A Weekend in the Wee County

Things to do in Clackmannanshire

Like many wee things, Britain’s smallest historic county, Clackmannanshire, is far greater than the sum of its parts. The clue is in the historic “Wee County” motto; something it more than lives by. Legend has it that King Robert Bruce mislaid his gauntlets on a visit to the County and, asking where he might have left them, was told to “look aboot ye!” Yes, medieval Wee County punters didn’t stand on ceremony and to this day the County has “More than you imagine” in store for visitors; lashings of historic sites including the Tower Trail, plenty for fresh air fiends to feast on surrounded by dramatic scenery, a blossoming artistic community, a range of tasty eateries and even specialist shopping thrown in. And all this, literally ‘Scotland in Miniature’, within ridiculously easy striking distance of Central Scotland and its fast transport links.

weekend in the wee county muckhart

For those keen to leave the car behind, start out from Alloa railway station to take in Clackmannanshire’s abundant diversity. With its hourly connections to Stirling and Glasgow, and 2 hourly bus connections west to Dollar, Alloa is the Wee County’s largest town and home to an artistic community, burgeoning as only artists know how. The town’s unexpected wealth of grand properties, illustrated by the Town Hall, are echoes of its past prowess in coal mining, brewing (remember Skol Lager?), glass works and weaving.

You can still enjoy traditional quality Clackmannanshire real ales today, produced by William Brothers, Harviestoun and microbrewers Devon Ales; head to the Inn at Muckhart and Mansefield Arms in Sauchie for delectable pints of the latter.

weekend in the wee county clackmannanshire muckhart inn

Catch the H2 bus service from Alloa’s Shillinghill, 5 minutes from the railway station running from 9am to 11pm, and in 20 minutes you’re in Dollar. If cycling, give yourself roughly 50 minutes, taking in the Devon Way cycle route between Tillicoultry and Dollar.

On an imposing vantage point above the town is 500 year-old Castle Campbell, lowland seat of the Duke of Argyll and one of the top things to do with a weekend in the wee county. From the town the castle battlements prod out of the canopy of Dollar Glen as if an organic entity of the hills themselves, beckoning you upwards. If time allows, follow the meandering paths from behind Dollar Museum up the gorge to the castle. These lead you through the deep, atmospheric chasms from which the castle may have derived its original Gaelic name, Castle Gloom or Gloume. For the less nimble or time-strapped visitor, there are car parks part-way and at the top of the glen. The roar of the burn, lush vegetation and views from the path network come highly recommended though, turning a good day out in a particularly well-preserved medieval stronghold with terraced gardens into a complete feast for the senses.

weekend in the wee county

Regardless of how you arrive, the castle rewards with impressive views of the surrounding Forth Valley. You’ll also be hard pressed not to marvel at the display of conspicuous wealth and power of the Campbell dynasty of Argyll. The family used it as their main lowland home between c 1466 and 1654, though the tower has been attributed to the Stewart family who gave it its original name. And such wealth and power invited celebrity; the protestant reformer, John Knox, preached at the Castle, and Mary, Queen of Scots, are said to have enjoyed hospitality within its walls in the 16th century.

If you don’t find the castle tea room open and sustenance calls, Mona’s of Muckhart, Cafe des Fleurs in Dollar, Dollar’s Deli or Tilly Tearoom in Tillycoultry offer refreshments or more to sit down to or to-go. For weekend lunches and weekday evening meals, there’s quite a cast including the Tormaukin Inn at Glendevon, Bridge Street Kitchen and King’s Seat Restaurant & Bar with its accredited Cask Marque Real Ales in Dollar. The Inn at Muckhart is a must for trencherman portions of gutsy pub grub and those excellent Devon ales.

castle campbell weekend in the wee county

The Wee County has an enviable reputation for its network of walking and cycle routes, many of which get the comprehensive treatment on Walk Highlands’ website. To name but a few, our favourites include: Seamab on whose southern flanks the Kings of Scotland hunted wild boar, Rumbling Bridge with its thundering waterfalls and stunning gorge, and Dollar to Muckhart Mill on the magical River Devon.

From its industrial past, Alloa has become an artistic ‘rising star’. Thirty creative businesses operate from the Makers Village, Marcelle House and the Makers Annexe handily located in the town centre, complete with cafe and free parking. Resonate Together is an energetic community enterprise providing arts house space where local people generate income from creative products and services. So it’s no surprise then that none other than Richard Demarco plugged Alloa’s burgeoning artistic excellence, warning his home town Edinburgh to look to watch its back!  A range of skilled artists – poets, musicians, painters, photographers and craft makers – work and exhibit in this quarter of Alloa. Many promote their work during the vibrant Forth Valley Art Beat festival. Baldiesburn B&B anticipates offering plein air sketching and history trails in collaboration with artists from this highly regarded cadre of creative talent.

No blog on virtually any part of Scotland is complete without mention of golf. Whatever your standard, Baldiesburn B&B has an embarrassment of courses just a drive away, to coin a phrase, including a clutch of the country’s most famous. Nobody is ever disappointed, however, by Muckhart’s own unique 9 x 3 hole golf course with its unexpectedly panoramic views over the Ochils, Fife hills and Firth of Forth. Alloa Shawpark, Alloa Braehead, Alva and Dollar golf clubs also offer their own unique combination of technical challenge and remarkable scenery.

On the subject of outdoor sport, it came as something of a surprise that Alva and Dollar Glens are the stunning setting for the high energy activities of gorge walking and canyoning.  Where gorge walking is a walk up or down a river including jumps and slides, canyoning is its big brother where only descent is possible and involves jumps, slides and harnessed abseils.  Alva’s canyon is apparently one of the best and most extreme here in the Lowlands and has it all: cliff jumping, wild swimming, slides down natural water flumes, abseiling, and scrambling under waterfalls. According to Vertical Descents who brought canyoning to Scotland in 1998, canyoning is perfect for any occasion; family days out, stag & hen trips, corporate team bonding, birthday celebrations and just simply getting under the skin of Scotland’s unique landscape with lashings of adventure thrown in.

Should shopping be mandatory on your weekend, Tillicoultry’s Sterling Mills Shopping Village could be your salvation. If you take the car, free parking is a bonus. Bargains in sports, outdoor wear and quality clothing are the draw here if you’re looking to top up the wardrobe. If house and home wares are on the shopping list, neighbouring Sterling Furniture emporium stocks the best of these, but there might not be much left of the weekend by the time you rediscover the car park.

Coming up, I’ll be exploring Alloa’s punchy art scene, the Wee County’s historic attractions and Cowden Castle Japanese Garden soon to be unveiled near Muckhart.

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