A COACH TOUR – what springs to mind when you hear that phrase? The blue rinse brigade, cramped conditions and boredom en route? Wrong. Coach breaks are stress free, with no map reading, parking or bags to handle and there are tours to suit all ages. They’re ideal for solo travellers too.
I climb onboard to find air-conditioning, comfy leather reclining seats, plenty of legroom and Andy, our cheerful driver.
And soon we are off, leaving Edinburgh to visit some of my home country’s finest sights.
First up, the 35-metre high Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. After lunch of soup and hearty sandwiches in the Falkirk Wheel Café, we pile onto a boat for the 50-minute trip, the best way to experience this marvel of Scottish engineering.
The wheel, gateway to Scotland’s Lowland canal network, is where the Forth & Clyde Canal meets the Union Canal.
Previously the height difference between the two was solved by a series of 11 locks, a rather unattractive prospect for today’s leisure sailors.
Our guide regales us with stories including one about the Union Canal’s “Laughin’ and Greetin’ bridge” which has two keystones, one carved with a laughing face, the other with a sad face. This reflects the successful builder who cut an easy stretch of canal on one side and the unfortunate one who almost went bankrupt digging a tunnel on the other side.
Close by are the massive new sculptures, the Kelpies. Kelpies are mythical Celtic water horses, rumoured to frequent Scotland’s rivers and lochs. Glasgow artist Andy Scott took his inspiration from Scotland’s history of working horses which once pulled barges along the canal and Duke and Baron are the real life Clydesdales that Scott chose as his life models on which to base the sculptures. Both horses donated one shoe each and these are now mounted inside their Kelpie counterpart.
Our tour includes a visit to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. For centuries, the ravishingly theatrical beauty of this “Queen of Scottish lochs” surrounded by dense forest-covered mountains and glens, has fired the imaginations of writers and artists. Auburn deer and wild mountain goats roam hillsides, forests provide shelter for red squirrels and wide skies boil with birds.
The Trossachs national park straddles the kingdoms of three ancient Celtic peoples, the Scots, Picts and Britons and is where the Highlands and Lowlands meet.
The Highland Boundary Fault, a massive geological feature that runs across the national park, marks a change in both the culture and landscape of Scotland. We enjoy a cruise on Loch Lomond, sailing past the Arklet waterfall and around tiny Honeymoon Island, so-called because newlyweds were left alone here. If they were still on speaking terms days later, theirs was a marriage that would last.
We see Pulpit Rock once a popular spot to listen to sermons. The story goes that locals complained about the distance they had to walk to the nearest church, so the minister said if they built him a vestry and pulpit he would come to them. Summer services were held here for more than 70 years until a church was built at Ardlui.
Apparently, and because services were pretty long, a stall selling bread, cheese and whisky was set up behind the rock which meant many of the flock spent more time behind the pulpit instead of in front of it.
Our itinerary takes in Stirling Castle, where tales of crownings, royal fisticuffs, lavish banquets and a murder enthrall.
Architecturally it offers an array of riches including James IV’s vast Great Hall, the largest medieval banqueting hall ever constructed in Scotland and the Chapel Royal built for the baptism of Prince Henry in 1594.
The castle towers over some of the most important battlefields in Scotland’s history: Stirling Bridge, site of William Wallace’s victory in 1297 and Bannockburn.
Speaking of which, on this battlefield 700 years ago in 1314, King Robert the Bruce and his men, outnumbered three to one, routed the forces of King Edward II to win freedom for the Scots from English domination.
New heritage centre
The new heritage centre harnesses 3D technology to bring these events alive and while there, we participate in the interactive battle game.
A quirk of fate perhaps, that this Scot – the only one in our party – was selected to be the aforementioned King Edward and under my “command”, my troops won the battle for England. Oh well, I remind myself. Thankfully this time around, it is only a game.
The Coach Tourism Council (0870 850 2839, www.findacoachholiday.com) has links to more than 100 British operators offering short breaks or escorted coach holidays. National operators include Shearings Holidays (0843 221 8877, www.shearings.com) with tours based in Oban featuring Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, 7 nights HB from £479pp. For day tours of Loch Lomond, the Trossachs and Stirling Castle (from £36) tel: 0131-226 3133 or visit www.rabbies.com; tel: 0131 333 4044 or visit www.mcneecoaches.com