Britain: Macaroni pies beneath Bertolucci skies

Scotland's east coast is climatically challenged, despite what some residents say. But in autumn it has other virtues. Wrap up well, says Fi Glover, and surrender to the magnificent pies and skies.
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The Independent Online
My mother used to warn people before they came to stay in Scotland that "the sands on Lunan Bay are sometimes so hot that you can burn the soles of your feet". Please don't use this advice to pack bikinis, high sun factors or great big inflatable Li-Los. The really important word here is "sometimes". Which you could, in fact, replace with rarely/occasionally/once, on 18 August 1996.

She has a point, though, about having to advertise her part of the east coast. The long stretch from Edinburgh up to Aberdeen doesn't have much of a tourist track beaten into it - most coaches turn left at Edinburgh for Glasgow and the west, or put their cruise control on and drive straight up to the Highlands, which is a shame. Now is the best time of year to go east, when the leaves on the trees are turning and the air fares are falling and you're expecting it to be a bit chilly. Better advice than my mother's would be: "Fly to Aberdeen, hire a car, and take jumpers."

The coast itself is a gaunt and straggling version of what you may find on the west. As you drive out of Aberdeen on the coast road, the first thing you notice is a land/sky ratio that you get only in deserts, out at sea, or Bertolucci films: huge sky, tiny land. Stonehaven, the first town you get to, proudly boasts that it's home to the man who made the first pneumatic tyre, which is really rather a clever thing to have done.

Stonehaven is a pretty little harbour town with rather a grand central square and the kind of quayside that makes you want to take arty pictures of lobster nets. The Tolbooth is the oldest building in the harbour and was built as a store during the construction of the local castle, Dunnotar, which makes it the original Portakabin. It now houses a restaurant, and while the other pubs around the quay are showing an addiction to putting any kind of fish in a breadcrumb duffle-coat, the Tolbooth is letting it all hang out in a Seared Orkney King Scallops kind of way.

Alternatively, if you just want to sit on the quayside and scoff, then visit the butcher in the town square. Charles Machardy calls himself a high-class butcher, and has won awards for the last three years. I reckon he keeps winning because of his macaroni pies. This is a piecrust heaped with macaroni cheese - it is a carbohydrate experience and is gooey, creamy and crunchy. Don't knock it till you've tried it.

Leaving Stonehaven with indigestion, you can once again congratulate Mr Pneumatic Tyre on his invention as you climb into your vehicle and head off to Dunnotar Castle. There are signs for it as you leave Stonehaven but you can't see it anywhere. And what kind of a castle is that? Then suddenly, as you're hitting fourth gear on the coast road, there it is, rising out of a dip in the cliffs, a skeletal ruin of brooding, ninth- century menace. Its positioning is extraordinary; I hope whoever designed it got a gold-rimmed certificate from the ninth-century equivalent of the Architectural Journal.

Dunnotar has none of the twee, turretted prettiness of some of Scotland's other national treasures. It's where William Wallace burnt the entire English Plantagenet army alive in 1297, and it's where film directors come in search of the kind of atmosphere that chipboard sets, blue make- up and big budgets could never give them. Stand and shiver for a while as you let that pie settle.

Half-an-hour inland, the scenery changes dramatically. As you head towards the Angus glens, the land gets smoother and the skies get calmer. If you want to "do" a country house while in Scotland then Fasque, home of the Gladstones, is a good choice. This is no Chequers, though while Gladstone was in office Fasque was his get-away-from-it-all ancestral home. Its magnificent first-floor drawing-room has a view past the treetops of the park, where deer graze. If you're lucky - and I was - you get a personal guided tour from Mrs Trainer, who's in charge of the house, and her son Robert.

Robert knows more about Victorian jelly moulds than any boy I've ever met, and Fasque has more jelly moulds than any other stately home I've been to. It also has its fair share of Gladstone memorabilia, from the original bag to a table full of Really Important Messages From Really Important People in their original red leather rolls. And if you visit next weekend you're in for a bonus, as Bonham's will be taking over. The auctioneer will be hosting what is called a "stately attic sale", with treasures from the lofts of four stately homes, Fasque among them. Much of the furniture not on display in the house will be up for grabs, from huge chaises-longues to entire sets of snooker cues.

But the east coast is really about outdoor things: huge gulps of fresh air and beautiful views, both of which you can get in Glen Esk. My mother, when she wasn't nursing her burnt feet, used to dress my sister and me in matching cagoules and take us up Glen Esk every summer. We used to picnic up by Tarfside, the furthest point you can drive to, where we'd look for adders and try to spot salmon in the clear water in the stream.

Doesn't it sound idyllic? I hated it, mainly because of the cagoule which, even at the age of nine, I knew was a fashion faux pas. I wouldn't be the first lady to want to travel in style through the glen, though: Queen Victoria has her own little memorial there. She came over the hills from Balmoral on her way to the local Invermark Castle, and stopped with Albert to drink from a spring. The local laird heard about it, and to commemorate the event he built a stone memorial, the Queen's Well, which marks that thirst-quenching stop. I wonder whether people still do the same thing for the royals; perhaps there's a Princess Margaret vending machine in a sports hall somewhere bearing the inscription: "Madge stopped here and drank a No 2 with sugar."

If you'd rather have beach beauty, then try my favourite place in the world ever, which is Lunan Bay (of the scorching sands). There's a castle set back from the beach and overlooking the dunes which is simply called the Red Castle because of its glorious stone. It's a ruin in the proper sense - parts of it are still dropping off on a monthly basis - and there, stretched out before it, is Lunan Bay.

There are only so many ways you can describe a beach and most of them have been done before and involve saying sibilant things such as "sweeping stretches of sand". But Lunan is more than that - it's comfy jumpers and holding hands and dribbling noses, and it's gorgeous. You can spend an afternoon hunting for fossils on the beach, or walk up to the Red Castle and place your bets on which bit will fall off next, or just lie on the sand looking up at the big, big sky and wondering why you didn't buy more macaroni pies.

Fi Glover paid pounds 77 for a return flight on British Airways (0345 222111); Air UK (0345 666777) currently sells flights from London Stansted to Aberdeen for pounds 54 return, including tax. Avis (0990 900500), Hertz (0990 996699) and Budget (0541 565656) rent cars from Aberdeen airport. Fasque is open 1 May-30 September, 11am-5.30 pm. Dunnotar Castle is open all year round. Contact Bonham's (0131-226 3204) for details of the attic sale, to be held on 27 September. Tolbooth restaurant, Stonehaven: 01569 762287. On Monday at 8.30pm on BBC2, Fi Glover can be seen cooking even more exotic fare as the culmination of a Thai Cookery course for 'The Travel Show'.