Haggis, Whisky and Nessie... it must be Scotland!

Trip Start Mar 15, 2008
Trip End Oct 02, 2009

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Our 7th day saw us finally make it into Scotland. I absolutely loved Scotland last time I was here and I was hoping that I would still feel the same this time around. We headed into Glasgow (my least favourite place last time) and after spending a few hours wandering around the town and down to see the Peoples Palace I am pleased to say that I think I was a bit harsh in my opinion of Glasgow the first time around. We had a lovely time there and we saw some beautiful buildings and gardens.

Once we left Glasgow we drove up through Glen Coe, The Trossachs and Loch Lomond to get to our Hostel (thanks Michael for donating your accommodation vouchers to us!)in Fort Augustus at the base of Loch Ness. The scenery through Glen Coe is absolutely breathtaking and just as amazing as I remember from last time. The green rolling hills and striking mountains are immensely impressive.

Our first full day in Scotland we went and took a look at Loch Ness unfortunately there was no sign of Nessie L we also wandered around and bought some souvenirs before heading through Inverness to Cawdor Castle. This castle was one of the less interesting castles. It was hidden in a mass of trees and was surrounded by beautiful gardens. The exterior was quite plain but pretty and inside you were restricted to walking on set narrow paths as the castle is still occupied for 6 months of the year so you are unable to wander around the castle freely. It also has a mix of décor and furniture that makes it feel more like a stately home and less castle like.

Our next stop was Fort George. It is one of the best preserved forts in Europe…mainly because it has never seen any attacks! The Fort was very reminiscent of the Fort in Quebec City, Canada. It is still a working Defence site so some areas are restricted to Army personnel only. Having said that it had some nice views and the replicated living quarters for soldiers during the ages was really interesting. In the very early days one in 100 soldiers were allowed to have their wives live with them and in return for work they were given half rations however their privacy consisted of a canvas curtain to hang across the bed in the room that they shared with 3 other soldiers….hmmm don't think I would have been happy with that arrangement for anyone concerned!

Our final stop of the day was to the Culloden Battlefield this one we were a bit sneaky with as when you arrive at the site there is a parking fee as well as an entrance fee into the museum which culminates in a wander through the actual battlefield. However by parking at the front of the long drive and just walking through to the field we helped our budget and it is still informative as they have plaques across the field with information about how the battle took place and the results of archaeological digs in the area. It was a horrible blood thirsty battle where the British slaughtered many Scots (it is estimated to be in the vicinity of 1500-2000) and with this ended the Jacobite rebellion.

Our final day in the highlands saw us head back down to the Loch Ness for some photos and the hope we might catch a glimpse of the illusive Nessie. We drove down past Ben Nevis (the highest point in Scotland) and on to the Edradour Scotch Distillery for a tour and some free samples of this local produce. We then meandered on to Doune castle where they filmed Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Another day another castle and yet this one was another on the great castle list and was well presented and had brilliant little nooks, crannies and hidden passageways. It was another castle that lived up to your expectations of a British ruined medieval castle.

We arrived in the outskirts of Edinburgh and found the caravan park where we would spend the next couple of nights. Our Scottish fling nearly finished.

Ben reports: At last we arrived in the great city of Edinburgh. And what a truly great city it is! In so many ways Edinburgh was how I expected London would be; ancient, dark, historic and flushed with aged detail. Not that London isn't a great city as well; unfortunately the glass façade of commerce has come to interrupt the London skyline, breaking up the old-world authenticity all modern-world citizens dream of.

Edinburgh is a truly amazing city, with buildings, which feel like they’d best belong as the backdrop to some Tim Burton masterpiece. The sandstone yellow of the old buildings has been marked artistically by soot and exhaust and industry; yet they’re not blackened to tar – it’s more of a well-lived in city effect, quite beautiful. In short, Edinburgh is a city that looks like it has a story to tell.

We started our first morning with a walk through the main park and there, towering above us on a sheer, rocky hill is the impressive Edinburgh Castle. It’s not the most impressive castle in the UK, more it’s the setting and the historical infamy of the castle that’s impressive.

We made our way up the incline, into town, through a dark, yet romantic old cobbled side alley. We entered into the main stretch in town known as the 'Royal Mile’. I think the Royal Mile is reputed for it’s density of pubs, but in our experience a more correct assessment would be that the Royal Mile has a solid density of souvenir shops. Really, we love to see the ‘authentic’ parts of cities.

So, we ventured in to a number of souvenir shops, ahem, and after having a wee look we ventured up to the Castle. We were lucky to arrive at Edinburgh Castle just as a free tour was starting, with a very spirited Scottish gentleman who spent no less than five minutes rattling off the amazing achievements of various Scots (… we invented television, golf, discovered penicillin…) and so on, only to finish his speech by pointing out that Scots shouldn’t be regarded merely as skirt wearing, drinking louts. It was a very nice speech, really. He also pointed out the many amazing historical events that occurred in Edinburgh Castle, too many to mention (erm, or properly remember).

We popped in to the restaurant at the Castle for lunch for our first try of Haggis. Unfortunately, the Castle being a main tourist spot, the restaurant happened to be very expensive so we only ordered an entrée size portion of haggis. Even more unfortunately, this happened to be a posh restaurant so the portion was un-Scottishly puny and rather posh. So, to sum up: it tasted fine but I don’t think it was a ‘real’ haggis experience.

Afterwards, we wandered back down onto the Royal Mile and headed to the ‘Mary Kings Close’ Tour. And what an amazing tour it is; it might be best called ‘The Edinburgh Underground Tour’. The tour took us into an old street, long since buried under the construction of the new town hall. Since Edinburgh is on a slope, many of the old streets were heavily sloped, and in modern times have been built on top of. But one street in particular, Mary Kings Close, which has been sealed up since the beginning of the 1900’s, has been preserved. We had to venture below ground to see it, but it was like opening up a perfectly preserved time capsule. The ‘Close’ was a harbinger of dank, horrific and thus entertaining history. Many of the living quarters we entered on the Close were quite terrible: old concrete bunkers, windowless and subterranean, dominated by rats and darkness and cold. It was terrible to think that people had to endure these conditions. There was a rather grim and terrific display about the plague, which ravaged the poor of Edinburgh three times back in the day (the 1500’s I think?) and a great speech by the tour guide about the horrible ways they dealt with plague – having boils in your skin burnt away with hot coals, and the like. There were so many other interesting pieces of ‘horrible history’ to be found in the underground streets; notably the story of how people used to throw their waste out the window, onto the street, to run down the hill into a giant sludge puddle at the bottom (which is now beautiful Edinburgh Park). And we also stood at the doorway of the circa 1900’s house, in which the walls were lacquered with arsenic (not sure why we couldn’t go in…)

After the tour it really started to rain, quite heavily. We ducked for cover in a pub, but, as the rain seemed to persist, decided to head back to our campsite.

The following day it was time to leave beautiful Edinburgh – one of our favourite cities on the tour so far. It was a shame, because one full day hardly seemed enough. We had one quick interlude on our way out of town, though. There’s a large private school near the centre of Edinburgh named Fettes College – it’s extremely posh looking, with huge iron gates and a driveway longer than the main street of Murray Bridge. This particular private school was significant because its exterior is used in the ‘Harry Potter’ film series as Hogwart’s School. So, Leah being a big fan, we had to stop and take some photo’s. Pretty cool, really.

We had a long day of driving ahead of us. First, we wanted to get one last bit of Scottish history, so we ventured to a place called Jedburgh Abbey. This crumbling old Abbey in the south of Scotland is over 1000 years old and an impressive piece of history to behold. The main hall and vestibule is still somewhat in tact, if a little roofless, but this all adds to the effect.

After Jedburgh, we had some lunch and continued on. We entered back across the border into English territory, singing ‘God Save the Queen’! in relief at having survived the potentially murderous clans from the north. We drove lengthwise across the top of England to a town called Newcastle. While I’m sure there are many fine galleries, cathedrals and museums in Newcastle, we were only there for a quick visit and one sight: The Angel of the North. For those not in the know, the Angel of the North is a huge metal statue on top of a hill – quite a sight to see as you drive into the city. This impressive statue, set in a field on the edge of town, is made up to look like a naked man in goggles with immense wings attached to his outstretched arms. The statue is all one colour, a sort of rust orange metallic, and its wingspan-width is longer than the statue is tall. Very impressive to see.

We then had to head back across to the other side of the country to our campsite in Carlisle. This was a quite short journey of just over one hour, which is quite an interesting fact for a few simple reasons, namely: the part of England we crossed is the shortest section of the country width-wise – hence why (we assume) the Roman’s built a huge wall covering this distance from east to west back in 400 A.D. to keep the Scot’s out (again this we assume). There are still remnants of this immense wall remaining, called ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ after the Roman leader who initiated the wall’s construction.

We drove until we were about half way along where the remnants of the wall ran, and we drove up to where we thought we might be able to see some of the remains. Sadly, as things can tend to go regarding tourism in Europe, even a wall that runs nearly the entire width of England isn’t free to see. The wall is in the middle of nowhere, in fields, and the only place we could find to park that would give us access to the wall had a flat parking fee of something like 4 or 5 pounds for the day. Now, no one is going to want to spend an entire day looking at a wall (okay, maybe the Great Wall of China, but that’s an exceptional exception), so why they couldn’t have had smaller hourly car park charges, or, maybe, perhaps even, NO CAR PARK CHARGES!!?? It’s not like the charges are being used for restoration purposes; the wall is completely exposed, not being maintained or monitored. Leah and I could’ve loaded a section of it in our car and driven away if we’d wanted to… anyway, I whinge a bit, sorry… So we saw the wall and it was very old and quite impressive. Obviously a lot smaller than the seven or so metres that used to stand, it was quite crumply and small. But the idea of it is nice.

So we finally made it back to our campsite in time to pitch our tent and get a good night sleep. The following day we were off to do something we’d been anticipating for quite a while. We visited a national park in England called the ‘Lakes District’, which often spoken of by our English friends as a beautiful place to go, a ‘must visit’ in England. While they call the Lakes District a national park, it’s interesting to note, size wise, we probably could’ve driven the length and or width of it in less than and hour and a half.
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