06/10 by StephenH16
Argyll 03/06/10, a photo by StephenH16 on Flickr.
Ardkinglas Woodland Garden: home to the the tallest tree in Britain and the mightiest conifer in Europe

For the past three years I’ve attempted to grow my very own English cottage garden—in the rock and clay of the sunbaked Ozark foothills. In some ways it’s been a losing battle, in some ways it’s been a great learning experience.

I was inspired by picture-perfect photos of darling cottage gardens: rowdy, colorful, friendly, and loved. I wanted something of that English country charm in my own home, a place where I could read and drink a cup of tea. Just so you know, I have never had a love of working outdoors or getting my fingers dirty. However, I decided to try my hands at a little experiment, and so I asked Mom and Dad to help me cultivate a piece of ground just outside my bedroom window. I bought a wonderful book (Creating a Cottage Garden in North America by Stephen Westcott-Gratton) and set to work.

Footbridge over stream in Crarae Gardens
© Copyright David P Howard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Crarae Garden: 50 acres of sprawling woodland, sprinkled with bridges, is lush with color from spring to autumn

Easier said than done. Let’s just say that the British soil and climate is quite a bit different than the stuff we’ve got down here. Hacking through red clay and more rocks than dirt is not exactly easy, and I’ve had many failures (foxgloves seem to be a loss, as are English daisies and sage), but on the whole it’s improving as time goes on and I experiment with more new things. This summer has been week after week of 100 degree temperatures and baking sun, so most gardens around here are pretty pathetic. I seem to have hit my stride with four-o-clocks and morning glories, though; they’re doing quite well despite drought-like conditions.
Inside the fernery at Ascog Hall by mzehrer
Inside the fernery at Ascog Hall, a photo by mzehrer on Flickr.
Ascog Hall Fernery: this rare sunken Victorian fernery was rescued from ruin and is now a prestigious, prize-winning attraction

August 20, 2011

Dinner in Soho

Watch this entertaining video in which the intrepid American Rick Steves braves the streets of Soho for a good old-fashioned dinner crawl!

You might not be able to go traipsing around the seedy streets of London, but check out some look-alike recipes from the featured restaurants that you can make in your own home:

August 19, 2011

Castle Country

Where else in the world can you wander aimlessly around the countryside and find a castle practically anywhere? There are many other castle-dense countries out there, I'm sure, but Scotland has to be in the top five. 

Since we're in Argyll and Bute, I thought I'd showcase some of the lesser-known (read: un-tourist-infested) castles out there.
Stalker Castle by . SantiMB .
Stalker Castle, a photo by . SantiMB . on Flickr.

Featured in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Castle Stalker ("stalker" as in hunter or falconer) is in an amazingly picturesque position. Described as "bewitching" and "dramatic", this is a postcard perfect location. It is privately owned, with tours given by appointment.
Carrick Castle by lusobrandane
Carrick Castle, a photo by lusobrandane on Flickr.

Another privately owned castle (currently under renovation) is Carrick Castle--a keep that was pillaged and plundered in Argyll's rebellion.

August 17, 2011

5 of the Best Restaurants in the UK

With such a rich culinary heritage, it is no surprise that the UK is home to so many excellent restaurants. Here, we look at five UK restaurants which are simply exceptional and certainly worth a visit:

Photo from

One of the most famous restaurants in the UK is undoubtedly The Fat Duck, which was opened in 1995. The restaurant is owned by Heston Blumental, who is also the restaurant's Head Chef and has held three Michelin stars since 2004.

In terms of the food served, the experience is closer to a scientific experiment than a dining one, with unusual but delicious culinary combinations such as bacon and egg ice cream. The most popular dish at the restaurant is salmon poached in liquorice, which has an intriguing taste and appearance. The restaurant is located within the town of Bray, in the South Eastern county of Berkshire.

The city of London is renowned for its vast number of fantastic restaurants, but the Locando Locatelli is a cut above the rest. It was opened in 2002 by the talented Giorgio Locattelli, who was awarded a Michelin star just a year later.

Photo from
The restaurant serves traditional Italian food fused with interesting worldwide flavours as well as an extensive wine list. Although it doesn't have one specific signature dish, the pasta is exceptional, in particular, the ravioli.

The restaurant is located on Seymour Street and can be reached from the Marble Arch subway station as well as a number of bus services. For those planning to stay in the area, there are a number of nearby London hotels such as The Cumberland and the Montcalm Hotel that are within short walking distance of the restaurant.

Photo from
For an alternative to pricey dining, the superb Anstruther Fish Bar located in the small village of Anstruther in Fife offers arguably the country's best fish and chips.

August 15, 2011

Mountains of Argyll

Descending Ben Nan Lochan 2 by Matthew Boyle

Your breath is coming in short gasps and your feet don't want to move any more. You've been going at this all day--ascending over 2,000 feet since a too-early morning--and gasp as you stare up at that elusive peak still above you. You want nothing more than to chuck your hiking boots and shrug off that bulky rucksack. Your comrades look scarcely winded, though, laughing and talking and chomping their granola bars. Your guide (the one with a dreamy Scottish accent) looks at you condescendingly. Humph.

Maybe you think that sounds like a barrel of fun. I'm not so sure, but I do know that I enjoy looking at the mountains of Argyll through the fabulous photographs other industrious photographers have brought away with them. 
Last light on Beinn a'Bheithir from Beinn Fhionnlaidh by Richard Childs

There's a very good reason for Scotland being less densely inhabited than its southern neighbor, England. These vast pinnacles of solid rock are a good reason. Who would want to farm in this country? No, this is the place for fishing harbors on the coast, flocks of sheep, and wild shepherds with a poetic streak.

August 13, 2011

Spotted Dick

Spotted Dick....lip smackin goood! by Lee Nachtigal

Now, let's not be juvenile. Like another traditional British dish, spotted dick gets a bad rap on account of its somewhat embarrassing name. It is, however, a delicious and culturally important staple of British culture--whether from the kitchen or the can--referenced in novels from Agatha Christie to J.K. Rowling.

We're not quite sure where the name comes from, but the "spots" are certainly the lovely bits of dried fruit that are always a part of this traditional pudding. The other part may be a corruption of the word "dog," or just a variation on the last syllable of "pudding." Read more on this topic from

No matter where the strange name came from, this dish is well known and appreciated all over Britain. It's a suet pudding spotted with dried fruit, and which fruits are used is completely up to the cook. The most traditional versions include currants or raisins (sultanas), but apricots and dates are also acceptable substitutes. The pudding can be steamed, boiled, or baked, but steaming produces an especially rich, velvety texture. The steaming process can take quite a while, but it's sure to be worth it!

Photo credit

The recipe below is adapted from, where you can find more traditional English recipes (here's a link to a recipe for the gluten-intolerant Britophile):

August 12, 2011

Welcome to Argyll and Bute

Kilchurn castle, Scotland highlands by jackfre2 (away on vacation for 15 days)

The second largest administrative council in Scotland, possessing more coastline than the country of France, with a vibrant legacy involving William Wallace, Mendelssohn, and Sir Paul McCartney, Argyll and Bute has a lot to show us.

Sea Ivory II by Viche
Sea Ivory II, a photo by Viche on Flickr.

Taste the sea salt on the west wind, watch the snow melt on magnificent mountains, run your fingers over the crumbling stones of an ancient castle, sink your teeth into the local scallops, capture the flutter of a seagull's wings as it alights on a moored fishing boat, listen to the insects hum in a summer forest.

Experience  Scotland at its fullest.

August 11, 2011

Operation Cup of Tea

You've been shocked and horrified at the violence going on in cities all over Britain, but have you done anything about it? Here's a simple way that you can make a little bit of difference.

Me and my cuppa!

Abigail a.k.a. The Britophile

August 10, 2011

The Westminster Chimes

Perhaps you think of this as the tune of your doorbell, the local church bells, or perhaps you're terribly technical and know that it's a series of five different permutations of four pitches in the key of E major. Since you're such a very wise and culturally-savvy Britophile, however, I imagine that you already know the Westminster Chimes as the signature tune of Big Ben's clock tower.

The Westminster Chimes (also known as the Westminster Quarters or the Cambridge Chimes) were probably created either by the Reverend Dr. Joseph Jowett or the child prodigy William Crotch around 1794. It may have been a variation on the fifth and sixth bars of I Know that My Redeemer Liveth from Handel's Messiah (watch a performance here). It was first used in Great St. Mary's church in Cambridge, and was then dispersed to various universities and churches around Britain. The most famous chimes to take up the tune were those in the clock tower of Westminster Palace (where Big Ben hangs). When the chime sequence ends, the great bell strikes one great ringing stroke for every hour.

Though many are familiar with the tune, not everyone knows the words to the famous melody. Supposedly the words are these:
Oh, Lord our God, 
Be thou our guide 
That by thy help 
No foot may slide.

The bells of St. Mary-le-Bow (if you're born within hearing distance of them you can call yourself an authentic cockney) play their own--much older--tune, known as Whittington chimes. They are named after the Lord Mayor of London, Richard Whittington. Read the full story here.


August 09, 2011

The Other Loch Leven

loch-leven by amcgdesigns
loch-leven, a photo by amcgdesigns on Flickr.

I think I can be excused for getting confused about the two Loch Levens. When I posted a few days ago about Loch Leven--the prison of Mary Queen of Scots--I included a few pictures from another Loch Leven I had no knowledge of, this one located in the area of Argyll and Bute. This is a sea loch, and one of its most noticeable features is its proximity to the iconic Pap of Glencoe: a conical mountain that rises above Glencoe village in Glen Coe (Did I mention the River Coe as well?). 

So here are those same beautiful photos (the ones from the original post have been changed)--not to be wasted--for your viewing pleasure. 

Loch Leven by Paul Carroll from Scotland
Loch Leven, a photo by Paul Carroll from Scotland on Flickr.

The island of Eilean Munde is located in Loch Leven, and was the traditional burial place for the Stewarts of Ballachulish, the MacDonalds of Glencoe and the Camerons of Callart. They all contributed to the maintenance of the graveyard, even when in conflict with one another.

August 08, 2011

Undiscovered Bits: Villages of Kinross-shire

We're about to leave Perth and Kinross and move on to another district of Scotland, but let's take one last drive through Kinross-shire. It's actually a very small county--barely 15 miles from west to east and 9 miles from north to south. Let's poke around some of the smaller towns and villages, sneaking a peek at the "undiscovered" places that tourists haven't ruined yet!

Milnathort by Brian Forbes
Milnathort, a photo by Brian Forbes on Flickr.

Going north to south (as is our custom), Milnathort is our first stop along the way. It began as a market town, with workers specializing in wool and linen weaving. What's left of Burleigh Castle stands about a half mile east of Milnathort. The Standing Stones of Orwell are also located close by. 

Kinnesswood by Brian Forbes

Kinnesswood, a photo by Brian Forbes on Flickr.

Nestled at the foot of Bishop Hill in the Lomond Hills sits the small village of Kinnesswood. It was home to the famous poet Michael Bruce, "The Gentle Poet of Loch Leven." Today you can walk along the Michael Bruce Way, visit the cottage where he was born, and visit the grave of the poet who died so young.

'The Well' a pub in Scotlandwell. by Brian Forbes

Continuing south we come upon Scotlandwell, a town that had a booming clientele back in the 1200s when pilgrims came to be cured of their ailments at a special well. Even Robert the Bruce, who supposedly suffered from leprosy, came here to the hospital of the Red Friars to seek relief. Today you can drop by The Well Country Inn for a bite or a sweet night of rest.

August 06, 2011

Aero vs. Air Delight

I know I'm not the only person out there who's been wondering if Hershey's new aerated chocolate bar snacks up to the amazing Nestle Aero. I have yet to find a satisfactory comparison of the two, however, so I've decided to create my own.

Thank goodness I don't have to resort to the outrageous online prices to get a little British goodness--there's a neat little specialty shop in my area that stocks things like Marmite, English mustard, and yes, Aero chocolate bars. When the Hershey Air Delights came to Walmart I knew that it was time for an official taste test.

Now I'm not even going to attempt to compare the flavors of the two. British chocolate is almost universally considered superior to American, so let's just leave it at that. With aerated chocolate though, the real point is the difference in texture, so I'll zero in on that.

My brother and I were the guinea pigs (very willing guinea pigs, at that) for this experiment. I ate each bar "knowingly", and Aaron did a blind taste/texture test. Here are our findings: 

August 05, 2011

Loch Leven

Loch Leven Dawn by angus clyne
Loch Leven Dawn, a photo by angus clyne on Flickr.

Home to some of the most startlingly beautiful scenery in Scotland, Loch Leven in Kinross-shire is the kind of place you have to stick around for dawn, noon, afternoon, and evening in order to get a full perception of all its moods and faces. 

Historically this loch was the prison of Mary Queen of Scots, and in the 1830s when the loch was partially drained a relic of hers was found--"a handsome sceptre, apparently of cane, hilted with ivory, and mounted with silver, upon which latter were the letters of the words, "Mary, Queen of Scots," are almost wholly legible."

Loch Leven.                                  This is Scotland by sarniebill1
Loch Leven. This is Scotland, a photo by sarniebill1 on Flickr.

Loch Watten in Caithness is regarded as "The Leven of the North" by many anglers. 

Bonnie Loch Leven. by Brian Forbes
Bonnie Loch Leven., a photo by Brian Forbes on Flickr.

Loch Leven is a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and a Special Protection Area.

August 03, 2011

Famous Britons: Robert the Bruce

P1180744 by iainh124a
P1180744, a photo by iainh124a on Flickr.
Half legend, half history, half hero, half vigilante, half warrior, half diplomatist, Robert I, King of Scots is remembered today as a Scottish national hero. Statues have been made of him, countless reenactments and documentaries undertaken, biographies and novels, films and songs made in his honor. Was he a bloodthirsty wild man driven by personal ambition or was he a brave and worthy man who fought for what he knew was right? There are many interpretations, but the truth remains that in one of Scotland's darkest hours, Robert the Bruce was the one who brought the rule back to the people.

Legend has it that the Bruce's mother was a rather strong-willed woman--holding his father captive until he married her. Not much is known of Robert's childhood, but when he was 18 his mother died and he was made Earl of Carrick. He was a somewhat distant descendant of Scottish royalty through his father. This gave him a bit of prestige, and he was able to carry on the revolutionary tendencies of his family (his grandfather was one of the claimants to the Scottish throne back in 1290). The Bruce kept a rather clean record at first, though, winning Edward I's favor and settling down with a wife. He even swore fealty to Edward at Berwick-upon-Tweed, but that was not to last for long.

August 01, 2011

Scone Palace

Scotland - Scone Palace by JulesFoto
Scotland - Scone Palace, a photo by JulesFoto on Flickr.

Why Should You Care?
There are so many castles, halls, manors, and palaces in Britain, why should we be interested in Scone Palace? Well I'll tell you--it's a place where men once carried dirt in their boots and today you can have a great corporate event or wedding here. Oh yes, and this is where Scottish kings were once crowned. No, it has absolutely nothing to do with the fluffy British quick-bread.

SCONE PALACE, a photo by blawjaws on Flickr

What is the History?
This is Scotland--it's got to have a history. This place breathes history out of every stone. There is a religious history ('twas an ancient gathering place of the pagan Picts and probably the site of a very early Christian church), as well as a political one (kings of Scotland--including Robert the Bruce--were once crowned here). 

MOOT HILL SCONE PALACE, a photo by blawjaws on Flickr
The hill where kings were invested with power was once called Caislean Credi or "The Hill of Credulity" (What did this say about the king or the subjects who were crowning him?), and is now known as "Moot Hill". Those who attended the coronation brought the earth of their own lands in their footwear, then dumped it out to pledge fealty. Eventually the mound grew large enough to be called a "hill" and might have been the site of a since-destroyed abbey.

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