Sunday, November 4, 2012

Scotland the Brave

I know what you're thinking. You're sitting here reading my blog with images of a half naked Mel Gibson wearing blue face paint and cruising around on a horse, bellowing about "freedom", aren't you? Don't lie! Don't feel bad, though, because I did the same thing before I went there and boy were my eyes opened! Scotland is so much more than a movie made by an Australian who fiddled with the facts just a bit to make a blockbuster. Thinking about going there? Well, read on!
Donaldson's College
The first thing I noticed about Caledonia, as the Romans called it, was its schizophrenic weather. I figured it was like Ireland so I packed accordingly. (The key here is layering!) I chose the first two weeks of July to visit, since Scotland is so far north on the globe I was afraid it would be too cold and anyone who knows me knows I just don't do cold weather. The day I arrived, July 1, it was close to 80 outside. My cousin and I nearly sweated right through our clothes as we lugged our suitcases down the sidewalk to the 170 year old house that we were staying in, as a bed and breakfast. (If you're interested in staying at a B&B in Scotland instead of a hotel, check out this link: Scottish Accommodation Index) Our B&B was across the street from Donaldson's College, which was once a school for the hearing impaired and almost purchased by Queen Victoria.
The entrance to get your tickets for Holyrood House
We quickly took the bus over to the bridge, near the beautiful garden at the base of the hill where Edinburgh Castle is located. We were still technically in the "New Town" section of the city, which is filled with pretty Georgian buildings on perfectly laid out street grids. While figuring out where to catch the Edinburgh Hop-On bus, we noticed at the end of the bridge something called the Edinburgh Dungeon. Oh heck yeah! I had gone to the one in London, and it was a lot of fun. Sort of like the Halloween Haunt at Knott's, for all you Southern California readers. Basically its a bunch of scary stuff about the violent, haunted history of the city. After that we rode the Hop-On bus, which conveniently takes you all around to the city sites without you having to do taxis and walking. Hooray! First stop, the Palace of Holyrood House, which since the time of King James VI of Scotland (son of Mary Queen of Scots and the first monarch to rule both countries) has been the official residence of the Royal Family, and before that the Scottish kings and queens. We were smart to go that day since Prince Charles arrived two days after we did and they closed it down for the week. Buy the ticket, folks, its worth it. You get to see the throne room, and the private apartments of the tragic Mary Queen of Scots, including the room where her trusted advisor Rizzio was murdered in front of her when she was 8 months pregnant.
Abbey and grounds
Inner courtyard of the Palace
The palace was originally built as housing for royals and peers who came to make pilgrimage to the Abbey King David built here in 1128. The palace/guesthouse was started in the 15th century. All that is left now are the remains of the outer supports. It now  consists of a dirt floor with burial slabs of people buried beneath the floors, too weathered by the elements to read the inscriptions. I learned that many of the structures I saw with roofs missing, originally had wooden roofs that just didn't stand the test of time or war. The Palace and Abbey are set within beautiful grounds and there is a path you can walk through to see it all. If you're thinking about traveling in July, make sure you check the Royal calendar here so you can actually visit and aren't blocked by the Queen's residence time.

Edinburgh Castle
St. Margaret's Chapel
Moving on, we next visited Edinburgh Castle. Militarily speaking, it's a perfect spot for a castle. On top of the core of an ancient volcano, it has a 365 degree viewing off all the land surrounding it. The base of the castle sits on volcanic basalt and cannot be burrowed under. The walls of the castle rise up making it nearly impossible to scale the walls, leaving the only entrance to defend coming from the Royal Mile (the one road leading to the castle) and the main gate. The Castle itself contains many buildings, including a military history museum (which was AWESOME by the way), a large church, a garrison of soldiers and St. Margaret's chapel, which is the oldest building in the complex. St. Margaret, back then she was Queen Margaret wife of King Malcolm and mother of King David, was a very devout woman. During one of the many wars that plagued Scotland in the Middle Ages, her beloved husband was killed in battle. Legend has it that the Queen died of a broken heart upon learning the news, and her loyal guards managed to smuggle her body over the side of the castle walls so it wouldn't be desecrated by the attacking enemies. They were able to get her across the river Forth, to the kingdom of Fife, where the Queen had set up an Abbey in Dunfermline. There she is buried to this day.
Robert the Bruce
The day we went to Dunfermline was perfect. Gloriously sunny and warm. We explored the ruins of the Abbey and palace, where I almost fell on my face due to the moss on the worn stone. HA. We walked over to the church, which is beautiful and oddly segmented into two parts. One portion is empty, with huge columns supporting the ceiling. I've recognized this part of the church in many movies. Going through the door takes you into a functioning parish church. We weren't here for that, though. We came for the crowning jewel of this church and it was under the pastor's pulpit: the actual burial place of one of Scotland's greatest heroes, Robert the Bruce. He is laid to rest under a shining red marble slab with a golden drawing of him, and Latin inscription around the edge letting you know whose crypt it is.

Inside of the old part of Dunfermline's church
 Getting back on the bus we headed to the coast of Fife hitting Anstruther for lunch (and the BEST fish n' chips in the UK. I had them and it was glorious!) and then to St. Andrews. Since we were a week before the British Open, I didn't get to see the old golf course (golf was invented in Scotland, FYI) since it was covered in tents and bleacher seating in preparation. I had the bus driver drop me off at the West Sands section of town (of Chariots of Fire fame) where I got some great shots of the beach at low tide. I then walked the beach path through the university (Where Prince William and Princess Kate met, hurray!) and ended up at the old St. Andrews Castle. It actually has tunnels underneath you can walk though, and a dungeon. My walk ended at the ruined Cathedral, where I climbed about two hundred steps up a narrow medieval staircase of St. Rule's Towers for the view. WOW!. A beautiful, albeit very windy, view across all of Fife and St. Andrews. If you're not afraid of heights, I highly suggest you do it.
West Sands

St. Andrews cathedral and St. Rule's Tower
 We couldn't go all the way to Scotland and not see what it's famous for: the Highlands! It was a dark and stormy ride the day we went. Huge dark clouds, pouring rain, and gale force winds. We drove past Doune Castle, where Monty Python's Holy Grail was filmed, but really couldn't see because of the storm outside. We drove past so many lochs, the western edge of the Highlands, as there is really only two main roads going in and out. Except for Inverness, the area is still pretty rural. There were many little towns tucked away in the hills, and everything was SO green. My eyes almost hurt from it! We drove past Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK, and whose top was obscured by the low hanging mist. Our driver wore a kilt, and there was much joke making at his expense. And also at my cousin's since she's from South London, and the Scots aren't all that bff with the British.
Finally arriving at Loch Ness, it miraculously cleared up outside. Sunlight sparkled on the loch the wet stone of Urquhardt Castle. We climbed through the ruins as the weather went back to being schizophrenic. 10 minutes of sun, 10 minutes of storm. Back and forth it went while we waited to get on a boat and cruise down the loch in the hopes of seeing Nessie. We didn't get to see her but to our delight we discovered they serve alcohol on board. YAY!

Urquhardt Castle
Being the history geek that I am I just couldn't resist a tour to Roslyn Chapel (all you DaVinci Code readers out there, woot!), Melrose Abbey and the grand finale: Hadrian's Wall. Roslyn Chapel had some of the most intricate stonework I have ever seen in my life. Everything was hand carved, from the flowers in the ceiling, to the roses on the pillars, to the tiny little symbols within the carved "greenery" around the borders of the walls. I've never seen anything like it to this day. It's not a very big place, and you can't take pictures in there which is a huge bummer. On to Melrose Abbey, one of those four Abbeys in the borderlands which Henry VIII had destroyed during the "Rough Wooing", according to Scottish sarcasm. Henry VIII wanted to betrothe his daughter Mary to her distant cousin James, son of the Scottish king. The Scots said no, and true to Henry's notable temper, he set about destroying the Abbeys, which were never rebuilt.
Melrose Abbey is built in natural rose colored sandstone and didn't even need to be painted. Even hundreds of years later, the pretty color still shines through. I happened to climb one of the very narrow twisty staircases for a picture over the area. People are also still burying their dead in the consecrated grounds surrounding the abbey, so it has an very interesting mix of grave stones over the past few centuries.
Me at the top of the Abbey

Remains of Melrose Abbey
Jumping back into the bus we headed past the border into the Northumberland area of England. This area historically belonged to the Brigantes tribe who more or less treated with the Romans. The Picts, on the other hand, who lived a little bit north, scared the crap out of the Romans. Fierce fighters who tattooed their bodies and moved so silently the Romans called them the shadows of the forest, scared the Romans badly enough they build Hadrian's Wall to keep them out of Roman occupied Britain. That says a lot right there. The Romans never got too far into Scotland because the native tribes kept them out. To this day a good portion of the Wall survives. Dotted here and there with the remains of Roman forts that houses the soldiers who manned the Wall. If you're an outdoorsy person, you can actually walk or bike the length of the Wall through the countryside. This will take over a week and you'll probably need a tent and some provisions, but its an interesting trip! We arrived at the parking area for Housesteads, which sits at the very bottom of a hill rise. The Romans liked to carve these out below their Wall to force the enemy to run uphill and tire themselves before getting to attack the Romans. We trudged uphill for about 3/4 km before we got to the settlement. Housesteads is the best preserved Roman fort along the Wall. It really is amazing! You can see where the wall extends down both sides of the fort, and all the farmland surrounding you, and you can almost hear the clink of metal shields, the rattling of spears and the distant roar of oncoming battle.
Housteads, along Hadrian's Wall

There are other places to visit in Scotland. We did take the train to Glasgow and enjoyed a day of site seeing. It has a beautiful old Cathedral and a pretty cool shopping district. Scotland also has many chains of islands, including the Hebrides and the Shetlands. Fancy a celebration of Scotland's Viking heritage? Then head up to the Shetlands at the end of January for the Up Helly Aa fire festival which culminates in the burning of a mock Viking long ship. Bring your down jackets and long johns, folks, because part of the Shetlands sit right below the Arctic Circle, making it extremely frosty in winter!
Scotland offers a lot of things to do for a wide range of travelers. Family friendly, adventurous, cozy cottages for romantic holidays, and lots of things for the history geeks. Did I mention they also have great burgers since its the home of Angus beef? YAY! I recommend also doing a tasting at a Scotch distillery (This I have done even though I hate whiskey), and try the local Scottish beers. Cruise down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and check out all the street performers from bagpipers to the Guinness record holder of the most tattoos and piercings. For those, like me, who like a good scare and creepy fun, take a tour of Mary King's Close or the Covenanter's Prison in Greyfriar's Kirkyard. They're both haunted, and having been to both, I can say the Convenanter's Prison creeped me out more since there was an incident there and a few of us were locked in. Now how much is this going to cost you? Well, the UK's currency (GBP pound sterling) is worth both more than the euro and the US dollar. I would suggest staying in the one of the B&B's since they're a little less expensive. Food isn't that expensive, but some of the tours are. You'll most likely be flying through Heathrow in London from the US because Edinburgh's airport isn't that big.
Remember, bring your jackets and sweaters. ALWAYS bring an umbrella, since it rains quite often. And most of all, bring a sense of humor. The Scots are wickedly sarcastic with a low ball mockery that will make you laugh your butt off!