Enjoy the wildfowl on a water-based meander

IT'S the start of another year, and while January may not be the ideal month for a long walk, there is no excuse for not getting out on a short stroll to clear your head after those New Year celebrations. So why not choose an easy walk around Linlithgow Loch, which is on Ordnance Survey map 65, though the map is not needed. All you have to do is get to Linlithgow - with signposts at key points, you can't get lost.

The loch is squeezed in between the town and the M9. On the south shore are the magnificent ruins of Linlithgow Palace. More and more lands bounding the loch have been passed to Historic Scotland and its predecessors over the years. The Rose Garden was added in 1946, the North Shore in 1975 and Fiddler's Croft in 1977. While a circular path exists around the loch, it is, however, necessary to detour at Fiddler's Croft, go along Blackness Road for a short way, and back into the Peel by an alley. The walk will take an hour and provides some stunning views of the palace and St Michael's Parish Church.

The loch is a site of special scientific interest because of the large numbers of wintering wildfowl, and is one of only two natural lowland lochs in the Lothians. It provides an ideal habitat for reed buntings, sedge warblers, common sand-pipers, coots, moorhens and a wide variety of very tame and extremely vocal ducks. Mute swans have nested on the banks of the loch for centuries.

The area has been altered by human activity, the traces of which, from prehistoric times to the present, have created a wealth of archaeological and historical interest.

The loch was an important food source for the palace, providing swan, ducks, eels and fish, as well as water for brewing and baking. It also acted as a natural defence for the palace against possible attack.

Two of the islands in the Loch, the Rickle and Cormorant Island, have been identified as crannogs, types of ancient loch dwellings built some 5,000 years ago, originally timber roundhouses supported on piles driven into the loch bed.

The walk, covering two-and-a-half miles, with the full circuit taking up to one hour, is described in a clockwise direction. From the car park, just to the west of the palace, steps lead down to Town Bay. With the water almost lapping the edge of the Tarmac path, the lawn and the water are hoaching with birds. On the west side of the loch is Lady's Park, and shortly afterwards an arched bridge crosses the Mill Burn, the outflow of the loch. On the north side of the loch, the Tarmac path changes to gravel, which still gives a good walking surface. On this side, although screened from the nearby M9 by a grassy and wooded embankment, the noise of the traffic is inescapable. A small burn, the Hatchery Burn, flows in at the north-east end in approaching a road. Look out for the signpost, for the way now turns more southwards, and through a gate. This leads to a grassy section that can be a bit muddy.

The path gently rises to Blackness Road, for the immediate waterside has no path. The walk along the road, however, is short. Look out for another sign directing you down Chapel Lane and across Bell's Burn, back to the waterside and a Tarmac path.

Pass the small yachting area and climb to the palace. Turn left through the palace gateway, the Fore.

Linlithgow Palace was the popular residence of Stuart kings, and the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots in 1542. The Palace became a ruin when it was carelessly set alight by some of the Duke of Cumberland's troops in 1746, following the Jacobite Rebellion.

The palace still exudes an air of dignified splendour. Its halls and chambers, now roofless, surround a central quadrangle with a Gothic fountain, now lavishly restored - a wedding gift from James V to his queen, Mary of Guise. The quadrangle is used in the summer to hold Scotch hop, a mixture of ceilidh and Scottish country dancing - and highly recommended.

• Linlithgow Palace is open all year. Adults 4, children 1.60. Contact Historic Scotland Ranger Service, tel: 01506 842065.

Factfile

Map Ordnance Survey map 65, Falkirk and Linlithgow - but not needed

Distance 21/2 miles

Height 50m

Terrain Good path around the loch

Start point Car park to the west of Linlithgow Palace

Time One hour

Nearest town Linlithgow

Nearest refreshment spot The Coffee Neuk