They don't call it bonnie Scotland for nothing. The northern half of Britain is picturesque in many different ways. You don't have to look too far to find stunning scenery, a landscape filled with texture and colour, thoughtfully laid-out gardens and architecture which complements its surroundings. Here is my pick of the best . . .
- ARTHUR'S SEAT *
Our first taste of what Scotland has to offer is in the country's capital, Edinburgh. It's built on seven hills, the most famous of which gives you a spectacular panorama of the city.
Arthur's Seat was formed by an extinct volcano and is said to resemble a crouching lion. Our brisk walk to the top rewards us with stunning vistas - to the north is Queensferry and the Forth Bridges with the Kingdom of Fife beyond; south to the rugged Pentland Hills and Hillend artificial ski slope. The best views are to the west, where we see Edinburgh Castle, built on volcanic rock in the middle of pretty Princes Street Gardens in front of the main shopping drag surrounded by bars and restaurants. Edinburgh has a bustling city centre, day and night.
Off to the right, we spot the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's official residence in Edinburgh. It is open to the public all year round.
The climb to the summit is fairly easygoing but steep, so sensible shoes are a must, especially to aid your grip as you head back down. My choice of thongs is not a wise move and my descent resembles that of a beginner skier, much to my children's amusement.
- EDINBURGH ROYAL BOTANIC GARDEN *
Established in 1670 as a physic garden. Two adventurous doctors, Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour, leased their first plot near Holyrood Abbey with the help of local physicians prepared to pay for the cost of the "culture and importation of foreign plants". The site of the gardens moved several times, eventually making its permanent home in Inverleith in 1820. As the gardens grew, gaining the grounds of Inverleith House for the arboretum, so did the wealth of flora collected by plant hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of them, George Forrest, introduced more than 10,000 specimens between 1905 and 1932.
The gardens continue to evolve in the 21st century. In 2009 the John Hope Gateway was opened, a biodiversity and information centre which gives you an educational entrance into the gardens. My children make a beeline for the willow cave and, after admiring the artwork, enthusiastically draw a picture and thread it on to the woven framework.
I am amazed by how lush and green everything is, one of the few benefits of having a climate as wet as Scotland's. The lawns, hedges and borders are manicured to perfection, and the mix of foliage and flowers is beautiful.
We head to the Queen Mother Memorial Garden, which was completed in 2006. Not quite a maze, but with enough winding paths to send my girls round in circles, each trying to beat the other to the pavilion at the other side. Schoolchildren from around Scotland collected the shells and pebbles which decorate the walls of the wooden cubby. Native and exotic cones, to represent the four corners of the globe, were collected from the gardens and three other botanic gardens around Scotland and line the ceiling of the pavilion. It is a stunning little building and a lovely place to sit, gazing out of the arched windows, enjoying the views outside.
If you find the Scottish temperature a little cool, a walk through the Temperate Palm House will soon warm you up. The Victorian greenhouse was opened in 1858 and hosts specimens from several regions of the world. There are 11 glasshouses open to the public today.
Stand-outs are the lily pond, on which float several varieties of water lily and very impressive giant lily pads; and the Rainforest Ridges which houses tropical plants including orchids, ferns and the strophanthus - a plant which yields an extract used as an arrow poison for hunting monkeys in Africa. In the 19th century, the Scottish explorer John Kirk tested the extract on himself and, noting a decrease in heart rate, he sent samples of the plant back to Edinburgh, which led to the development of a drug used to control heart rate.
My heart rate takes a dip in the Arid Lands hothouse when I prick my finger on a cactus, my imagination running riot, I am sure it must contain a coma-inducing poison and the end is nigh. Luckily for me, I have touched a less-deadly plant than the strophanthus and I live to tell the tale. Entrance to the hothouses is Â£5 ($7.50). It is worth it, especially as your entrance fee goes towards the upkeep of these fascinating rooms.
We leave the warm cocoon of the temperate houses and head back into the gardens. As a child, the hothouse was my favourite place to visit while in the Botanics; my second favourite thing was to roll down the hill at the side of the hothouse. Today, the grass is very wet so I resist the urge to relive my childhood - probably much to the relief of my daughters. Mums can be so embarrassing sometimes.
We take a peek through the archway in the sky-scraping hedges to the right of the hothouses and find a section of garden which has been turned over to several Edinburgh schools to enable them to grow vegetables. We have fun identifying the vegies while marvelling at the well-designed beds, eco-friendly pest control in the shape of companion planting and the ingenious use of willow as climbing frames and scarecrows.
- GLENTRESS FOREST *
Less than an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, our next brush with nature is near the Borders town of Peebles. We enjoy the scenic drive, passing lush green hills dotted with pine forests and farmland.
It doesn't get much greener than Glentress Forest in the Tweed Valley. It is famous for its mountain bike trails but equally enjoyable on foot. We are struck by how peaceful it is but also by the abundance of vegetation: majestic, bushy pine trees; deep pink foxglove; and spiky, yet beautiful thistles - the epitome of Scottishness. Tree-hugging, pale green lichen is testament to the air quality in this part of the world.
- KAILZIE GARDENS *
On the other side of the River Tweed we come across another beautiful example of nature's bounty; Kailzie Gardens (pronounce it Kaylee if you want to sound like a local).
We admire the formal flower beds which burst with colour, as our daughters and their friends have fun racing up and down the perfect lawns. The gardens are separated into sections by stone walls, intricate wrought-iron fences and gates, and thick verdant hedging. The kids are particularly impressed by the section housing several breeds of chickens, with the hens housed in luxurious weatherboard abodes and castles.
The girls also have a great time playing an over-sized game of noughts and crosses while, once again, I am taken with the glasshouses containing a beautiful selection of geraniums, begonias and fuchsias. Chef Stuart Clink serves up delicious home cooking in the tearooms, a beautifully restored stable and coach house at the entrance to the gardens.
The gardens are family-owned and there is a small entry charge which varies depending on the time of year. As well as the walled gardens, there are woodlands which are at their best in the spring when snowdrops are followed by daffodils and bluebells which provide a stunning carpet of colour. Heading into early summer, azalea and rhododendrons provide a colourful display.
The Scots are obsessed by the weather; little wonder considering the rain and lack of sunshine they have to contend with. However, a lot of rain goes a long way to making this country a bonnier place.
As a child, the hothouse was my favourite place to visit while in the Botanics.