Scotland, Day 6 & 7 – Ayr and Culzean Castle

Day 6, and the final leg of our trip. We took the train from Edinburgh, switching in Glasgow to the west coast trunk line that brought us to Ayr. (Blessedly, I had wifi on the first leg.) That area of the country is popular with golfers, and, presumably, those interested in some seaside R&R… at least when the gale force winds aren’t blowing.

After getting turned around a bit, we trekked to the B&B, which was on a street with a number of other B&Bs, all of which looked busy, which was a good sign. Sherry got pooped on, too. We also had our first exposure to the fact that Ayr’s town planners were not the most creative namers ever. Carrick Road, Carrick Street, Carrick Crescent, Carrick Lane, Carrick Close… Repeat with several other, presumably locally relevant names, and you really had to read the map carefully.

Our room was high of ceiling and elaborate of molding and had an ensuite bathroom, which was nice. The beds were the most exemplary of the tradition we’d become accustomed to: rock hard and with extremely flat pillows. There was also an exceedingly cloying air freshener, which Sherry unplugged, prompting our hostess to bring us another one when we were out. Gag.

After getting situated, we made another trek through town to find the tourist info centre, as usual, though this time we were sans map, which was a bit discombobulating. Fortunately, the centre had plenty. We already knew where the seaside was, having walked parallel to it a block or so in for a portion of our trek. We then had lunch at a busy local spot called The Treehouse where, once again, I marvelled at how many Scots seemed to drink Irn Bru on purpose. (I’d had no inclinations to do so since the test one I’d bought in Glasgow to try it.) They also upped their multiculti game with Haggis Pakora on their appetizers list.

Ayr beach, duneWhile at lunch the skies opened up and it poured, which wasn’t a good sign. However, the rain slowed and stopped while we were eating… then started again when we were nearing the end of the meal. Oh well, what can you do? We’d had good weather luck for pretty much the whole trip. The rain had pretty much stopped again by the time we left the restaurant (interestingly, it had am industrial-looking curling iron in the ladies’ washroom…)

Unfortunately, the rain had stopped because the wind apparently blew it away, and it was a bit blustery when we walked back to the seaside. We enjoyed looking at all the former seasonal cottages along the side streets, and the huge, elaborate bath house, which dominated the area.

Our plan/hope for the day had mostly just been to spend an afternoon relaxing by the water, gazing out to sea, dipping our toes in, etc. Yeah. No. The wind was strongest at the water, and we received sand facials as we walked. I had my hood up and sunglasses on to protect me from the worst of it. Not cool. However, Sherry was bound and determined to walk the sea wall, so we did. Only other people as crazy as we were were a handful of local dog owners and their frolicking charges. Got to see some nice, older houses on the walk back to the B&B later, so Sherry got another taste of good architecture.

All in all, a bit of a bust as tourist afternoons go, but oh well, live and learn. When we headed out for dinner later, we considered the place where they were having a psychic evening, but the place appeared to be packed with groups of women of a certain age with strappy sandals and bad ankle tattoos, so we hightailed it.

We ended up at a local boutique hotel restaurant, the name of which escapes me, but which appeared to be popular with golfers, and which was featuring “Italian Night”. We didn’t know what to expect, but the menu was Italian and the food did it proud. Whomever was in the kitchen knew what they were doing. The balsamic vinegar that came with the appetizer bread and olive oil was thick as paste (you’d be selling organs to buy that here), and I had possibly the best minestrone soup I’ve ever had, and a fantastic tortellini.

After dinner we were in the mood for dessert and scotch, so we headed to the Beresford Wine Bar & Art Gallery, which we’d passed a couple times earlier in the day. It had a great interior, fabulous gay owners, and appeared to be the spot for local sophisticates (largely gay men and cougars, by the look of it). The desserts were tasty and the scotch selection was good. Sherry was pronounced a “gooood woooman” by our sprightly and very gay waiter because she takes her scotch neat.

On our quietest day of the trip, we managed to head back to the B&B the latest. It was dark! Fortunately for the next day’s adventures, we only had to walk a stone’s throw from the B&B to the bus stop to catch the local bus to Culzean Castle.

Culzean CastleDay 7, our final full day in Scotland. After breakfasting and chatting with Graham, our host, we headed to the bus stop and took the 20-ish minute ride out to Culzean Castle, which is actually the Castle and extensive grounds, walking trails, and a stretch of beach. Speaking of walking, after alighting from the bus out at the main road, we walked a spell to arrive at the ticket booth/gatehouse, then walked another good kilometre or two to actually get to the Ruined Arch and access to the Castle.

Culzean (Cull-AY-n) is still intact, restored to its 18th century appearance (much of it courtesy of Robert Adam, which, as castles go, is practically brand new. The Kennedys, who’d owned it, ended up in the pickle I suspect any number of prominent families did — after inheritance and estate taxes added up to a certain point, they would have owed more in taxes than the place was worth (or that they had), and so they bestowed the estate upon the national trust, which then took it over and managed its upkeep. One of the family’s descendants still lives and farms nearby, and occasionally stops in with friends, so we were told.

And these are not the same Kennedys as the American family. Our guide was quick to clear that up. (A very proper gent with traditionally awful teeth and walleyes.) Those are Irish Kennedys (like there was never any crossover…) :), and apparently the snarky saying goes that if you can’t make it in Scotland, you go to Ireland, and if you can’t make it in Ireland, you go to America.

Ruined Arch, Culzean CastleWe toured the house (no photos allowed), which is quite grand. Impressive the condition of some of the furnishings and rugs, given they’re original. One room chronicles the family’s adventures over the past 500 years or so. They seem to be fond of gambling away a lot of money and getting into various scrapes. One of the family assisted in the “dispatching” of Lord Darnley for Mary Queen of Scots, another managed to elevate herself to the rank of countess, and was apparently quite a dish well into her dotage, and a third got himself a speeding ticket in the 1920s for going over 20mph. Those wacky Kennedys.

After a quick lunch at the Old Stables Cafe, in our typical travel tradition we walked a lot, around the main grounds, the Walled Garden, and out to the far reaches of the property to the Swan Pond, which appeared to be a popular picnic spot (though which did, indeed, have a pair of swans and their 10 fuzzy cygnets). Unfortunately, by that point, I was nursing a rather ugly blister, so I begged off the beach exploration Sherry wanted to do (especially since we had a bugger of a time locating the trail).

She headed off and I limped back to the Home Farm, where we initially arrived, and had myself a cup of tea and did some people watching in the sunshine. (Fortunately, the previous day’s weather was nowhere to be found, and it was gorgeous out.)

We knew to give ourselves plenty of time to get back to the bus stop — no repeat of Stonehaven for us — especially given how foot sore we were by that point, and headed back to Ayr in good time to mosey a few houses down to the well recommended Carrick Lodge, where Sherry had made reservations for dinner. This turned out to be possibly my favourite meal of the whole trip. I finally got around to eating some Scottish beef, and it did not disappoint.

Swan familyI started with a lovely salad that included figs, olives, and Parma ham. Sherry had the ever so Scottish Cullen Skink (which is a soup — potato and smoked haddock). I had the beef casserole for my main course, which was to die for. The menu listed “Beef Casserole with Redcurrant, Root Vegetables and Herb Dumplings”. The beef in its sauce (which it had clearly simmered in for hours) was over top of the veggies and whatnot. I forget what Sherry had, but lamb is a good guess, or possibly pork. 🙂 We washed it all down with a really nice bottle of South African Pinotage.

Dessert was both attractive and fantastic. I had sticky toffee pudding one more time. Sherry had a bit of a comedic problem trying to order scotch, as our waiter, who appeared to be about 14, had no idea what she was asking about. She asked if they had Caol Ila, and he said he’d check, and came back and asked if she meant Kahlua. Good Lord. And so she insisted on accompanying him to the bar to ensure procurement of something that was both actually whisky and worth drinking. Dinner ended up being entirely reasonably priced, and we moseyed back to the B&B for our final sleep in Scotland comfortably stuffed.

Before retiring, we enjoyed a bit of UK television (i.e. stuff you would NEVER see in North America), including a show called Embarrassing Bodies, which was about… exactly that. Roving doctors diagnosing, referring, and treating strange and revolting medical conditions, which people have been walking around with often for a decade. It was “can’t look away” tv to be sure. That said, it was admittedly a useful public service.

The morning of our departure dawned dreary and raining, and we congratulated ourselves for Sherry having booked a cab back to Glasgow airport (about an hour’s drive away, and a quite reasonable £50.) Glasgow airport is surprisingly small, really, though it did have two terminals. After a quick lunch and a successful browsing of the duty free (both of us picked up Glengoyne Whisky Fudge for the co-workers and Sherry got herself a bottle of Caol Ila), we boarded the plan to head back home. All in all, a fine week away, and some fine adventures in a new country (where people can easily pronounce and spell Sherry’s last name.)

Ayr and Culzean Castle Photos

Scotland, Day 5 – Rosslyn Chapel and the Scottish Borders

Day 5 — hotly anticipated for quite some time, for it was the day of our Nutters Tour! (Aka Rabbie’s 1-day tour of Rosslyn Chapel and the Scottish Borders, departing from Edinburgh, aka their “Da Vinci Code” tour.)

Thanks to our ever-conveniently located close, we only had to walk a couple blocks to the Rabbie’s office on High Street, and waited in somewhat overcast dampness with other loitering nationalities. To this day I’ve no idea what our driver’s name actually was. I thought the organizer lady said Mackenzie, and I think when he said his own name it started with a K, so ‘Kenzie, perhaps? All in all, he was a slight, sprightly, redheaded Scotsman with an eyebrow piercing, an uncanny resemblance to my brother, and a penchant for sharing TMI.

Scott's ViewWhile, sadly, our van was not packed with wild-eyed conspiracy theorists clutching tattered paperbacks of Dan Brown classics, we were accompanied by a lovely couple from Cornwall, and 10 women of varying ages (all blonde, oddly…) from Denver who were some sort of tour group. I think they may all have been teachers.

Which makes the Diana Gabaldon obsession one of them had even more terrifying. (She spent the better part of the day trying to convince our driver and anyone else who’d listen that Gabaldon is actually Scottish, her work is amazingly historically accurate, and she writes the best books that ever graced paper with ink. Yikes.) Right, onward, then.

We headed south into the Lowlands and towards the Borders, with our first stop at Scott’s View, said to be a favourite spot for the writer to rest his eyes upon. Yet another view that reminded us not a little of northern Ontario, and there were some excellently lazy coos in the next field watching us as well.

Oh, and at some point on the way we’d been treated to a meandering story by our driver that ended in the scandal of his family finding our, when his grandfather went into a nursing home, that his aunt and uncle had been pilfering gramps’ savings. Righty-o. Oh, but we did see a Pictish standing stone in a field (the news kiosks of their day) and apparently a possibly dead badger, but I was on the wrong side of the van.

The original Wallace MonumentNext stop was in the middle of nowhere, where we trekked back through some farmer’s bush, presumably, to see the original Wallace monument, about which our driver was thoroughly derisive, in a mostly funny way. I believe Homer Simpson and “abomination” were mentioned. Indeed, it bore no resemblance to the grand edifice erected near Stirling.

The red sandstone statue was rather Greek or Roman emperor in the face and head, complete with imposing beard. However, things go downhill quickly from there, fashion-wise. Wallace’s claymore is slightly taller than he is, which would make it impossible for him to have hefted it. Here we got another set of awesome Wallace stats, noting the sword was 5-foot something (a different number from the 5’6″ we’d been quoted, and which seems to be the usual stat. Of course, the real Wallace was a giant of a man (quoted at 6’7″ this time, I believe, so swinging such a sword wouldn’t have been a problem.)

The statue’s kilt is on backwards — the pleats are at the front — and it’s too short. A man’s kilt is at least knee-length, because it covers to the tops of the boots, which come to the knee, to protect the legs when striding purposefully through the brush. (Wallace is wearing Roman-esque sandals or something.) The kilt the statue is sporting is a backwards woman’s kilt. However, it’s all moot because Wallace was a Lowlander, and wouldn’t have worn a kilt, anyway. Kilts are for Highlanders. Lowlanders wore trews, or trousers. So there you go.

There were additional embarrassing details about the incorrectness of the shield, too, but I forget what they were. Of course, some well-meaning vandal had tried to paint the Scottish colours on the shield at some point, but couldn’t get up high enough to finish it. Awesome.

Our next stop was the village of Melrose, where we had lunch and explored the ruins of Melrose Abbey. Blessedly, we separated from the Denver Crew for a good hour. We enjoyed baguette sandwiches and squares (I haven’t had a good caramel square since I lived in Sydney — sweet, blessed blood sugar spike) from the local bakery while being watched by rooks. Then we trekked over to the Abbey.

Melrose AbbeyDespite the condition of the place, it remains exceedingly beautiful, and given the intricacy of the stonework, would have been a stunner prior to 1544 (when Henry VIII had it burned, bastard). The last monk there, James Stuart (a bastard son of James V, incidentally) died in 1559, and the place was pretty much done for after 1560.

Robert the Bruce’s heart is said to reside there, after its odd, truncated pilgrimage to the Holy Land that only got as far as Spain. There is apparently a wizard’s stone coffin there as well (a gent named Michael Scott), and plenty of knight’s tombs and those of the Prentice (?) family, who were presumably prominent locals.

And, of course, the famous gargoyle of a dancing pig playing the bagpipes, which you can see when you climb the tower. Of course, they make it sound like you climb up and it’s right there, so I felt like a bit of a moron when it took me forever to spot it. In my defence it was a ways away on an entirely different section of roof. Sherry got pretty excited over the remains of the original tile floor as well, though I thought the floor remains at Mellifont Abbey were better. (OH HAI, we’re nerds.)

After heading out of Melrose, it was time to up our Templar game, so we headed to a wee, sleepy village called Temple, which had quite an interesting graveyard and small, ruined church. Temple used to be called Balantradoch; they changed the name to reflect the place’s history as the former HQ of the Knights Templar, back in the day. Before they were wiped out on the orders of King Philip IV, anyway.

Temple Church and CemeteryThere was some really interesting detail and folk art on the gravestones, including one of a local merchant dressed in his finest and posing with his children. There’s also another chapel across the road, with its bell rather thoroughly stopped up. The legend is that it used to toll frequently, but was stopped after the Templar treasure was found there. One of the Denver blondes was asking all sorts of questions about who found the treasure, etc. on the way back to the van. Riiiiight…

And finally, we arrived at Rosslyn Chapel… more or less. Alas, the place has been under restoration since the late 90s, and we arrived at the tail end of things, when it was still mostly covered up. As you can see, the place is starting to become a lot more visible. Too bad we’ve been home for a month…

Most of the outside was covered up, though Sherry got better photos than I did, and the barrel vaulted ceiling was only visible in snippets. (No pictures allowed inside, anyway.)

Rosslyn Chapel from the backHowever, we got to see the Apprentice Pillar, the Green Men, the maize of mystery, and all the Chapel’s other intrigues. (There’s a good overview of the carvings here.) Including the white glue mark on the wall where the Hollywood folks apparently stuck some “important” icon. 🙂 (Given that the Chapel was so much under restoration even when the movie was filmed, a lot of it was actually filmed on a replica set.)

And that was that for our Nutters Tour day. We got back to Edinburgh and decided to check out a place called The Grain Store, out across George IV Bridge (which, being covered with buildings, is not very bridge-like). They specialize in local foods, though unfortunately the menu was much better suited to Sherry than to me. My wild sea trout was done well, but just not really to my taste. Ahh well, live and learn.

After that we stopped by The Malt Shovel, a pub whose name we both enjoyed, for a drink. Sherry had a couple of whiskeys, and I had a cask ale. Pretty typical pub, though they did have lovely stained glass windows.

And that was about it for our last day in Edinburgh. Off to the west coast in the morning!

Melrose Abbey, Rosslyn Chapel, and the Borders Photos

Scotland, Day 4 – Stonehaven and Dunnottar Castle

Day 4 started early out of Waverly, as we headed off to the east coast, across the Firth of Forth, some other forths (but not Colin Firth, har har), and assorted fine views of hill and vale.

StonehavenThe train station at Stonehaven is on the outskirts of the village (this will be important later), so we wandered a gauntlet of homes, B&Bs, and a school or two before arriving on the main drag. There’s lots of signage to lead you out to the Castle, which is a couple miles out of the village, since, presumably, it’s a major reason people come there. (Though their other claim to fame is apparently being the home of the first deep-fried Mars bar.) I also just barely missed being obliterated by the most epic bird poop ever (it splattered THREE cars).

The path meanders along the beach (North Sea) a ways, and we passed a lot of dogs. There may be some kind of bylaw that you have to have a dog to live there. 🙂 Pretty town, to be sure. Then the path takes a jog away from the harbour, though a back alley, and straight up a hill. Ahh, up, our old nemesis…

Apparently the spring melt/rain had done a number on the trail, so we had to be careful of washout areas, though it wasn’t too bad. Blessedly it was cool, since I would have melted if we’d been doing that hiking at near-30 degrees Celsius. The path connects briefly with the road, then swings out into a farmer’s field. The fields were awesome, since they go right out to the edge of the cliffs. One hopes their farm dog doesn’t chase birds…

War MemorialIt was this path that we followed all the way to the castle, but first we stopped at the rather striking War Memorial (WWI) on the promontory above town. It wouldn’t have been out of place in a Buffy episode, and was yet another reminder of how it seemed every little burg in Scotland lost a surprising number of men in the wars.

After the War Memorial, the path headed seaward, and became a bit tricky for Sherry. It was only wide enough for single file walking, there was no railing, it was about a foot from the cliff edge, and she has Ménière’s. That said, I stayed behind her and handled the photographing duties, she kept it slow and steady, and we managed alright. (But did not return via the same path.)

It’s pretty cool that you can see the Castle the whole way, and it really is an excellent strategic spot, and would have been a great area for feeding the inhabitants back in the day as well. Apparently Microsoft agrees about its picturesque value, as I’m told it’s now one of the Windows 7 screensavers.

Dunnottar has some exciting adventures in its past, having existed in some form since the Middle Ages, and having been the hiding place of the Scottish Honours to protect them from Cromwell.

Just a few more kilometres...The Castle was seized from the Earls Marischal in the early 1700s after the Jacobite Rebellion, and fell into ruin for 300 years. It was bought by the Cowdray family in 1925, and has been partially restored. Parts of Mel Gibson’s Hamlet were filmed there as well, and it was a Pit Stop on the Amazing Race.

Once you get to the Castle, you’re still not quite there; you have to head down a long set of stairs (don’t think about the fact that you’ll have to come back up them as well), then up a few more stairs to actually get into the Castle. Oh, and then there are more stairs as you wander around in there. You’d think I’d have had buns of steel after this day, but not so much.

Unfortunately, Sherry’s head had about as much as it wanted, so she remained on the grassy hilltop, people- and cow-watching until my return. Blessedly, I rambled about without impediment by tour or school groups. Plenty of local seabirds, though, both nesting within the ruins and in rookeries on the surrounding cliffs.

Dunnottar CastleWe headed out along the small road to the nearby farm, past the most disinterested Holsteins ever. (Canadian coos are far more inquisitive; granted, they probably see a few hundred thousand fewer people per year.) Again, it amused me that the livestock had access to grazing right out to the cliff edges.

The map wasn’t exactly to scale, so we followed the narrow trail beside the road all the way back to town. (There was supposed to be a “forested” part of the trek, but the only “forest” in sight was a tiny copse you could see through behind the neighbour’s farm. On a steep curve above the village we rejoined the road and the path heading back down the washed-out areas and to the village.

We checked the schedule, and realized we could get an earlier train if we hauled ass back to the train station, so we did. Of course, we were coming from about the farthest point away in the village. We had a map now, though, so took some side streets and whatnot, which helped. Back past the schools and B&Bs and whatnot, uphill the whole damned way, panting and sweating like mad… and we missed the train by about a minute. Its whistle blew literally as we stepped into the train station parking lot. Curses!

And so we got to sit for an hour, which wasn’t terribly comfortable, as it had gotten quite overcast and windy, and I was still sweaty. Fortunately there was a waiting room near the washrooms with a heater blasting, and I roasted my butt a couple times to thaw out.

We got back to Edinburgh before everything closed up (which is around 6pm), and so checked out the Knox House, which Sherry had expressed interest in. It’s one of few original houses left, and only its historical significance has kept it from being demolished to allow for road widening and whatnot. Even though Knox himself only lived there for a few months. The house had also belonged to James Mossman, prominent Edinburgh goldsmith whose father designed some of the Scottish Honours, and who was executed for being a supporter of Mary Queen of Scots.

Example panels of original Oak Room ceiling paintingThe house is very upwardly winding, and has some gorgeous period fixtures — fireplace tilework and wood carving and the like. The Oak Room is the big showpiece of the place, on the top floor, and is fully panelled and painted with all manner of scenery. There’s a panel along the side wall to show the colours when the place was originally paint, and boy, was it bright. Bore a lot of resemblance to Pennsylvania Deutsch folk art and colours, too. Kind of amused that there were depictions of bare-breasted native women (Tahitian?) painted on the ceiling in a preacher’s house, but there you go.

After that we’d had quite enough of up and stairs, so we headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up for dinner. (I may have bought fudge on the way back, or that could have been another day…) We ended up at a pub on Rose Street in New Town, which had excellent cask ale and, blessedly, free wifi, so I finally managed to get caught up on emails and the like. Sherry had Chicken Balmoral, which is a breast stuffed with haggis and wrapped in bacon, and I had Hunter’s Chicken, which is a breast stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. So there you go.

Another early-ish night for us, since we were heading out of town again the next day, for our long anticipated Nutters Tour!

Stonehaven and Dunnottar Castle Photos

Scotland, Day 3 – Edinburgh

Day 3, after our now-standard Jurys Inn breakfast, we packed up and trekked off to the Queen Street station for the quick jaunt to Edinburgh. Our new hotel (another Jurys Inn), turned out to be spectacularly well situated, a block from Waverly Station and a mere skip up Chalmers Close to the Royal Mile. We were pleased enough about that that we got over the clerk at reception attempting to charge Sherry’s credit card repeatedly for the room…

The Salisbury CragsThe weather continued to be fine, though it had cooled slightly, which was appreciated. We made our usual jaunt over to the tourist info centre, then took a spin ’round the city on the hop on/hop off tour to orient ourselves. (Though, amusingly, a goodly number of Ian Rankin landmarks were within spitting distance of the hotel, apparently.)

We actually rode the bus all the way around (what can I say, we finally had upper deck seats), then returned to the hotel briefly to actually take possession of our room before attacking the city’s lovely sights with a vengeance.

High Street, or the Royal Mile, starts at Edinburgh Castle and courses downhill to Holyroodhouse Palace. (No tours while we were there, however, as there was a royal in residence.) We hiked up to the Castle, just in time to get sprinkled on. They were setting up for a tattoo, and I’m sure it would have been quite the spectacle.

Stained glass window in St. Margaret's ChapelThe castle itself is pretty cool, though certainly a tourist trap par excellence. (Not sure the views of the city entirely make up for the £13 highway robbery admission price.) However, we found Sherry’s Xanadu (a shop that specialized in books and rare whiskeys), and the splendidly tiny and Romanesque St. Margaret’s Chapel, which, alas, we couldn’t enter. (Though apparently it can be rented for very small weddings.)

It was amazing, too, how the Castle really was built right on the hill’s volcanic basalt. It juts pretty much out of the walls and foundations in spots.

We got to see the Crown Jewels, or “Honours”, which, interestingly, still show damage from some of their adventures throughout history. (Talk about an epic game of “keepaway”…) The War Memorial (in the former St. Mary’s Church) is a lovely place, and was fascinating just to wander and watch. People were leafing through vast books — searching for names of relatives among war dead. (Interesting to me as there are none in my family.) There were also two older gents re-applying silver leaf to an altar in one of the small chapels.

Great Hall with hammerbeam roofKing James’ Great Hall was even more impressive than the one at Stirling Castle. Similar soaring hammerbeam roof, though this one is original. One helluvan arms collection lining the walls, too. My brother would give his right arm to get his hands on some of that stuff. (Good thing he’s left-handed…)

After the Castle, we wandered back down the Royal Mile, and came across one of the attractions that was on Sherry’s must-see list, The Real Mary King’s Close. (Alas, no photos were allowed.) The closes are those little alleys that run off the larger streets (like High Street/Royal Mile) down to what was the Nor’ Loch).

In this case, when the Royal Exchange was built in 1753, the buildings that had gone up storey by storey along Mary King’s Close were demolished above two stories, and the original street was essentially entombed below. (The tenements could soar over a dozen storeys, so things at ground level got pretty dark and close, even before buildings went over top.)

Our tour guide was the “clenger”, basically a guy whose job it was to remove the plague dead and burn their houses and effects. The tour was fascinating, though definitely not for the claustrophobic. Houses for the poor in those days were tiny, often one room, low-ceilinged, and everything got mucked out into the street — household garbage, chamber pot contents, animal waste and hay from stables, you name it. And when it rained, it all got washed down into the Nor’ Loch. Is it any wonder they eventually drained it?

Edinburgh architectureMary King (or Marie King, in those days) was a real person — a fairly prosperous seamstress and widow who lived in the close with her family in the early to mid-1600s and rented her house and luckenbooth (basically a collapsible market stall at the front of her house) for £100/year, which wasn’t pocket change in those days. That the close was named after her was testament to her prominence in the community, since it was quite rare in those days to name anything after a woman.

We learned of some of the locals scandals and quirky neighbours, including the final resident of the close who remained there until the 19th century. We couldn’t go into his house as the floors are no longer stable and the still-hanging wallpaper is full of arsenic, but you can see into the washroom at the end of his front hall, installed there since he had the first flush toilet in the close, and would use it, doors open, in full sight of the street, to show it off. Classy!

After returning to the 21st century, we did a spot of souvenir shopping (found one jewellery store in particular that specialized in Mackintosh-inspired designs and which proved to be a rich vein of family gifts) and then cleaned up at the hotel before heading out for dinner. We’d been told that this one particular area in the New Town was excellent for restaurants, but… not so much. Unless your definition of excellent is a few fast food chains.

However, we decided on an Italian place — Bella Italia — that’s part of a chain in the UK, and had quite a tasty meal with salad, pizzas, wine, decadent dessert, and coffee. As per usual, we weren’t real night owls (though it wasn’t getting dark til around 10pm, anyway), and so headed back to the hotel after dinner to get our energizing sleep to prepare us for the following day’s jaunt to the east coast and Dunnottar Castle.

Edinburgh Photos

Scotland, Day 2 – Stirling Castle, Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond, and Glengoyne Distillery

Day 2 saw us heading back up to George Square, where we sorted out which of the several Rabbie’s tours meeting at the tourist centre was ours. Out tour guide was Juliette, a York transplant to the greater Glaswegian area, and a hodge podge of international folks — including two obnoxious Portuguese cougars, a couple gents from Bahrain, a student couple from France, a middle-aged couple from Italy (the husband of which was more interested in smoking often than anything else), and, of course, Sherry and myself.

Stirling CastleFirst stop of the day was Stirling Castle, yet another landmark where you’d have no idea that the high season had not yet started. Once we recovered our bearings after bad directions to the castle tour in English, we proceeded to be regaled with history, stats, and gossip by a most entertaining and very Scottish ginger-haired gent. Plenty of royal adventures and such there, with Marys and Jameses aplenty. (And apparently plenty of James’ offspring of the “Fitz” persuasion in the local area, if you know what I mean…)

The castle has changed considerably over the centuries, partially due to strategic necessity at times, and partially due to damage and whatnot at others. The palace is currently being restored (like Rosslyn, it’s been going on for some time), so we didn’t get to see it. But once it’s done it’ll be a showplace of 16th century art, architecture, furnishings, etc. The guide did point out where the queen’s apartments are, at one end of the building, where the king’s apartments are, at the other end of the building, and where the king’s mistress’ apartments are, directly above the king’s (with, presumable, discreet staircase, and apparently used by the Duke of Buckingham in James VI’s time…)

The Great Hall has been restored, complete with painted exterior and hammerbeam roof made up of 650 some oak trees and nary a single nail holding it all up. It can be rented for special events, and comes with thrones. The chapel royal has fresco work on display, including a fake window to symbolize the “false” spiritual light of the earthly realm, as opposed to the true illumination of heaven, represented by the large, real window at the other end of the room. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned here, and a ripe old age of nine months. They also had the first offerings of the new versions from the set of Unicorn Tapestries (allegory of the life of Christ) that were being created on-site (you can watch the artisans work, but no conversation or photos allowed).

The Douglas Garden is a quiet space off in a corner, the perfect place, apparently, to dump a recently deceased earl out a window if you (King James II) and your cronies have just offed him for being insufficiently malleable in your position heading up the most powerful family in Scotland.

Statue of Robert the Bruce outside of Stirling CastleAnd, of course, there’s a big statue of Robert the Bruce out front, and an excellent view off towards the hills and Stirling Bridge (site of the famous Wallace battle — Bannockburn is nearby as well), and the official and impressive Wallace Monument, where his sword, which may or may not be 5’6″ long, apparently resides. (Some tours go there, but ours didn’t.) The day was a warm one, so we got ice cream on our way back to the parking lot. 🙂

We headed for the hills after that (literally), with a brief stop at Doune Castle, which was kinda same ol’, same ol’, unless you’re a castle junkie or a Monty Python fan, as that’s where The Holy Grail was filmed. We stopped for lunch at Aberfoyle, a village within Trossachs National Park, which appears to fancy itself a bit of a wool centre. They even had a rather overheated looking collie doing herding demos with sheep and ducks. We purchased some fish ‘n’ chips for lunch from a dreadlocked gent, then headed up, up, and away to the largest (by surface area) loch in Scotland.

With the warm and sunny weather continuing (apparently the heat wave extended right to the south of England), Loch Lomond was as packed as Grand Bend would be on such a day. Finding parking for our big van was a bit of a challenge. Our group split, with some of us electing to hike up the big hill to take in the view, and the others doing… who knows. Smoking and talking on the phone, if the day to that point had been any indication.

Loch Lomond and one of its islandsAfter puffing and sweating our way up the hill, we were treated to an excellent view of the loch, sailboats, and some of the private islands (though not the one that’s a nudist colony). The French couple with us kindly took several really awful pictures of Sherry and I. (Note: hooking your camera to your belt loop under your t-shirt does not make for elegant lines…)

Coming back down the hill was a bit of an adventure, with a wayward autistic boy, a very shaggy dog, some dedicated sunbathers and wadings, and a hiker with truly mind-boggling breasts sharing the trail. We had about five minutes before leaving, so I treated myself to one of the fastest pints I’ve ever drunk. It hit the spot for sure, and Andrew would have been proud.

And finally, off to our last destination of the day — Glengoyne Distillery, and our only distillery visit on the trip. (Once you’ve seen how one distillery works, you’ve pretty much seen how they all do, and we’re rather more interested in just drinking the results.) We started the tour with a shot of whiskey, which, given the day’s heat and exertions, made remaining away through the instructional video a challenge.

Ram's head... flask?We got a detailed verbal tour of the distillation process through a couple different rooms, though there wasn’t really that much to photograph. A tasting was included in our tour, so we headed down to the bar/shop after, and between the planned tasting and our charms, had a snort of the 10, 17, and 21-year-old vintages. Tasty stuff — Highland single malts, unpeated, as it’s not common in the area, so closer to the Irish whiskeys that I like than the licking-a-woodstove types Sherry likes.

We picked up souvenir sparkplugs (Andrew inherited mine), and then it was time to head back to Glasgow. We checked at the Central train station about getting to Edinburgh, and found out it was most efficiently done via the Queen St. Station, just on the other side of George Square. Good to know. Dinner in Merchant City again, this time northern Indian at The Dhabba (least spicy Indian food evar) and a chat with an interesting Nepalese-Indian gent. The streets on the way back to the hotel weren’t quite as scary on a Sunday evening, which was a relief. And so once again we called it a relatively early evening so we’d be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for Edinburgh in the morning.

Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond, and Glengoyne Distillery Photos

Scotland, Day 1 – Glasgow

Well, we’ll begin at the beginning, back at Pearson in Toronto. We flew out in the evening, and so Andrew had the poor fortune of driving us to the airport during mid-to-late afternoon on the Friday of the May 24 long weekend. Whee!

Couple fun things happened at the airport. First, I got a phone call shortly after we arrived, which turned out to be the HR lady from the company Sherry was interviewing with, wanting to chat with me as one of her references. I was in no hurry to call her back, so left her a voicemail after we had dinner and went to the gate, with Sherry sitting right there, no less. And really, when you happen to know Sherry is leaving on vacation, and you get a voicemail from a reference saying you, too, are leaving on vacation, it’s not terribly hard to put two and two together, I don’t think.

Next, the woman in front of us going through security clearly wasn’t a frequent flyer. Her backpack got x-rayed twice, then searched… revealing that she was carrying, amongst Lord knows what else, a Tupperware container of fruit salad, a plastic container of store-bought garden salad, a can of Sprite… and a full-size bottle of ranch dressing. Amazingly, they let her keep the salads. And honestly, had they let her keep the dressing, how many hours was that going to be unrefrigerated?

Our flight was with Air Transat via Thomas Cook, and surprisingly comfortable. Sherry indulged in her odd habit of squirreling away snacks, saving some of one of the meals from the flight until I can only imagine it was ground to powder. Neither of us are great plane sleepers, but we managed to cobble together a few hours of shut eye. Good thing, too, since our flight landed shortly after 8am, local time.

We arrived to a bright, sunny day, which turned into quite a warm day, somewhere around 27C. Which is nice, though a bit much when you’ve got a big pack strapped to you or are climbing stairs or hills. (Given the first two days were inching toward 30C, I was a bit worried, having brought only two t-shirts and one pair of lighter pants.) Getting the bus from the airport was easy, and we only had a couple wrong turns before finding our hotel, managing to stumble across the Orange walk in the process. (Really, more of an opportunity to hang out with the lads and tip a few than anything else these days.)

After freshening up and shedding some layers, we headed out and oriented ourselves, stopping by the Tourist Info Centre on George Square and availing ourselves of the Hop On/Hop Off tour. I am a fan of those, though apparently no one told the tourists it wasn’t the high season yet, as the buses were surprisingly busy through the day. I also started to notice at that point that the UK (and, apparently, Europe in general), has nowhere near the wifi coverage we know and love here in North America. My iPhone remained largely useless for the trip.

IlluminationOur first hop off was at Glasgow Cathedral (St. Mungo’s), though I’d initially planned to hop off near Strathclyde University to get a picture for Andrew, since his dad went there. Except it turned out that Strathclyde is really ugly and somewhat modern, and not some photogenic and elegant sandstone landmark.

The cathedral is one of the few to survive the Reformation intact, due to sheer bloody-mindedness of the locals, it sounds like. (In Glasgow??? The hell you say!) and is located next to the celebrated Infirmary where many a great medical mind has been trained (though it was unfortunately swathed in scaffolding) and the Necropolis. We wandered through both the main and lower levels of the cathedral, enjoying both the gorgeous effects of the bright sunlight coming through the windows upstairs, and the antiquity of the knight’s tombs and various nooks and crannies downstairs to the sides of Blackadder Aisle.

After that we headed back to the Necropolis, which is both sprawling and still in use. I’m coming to learn that the dead get some of the finest real estate and most enviable views in many cities. Some very impressive monuments, decay, and interesting stories, ranging from men of vast distinction to families whose children seemed to die off in appalling numbers. I saw my co-worker’s name (James Stewart) well represented, and even the grave of one James Lyall (same name as Andrew’s stepbrother) and his wives, both named Eliza.

Got an impromptu history lesson from a passing elderly gent (history prof, perhaps) about the Rev. Duncan MacFarlan, who was apparently an exceedingly important gent in his day, distinguishing himself both within the church and academe, meeting Queen Victoria twice, and garnering the tallest spire in the Necropolis.

TARDIS!After having a bit of fun with the local TARDIS, we hopped back on the bus and continued through the city, passing, for a second time, the equestrian statue of Wellington on Queen Street out front of the Gallery of Modern Art. Per tradition, this imposing statue was fashionably topped with a traffic cone. We can only imagine the jaunty orange and white striped pattern with a green band around the bottom was in honour of the Orange walk. Apparently sometimes both Wellington AND his horse are wearing cones. Which, you must admit, is pretty awesome.

When we next disembarked, after some serious jetlag-and-sunshine-induced head bobs (we declined to get off to check out the tall ship) at Glasgow University, we enjoyed seeing quite a number of kilted gents (looked like there was a wedding), and took a tour of the Mackintosh House, which they seem to have picked up and moved wholesale from wherever its original location was in the city. No pictures inside, but much oohing and ahhing over the furnishings and interiors. There was also plenty of bare, pasty flesh on display, as days like we got are anything but the norm in that town. Unsurprisingly, we saw more than one sunburn by day’s end.

Duke of Wellington statue outside the GalleryAfter that, we were pretty much wiped and famished, so we grabbed sandwiches for a late lunch and headed back to the hotel for a spot of relaxing and freshening up before heading out to hunt down dinner. We also stopped to buy water, and I picked up a can of Irn-Bru to try it, receiving a bonus limited edition glass with it. I was expecting it to taste orangey, probably because it looks a fair bit like MacDonalds’ classic orange drink, but in fact it tasted to me like bubble gum and aspartame. Not a winner, but apparently great stuff for hangovers.

Despite the apparent blanketing of the entire country with pizzerias (and, to a slightly lesser degree, Italian restaurants in general), we settled on City Merchant, in the Merchant City area for dinner. It’s quite a good seafood place, and I dove in to local foodstuffs with the West Coast Fish and Shellfish dinner (which included my first langoustines) and a pint of Belhaven (my first, but not my last). Sherry had the sea bass special and a Chilean merlot.

I started my sticky toffee pudding adventures (with a cappuccino) for dessert, and Sherry started her whisky (UK spelling) adventures with a new one: Caol Ila, recommended by the server to go well with her clootie dumpling. (Most. Scottish, Dessert Combo. Evar.) There may be less petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico than there is in that scotch, I tells ya.

After that we headed back to the hotel for an early-ish evening, passing many a weekend reveler, which left me wondering how anyone tells the difference between the hookers and the mere party girls. Heading to our beds, we became familiar with two sleep-related trends that followed us the whole trip: bloody hard mattresses with very flat pillows, and waking up way too early. (Because it’s summer and they’re more north than we are here in Ontario, sunrise is some time around 4am, and sunset is not til around 10pm.)

The next morning saw us off on our first tour, to Stirling Castle, Loch Lomond, and the Glengoyne Distillery!

Glasgow Photos