Saturday, October 22, 2016

#6 - The second part of my latest vacation - Scotland

Busker on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
As much as I love London, I also wanted my most recent vacation to include a new area to discover as well.  Edinburgh seemed like a perfect addition since it was easy to reach by train and a city with an easily walkable center.  I stayed right on the Royal Mile - the main street in Old Town - so the places I wanted to go were only a short walk.

I very much enjoyed Scotland and hope to go back again.  I spent a fair amount of time wandering about and just enjoying the sites and atmosphere.  Though the main tourist season is during August, there were still street performers out and most attractions had not yet switched to their winter hours.
Steampunk display in a shop window off the Royal Mile

One of my evenings was dedicated to taking a ghost walking tour ... this was interesting.  We went into the vaults below South Bridge and walked about by candlelight as the guide described some of the hauntings reported in each room.  More eerie to me than the ghost stories was thinking of the people who actually LIVED in those spaces two hundred years ago.  I'm not claustrophobic, but the idea of spending most of my day in such a tiny space with no natural light or ventilation or plumbing (aside from the chamberpot in the corner) sounds hellish!  There were several stops above ground as well, and the group ended in the Canongate Kirkyard ... i.e. one of the city's old cemeteries.  Spotting some of the famous graves was interesting - particularly those that had protection of one sort or another against grave robbers.  This was also the location where the guide told us the most gruesome tale of the evening - that of the son of the Earl of Drumlanrig who roasted and ate a kitchen boy.  Ironically, the time in the kirkyard was the only time it really rained during my trips - perhaps the spirits were trying to tell us something?

Lang Stairs - the original way to enter Edinburgh Castle
 One of the places that I truly took my time exploring was Edinburgh Castle.  I was a bit surprised that there were so many people visiting this attraction right away in the morning since it was the off season ... perhaps because every guidebook and website that I saw said to go early in the day to avoid the crowds ... though the number of people seemed to taper off after the 1 pm firing of the gun.

Stained glass in St. Margaret's Chapel
I did get the audio tour which helped me keep the buildings straight as I was making my way through.  I found some of the oldest parts of the castle to be the most charming.  St. Margaret's Chapel is the oldest building still standing (though the stained glass is a more recent addition) and though it looked fairly bleak from the exterior, the inside was quite charming with the small alter area and stained glass brightening the benches where the royal family would have contemplated or listened to the service.   It was also interesting that the origin of some of the names around the castle have been lost ... Foog's Gate for instance.

View out of one of Edinburgh Castle's gun holes
Certainly you have to admire the tenacity of the Scots for building on top of an ancient volcano.  The views from the walls are incredible; invaders would have certainly been spotted early.  Also, the stonework of the castle built directly onto the rock outcroppings must have been quite a task.  Of course, being on top of a large, stony hill means that the winds are a bit brisk when walking about the castle.  The day was not particularly poor weather-wise, but I certainly could imagine (and feel pity for) the poor guards who had to be out in snow or driving rains when on duty.

View down from the walls of Edinburgh Castle
Foog's Gate - you can see how the castle is built directly on the volcanic rock
 The day that I visited Edinburgh Castle there were World War I reenactors on the scene as part of the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.  They were doing different things throughout the day, so I made my way back several times to see the initial recruitment as well as a basic drill and the piper play.  You could also see what a basic soldier kit looked like and hear an explanation of how each piece was used.
Visions of WWI
Another favorite area of the castle was the Great Hall with its display of arms and armor.  You can barely see in the photo below as it is blocked by the lights, but to the right and above the fireplace on the far wall is a barred window where the king could peek out at his courtiers to see who was attending (and perhaps chatting/plotting with each other) before he entered the hall.
Arms display in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle

I could just imagine courtiers plotting in this little window seat in the Great Hall
The dog cemetery at Edinburgh Castle
Aside from Edinburgh Castle (and museums which I will discuss in a forthcoming post), my Scottish trip included a day tour that gave me a taste of the Scottish countryside and the highlands.  I used the tour company Heart of Scotland with their "wee red bus" and had a great experience.  The day included a visit to Stirling Castle, driving through the Trossachs region, Loch Lomond, lunch in the village of Aberfoyle, and a visit to a distillery (which will also get its own post).  Our group also got a special surprise in the form of a brief stop at Castle Doune - which you may recognize as Winterfell in Game of Thrones OR Castle Leoch in Outlander OR all of the castles in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!  I also feel like I have a better grasp of the timeline of events in Scottish history and how they are connected thanks to our guide - Niall - who provided some great stories about the areas that we visited during the day.
Stirling Castle with highland cattle in the foreground

The Wallace Monument seen from Stirling Castle

Queen Anne's Garden at Stirling Castle

How skilled of an archer would you need to be to shoot THROUGH the tower?

Interior of a guard tower at Stirling Castle

North Gate - this is the oldest section of Stirling Castle

Fascinating gargoyles at Stirling Castle

Recreated unicorn tapestry at Stirling Castle

A secluded garden near the Royal Chapel at Stirling Castle

Looking down at the Nether Bailey from an older section of Stirling Castle

Doune Castle

Meeting a "hairy coo"

Victorian summer home seen across Loch Ard

View of Loch Lomond with the highlands in the distance

Another view from Loch Lomond
On the recommendation of my hotel clerk, I took my breakfast up Calton Hill in Edinburgh one morning.  The views were spectacular - both of the scenery and, as the hilltop started to get a bit more crowded, the lengths that people were taking to get the perfect selfie!  This hill has an odd assortment of architecture - including a partially completed copy of the Parthenon from Greece - and history that made it a great place to contemplate my trip to that point.
A startling site ... which country am I in?

Looking down Princes Street from Calton Hill

The view of Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill

The stone cairn marks the encampment of Robert the Bruce on Calton Hill

Edinburgh Castle seen from Calton Hill
Perhaps the least Scot-centric thing that I did in Edinburgh was to visit a cat cafe.  I was missing my kitty and thought I'd see if I could get a little feline love ... alas, the cats were, understandably, stand-offish and mostly interested in visiting humans as a source of dropped (or stolen) cake.  It was still fun to see some breeds of cats that I hadn't previously seen in real life - particularly to pet the Sphynx (who I didn't get a photo of) after she was finished being a cake stealing ninja.

I had a wonderful time in Scotland.  Here's a few more photos from my rambles there ...
The Balmoral Hotel - the one Harry Potter related thing that I saw

The Scott Memorial

Princes Street Gardens - this was a large stinky lake until a couple hundred years ago

More window shopping ... this time it led me into the store

Edinburgh Castle viewed from Grassmarket

I saw the most beautiful rainbow on the train leaving Scotland ... just barely managed to get out my camera and capture part of it before it disappeared completely behind the train!

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