I must have passed through both Blair Atholl and Pitlochry dozens of times when I used to commute from Inverness to Fife, they are about halfway between Inverness and Edinburgh at the start of the Cairngorms National Park in northern Perthshire. Aside from the scenery one of the main attractions you notice is the white Blair Castle with the only private army in Britain and I eventually decided to pay a visit there along with Blair Atholl Distillery in Pitlochry.
The first stop was Blair Atholl which was easy to reach by train from Edinburgh, the journey was just over 2 hours and I arrived a few minutes late at 10.40am which was ideal as I had booked an 11am Segway tour from Segway Ecosse prior to my visit to Blair Castle. The company Segway Ecosse operate out of Blair Atholl Caravan park which is only 10 minutes walk from the train station and just past the entrance to Blair Castle.
I had never done a Segway tour so I signed up for the basic woodland introduction tour and after filling in the safety waver and getting a suitable helmet I was ready to start segwaying (is that a word?!). I was in a small group with only two other people and the tour started with an brief introduction to riding the Segway, this involved learning to go forwards, backwards and controlling the Segway speed with your feet and after a few laps on a small practice green we were good to go.
The introduction tour took place in the woodland that surrounds the caravan park, the track was ideal for beginners as the terrain was relatively flat which made it easy to navigate and it was quiet with few people or cars around. The tour was only 30 minutes long and the time went quick, I found that after about 5 minutes you can pretty much ride the Segway on autopilot and spend time enjoying the views instead of worrying about crashing to certain death at 10mph! All said it was good fun and although it is quite expensive it is a great option for anyone looking for something different to do in Blair Atholl.
After the segway tour it was on to Blair Castle which is next door to the caravan park, although that was just the entrance gate with a long tree lined road leading to the castle which meant walk of around 15 minutes at which point I was already missing my segway. Blair Castle is perhaps one of the most distinctive castles in Scotland with its bright white exterior contrasting against the green trees and hills. It is also unique for being the home of the Atholl Highlanders who are the only private army in the UK.
The castle is explored through a self guided tour and there are 30 rooms which are open to the public spread over three levels which you explore in your own time. As I walked through the rooms there were information cards in each room which offered some information on the rooms use and purpose, these came in multiple languages and some of the cards made for interesting reading but some rooms where more interesting than others (see the card below).
Through the tour some rooms stood out more than others including the dining room with its impressive Thomas Carter designed fireplace and where many famous guests such as Kings and Queens have dined over the years although it could have done without the lime green walls! Another highlight was the grand hall which is the last room on the tour, it has a fantastic wood beam ceiling and it looks like a great venue for a party and a few whisky’s with plenty of space to bust out some dance moves.
Although there are a lot of rooms it only took me around 40 minutes to do the whole tour which I felt was enough time to get around, during the tour I learned that the ITV series Victoria was filmed in some of the rooms, so if you are a fan of the show then you might take a little longer. At the end you exit via the shop then the restaurant which offers a good chance for catching lunch or a quick snack, they have a good selection of home cooked options with everything from a homemade haggis pasty to venison casserole and the prices seemed quite reasonable.
After the castle tour I headed out to explore the outside gardens and grounds starting at the red deer park just outside the castle entrance and then heading for the large walled garden. As I was walking back from the deer park a piper started playing outside the entrance, this occurs hourly during the peak season and is very popular with the tourists. The Hercules is about 10 minutes walk from the castle and the garden comes complete with statue of Hercules outside, hence the name. It is a fairly large walled garden which you enter by a gate down from the Hercules statue, inside there is a large pond in the middle separating one side from the other with a funky japanese bridge and a few dozen ducks resident ducks. A path leads around the garden in a circular route which takes around 35 minutes to walk fully around and along the sides there are different coloured flowers and loads of apple and pear trees.
After exploring the grounds I was a bit hungry so I left the castle grounds and headed to the café in the park, which was just across the road from the castle for some traditional fish and chips. There is a craft beer bar attached to the café and it also hosts live music on occasion, although there is seating inside I took my lunch outside to some picnic benches by the river where its quiet and a great spot for eating when the weather is nice.
After devouring lunch it was time to move on to Pitlochry, I hopped on the Edinburgh train and it was a only a 15 minute ride on a packed train (standing room only). The next attraction on the itbinearary was Blair Atholl distillery where I was looking forward to getting some whisky as I had worked up quite a thirst by that point in the day! The distillery is only a 15 minute walk from Pitlochry train station where you can pretty much follow the signs to the distillery or the blue dot on Google maps using GPS, it is a nice walk as Pitlochry is a very picturesque little village much like Blair Atholl but larger.
I should point out here that I love whisky and so the chance to see whisky getting made and then sample some is my idea of heaven. I had not pre-booked my tour but the next tour was leaving in 15 minutes when I arrived so it worked out perfect for me but they say pre-booking is advised. I had booked on the Standard tour which takes around 50 minutes and it started outside where the guide told everyone to turn off our phones and all electronic devices before entering the distillery as a safety precaution. Then I learned about the history of the distillery which is one of the oldest in Scotland and it produced mostly blended whisky with Bells being one of their biggest customers.
The next stop of the tour was smelling some of the malting barley seeds which help flavour the Scotch and seeing the huge mash tun in action, then it was a bit of a whirlwind tour through the fermentation process, double distillation and the large red hot copper stills learning about each stage of the whisky making process as the tour progressed and thinking about a future where I have my own distillery! As you went through the rooms you could smell the fermenting whisky, which smells amazing in my opinion and I also got to see the “whisky safe” where the clear spirit was flowing out on a tap in the spirit safe which was under lock and key.
Then the tour continued outside to the river which supply’s the water for the whisky making process (one of the 3 key ingredients along with barley and yeast) and then to the warehouse where the barrels of whisky are stored in wooden casks to mature (minimum of 3 years required to become Scotch), the oldest barrel dated back to 1968!
Finally at the end of the tour it was time to try some whisky, we were given a dram of 12 year old Blair Atholl single malt, it was the first time I have tried that particular malt and it went down very nicely!
After the distillery I still had some time before my Megabus back to Edinburgh so I headed to Pitlochry Dam and visitor centre which was about a 15 minute walk away. I took a bit of an scenic route to get there going via the suspension bridge then past the Pitlochry festival theatre and then up the path which runs up parallel to the fish ladder. The dam looks a little tired and is showing its 50+ year old age, there are some good views when you get to the top of the dam through which make the climb worthwhile.
The visitor centre overlooks the dam and is free to enter, although it is quite small it was worth the detour as inside there are a numerous interactive displays and videos about the hydro projects of the 1950’s along with a café on the upper level which offers some fantastic views of the dam. I arrived just before last entry which is at 5pm but I had enough time to tour the centre and learn more about the hydro project which was the largest of its kind and a major engineering project for Scotland.
After the visitor centre it was time to head back to Edinburgh, I killed an hour sitting on a bench outside the Bank of Scotland which was where the Megabus/CityLink pick up point. It was a nice quiet spot to read a book with few cars passing through and the sound of river flowing in the background and then randomly a piper stating playing flower of Scotland and a few other classics outside Fishers Hotel which was just across the road! I dont know if they had an event on but he seemed to be welcoming guests to the hotel, it made for a little entertainment before my bus arrived. The bus was on time and took just over 2 hours to get back to Edinburgh, it came equipped with free Wi-Fi available and power sockets to recharge my phone which I thought was a bot of a bonus.
Transport: Train – Edinburgh to Blair Atholl – £11.70*, Blair Atholl to Pitlochry – £4.20, Megabus – Pitlochry to Edinburgh – £4.40* / Attractions: Blair Castle – £12, Segway Ecosse Woodland Tour – £18, Blair Atholl Distillery – £8, Pitlochry Dam Visitor Centre – £0 / Lunch: Fish Supper – £7.20
*Bought 12 days in advance
Garmin Step Count: 17,000
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