Scotland – the land of kilts, oats, whisky and a ridiculous repertoire of words for describing the weather. Take dreich for example, for when at least four of the following apply: dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather. What more could one possibly need? A proper Scottish estate on which to experience it all, that’s what. Thus, I spent a reflective two weeks at Laidlawstiel House in Galashiels, on the Scottish borders.
The Galashiels is a small town with a pub and a shop, yet if one continues to the outskirts you soon come to a beautiful small woodland with a sign bearing the name Laidlawstiel House. Continue up the long, sweeping drive and you presently arrive in a turfed courtyard formed by the manor, the keeper’s apartments, and the guest apartments (Downton Abbey, eat your heart out). The manor stakes a ravishing position overlooking the Tweed River, where it has proudly stood for more than 400 years, indifferently observing the frolicking salmon below. The mountains amble in the background and the sky is clear and oh-so-close to heaven. The grounds are breathtaking, with a large walled Victorian kitchen garden taking centre stage. Filled with raised beds of kale, chard, broccoli, lettuce, beans, peas, herbs, strawberries, raspberries, wall-trained apple trees and a greenhouse bursting with sweet tomatoes, it also boasts swathes of lawn and flowers in every conceivable palette. I spent most of my time within its walls and each moment was a joy.
|Laidlawstiel House, Galashiels.|
|Raised beds in the walled garden.|
|Flowers among the vegetable beds.|
I lodged in the guest apartment, which swamped me – my own bedroom, kitchen, living room and bathroom. Jenny, my host, had stocked the cupboards with pulses and quinoa, the fruit bowl was packed, and I had the run of the garden. I felt very lucky to be WWOOFing in such an incredible place (and a trifle overwhelmed, to be perfectly honest!). Although it was a quiet WWOOFing experience (I was the only WWOOFer) I really had a great experience, with lots of time for quiet reflection about my travels and the work I’d like to pursue.
With Jenny off in sunny Italy for the first week of my visit, I worked alongside Stuart, the cheery head gardener. I spent my time weeding vegetable beds, carting wheelbarrow loads of manure to improve the soil, cleaning the greenhouse, raking autumn leaves and painting an ornate bird-house. I also learned how to drive a quad bike and the ride-on-mower which was excellent fun. Some of my favourite jobs were completed alongside Stuart as we listened to one of his audio books – a historical mystery which we never did finish (Stuart – who was the murderer in the end? Did the monk-in-hiding get away? I must know). Stuart is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to gardening, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. I was further inspired to pursue horticulture, or some sort of environmental/food sustainability work, as a result of our discussions. A former policeman and barman, he had plenty of ripping yarns and was darn good at reading people. I worked alongside Stuart about 6 hours a day, and had plenty of time in the evenings to walk the dogs, to read, or just relax. Jenny has two lurchers (Albus and Pempe) and a lovable posh pug named Willoughby. With a bit of enticement (the promise of a dog treat), they happily followed me on my wanders around the hillside, up along ancient stone walls and through flocks of horned sheep (bless them).
As Jenny returned from sunny Italy, off went Stuart and his wife Kerry to take her place, as they left for their annual two weeks’ holiday. I hope they had a fantastic time, they certainly deserved it! I really enjoyed working with them in such a stunning location. It was fantastic to finally meet Jenny and work with her during my second week. Lots more gardening, some sunny days, some dreich days, and plenty of wholesome work made it a lovely time. The Australian election debacle happened in the middle of my visit and Jenny just casually mentioned it was a shame for Kevin – he was such a lovely man. It turns out that she and her husband had been friends while he was working in Asia before he became prime minister. It’s clearly a small world.
I even managed to nick off for a daytrip to Edinburgh on a weekend off. I explored the castle alongside what seemed like a tourist horde, and unwittingly queued for an hour for an entry ticket when my English Heritage membership guaranteed me fast-track entrance (how embarrassing). But the castle was worth it. It has a commanding position on top of an enormous crag of volcanic rock, looking out over the sea. The Great Hall, Scottish honours and St Margaret’s Chapel were my personal favourites. The Scottish honours have an intriguing history. This sparkly trio of crown, sword and sceptre have been kicking around since the fifteenth century, and were first officially used to coronate the infant Mary, Queen of Scots (way back in 1543). When Scotland became part of the United Kingdom in 1707, the honours were locked away and forgotten for over a century before being rediscovered by Walter Scott in 1818 (how dramatic).
|Peaceful St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle|
|Looking out over Edinburgh from Edinburgh Castle.|
All up, it was an excellent, quiet fortnight tucked away in the Scottish mountains. One day, I can only hope that my vegie gardens are as lovely as those of Laidlawstiel House. Or even a fraction as lovely.