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Swanston & The Pentland Hills: Timeless Inspiration

The road goes down through another valley, and then finally begins to scale the main slope of the Pentlands. A bouquet of old trees stands round a white farmhouse; and from a neighbouring dell, you can see smoke rising and leaves ruffling in the breeze. Straight above, the hills climb a thousand feet into the air. The neighbourhood, about the time of lambs, is clamorous with the bleating of flocks; and you will be awakened, in the grey of early summer mornings, by the barking of a dog or the voice of a shepherd shouting to the echoes. This, with the hamlet lying behind unseen, is Swanston.

-Robert Louis Stevenson, from To the Pentlands

The location that our dear blog friend, Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS), is so beautifully describing is Swanston- a village located in the foothills of the Pentlands (you can read more about RLS here and here). On a recent sunny, Scottish morning, we headed there for a hike and proper exploration. The Pentland Hills are situated just on the outskirts of the city and are sometimes aptly described as the 'lungs of Edinburgh'. You can drive there (as we did), but it is also conveniently reached in about 15 minutes via Lothian buses from the city centre. Make sure to check the Lothian Buses website for more information regarding services and journey planning.

The Pentlands cover quite a large area, and, on this day, we decided to visit Swanston Farm and Village. The Farm and surrounding area are quite historic. In fact, according to the Swanston Farm website, "the first record of Swanston village appears in 1214 as part of the Barony of Redhall. An agreement was struck between a farmer, called Sveinn and the local Anglican landowners, to work the land". Eventually the name 'Sveinn's Farm' became Anglicised to Swanston.

Swanston Farm is perfectly self-described as, 'Edinburgh's very own Countryside Retreat'. It covers over 700 acres and is at the base of Caerketton Hill which is part of the Pentland Hills Regional Park. The Farm is open to the public and has a brasserie, walking trails, holiday cottages, and a golf course. They even have free range chickens on the farm whose eggs supply the brasserie.

The history of the golf course is quite fascinating as, according to the Farm, it was the "brain-child of Miss Margaret Carswell, a prominent member of the Edinburgh Women's Athletic Club". She came up with the idea when faced with the almost complete lack of golfing opportunities for women in Edinburgh. So, in 1927, with the Scottish spunk I truly admire, she decided to lease the land, created her own golf course, and made it only for women (this rule was eventually relaxed). She clearly was a woman ahead of her time.

There is useful information regarding hiking and other outdoor activities through both the Swanston Farm website and the Friends of the Pentlands publication, The Pentland Hills. In it, there is a handy map that outlines various routes and important locations. I got my booklet at the Brasserie which was our first stop during our morning adventure.

We wanted a hearty breakfast to fuel us for our short hike and were not disappointed. I got the smoked salmon with scrambled eggs on baguette and it was very delicious. Others in our group attested to their tasty meals which included such options as french toast, the Swanston Breakfast (aka The Scottish Breakfast), and the Vegetarian Breakfast (which included vegetarian haggis).

We highly recommend this wonderful restaurant for its flavourful fare, spectacular views, and friendly service. Our server was kind enough to give us helpful tips on spotting the Farm's Highland Cows (hairy coos) on the property. The herd often go up into the hills when the weather is hot (and it was on this day). We were fortunate to see them from a distance- more on that shortly. However, we were even luckier to see the famous Highland cows, Thelma and Louise- two old gals who enjoy the more relaxed life in a pasture close to the Brasserie.

After we were thoroughly satiated, we set out on our invigorating walk up the hills. What is lovely about the Pentland Hills is that it is an incredible way to experience all that nature has to offer while still being so close to the city.

It was when we hiked high up into the hills that we were able to spot the Farm's herd of Highland cows albeit still in the distance. They truly are a majestic creature and I'm sure they were enjoying the cooler temperatures and gentle breeze...I know I was!

For a closer look at the Swanston Farm 'hairy coos', check out this video from VisitScotland:

Nearby, we also spotted some sheep and even deer moving through the hills as they have done for centuries. Once we reached our highest point, it was as if they skies were wide open, and the city lay before us in all its splendour.

RLS' words from To The Pentlands provide a great description of the view from the top- "Far out in the lowlands Edinburgh shows herself, making a great smoke on clear days and spreading her suburbs about her for miles; the Castle rises darkly in the midst; and close by, Arthur's Seat makes a bold figure in the landscape. All around, cultivated fields, and woods, and smoking villages, and white country roads, diversify the uneven surface of the land. Trains crawl slowly abroad upon the railway lines; little ships are tacking in the Firth; the shadow of a mountainous cloud, as large as a parish, travels before the wind; the wind itself ruffles the wood and standing corn, and sends pulses of varying colour across the landscape".

Little has changed since Stevenson made his eloquent observations. Perhaps there is a little less chimney smoke, the roads are a little wider, the trains slightly faster, and the ships are sometimes quite larger. Regardless of any minor changes, what is superbly obvious is that Edinburgh is a city whose beauty and character are timeless.

Towards the end of our walk, we strolled by Swanston Cottage. Robert Louis Stevenson's family leased the Cottage (built in 1761) from 1867-1880 when he was in teens to his twenties. During this time, he took advantage of the inspiring and tranquil landscape to write many of his novels and poems.

Of course, the term 'Cottage' doesn't properly convey the beauty and size of the house. It is a rather large home with inviting bay windows and graceful gardens framing it perfectly. Stevenson's words (again from To The Pentlands) best describe it. He commented, "In hot July, you can fancy nothing more perfect than the garden, laid out in alleys and arbours and bright, old-fashioned flower-pots, and ending in a miniature ravine, all trellis-work and moss and tinkling waterfall, and housed from the sun under fathoms of broad foliage". Being there in July made it all the more real and possible to imagine what it must have been like in his day. Closing my eyes, I was able to imagine him sitting under one of the magnificent, old trees writing his beloved poetry and novels. What a glorious place to let your imagination soar.

Continuing along, we were greeted by some beautiful horses that are also resident on the farm and seemed to enjoy their peaceful surroundings. It was a lovely way to end our hike.

If I ever have to stake claim to my favourite place overlooking Edinburgh, it would have to be the Pentland Hills and the Swanston Farm area. Edinburgh- and Scotland as a whole- is absolutely overflowing with a bounty of inspirational places that truly feed the soul and renew the spirit. As I've often stated, it's hard to describe and put into words just how lovely it is. Therefore, if you haven't already, I hope you visit this wondrous land, so you too can hopefully create some of your own magical experiences that will surely stick with you for a lifetime. While you are here, please make sure to check out our Edinburgh walking tours. Our golden retriever tour guide, Sawyer, loves to help show visitors around and adds a unique twist to the experience.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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