Where is Angus? Glens, hills and a fine coast

Angus? It’s not just a good name for a Highland cow (actually, bull). It’s a really interesting chunk of Scotland that you might have overlooked.

Answering the question about where is Angus is easy: it’s that east-side chunk of Scotland just above the central belt that is partly in the Highlands yet also about as typically east coast Lowland as it can get.

An even shorter answer would be: Angus is often in the middle of a Scottish journey to somewhere else.

Where is Angus?
Where is Angus? It’s off to the right!

Nope, no arguing with geography. That’s the trouble with half-way places. They generate that mental note to ‘must stop off one day’ or a faint realisation that ‘gosh, this is nice – a pity we didn’t have more time’.

That’s always how Angus has struck me, anyway – and I’ve been on Scottish journeys, between north and south, all my days.

(Pictured: Arbroath Abbey.)

High summer in Glen Prosen, Angus

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Easy access to a major Scottish city, easy access to the southern portion of the Cairngorms National Park; then add a selection of not unattractive wee towns plus a peerless coastline and it’s beginning to sound like a nice mix, don’t you think?

The former county of Angus is one of Scotland’s ‘unitary authorities’. Its residents mostly look to neighbouring Dundee for a city fix and they also have the advantage of disappearing up the Angus Glens if they want to ‘get away from it all’

(Pictured: high summer in Glen Prosen.)

And another thing. Angus has lots of potatoes. And strawberries. It’s altogether fertile and veggiefalarious. Then there’s seafood. You can’t move around downtown Arbroath without falling into a fish shop. You can even buy scallops on a Sunday down by the harbour. And we’ll get to Arbroath smokies in a minute (or, at least, further down the page).

Where is Angus? Not near Skye anyway…

So, why won’t you stop in Angus? Oh, wait, I know, you’re drawn to the royal connections in the valley of the River Dee, in Aberdeenshire to the north. So you’re cruising up the A90 – it’s an easy dual-carriageway anyway, that goes right through Angus.

If you really, really think you’d like Balmoral Castle, you can visit it on a day trip from an Angus base. (Oh, and if you read the things to avoid in Scotland page, then you’ll find find some reasons not to…!)

Hornswoggled by marketing…

However, it’s even more likely that you’ve been so hornswoggled by the marketing of the isle of Skye that you’re away to the west. Aye, you’ll be on the roadwork-smitten and half-clogged A9 en route for bustling Inverness or wet and bedraggled Fort William.

The Road to the Isles has once again trumped the Road to the Smokie (which I invented just now.)

Three parts of Angus

Consider Angus in three parts: the coast, the middle valley and the hills.

Here’s a quick skim through these components.

The coast is pretty spectacular and unspoilt. If you’d like to see (and I quote) ‘reticulate weathering of Downtonian sandstone’ then fill your boots. Serious geology is laid bare hereabouts.

(Pictured: Seaton Cliffs.)

On the other hand, if you’d just like some coastal walking with cliffs and coves, plus nice beaches, then you’ll love what’s on offer, and all signposted and explained by helpful info boards in many places.

Strathmore – the Big Valley

Strathmore - the Big Valley - and the Grampian Hills beyond
Looking west-ish across Strathmore to the line of the Grampian Hills and the boundary fault. Small town of Laurencekirk in middle distance.

The middle section is called Strathmore, from the Gaelic meaning the big wide valley. This area runs north-east/south-west with the frowning Highland hills above and some gentler slopes below, between valley and coast.

As well as being productive – including the most northerly asparagus farm in Scotland – there are fine woodlands and a cosy, weel-happit (Scots: well-wrapped up) feel about the area.

The Highland Boundary Fault

Then – the third part of Angus – there are the big hills beyond the Highland Boundary Fault. What’s the HBF? Oh, that’s where geologically speaking, the real Highlands start. HBF and Strathmore lie in parallel.

River North Esk, autumn
The River North Esk tumbling across the Highland Boundary fault. Autumn in lower Glen Esk.

As you whizz north, through Angus by the dual carriageway A90, the line of hills to the north look impenetrable. But – and this is such an attractive feature – long and mostly motorable glens run far into the National Park.

And where the drivable road stops, ancient, historic rights-of-way continue the journey up to the rolling plateau-lands of the Southern Cairngorms and hence the further north.

The Reekie Linn on the River Isla, in winter – another Angus waterfall that drops through the Highland Boundary Fault.

Towns of Angus

The notable country towns inland in the Strath include Kirriemuir, gateway to the Angus glens, and associated inevitably with Peter Pan; then there’s Forfar, home of the bridie which is a kind of pleasing meat pie packaged a tiny bit like an English Cornish pasty.

Next is Brechin, birthplace of Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar (of all things)

(Pictured: Arbroath townscape with abbey, distant, left.)

Then, on the coast, you have Carnoustie, famed for its British Open Championship golf course.

Nearby is Arbroath, whose name is not just synonymous with the inescapable smokie (see below) but also the Scots’ Declaration of Independence, a document written in the 14th century and sent to the pope, asking if he could get the English off their backs.

‘Wigeon Hide’ (an appropriate name – there are hundreds in winter!) Spires of Montrose town on horizon. Birdwatchers should try for high tide as the birds are nearer!

Further up the coast is Montrose, another pleasant little typical Scottish town that also has much to commend it, including an Air Station Heritage Centre with its own ghost.

Montrose Basin lies just behind the town and its the perfect place for to enjoy a lot of mud at low tide (if you have feathers).

The huge numbers of waders and over-wintering grey geese say there’s nothing quite like it. It’s spectacular (there’s that word again) in winter.

An Auchmithie garden on a calm autumn day. Auchmithie is the original home of the Arbroath smokie (see below).

So, that’s the briefest outline on Angus and why you’d like it. It has heritage, scenery and shopping to match anywhere else in Scotland.

In theory, tending towards the east should mean better weather: lower rainfall. And not until you’re well into the uplands will you encounter midges in any numbers.

Sure, it’s not ‘undiscovered’ – as that is a word that barely applies to the tourism product in Scotland. But Angus is less over-run than holiday destinations further north and west.

So, where is Angus? It should in your list of options in Scotland. The old county is well worth a look.

And it probably qualifies for inclusion for off the beaten track places in Scotland.


All about the Arbroath smokie

I can’t put it off any more. I have to explain the smokie allusions.

Wherever you go in Arbroath, they’re pushing smokies! (And other top quality seafood as well.

Maybe you thought Angus was just the back half of the label ‘Aberdeen-Angus’. This, of course, is the label of a much revered breed of coo, which originated in the north-(east) of Scotland and has a certain cachet amongst those of us who appreciate red meat.

But no, forget the meaty coo, as even its status is usurped by an Angus food product with Protected Geographical Indication. And that’s the Arbroath smokie. It’s a smoked fish. (Whatever you do, don’t call it a kipper.)

Protected Geographical Indication for an Angus product

Like champagne or parma ham, the protected status of the Arbroath smokie means it can only be produced close to its place of origin. In this case it means within five miles of the town of Arbroath, though, strictly speaking, the smokie originated in the wee clifftop village of Auchmithie, just to the north.

Arbroath smokie - cooked and served plainly.
An Arbroath smokie actually in its natural habitat – a pub restaurant in Arbroath, Angus. This one is fairly unadorned but still a delicious flavour.

Arbroath smokies are taken very seriously, hereabouts. Small haddock are gutted, beheaded and tied together in pairs by the tail. They are hung over rods suspended over a wee smoky fire in a barrel and the process is controlled by placing damp hessian cloth over the conflagration.

(At least, that’s the basic traditional method. The process is usually scaled up in traditional smoke-houses.)

A hot smoking method

The smoking process is Scandinavian in origin, say the experts, and it is a hot smoking technique, meaning the fish is smoked and cooked at the same time. (Unlike that poor relation, the kipper…)

To be honest, you might find the reverence and solemnity which surrounds the smokie a little curious, but ‘tis a harmless local custom and no coastal Angus restaurant is without its smokie offering, either plain with tatties or in many other forms, including a gratin, flan or chowder.

More on Scottish food here.