As a travel writer I visit many exotic places and often get asked what it’s like where I’m from. When I tell fellow Scots I’m from West Lothian some are a bit underwhelmed, but that’s when I spring into a vigorous defence of the region. After all, this neglected corner of Scotland is the home of world oil production and boasts a brace of the nation’s most beguiling historic sites.
A stone’s throw from Scotland’s capital, James ‘Paraffin’ Young made a name for himself extracting oil from the shale that now haunts the local landscape in the form of the unmistakable ochre ‘bings’. The industry was still going right until the 1960s. It was also in West Lothian, within the grand walls of Linlithgow Palace as King James V was drawing his final breaths, that Mary Queen of Scots burst into the world to set off one of the most colourful chapters in the nation’s history.
West Lothian – Visiting Linlithgow Palace
The palace at Linlithgow was conceived during the reign of James I in 1424 to replace its predecessor, which had been destroyed in a fire. It lay on the royal route between the castles at Edinburgh and Stirling and is said to have been a firm favourite of the Stewarts until 1603, when a steady decline began when James VI decamped to London along with his court. The final nail in the coffin came when another devastating fire swept through in 1745.
Living now in South Queensferry I’m a regular visitor to Linlithgow Palace. My kids love rambling around this romantic ruin. Standing inside this hulking quadrangular palace it is easy to start imagining the royal intrigues and dramas that once echoed around the thick stone walls. The palace may have lost her roof, but she has lost none of her dignity. The great hall still impresses as does the three tiered wedding cake style fountain and the stone sculptures that show the attention to detail involved in the palace’s construction.
Beyond the Palace Walls
Afterwards we often head off down the Peel – the land by the palace that was once part of Edward I’s sturdy palace defences. The Peel is a fun place to be in summer, especially during the Spectacular Jousting event. The days when knights did battle with their lances are spectacularly brought back to life with a new wave of combatants showing off their horsemanship and prowess with a lance.
The Peel leads down to Linlithgow Loch, which has a trail that takes you right around in under an hour. I love this great wee walk, stretching around the loch spotting swans and ducks and checking out the info boards that open up the loch’s wildlife and history. The loch used to be home to a sprinkling of crannogs and you can still make out some of the stumps of land in the water that linger from those days. The best part of the walk, though, must be the epic views of the palace that are opened up, ever changing vistas that really reveal the majesty of this still awe inspiring building.
Blackness – West Lothian’s Secret Castle
The story of Linlithgow Palace ties in to West Lothian’s other great historic gem, Blackness Castle. For me this is one of the most seriously underrated fortifications in Scotland. Linlithgow is landlocked, so Blackness offered crucial access to the Firth of Forth and to the lands beyond. My favourite approach to Blackness Castle is the walk from South Queensferry. Even before you get past Hopetoun, tantalising glimpses of the castle loom into view. The castle then disappears as you stroll through the recently revamped forest track set just back from the water’s edge. Eventually you spill out by the beach and there is Blackness Castle rising like a daunting warship from the chill Forth.
Inside Blackness Castle
There are many layers of history to delve into at Blackness Castle, which dates back to the 15th century. No royal pleasure palace like Linlithgow, it was stoutly built as a fortress on the Forth that could withstand assault from land or sea. Today it is great for kids as they get to roam around the space letting their wee imaginations run wild. My daughters love the castle and the pier that ekes out on to the waters of the Forth, waters that have seen everything from Viking longships and World War One destroyers cruise by. Indeed Blackness Castle was used in the 20th century as an ammunition depot and it has also served as a state prison.
So, when you’re planning your holiday in Scotland – or even a family day trip – reconsider West Lothian. The corner of Scotland where I was brought up saw the world’s first oil industry emerge and today it boasts a brace of interlinked historic gems that powerfully and evocatively tell their own stories.
What are you waiting for?