Cold and rain that slammed into my bones like a dull knife was the introduction Scotland gave to our arrival. It felt great – glad to be alive! A rainbow curved in the exploding sky as we crossed the border. It is incredible how the hills suddenly morph into a rugged feeling as you enter Scotland. The earth is much more jagged and in the rough. Although daffodils were still in bloom, and sheep grazed the craggy hillsides, there were still patches of snow in the upper reaches of the hills. Late spring, indeed.
In retrospect I have to say Scotland was my favorite country on the trip. Couldn’t tell you why, it just was. Maybe it’s something in the stark beauty of the land. Maybe it’s the attitude of the people – you can’t keep a good Scot down. We met up with so many cheerful people, proud to be Scots and glad for you coming to visit. It made for a great atmosphere.
As we would eventually become accustomed to seeing all through the UK and the Republic of Ireland, in the countryside there is no lack of abandoned stone buildings, both large and small. The Abbey at Melrose was particularly desolate, and we wandered about, exploring and taking pictures. Back in the day, after King Henry VIII established the Church of England, he concentrated on getting the monks and their abbeys out of operation. Many were stripped of their roofs and other sellable items, replenishing the King’s treasury while forcing the monks out. Not too many abbeys were repurposed.
Monday was a bank holiday, which meant traffic everywhere. The exits off the roadways to the malls were literally miles long. This left us barely enough time to check into the hotel and get to the group dinner at Preston Field for the Taste of Scotland dinner show. Our bagpiper had some lively stepping music as we entered the hall with about a thousand other people. A little bit traditional, a little bit pop, but the real eye opener was the Haggis! No one really knows what is in haggis – although from now on we would find it in the breakfast buffet right next to the black and white pudding. Let’s just say it’s what’s left of the nose to snout after all the good parts are taken. It’s rolled into a sausage shape and served sliced, so each maker has their own special grind. Very tasty – a nice spice blend but strange texture.
Edinburgh – what a great city! Another location where it would have been super to have more time – as in many more days. After an on-bus city tour, we stopped at the Edinburgh Castle and had a few hours to browse through all the exhibits. There are also some amazing views to be had along the castle walls – the Firth of Forth (a firth being where river meets sea), Arthur’s Seat and the whole city panorama were quite impressive.
Here’s a little bit of history about Edinburgh as told by our tour guide. It was built on seven hills, Old Town residing on its own hill. This high point is where the castle is located, which is the start-off point of the Royal Mile, a famous shopping area. Castles were built for defense, Palaces were built for comfort. New Town was built from scratch exclusively for the rich. They would build the sandstone houses in blocks of twelve, financing the subsequent block of twelve based on the profits from the previous block. They all reflect the same Georgian architecture – named after the current George at the time, George III (the king who lost the colonies).
There were many famous people who either lived in Edinburgh or hailed from it – Alexander Bell of telephone fame; Dr. Lister, inventor of antiseptic; Dr. Simpson who developed anesthesia; Dr. Lind of the University of Edinburgh, who developed the cure for scurvy.
Let’s not forget the famous 1800’s writers – Sir Walter Scott and Edward Louis Stevenson. Deacon Brody, who has a bar or two named after him, was the inspiration for Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. In modern times, there is Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, and also Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling. A metal plaque marks the place where the Harry Potter series was written at the Elephant Tea and Coffee House on George Street.
William Pitt’s father may have made a name for himself in America, where the city of Pittsburgh (and why is it not pronounced Pitts-bor-o?) was named after him, but William the son was not so happily popular in Edinburgh. He started the window tax to offset the tea taxes, which caused some crafty locals to paint their windows black to avoid being taxed.
Edinburgh castle – where we found the Scottish crown jewels, depictions of life during the early days of the city, modern war memorials, ancient jousting equipment. We actually were able to feel the heft of a real sword as carried by a knight back in the day. Pretty heavy, but well balanced. Armor might have weighed about sixty pounds, which is equivalent to a modern soldier’s pack, but the weight was equally distributed and therefor easier to carry. Either way, in my book, carrying that much metal would make for a long, hard day.
After the castle we ducked out of some errant precipitation for lunch at George IV Pub – you won’t find many tributes to George III – he’s the King that lost the colonies. Roasted pepper and tomato soup is a blend we ran into again and again – at some point I will have to play with a recipe here at home. It’s quite a tasty combination and George IV Pub had a really good version of it. Fish and Chips, bangers and mash, vegetable patties – something for everyone, all good.
At the base of the castle road, where the local shops start, on the left side Tartan Weaving Mills resides. What a treasure! They not only carry every type of plaid imaginable in scarf form, and a wide variety of sweaters, skirts, accessories and other such things, you can have your family tartan designed and woven on the premises. It’s about five stories, and the bottom story is where the looms are located. The looms were undergoing maintenance while I was there, but I did get to talk to one of the employees. I also added a locally produced extra fine merino wool (crepe) scarf that was stamp printed to my scarf collection. Light enough to wear in Arizona, thank you very much!
Who would have thought that in the National Museum of Scotland that we would see the tapestry work of a Navajo artist who hails from Arizona – D.Y. Begay. I’ve seen her work at the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix! Overall this museum seemed to lack focus, and I wish that we could have had time to see the National Gallery or the Botanical Gardens, but there are only so many hours in the day. The Scottish history part of the museum was the most interesting, with musical instruments, stonework and clothing from the earliest days of Scotland. But before we knew it, it was time to head to the bus stop and make our way back to the hotel and dinner.
Traveling more north, we arrived at what is probably the most cited destination of Scotland – St. Andrews and the infamous golf course. St. Andrews is a really nice small town. The legendary golf course is a short walking distance from both the town center and St. Andrews University. One factoid I never knew (aside from the fact that St. Andrews is right on the coast) is that the beach that is near the golf course is where they filmed the opening running scenes from Chariots of Fire. That sure brought back memories – it was quite the blockbuster of its time. The old celtic cathedral has most of its walls still standing, and there is a museum to tour. It outlines ancient local history – mostly of the Church of England driving out the catholics. The town itself has a lot of stonework, busy with locals going about on their business in the town, and many tea and coffee shops to choose from, as well as local Scottish goods – plaid scarves, sweaters, etc. We stopped off at Gorgeous Tea Shop – tea just the right strength and scones that couldn’t be beat. This would serve as a continuation of an established pattern to find either scones or a soup and sandwich combination for our lunch stops. Great way to sample the scones, keep charged up, and leave room for dinner. Especially after loading up on those English/Scottish/Irish breakfast buffets. Las Vegas buffets have nothing on these breakfast spreads!
None too worse for the wear in the morning, we were back on the road to check off the day’s agenda. Our hotel was actually located in “Inver”, which means river, so Inverness means River Ness. Here is the town of Inverness in the background, with the river bordering it – what an ominous and mysterious atmosphere! Fits in well with the prelude to a monster-siting on the Loch.
Not only did we get a nice dollop of sunshine, but Nessie herself – the reputed Loch Ness monster – made her appearance.
After that exciting loch experience, we needed to grab a few Scottish scones at the Spean Bridge center. It’s a cute comfort stop that caters to the traveling tourist needs – enough Scottish scarves in all plaids of every imagination, as well as free whisky samples, foodstuffs, soaps, etc……
We hit the cafe and had a proper pot of tea with some more amazing scones. I certainly can’t get enough of those tasty treats. There are local twists and the standard favorites, but I can honestly say that I never had a bad scone the whole time we were there. They are so much lighter than the American versions, and some even have an almost cake-y texture. Pure heaven.
Signs of conquest and war are all throughout the United Kingdom – some overridden by modern building and the crush of modern population size, some are skeletons strewn along the countryside. There are official memorials, abandoned castles, piles of rocks. At any point in time you may be standing in the middle of an ancient battlefield. There is one battlefield memorial, Culloden Battlefield – the last stand of the Jacobites in their attempt to reclaim the crown. A devastating loss for the Stuarts, at the hand of the Duke of Cumberland. Another factoid – the cairn tradition is basically a war memorial. It is a pile of rocks that represents each man that did not return from battle. Each soldier would add a rock to the pile before he left for battle. Soldiers who returned picked their rock off from the pile. Those who did not return were then memorialized by the rocks left. Leave it to the Scots to make a romantic gesture of a heartbreaking aspect of war. In the case of this battle, which occurred on April 16, 1746, it was over in 45 minutes and obliterated almost 2,000 soldiers. Very moving site.
The wheels of the bus go round and round, and rounded their way to Oban – gateway to the isles. Oban’s population is typically about 4,000 year round residents. During the summer months, however, it can grow up to 25,000. Our hotel was right in the middle of town, which also meant it had a view of the harbor. We cornered the market at the Oban Distillery, where we learned its history, brewing methodology and also sampled the product. I might mention a small bottle made its way to purchase for a passage to America. Oban was easy walking about town – some of the travelers enjoyed the local pubs and what few of the local wares shops that were open – but it would be an early morning to take the ferry to the inner Hebrides the next day.
The ferry ride was pretty smooth and right on schedule. Our destination was the Isle of Mull to visit Duarte Castle and the small seaside town of Tobermory. Life along the Hebrides seems as though you are on a limitless edge of the earth. Life is simple and yet filled with such natural grace and beauty, it is hard to capture that feeling in words.It’s a land where you can believe any fairytale told, yet still walk in today’s century and straight into a pub to watch football (that’s soccer to Americans) on the tube with friends and travelers. We toured the castle and grounds, and re-fueled in the small cafe on the premises. After a lengthy drive around the island, we were transported to Tobermory, a small seaside town that reminded me of small coastal towns in Northern California. It was still early in the season for tourists, so there there were few open shops, but there was an abundant selection of seafood in the local restaurants, as well as steep trails to the residential part of the town for the more adventurous. Back to the ferry and Oban and the last section of Scotland.
While many people would consider St. Andrew’s the highlight of Scotland, and give a nod to Edinburgh (one of my all time favorite towns), no true Scot would consider your visit complete without a tribute to their poet of the century (that’s Auld Lane Syne to you!) Robert Burns. And so we wound our way through Glen Coe and the shores of Loch Lomond to Alloway, visiting the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. The original thatched house is still standing, but not open to tours. However, the museum and grounds are immaculate and well manicured – a really nice area to walk about town and enjoy the monuments and gardens. My recent years in Arizona did not prepare me for how verdant and lush and colorful the wide variety of plants could be. It was also a surprise to find another traditional Scottish cake – the clootie dumpling. It is made very much like a classic plum pudding – boiled in cheesecloth, or in the case, “clootie” cloth. Very tasty, filled with spices and texture. Scone size, it was the only place we found this delight, and were glad for the exposure to it.
Surpise! Another ferry ride – but this time to Belfast
Next – Northern Ireland