Life has been busy at Matildas Rest! But I am happy to say that Team Matilda was able to fit in a short weekend break after being invited back to the scenic Loch Earn area to do another of my photo blog specials on the fascinating cultural outside art #BLiSStrail. Yes – you heard me correctly – invited back!
It seems that LETi, the local Loch Earn Tourism Information group, have been so impressed with this “old lady’s” tandeming adventure blogs from my trip to see the sections of the art trail around the St Fillans and Lochearnhead loop in October, and then Balquhidder in December, that they asked Team Matilda to come back and do another blog on the third leg of the trail – this time around Strathyre.
The unique BLiSS trail is named after the four villages it links – Balquhidder, Lochearnhead, Strathyre and St Fillans – deep in the heart of Rob Roy Country within the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park – where Perthshire meets rural Stirling. The trail is made up of a series of large ornamental metal and wood sculptures and art installations, mostly by Scottish artists, and was set up to commemorate the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design.
The brainchild of LETi, the BLiSS trail aims to encourage more visitors to the area – to boost tourism and the local economy. The trail has subsequently become an “award winning trail” – receiving the honour of a regional Scottish Thistle Award – recognised as the tourism Oscars – for “Working Together for Tourism.” The LETi team are now competing against all other regional winners in the overall Scottish finals in March.
The “old git” and the “old gal” were delighted to accept the invitation on my behalf – and I was packed into Matilda Transport and we headed off through St Fillans and down the side of stunning Loch Earn, through Lochearnhead on the A84 to Airlie House bed and breakfast – Team Matilda’s base for their mini-weekend tour.
There my dynamic duo were met by the extremely friendly owners Colin and Sheridan Adams – who described their concept of running boutique guest house accommodation. Their aim is to offer a true home from home in a beautiful location surrounded by rolling hills and right next to both the Rob Roy Way long distance walking route and the Sustrans Scotland National Cycle Route 7. And I am reliably told that the sherry from the decanter in the lounge was welcoming on a chilly afternoon!
Colin and Sheridan couldn’t have done more to make my dynamic duo comfortable – showing them to a lovely warm and beautifully decorated downstairs room – called Lubnaig. The large en-suite room had a king size bed and had a picturesque view of Benn Sheann – with its summit rising above the trees on the hillside beyond the river.
After relaxing, the “old git” and the “old gal” ventured out for a bite to eat and had been recommended to try the Ben Sheann Hotel, almost next door to Airlie House. It’s a large elegant Victorian building which offered a warm welcome on a cold night.
The menu is mainly home made pub grub staples – such as macaroni cheese and steak pie. To fuel up for the ride ahead the next day my dynamic duo stocked up on a meal of home made soup, followed by burgers – washed down with a local Stirling gin and tonic.
Next up my crew were invited to a Burns and Scottish Music Night by Kim Proven – the enthusiastic chair of LETi who regular blog readers will remember from her substitute stoker adventures during my adventures around Balquhidder – and joined a welcoming group of her friends.
The fun bash was held in the White Stag Inn with local band Balvaig playing some well kent tunes. The band – which is led by Kenny Higgins, who is also vice-chair of LETi – is a group of highly talented local musicians and singer songwriters who regularly meet for bothy-style folk and blues music sessions.
The band’s success led them to launch the Strathyre Music Festival – which has been a big success for the village and is now going into its fifth year. The festival is held on the Bank Holiday weekend in May – from Friday 26th to Sunday 28th. And if the music is as good as what my duo were treated to, then Team Matilda may need to return for this year’s festival!
Balvaig broke with their Scottish music roots to surprise the “old git” and “old gal” with a song dedicated to me as a classic tandem. Kim was handed the microphone to lead the Burns-style sing-a-long of “Daisy, Daisy – A Bicycle Built for Two.” Watch a video here. (Remember if you are reading this on email, you need to click on the blog first – via the link at the bottom of the email – to view the video.)
Greatly honoured, my crew chatted to lots of local tourism business folk learning more about the area from Catriona Macgeoch of SULA Furnishing, Bill and Leslie Lindsay of Broch Cafe, Angus Cameron, president of the local villages Highland Games, and of course Kenny – who apart from playing in the band and his role with LETi also runs Strathyre Outdoors.
There was even time for a taste test on the famous local delicacy of Irn-Bru flavoured ice cream made by Colin and Sheridan at Airlie House – and the verdict was yum! During the busy holiday season they run an ice cream parlour in the garden of their bed and breakfast which specialises in Scottish flavours – with one of the most popular being Buckfast! Perhaps was best it was currently out of stock however! A fabulous night was had by my crew – and whether it was the convivial atmosphere (or the free flowing #Scotspirit!), but the “old gal” even managed to inveigle Kim into agreeing to have a second shot as sub stoker … and to go hands free this time!
After some welcome zzzs in a most comfortable bed, Team Matilda had a fairly early alarm call to hit the BLiSStrail. Snow flurries were however falling ominously as my crew tucked into a hearty and tasty traditional Scottish breakfast, home cooked by Colin and Sheridan. My dynamic duo then donned their thermals and many layers on top before leaving Airlie House, full of praise for their stay. After I was set up for the day ahead, my crew discovered a kennel containing a vivid green soft toy model of Lubbie – the mysterious monster said by locals to live in nearby Loch Lubnaig (and a near relative of the equally publicity shy Loch Ness monster!) Colin tells the story that Lubbie has chased their pet dog Teddy indoors and has taken up residence in the kennel for the winter! The “old git” played his part and looked suitably frightened and scared!
Before leaving the confines of the large garden at Airlie House Team Matilda checked off the first ornamental feature on the BLiSStrail Strathyre – a beautifully carved baby elephant, better known as the “Airliephant”!
We then headed out along the Sustrans Scotland NCR7 which runs around the Strathyre area – and quickly found the impressive Soaring Eagle installation created by Ian Chambers who runs his own company called Chainsaw Creations. Its a great story of someone earning a living doing what they love – and it all started out as a bet with a fellow forestry student as to who could carve the best mushroom which has now grown into a full time self-employed business. The intricate eagle was commissioned by Stirling Council to mark the NCR7 entrance and exit to the Broch recreational area as part of 2016 Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design.
Tandeming round the car park we found the next piece of art sitting outside the Broch Cafe – Thistle, the Heilan’ Coo. The Scottish timber coo was made by the Wee Coo Company based at nearby Loch Lomond. Unfortunately the cafe itself was closed for the month of January so the “old gal” – who is a true coffee aficionado – couldn’t personally vouch for the coffee which has earned an almost legendary reputation … much to her chagrin! A hot coffee would certainly have heated my crew up!
Just beside the coo wood carving we found the next installation – the Ride Out Seats. This metal sculpture is designed to look like three parked bikes, providing some simple seats. A nice story here – it was commissioned to mark the big contribution Derek Mullins made to the volunteer programme at Sustrans over 25 years. It therefore seemed highly appropriate to base the design on a cluster of bicycles since much of his work entailed riding out and encouraging volunteers around Scotland.
Kim was good to her word and was waiting here for Team Matilda to do her substitute stoker ride. You know a classic “old lady” tandem can never have too many stokers! But firstly Kim put on her LETi hat and gave a friendly welcome to a family of cyclists who were staying at Strathyre Forest Cabins.
Kim confirmed that many of the cultural attractions on the BLiSStrail were going to be kept in place for the coming year – with the art trail generating increased interest, resulting in a knock-on effect of tourists spending more time and money in the area.
There’s also talk of a couple of new installations potentially being added to the trail for 2017 to mark the Year of History Heritage and Archaeology. A team of students from Perth College are looking at developing a conceptual art project based at a site at Lochearnhead. And LETi has applied to Sustrans Scotland for an ArtRoots grant to place a new sculpture installation on the cycle path at Strathyre.
Then it was time to see if Kim’s chat about going hands free was all bravado! It would need to be said she had taken a bit of ribbing for her very safe performance on her virgin ride on a tandem at Balquhidder back in December. I personally thought she did rather well for a newbie, but the “old git” was joking that she should have at least taken her hands off my handlebars to wave at the camera!
Kim was however put on the spot a bit when she read that sprightly 91 year old blind John Chapman had shown her how it was done when the “old git” paid a visit to talk to the Mens Group at Paisley charity Roar – Connections for Life. He rolled back the years to tandem like a youngster and confidently waved to the cameras as he ticked tandeming off his bucket list!
So having accepted the challenge to go hands free Kim bravely donned the “old gal’s” crash helmet and took up her stoker seat – knowing that she would have to hand over control and put her faith in the “old git” as Captain!
The “old gal” filmed the ride and I am delighted to report Kim performed as a natural sub stoker as we tandemed back and forward between two bridges on the cycle path. And she confidently took not just one, but both hands off the handlebars to show off! We even managed to shift up a few gears too! Watch the incriminating video of Kim riding hands free as stoker here. (Remember if you are reading this on email, you need to click on the blog first – via the link at the bottom of the email – to view the video.)
Kim thoroughly enjoyed completing her challenge and was delighted with her second ride … and is already talking about a third go. This “old lady” tandem thinks that Kim and her husband should add tandeming to their list of hobbies!
We bid farewell to Kim and tandeming away from the excitement of all the sub stoker shenanigans – with the “old gal” back in her regular space on my rear saddle – we set off to look for one of the most intriguing installations on the trail – the fabulous stone miniature Mill House and Bridge. You have to look closely to find it – sitting on the edge of a garden on the old Strathyre road just after crossing the old stone bridge over the River Balvaig. Local children know it as the “The Fairy House” and my dynamic crew were lucky enough to see the creator – Jimmy Gibson – in his garden and were able to compliment him on his labour of love.
The last tick on the BLiSStrail Strathyre for Team Matilda was the Lions Couchant which guard the entrance to the luxurious Creagan House – a country house restaurant with rooms. Now a lion couchant, I am reliably informed, is a heraldic reference which means that the lion is lying down, but with the head raised as opposed to the more traditional lion rampant. So to be honest, it didn’t actually scare me or the “old git” one bit!
After the photo shoot my dynamic crew decided to tandem out of Strathyre on the wonderfully smooth NCR7 to Mhor 84 for a much needed hot coffee and scone stop. As snow flakes continued to fall this became an extended second coffee and cake stop! The original (pre snow!) plan was a quick stop before embarking on a loop round the Sustrans Scotland Rt7 along the scenic old Strathyre road – an old drovers road – through a forrest back into Strathyre.
But emerging from the comfort of Mhor 84 the “old gal” declared that it was too cold to do the planned loop – which in retrospect was the correct decision given the flurries of snow and the zero degrees celcius temperature reading. We therefore abandoned the Strava recording of our ride – so no map! – and we quickly retraced our steps and tandemed back to Strathyre the direct way, pedalling at top speed to try to create some body heat!
We had time to check out a few local attractions in the town which should not be overlooked. The first is the Strathyre Village Shop and Post Office where I had the pleasure of meeting owner Janet and her very own black and white cat – which coincidentally is called Jess, just like Postman Pat! It was a bit disconcerting however to see among the myriad of goods on offer, that snow shovels were on special offer! Maybe Jess knew something we didn’t!
A bit further along the street from the shop is a fairly nondescript statue – which looks a bit like a local War Memorial. But close inspection by the “old gal” revealed it is a memorial statue to one of the area’s famous sons – Dugald Buchanan who was a Gaelic poet who wrote religious verse. His biggest claim to fame is assisting the minister at nearby Killin with translating the New Testament into Gaelic in 1767.
Just behind the Broch Cafe we found the fascinating and historical Dun Lubnaig Broch Project. Brochs are mysterious circular dry-stone hollow structures – like forts – which date back to the iron age and are only found in Scotland.
It was getting colder and more snow flakes were falling so we headed back to Airlie House and I was quickly packed back into Matilda Transport. But there was one last art installation to see. Team Matilda had been advised to do the last stop on the BLiSStrail Strathyre by car – given that the main A84 can be somewhat busy, and is somewhat narrow and windy as it passes along the beautiful Loch Lubnaig.
Turning into the car park at the end of the loch furthest from the village, it was initially difficult to spot Sloc-Nan-Sitheanach. It seems hidden away – but then that is perhaps the whole point as it is “a place of solace where you can find yourself in an embrace of the earth.”
The key is to look carefully for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Scenic Routes signs – but it is worth the hunt when you see the art installation by architectural designer Ruairidh Moir. Sloc is Gaelic for a cavity in a landscape; and sìtheanach is Gaelic for “faerie” – the mystical creatures which roamed the landscape and are associated with peace and tranquility.
The poetry incorporated into the design is “Now Winters’ Wind Sweeps” by local bard Alexander Campbell which depicts mans place in natural cycles, and encourages the visitor to reflect on their fleeting presence in the landscape. It certainly was quite a mystical experience when Team Matilda were there with Loch Lubnaig reflecting the surrounding hills shrouded in mist
After visiting Loch Lubnaig – and taking note to tandem NCR7 on the far site of the Loch past Strathyre Forest Cabins in the future – Team Matilda jumped back in Matilda Transport and headed back to the warmth of a hot baths and showers at Matildas Rest.
But, despite the cold, it had undoubtedly been a BLiSSful savoir-faire soujorn around Strathyre!
Indeed Team Matilda enjoyed the friendship and hospitality shown over the weekend in Robroycountry so much that my dynamic crew decided to return the next weekend – scrubbed up and in non tandeming gear! – for the prestigious Burns in the Barn event at Monachyle Mhor Hotel.
First up it was pre-event drinks hosted by Kim and her husband Fraser at their fabulous 17th century B listed thatched cottage at their luxury self-catering Briar Cottages base in Lochearnhead before boarding a bus to Monachyle.
The chefs at Mhor had put their flair to the traditional bill of fayre for a Burns event – producing a fantastic tasty meal. The starter was Mull scallops – a favourite of the “old gal’s” – with the haggis being incorporated into a main course of Scotch beef cheek. Mull cheddar on toast followed before a dessert of preserved Perthshire raspberries and clootie dumpling ice cream! This was all washed down with some lovely wines and a few Glengoyne whiskies – while enjoying an evening of great music, song, Scottish dancing and the traditional Burns Supper elements of The Address to the Haggis and the Toast to the Lassies – even if a few eyebrows were raised at the unnecessary f-words in the Reply from the Lassies!
My crew had a fabulous night enjoying the #ScotSprit atmosphere and chatting to others who clearly enjoy #workingtogether for tourism in the area, while having a fantastic social life at the same time!
Among others my dynamic crew met LETi member Alison Inglis and her partner John who run the Enchanted Cottage Pop Up Shop at Balquhidder. They also shared a table with two other fun couples Graham and Sue, and Martin and Liz – who are all involved in organising the Balquhidder, Lochearnhead & Strathyre Highland Games. Known as “the best Highland Games in Scotland” it is being held this year on Saturday 22nd July 2017. And they also said hello to Jill – who edits the local Villagers magazine and who told me there is a double page colour spread on my antics in Strathyre in the February edition. You know how I like this fame!
Now Graham happened to mention an invitation to a full-scale fancy dress party early in the Summer – and Fraser definitely lived up to his reputation of having a wonderful enthusiasm for life by throwing the gauntlet down (after a few Glengoyne Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskys!) to tandem riding facing backwards! ….. It was that kind of amazing night really!
After a welcome post bash coffee and chat with Kim and Fraser – which involved a tour in the pitch darkness of the fabulous “Fraser’s Pav” summer house right on the edge of Loch Earn and being shown the original Scots pine “cruck” ceiling from the cattle byre in what is now their stunning lounge – sadly my crew had to force themselves away to return to Matildas Rest due to work commitments. It would be an understatement to say my crew could have stayed longer – but I have a feeling we will be back before long! Obviously I will have to look out some fancy dress gear – but just what does a tandem dress up as?!
And of course I have the spectacle of Fraser riding me facing backwards to look forward to! The big question is however – if Fraser is on the front, then who is going to be stoker? The “old git” has honourably said that it should be the “old gal” but she whispered to me she is not so sure! So does that leave Kim?
Watch this space….!
Thanks to all at LETi for their help, bed and breakfast, sustenance and friendship offered to assist Team Matilda to complete their tour of the Strathyre leg of the BLiSS art trail.