Monday, 1 August 2011

SCOTLAND: SCOTS WHEY HEY!

GLAS-GO! Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery
The last person hanged in public in Glasgow was an Englishman, which went some way to appeasing those in the crowd who had only just bought season tickets. Dr Edward Pritchard exited this world at the end of a rope on July  28, 1865, in Glasgow Green. He’d poisoned his wife. When his mother-in-law became suspicious, he poisoned her, too. This was just one of the fascinating facts I learned during my first ever open-top bus tour (£11) of my home city. But it wasn’t enough for the Aussie tourist sitting in front of me. He asked to see the statue erected in Pritchard’s honour.
I haven’t lived in Glasgow, which will host the 2014 Commonwealth Games, for 28 years (Pritchard hasn’t lived there for 146), so I thought it was time to learn something about the place that gave me this accent. Wandering around with a guidebook is all very well, but you can’t beat the insider knowledge of a native bus tour guide with a sense of humour.
It rains only twice a year in Glasgow, from January through March and April through December, so always carry an umbrella. This will also come in handy when walking in George Square, where gulls and pigeons practise their bombing runs with remarkable accuracy.
English is widely spoken, although the Glasgow or ‘Glesga’ version delivered with gusto and rich in r’s can prove unnerving to the untuned ear, making “Good morning” sound like a threat.

CHEERS: The rough, ready and wonderful Horse Shoe Bar
Drop into the Horse Shoe Bar in Drury Street near Central Station for a pint and one of its famed mutton pies and you’ll hear the local lingo, or patter, at its blood-curdling scariest as punters vie to out-slag each other. When I was there last Thursday afternoon, a large gentleman wearing glasses was greeted with: “Ach Wullie, howzitgaun ya specky fat bastard? Waant a lager?”
They don’t have punters in the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant in Ashton Lane in the city’s fashionable West End, they have patrons, don’t you know, but while it’s on the posh side it’s far from being pretentious. The Chip has an enviable reputation built over 40 successful years for providing top-class and innovative cuisine at affordable prices in the most delightful surroundings.

DINE-AMIC: Fabulous Ubiquitous Chip
The three-course pre-theatre menu served from 5 to 6.30pm is a steal at £19.95. I had a starter of smoked salmon and hake fishcake, garden pea puree and pickled onions followed by Woodneuk Farm beef and chilli sausage with chickpea and spinach dahl, and for dessert the Chambord jelly, honey mousse and vanilla tuille was a wise choice.
Wiser still is the Chip’s choice of waiting staff, who clearly love working there. They’re young, enthusiastic, smart and courteous, and every query about the dishes on offer was answered with a detailed description. I can’t praise them highly enough. These girls and guys know their onions, and every mouthwatering morsel that comes out of the kitchen, and their contribution made a good dining experience great. If they were footballers they’d be playing at the highest level and earning millions.

RED & BREAKFAST: Blythswood Square
Then they could afford to live it up in the £1,500 a night penthouse suite in Glasgow’s 5-star Blythswood Square Hotel and Spa, which is just a five-minute walk from the vibrant centre and where the staff are also at the top of their game. It occupies one side of the square that used to be the city’s red light district, but the only tarts you’ll see around there now are in the window of Greggs the bakers in nearby Sauchiehall Street. The hookers are gone but not forgotten, and in a wry wink to the neighbourhood’s seedy past, red lights burn in many of the hotel’s street-facing windows.
Like the Chip, there’s no snootiness at the Blythswood Square, just the very best of Scottish hospitality and an emphasis on quality that ensures repeat business from satisfied customers.

OCH AYE THE NOUS: Carnoustie's renowned golf course
I stayed at the Blythswood Square before heading north over the Forth Road Bridge to Carnoustie, the famed North Sea links course that has hosted the Open seven times and was the venue last week for the Ricoh Women’s British Open won by Taiwan’s Yani Tseng with an impressive 16 under-par 272.
Not as impressive, though, as my efforts in the hole-in-one short chipping contest in which my first shot went flying over the fence and bounced off a couple of cars and my second ended up in the back of a delivery van full of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t let loose on the course proper, of which Ernie Els has said: “You’ve really got to have your wits with you to play Carnoustie. It’s probably the best bunkered course you’ll find anywhere in the world.”
Having seen some of the bunkers, I have to agree, because you’d need a ladder, never mind a sand wedge, to get out of them. They’re like World War One trenches. But that’s the sort of challenge that has golfers flocking to the place. That, and the jaw-dropping scenery.

TREE-MENDOUS: Spoil yourself at Gleneagles Hotel
Next stop, and the glittering highlight of my all-too-brief trip home, was an overnight stay at Gleneagles Hotel where everything is jaw-dropping, especially the prices. Rooms start at £525 a night for a double or twin Classic on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis, and the Royal Lochnagar Suite is £2,145.
Included is unlimited free use of the Club facilities that include the gym, swimming pools, outdoor hot pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna, tennis, snooker, putting, petanque and croquet.
The ESPA spa (Favourite Spa in a Hotel in the 2008 and 2010 Conde Nast Traveller Awards) offers a wide range of facials, body treatments and massages. Among the most popular packages is the 95-minute Retreat (£135) that includes a foot treatment and back, face and scalp massage followed by a two-course lunch.
The 850-acre resort is also home to shooting, fishing, equestrian and gundog schools and the British School of Falconry, but it’s for golf that Gleneagles is most renowned.

TEE-RIFFIC: Try a round  at Gleneagles
There are three championship courses: the PGA Centenary Course which will host the 2014 Ryder Cup, the King’s Course and the Queen’s Course, plus the nine-hole PGA National Academy Course for beginners, or duffers like me, though I don’t think they’d take too kindly to me doing a Time Team on their manicured fairways. A special Sunday to Thursday offer available until October 31 allows up to four golfers to buy a tee time from 2pm on for £320.
From one sort of driving to another, I signed up for a late afternoon off-road Range Rover safari and picnic in the heart of the Perthshire countryside just 20 minutes from Gleneagles and saw my mountainous homeland at its most ruggedly beautiful from some dizzying up, down and sideways angles. It wouldn’t surprise me if those things could be driven up a vertical wall and across the ceiling.
The last time I went on a picnic I sat on my schoolbag as my pals and I shared a big bottle of Irn Bru and munched on rock-hard crab apples (it was like sucking lemons) pinched from old Smelly Kelly’s orchard.

MOOR CHAMPAGNE? Picnic time in the Highlands
Gleneagles was a little different. I sat on a green tartan blanket atop a hillock, sipped champagne and spread pate on a crusty roll baked just a couple of hours before. High above, a pair of red kites circled. The only sounds were the bleating of sheep on the mountainsides, the far-off yet unmistakeable growl of an unseen Harley Davidson and the much closer pop of a cork.
I could’ve sat there all day, but I had to return to Gleneagles for a date with a plate at eight and didn’t want to be late.
Dinner in the Strathearn, one of the world’s 10 Great Hotel Restaurants, costs £58 for three courses including dessert and £70 for four. I chose Isle of Mull scallops with baby leeks, tomato and chocolate dressing to start, followed by three succulent Scottish lamb cutlets with potatoes and vegetables.

YES, PEAS! Fine dining at Gleneagles
I would’ve had some Princess d’Isenbourg Sevruga caviar (£150 for 30 grammes), but I wanted to leave room for dessert, which was a scoop each of vanilla and saffron pistachio salted caramel ice cream with the biggest, fattest, juiciest blackberries, strawberries and raspberries I’ve ever tasted.
My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I perused the “Classics Prepared In The Kitchen” breakfast menu the next morning.
There’s porridge, of course, plain and simple if that’s what you like, or creamy with Drambuie-laced raspberries.
From the smokehouse there’s Orkney kippers with lemon and melted butter, smoked haddock and Mull cheddar cheese omelette, Finnan haddock and poached eggs and Marburry hot smoked salmon and poached egg kedgeree.
Or you could choose 28-day aged Scotch beefsteak with Portobello mushrooms, free-range egg, vine tomatoes and Rooster potatoes, or perhaps fried duck eggs with dry cured back bacon washed down with Bucks Fizz, Drambuie Fizz or a frozen Smirnoff Bloody Mary. They also have tea. For those who like to help themselves there’s a hot and cold buffet the likes of which I’ve never seen.
Having eaten enough at dinner and breakfast to choke a horse, I headed to South Queensferry, near Edinburgh airport, to see the real things in action in glorious sunshine (it does put in the occasional appearance) at the Gillespie MacAndrew Hopetoun International Horse Trials.

MANE EVENT: Dressage at Hopetoun House horse trials
The event’s host, Lord Hopetoun, said he would've been happy to see 150 competitors, but it attracted 500. That might just have had something to do with the fact many are friends of Olympic equestrian and Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall who were married in Edinburgh’s historic Canongate Kirk last Saturday afternoon.
I wonder if they were aware that Robert Burns’ great love Agnes MacLehose, better known as Clarinda and for whom he wrote Ae Fond Kiss, and his chief inspiration, the tragic Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, are buried in the kirkyard, as is the economist Adam Smith.
The trials, which finished on Sunday in the grounds of the magnificent Hopetoun House where the amiable earl and his wife live with their young children, drew large crowds of horse-loving spectators and families who were simply enjoying a different sort of day out.
They also served as a selection trial for the Irish riders who’ll compete in the European Eventing Championships in Luhmuhlen, Germany, from August 23 to 29.
Despite my total ignorance of horses, I can see the attraction of eventing, if only for the fact I’d get to walk around in the fresh air in a smart tweed jacket and cavalry twills with a copy of Horse & Hound under my arm.
The dressage, though, is a bit too Strictly Come Dancing for my liking, and as for golf, well, no one’s going to benefit from me swinging a club. Except the driver of that Tunnock’s Tea Cakes van, who went home with a brand new ball.


˜Blythswood Square offers several special deals. The Shopping Galore two-night weekend break, for example, which is valid until December 30, 2012, costs £250 per person sharing based on two sharing a Classic room and includes full Scottish breakfast each morning, three-course dinner from the Market Menu on one evening and a £50 shopping voucher each from Cruise. For an additional £80 per person you can treat your feet to an Ila Luxurious Seaweed Foot Experience in the spa.
˜For details of weekend leisure and activity breaks and longer holidays in Scotland, plus features on touring, festivals, sporting events and other attractions, see visitscotland.com/surprise