From Inverness, we hopped in our rental car for the three hour drive south to the village of Blackford, about twenty minutes outside of Stirling, in Perthshire. Ideally located near at least a half dozen golf courses, including Gleneagles (just a ten minute drive away), and an equal number of whisky distilleries, this unassuming area makes the perfect launching point for day trips in all directions.
Our home for 3 nights was the Barn Cottage at Panholes Cottages, some of the most luxurious self-catering accommodation I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. We had a large, well-appointed kitchen, living room, laundry, as well as 2 bedrooms upstairs, each with their own on-suite. Open, pastural views are what’s on order at Panholes. Accessed by a country lane, and surrounded by farmland and a golf course, there’s a deep sense of quiet here. We quickly settled in to the cottage’s beautifully decorated comfort, and felt yet another residual layer of real-life tension melt away.We spent one very energetic morning climbing the 246 steps of The Wallace Monument, the Victorian Memorial to William Wallace, 13th Century hero and leader during the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Along with Andrew Moray, Wallace defeated the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, and was Guardian of Scotland, serving until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298. He was captured in 1305 and handed over to King Edward I of England, who had Wallace hung, drawn and quartered for high treason.
We spent the next day exploring Stirling and it’s Castle, which has now taken top spot as my favourite castle to visit. Married to an Englishman for eighteen years, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to comb my way through many a castle during our visits over the years. Add to that two summers backpacking through Europe, and I feel pretty qualified to comment on a castle’s visitor experience.
Stirling gets full marks for beauty, historical significance and educational value. As soon as we walked under the porticullis, I noticed a sign pointing to the castle’s kitchens, and I knew it was going to be a good day, despite the rainy weather. And as we moved from the kitchens to the Great Hall, Chapel Royal and on to the King and Queen’s inner chambers, the splendour, colour and glorious craftsmanship of 16th Century Scotland came to life.
After a long day of sightseeing, we retreated back to our cottage, where I sorted through the groceries leftover from our week on cruising the Caledonian Canal, and put together this simple yet very satisfying All-Scottish Barley Risotto.
I made a quick vegetable stock from leeks, garlic, carrots and a teaspoon of tomato paste. It was a little darker than your average veggie stock, but it lent the finished dish a rich, appetizing colour.
Once the stock was done, I strained it and kept it warm on the back of the stove while I browned some Scottish bacon lardons, then used the fat to sweat a bit of onion and celery before adding the barley to toast. I deglazed the pan with local cider, then poured the rest of the bottle into a glass. (Risotto is thirsty work.)
After that, it was just a matter of using the risotto technique: adding stock and cooking it down, stirring constantly, until the barley is ever so slightly al dente. At that point, I stirred in the last of our Crowdie, a fresh Scottish cheese, that while nothing like the traditional finish to a risotto, Parmesan, adds a light tang and a wonderful creaminess.