It’s that time of year. Valentine’s Day is approaching. And, hey, don’t get us wrong – we love love. We even have stories from some of our travellers who met while they were on tour, and eventually fell in love. A true Rabbie’s love story.
But the kind of love we feel every day is the reason we exist. It’s what drives us to continue exploring. A love for a place. An endless blue loch glistening under a burning autumn sky. A sweeping craggy moorland hiding in the mist, luring you in with its secrets. A quiet cobbled alleyway that you take on your way to the oldest pub in town, where names of those long-gone are scratched into stone.
So, for this Valentine’s Day, we thought we’d celebrate love of a different kind. The kind of love that – in our experience – never dies. For those living in or visiting the UK and Ireland, we thought we’d take a look at some local spots we love, championed by the writers who loved their countries as much as we do.
My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.
- Robert Burns
All good poets have passionate love stories and Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns was no exception. While it was his love for Jean Armour that defined much of his love life, it was his love for his country that defined his work. His poem above, 'My Heart's in the Highlands', has withstood time and change and this rapidly moving world. It’s a poem that we continue to love and, now more than ever, we understand his love of the Scottish Highlands.
From the Massacre of Glen Coe to the legends of the Three Sisters, the alluring Loch Ness Monster to the fairy folk who might steal you away at any moment, the Highlands are a playground of mystery, intrigue, and undeniable beauty.
And speaking of those sneaky fairies, if you do happen to meet one, keep hold of your heart. One legend goes that on the Isle of Skye, there was once a man who fell in love with a fairy that he encountered by a mystical loch. Ignoring all warnings, the two whisked themselves away into a passionate romance. But eventually, the fairy was forced to return to her magical realm and the heartbroken man spent the rest of his life longing for his fairy love.
Maybe we shouldn’t have started with Scotland. It’s hard to tell a Scottish story or legend that doesn’t involve heartbreak, bloodshed, or tragedy. But that hardship contrasts quite nicely with our stunning landscape, don’t you think? Makes it all the more dramatic.
Same could be said for Edinburgh’s Old Town. Travellers come from all over the world to wander the Royal Mile on a misty Scottish morning as they make their way to the castle on high. But many don’t know that it was once the stage for a tragic love story between Mary, Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley. What began as a union of two powerful people quickly turned into a sour relationship that eventually ended with two brutal murders.
And yet... there’s something about the Old Town. Historic buildings. Narrow closes. Hidden courtyards. It’s a history book stuck open on a page, trapped in time. Medieval and Renaissance architecture, the home of Scottish taverns and tartan workshops, hiding tunnels and vaults and death beneath its cobbled streets. Old Town is like a person. Its aged buildings like wrinkles on a face. Its hidden tunnels like harrowing stories from one’s past. But all of it makes this person real, beautiful... someone, something we love.
"To love is to burn, to be on fire."
- Jane Austen
This is a different kind of love. Less dramatic and more like cradling a warm cup of tea between your hands on an icy winter morning. A teaspoon of honey stirred in to make it sweet. A fluffy coat to hug your body and protect it from the relentless cold.
An almost too-good-to-be-true kind of place. That’s the Cotswolds. Words like idyllic and hamlet and cottages come to mind.
It’s a storybook kind of setting. Stone cottages and cobbled streets surrounded by countryside views. It’s everything you picture when reading a Jane Austen novel. And you gaze out at the rolling landscape around you, hoping that Mr Darcy will come strolling out of the mist with his white shirt unbuttoned at the top.
As you wander the rows of beautiful stone homes, you can almost sense the ghosts of past lovers. Those beautiful doorways you’re passing by? Perhaps, once upon a time, a young man knocked nervously on one of them, wedding ring in his jacket pocket, flowers in hand. Perhaps, once upon a time, a pebble was hopefully tossed at a window moments before a face appeared in the frosted glass. Perhaps you’ll leave your own impression of love behind, the same way the Cotswolds leaves its impression on you.
The birthplace and burial place of Shakespeare can’t be anything but romantic. While both tragedy and comedy define his plays, love is a central theme across his works. It’s what drives Romeo and Juliet to take their own lives. It’s what finally breaks Beatrice and Benedict’s feud. It’s what leads to the destruction of Othello.
So, no wonder Stratford-upon-Avon draws visitors year after year. Shakespeare’s personal life remains somewhat of a mystery, but many know of his enduring love for Anne Hathaway, and it comes to mind as one wanders the Tudor-infused streets of this town. Timber-framed buildings and cobblestone streets are your charming backdrop as you go for a romantic stroll. Perhaps you’re heading for one of the quaint tea rooms. Be sure to take the route along the River Avon if you can. And later you may find yourself in the childhood home of Shakespeare’s greatest love.
“It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.”
- Roald Dahl (The Witches)
True love is beautiful and Eryri is natural beauty at its finest. Wales' largest national park lures people in with her ancient Abergwynant woodland, her unrivalled peaks, and her gaze-worthy coastlines.
But we don’t just love Eryri for her perfect beauty. We love her for her imperfections – those things that make her unique. Like the submerged forest found at glacial lake Llyn Cau, only visible during dry periods when the water drops. Like a love that is shared and then temporarily lost.
But lost love doesn’t have to go unnoticed, it can be immortalised like the love Llywelyn had for his faithful dog Gelert. Local legend tells us that Llywelyn mistakenly killed Gelert after believing the dog had harmed his child. When he realised that Gelert had in fact been protecting the child from a wolf, the baby now hidden away safely, a devastated Llewelyn erected a statue over Gelert’s grave, honouring the life of his beloved companion.
And Welsh-born children’s author Roald Dahl is no stranger to love or loss either. The tragedy of losing his beloved daughter Olivia to measles had a lasting impact on Dahl’s life and work, even influencing some of his later stories.
To understand this island in Wales, you need to know a bit about a fifth-century princess called Dwynwen. According to legend, she fell in love with a young man named Maelon. As all good ancient love legends go, her father disapproved of the match. Dwynwen prayed for help and an angel appeared, turning Maelon to ice. Why? Angels don’t need a reason.
But Dwynwen was granted three wishes. She wished for Maelon to be thawed, for God to assist all true lovers, and for her never to marry. After that, Dwynwen retreated to Llanddwyn Island to live as a hermit and dedicated her life to helping lovers. Today, Llanddwyn Island is named after Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers.
And as with all good love stories, the legend developed and has influenced the island over the years. Take the Wishing Well, for instance. Go to the well, make a wish, leave a token, and it may just be granted – particularly if it pertains to matters of the heart.
And remember that tragic tale from Scotland that warns that fairies and mortals shouldn’t mix when it comes to love? Well, there’s another legend about this kind of tumultuous love... but in Wales, things aren’t as grim as in Scotland, it seems. The fairy and mortal man from this legend would meet in secret on the island. But the fairy chose to become mortal and they lived out their lives together on Llanddwyn Island.
So, if anywhere is blessed for a happy romantic union, it sounds like it’s going to be here.
“Of which the first is love. The sad, unrepeatable fact
that the loves we shouldn’t foster burrow faster and linger longer
than sanctioned kinds can. Loves that thrive on absence, on lack
of return, or worse, on harm, are unkillable, Father.”
- Sinéad Morrissey (& Forgive Us Our Trespasses)
A mournful love. An aching love. We try not to think about it, but love isn’t always beautiful and happy. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes it’s dark.
And yet... we are lured in by the declarations of love. Whether they’re for unbridled loved, unrequited or requited, quiet or passionate. And somehow the Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland encompass all of the above.
This sensational nave of enormous beech trees was a declaration of love, a statement of power, and a symbol of what can be done when passion takes over. Back in 1755, James Stuart decided to build a mansion for his wife Grace. But James was not the kind of man to do things halfway. Along the entrance road to this new statement, James decided to plant over 150 beech trees leading up to his estate to impress visitors as they approached.
We’d say it worked.
“Love, yes. Word known to all men.”
- James Joyce
Blarney Castle, yes. A place known to many. This 15th-century historic fortress has become famous for a different kind of love... the love one has for stone. It’s perhaps one of the rowdiest castles in the world because people come here to lay their lips on the Blarney Stone.
This ‘Stone of Eloquence’ is set into the battlements of Blarney Castle and legend has it that those who kiss the stone are bestowed with the “gift of the gab”. This comes from a story that involves a builder, a legal dispute, and the goddess Cliodhna.
But we don’t want to talk about that legend today. Instead, we want to add a touch of romance to a well-known tale. Why? Because, love, yes.
One story you may not have heard before tells of a woman who saved a lord from danger. To show his appreciation, he gifted her the Blarney Stone to add to the castle. To show her gratitude for his gift, the woman asked for her permission to kiss the stone. The lord was charmed by this odd request but agreed, nonetheless. Legend has it that the stone gained its eloquence-bestowing powers from this sweet act of gratitude and romance.
So, whether it’s Valentine’s Day or just a casual Monday when you’re feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, these are our top recommendations for places to go where you can really sense the love built into the foundations. Growing out of the landscape like a blooming flower. Excuse the cheesiness of this post. Love has that effect; it seems.