At the end of a wet weekend, we woke to discover a miracle. The sun was shining.
We were desperate to enjoy a rain-free day so hopped in the car and headed west to visit The Kelpies, Falkirk Wheel and Scotland’s oddest summerhouse – The Pineapple.
A day trip to Falkirk
The Kelpies are a magnificent pair of equine giants, which rise from an intersection of the Forth & Clyde Canal in an area of reclaimed parkland known as The Helix. Built on-site, the sculptures were completed on 27 November 2013 and immediately became as intrinsically Scottish as Edinburgh Castle, Irn-bru and West Highland White Terriers.
Created by artist Andy Scott, each 30-metre high sculpture weighs 300 tonnes. They’re a tribute to the working horses which once toiled in this industrial heartland of Scotland – towing barges, pulling heavy loads and dragging farm machinery behind them.
Although symbolic of Scotland’s working horses, The Kelpies are also steeped in Scottish mythology. A Kelpie is a water spirit, usually seen in the form of a large black horse, but with the ability to shapeshift into human form. They’re found beside lochs and rivers and although they look beautiful, they’re deadly. They befriend humans, enticing them on to their back, before riding off into the water and drowning them.
As we strolled towards the Kelpies, we passed a lovely area of wetland which had been reclaimed from wasteland. It was rich in plant and animal life. It was hard to picture it having been anything other than a pretty and peaceful spot. We tried to creep past a sleeping swan but the boy was having none of it. He stopped to stare, transfixed – his wee tail wagging ten to the dozen.
The stretch of canal by The Kelpies was busy with boats. We grabbed a coffee and stopped to watch a barge as it passed through a lock. There’s something quite wonderful about watching the water rise and fall in a canal lock.
A few months ago our guilty pleasure had been watching ‘Canal Journeys’ – a TV series following Prunella Scales of Fawlty Towers “Baaaaaaasil” fame and her thespian hubby Timothy West. The series followed the pair as they explored the canals of Britain and Europe. How rock n roll are we? In our defence, we chalked our viewing off as travel research and usually combined it with a glass or two of wine.
We lingered by The Kelpies a while, straining our necks to snap photos of them. From the roadside their scale is impressive, but up close they’re huge. On a sunny day, when the light hits them just right, they shimmer and glisten like the water in a cool mountain stream. As we admired their impressive scale the sky turned black and they seemed to glow. The contrast of black sky and silver kelpies was stunning.
Our next destination was the Falkirk Wheel, but en-route we passed a slightly older Falkirk attraction.
The Antonine Wall
The Antonine Wall is a Roman turf defence which stretches for 60 kilometres across the Central Belt of Scotland, from the River Clyde in the west to the River Forth in the east. When it was built in 142 AD to keep marauding Caledonian tribes out of Roman Britannia, it was a feat of engineering on a scale never seen before in Scotland.
Sections of the stone foundation and defensive ditch can still be seen today. As you know, I’m a die hard history geek. I find Roman history fascinating, but having visited the awe inspiring ruins at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Rome I find Scotland’s Roman remains a tad underwhelming in comparison. That’s not to say they’re not worth visiting – history’s history after all and even by today’s modern building standards, the Antonine Wall is still a pretty impressive big ditch.
Mini kelpies and spooky canal tunnels
Parking at the Falkirk Wheel, we couldn’t resist snapping a photo or two of the boy posing with the miniature kelpies sculpture in the car park. Despite being a fraction of the size of the originals, they loomed like giants over the Wee White Dug.
Before heading down to the Visitor Centre, we climbed uphill for a closer look at the aqueduct which carries boats to and from the Falkirk Wheel. I loved the big, looping arches above the water. I’m quite partial to a bit of symmetry.
Not far from the aqueduct stands the Rough Castle Tunnel. It runs beneath the Antonine Wall and is wonderfully atmospheric. Walking along a narrow, dark path with water as black as the grave next to you, it’s hard not to feel spooked. As ever, the boy took it all in his stride and was eager to explore.
The Falkirk Wheel
It was nice to leave the cold, damp tunnel and step back into daylight. Near the Visitor Centre we found a spot with a good view of the Falkirk Wheel and watched in awe as it picked up a barge full of people and transported it 35 metres into the air and onto the viaduct. At the same time another barge was lowered down from the viaduct. It was really impressive and a wee bit hair-raising to watch. I’m not a fan of heights but I’ll definitely brave the wheel soon.
The wheel celebrated its 15th birthday recently, yet it’s hard to believe that it’s still so young. Like The Kelpies, it’s become one of Scotland’s most iconic symbols, which makes it seem like it’s been around forever. It’s an extraordinary feat of engineering and is the only boat lift of its type in the World. Although it’s a popular tourist attraction, it has a practical purpose too – it links the Union and the Clyde Canals.
As we were trying to decide where to go for lunch the sun made an appearance. The merest hint of sunshine made the on-site hot dog van impossible to resist. We grabbed a picnic table with a view of the wheel and feasted on hot dogs, fries and Irn-bru. They even had soggy hot dog onions – yay. None of this crispy onion nonsense for me. Hot dog onions should always be served boiled, hot and soggy. Lunch hit the spot perfectly.
Our final stop of the day was The Pineapple, which is located 10 miles north of Falkirk.
The Pineapple is easily Scotland’s most bizarre building. Commissioned by the 4th Earl of Dunmore in 1761 the summerhouse must have raised some eyebrows when it was built. It’s not known for sure who the architect was, which could suggest he didn’t want the strange folly to become his legacy.
In its early days there was a hothouse in the ground floor of the building. Amongst the exotic delights that were grown in it were pineapples. Pineapples grown in a pineapple, it’s no wonder the British aristocracy have a reputation for being a bit batty.
The Pineapple isn’t open to the public other than as a holiday let, but the large walled garden which it sits in is. It’s managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is definitely worth visiting if you’re ever in the area. It’s a pleasant place for a walk, plus you get to see a gigantic pineapple, which isn’t something you’ll see every day.
As we were exploring the garden the heavens opened on us. I would have been happy to take shelter in the woodland trails on the estate but Mr G flew back to the car as if there was a serious risk of him dissolving in the rain.
Although our visit to Falkirk was an impromptu one, we ended up having a great time. There’s more to Scotland than lochs, mountains and glens. And although I adore the scenic spots, I also love Scotland’s urban landscapes and industrial heartland. They played a huge part in shaping the country that I known and love today and have lots to offer visitors. So, if you’re planning a trip to Scotland, make sure Falkirk’s on your list of places to see.
Until next time ….