Guys, this is Ernie.
He’s a seven year old white-haired golden doodle (a retriever crossed with a poodle, in case you didn’t know). He’s huge, fluffy, insanely friendly, and a lot of the time he lives in Scotland.
Those of you following me on Instagram might have seen this adorable creature on my Stories from time to time. He’s been in London occasionally, racing around wide open parks in the East end, and he’s appeared in the horse box during a music tour with a Chilean band (when there definitely wasn’t quite enough room for him).
But the last time I went to visit Ernie, we spent a week exploring Stirlingshire.
Welcome to a beautiful part of Scotland
Although I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Scotland over the years, it’s usually been relegated to major cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Stirlingshire, nestled between the lowlands and highlands of Scotland, is a new part of the country for me. It’s probably most famous for the imposing Stirling Castle, which sits at the summit of a flat-topped hill and can be seen through car windscreens for miles around, but it’s equally well known for sites like the National Wallace Monument, the Battle of Bannockburn’s battlefield, and the stunning Dunblane Cathedral.
But I wasn’t really in Stirlingshire to see the official tourist attractions. Instead, we were off adventuring – by which I mean piling into a converted van and turning our wheels towards the lochs and the rolling hills; towards open farmland, estate houses owned by lords and ladies, and picking our way through abandoned buildings.
And Ernie the dog was leading the way throughout.
A small aside about me and dogs
I’ve always thought I wasn’t a dog person. Historically, that’s true enough: when growing up I registered the childhood animosity between those who loved dogs versus those who loved cats, and seeing as I was besotted with my family’s cat, it felt obvious that dogs and I would never get on.
When I travelled to India in 2012 however, something changed. I watched my dog-loving friend Bianca patiently stroke and care for the poor strays trotting around the street who clearly idolised her for it – and something suddenly slotted into place.
I realised that dogs are awesome.
Before I began spending time with Ernie, of course, I’d never realised how much dog ownership impacts your life. Asking London pubs about their dog policies and Googling what types of London transport will allow dogs on board is an entirely new avenue for me – and the resulting answers can definitely change how you travel.
Luckily it seems like the majority of Scotland is dog friendly, to the extent that cafe owners and pub landlords get over-excited when they spot this giant dog lolloping towards them. Every place we visited in Stirling had their own unique reception for Ernie – like these seven spots!
1. Boating across the Lake of Menteith
Our first excursion into the sights and sounds of Stirlingshire was riding a little boat to Inchmahome Priory, an old set of ruins which sit in the middle of the Lake of Menteith.
Apparently, the Lake of Meneith is the only lake in Scotland!… Except nobody seems willing to explain quite why it’s known as a ‘lake’ (the English word) instead of a ‘loch’ (the Scottish word). This site tries to explain, but I’m still confused.
For us, it was enough to soak up the sunshine and watch Ernie gallavanting around the tall grass, occasionally disturbing couples having romantic moments on photogenic benches.
2. Lunch at Mhor 84
Ernie practically dragged me in through the door of Mhor 84, a hotel and restaurant which used to be an unassuming roadside inn but after a compete overhaul now serves up one of the best Full English breakfasts I’ve honestly ever tasted.
Ernie was in heaven – first by making friends with all the dogs behind the bar and their owners too, and then by trying his damnedest to look adorable enough for a slice of sausage.
I’m pretty sure he got some with that face.
3. Wandering the little town of Callander
Close to the entrance of the Trossachs National Park, Callander feels like a quintessentially Scottish town. Wherever I looked I saw signs for tartan, butcher windows filled with haggis, and sweetshops selling Scottish tablet.
We also picked a pretty stunning day to visit.
Ernie’s escapades took us past a river filled with very tempting ducks and up a flight of hillside steps, before heading straight down again into Callander’s high street.
Ernie even managed to make friends with a dog who looked extremely similar to him – and as they happened to meet outside a whisky shop, there was every reason to quickly pop in and try a few wee drams.
It would have been rude not to.
4. Discovering Rob Roy’s grave
Close to Callander, and just outside the tiny village of Balquidder, I spotted a little churchyard and a sign for Rob Roy’s grave.
After we let Ernie go bounding through the churchyard in the drizzling grey rain, we stood at the graveside of this famous Scottish outlaw and folk hero, looking at the pennies and scraps of ribbon which had been left by visitors and wellwishers.
5. Exploring an abandoned old hotel
Eventually we got off the beaten track and let Ernie’s doggy senses guide us. Close to the end of a forest-lined loch we spotted an abandoned hotel, all gaping floors and broken rafters, and couldn’t help ourselves.
We snuck through an open window, vaguely attempted instructing Ernie not to follow, and then realised how redundant that idea was.
(Let’s just say there’s a lot more I want to write about this house and what we learned inside it… So I’ll leave that story for another day.)
6. Playing fetch in a loch
Down by the loch itself, we tried improving Ernie’s swimming capabilities by throwing sticks for him to fetch.
And this is where one of my favourite qualities about Ernie comes to the fore: no matter where he is, he always seems to utterly commit to enjoying himself.
7. Setting up a music festival
It’s a similar situation at one of Ernie’s regular hangouts in Stirlingshire: the Cardross Estate, a beautiful house set on working farmland where a music festival named ‘Doune the Rabbit Hole’ takes place each August.
‘Doune the Rabbit Hole’ has been running for the past eight years (although this is the first year I’ll be attending!), and it’s now grown to the point where preparations are usually always happening around the site.
As far as Ernie’s concerned, it means lots of dog lovers to stroke him, lots of dog friends to hang out with, and plenty of happily grazing sheep which he can casually edge a little too close to and be sternly commanded back again.
For me, it was a chance to see the world through his eyes: how he immediately socialises with everyone he possibly can, being insatiably happy and enjoying life in the absolute present moment.
Seeing the world through a dog’s eyes
Each morning, Ernie’s awake and out the door with boundless energy, and each night after a day of exploration he curls up happily to sleep near the humans he loves.
He dares to do things he’s unsure of – swimming in lochs, exploring abandoned buildings, even sitting underneath tables with bacon on – because the people he listens to say it’s a good idea. Some of those experiences might make him stronger.
Problems and difficulty don’t last long for Ernie, either. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen him unhappy was when another dog took over his rightful place in the van’s driving seat.
I’m dealing with a lot at the moment. Things are getting serious again, and I’m trying my absolute best to take each day as it comes. I’m thinking about life a bit more like Ernie undoubtedly does: stoically dealing with difficulties whenever they appear, but always seeing the positives as their bright, shining selves.
And there’s no doubt I’ll be back in Scotland again soon – I haven’t even made it into the city of Stirling to explore yet. I’ll have to ask Ernie to show me around next time.