Early in the last decade, I spent three years taking the train from London to Edinburgh. That wasn’t one journey, I should add – the train service wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t quite that bad. I always found it a heavenly journey, actually – and not just because it was made in the pursuit of love. (Nor that, unusually for me, it was the successful pursuit of love – the Edinburgh lassie is now my wife).
The first three hours are unremarkable. You can pass the time bankrupting yourself for a cup of coffee and a toasted sandwich whose molten cheese centre is hotter than the earth’s core. But after Newcastle, you can soothe your oral blisters by looking out of the window at the blissful views.
Often, I would start these journeys in London in shorts and flip-flops, only to arrive in Scotland in thermal mountain gear. It seemed to me that, as you crossed the river Tweed at Berwick, the clouds would descend, and the temperature would drop by 20 degrees. But nobody goes to Scotland for the weather. Its charms lie elsewhere, as this delightful series, stripped across this week, lays bare.
Explore Scotland with Saga - travel to the west coast of Scotland and hop between the Isle of Bute, Isle of Arran, the Kintyre Peninsula and the Isle of Islay
Paul Murton begins his journey in Berwick where – wonder of wonders – the sun is shining down from a cloudless sky. The series sees him and his trusty Victorian guidebook – Black’s Picturesque Guide to Scotland – travel to some of the more beautiful and less celebrated parts of the country.
Berwick has the distinction of being the only English town mentioned in Black’s guidebook. (It is also the only English team in the Scottish football league, fact fans.) With its strategic importance and border position, Berwick has had a tumultuous history, changing hands more than 13 times. It has been besieged more times than Jerusalem.
Murton begins his journey following in the footsteps – actually that should be wheel tracks – of Dr William Gordon Stables who, towards the end of the 19th Century, travelled round Scotland in his ‘land yacht’, and became a pioneer for modern caravanners. He called himself the ‘Gentleman Gypsy’, though his was by no means your average gypsy caravan. It took two horses to pull it, and Gordon Stables had his valet ride ahead on a tricycle.
Murton’s own horse-drawn carriage is rather more modest. He trots happily over the Tweed and into his native Scotland across the Union Bridge, a spectacular creation that, in 1820, was the longest wrought-iron suspension bridge in the world. Still on the Tweed is the nearby town of Kelso – a pleasant spot with a historic square and market place. Its real gem, though, is Floors Castle, a vast country pile that makes Versailles look like a garden shed.
A little further into Scotland lies Melrose, with its historic ruined abbey, that prompted Walter Scott to write:
If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight.
According to Murton, Scott never actually saw the abbey by night. An early example of fakery in the creative industry, with a line stretching all the way forward to Britain’s Got Talent.
Visit the Scottish Highlands and lochs with Saga
Murton abandons his horse-drawn caravan for a VW Beetle, largely because otherwise we’d have to have an entire series set in and around Melrose, he heads on to the historic New Lanark, a gargantuan old mill and workers’ village in a gorgeous setting by the Cora Linn falls on the River Clyde.
From here, he heads to Glasgow – described by Daniel Defoe on a visit 300 years ago as “the cleanest, beautifullest and best-built city in Britain.”
“A lot has changed since Defoe’s time,” points out Murton. Back then, it was a town of 12,000 souls. Then the Industrial Revolution hit, and everything changed. Today, Glasgow may not be the cleanest or beautifullest city in Britain, but its charms are extensive, and its people remarkably friendly. It is a fantastic city to visit, even if my heart, inevitably, still belongs in Edinburgh.
This is travel television at its best. Murton is an affable and well-informed host, and the subject matter is beautiful and historic Scotland. The series was originally made for BBC Scotland, where it was shown several years ago. Finally, though, someone in their wisdom at the BBC has seen fit to show it nationwide, and the results do not disappoint.
Explore Scotland with Saga – find all our holidays in Scotland
Grand Tours of Scotland - Monday 11th April, 7:30pm, BBC One