The Land of Kilts and Castles

Such dusky grandeur clothed the height,
Where the huge castle holds it state, 
And all the steep slope down,
Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky,
Piled deep and massy, close and high,
Mine own romantic town!

– Sir Walter Scott

 

John and I are ready to embark on yet another cold winter holiday…

Scarf, check. Gloves, check. Hat, big ski jacket, tights, boots.

This time, it’s to visit his motherland, Scotland, and to do all the things we’d been talking about for the last 3 and a half years: explore castles, eat haggis, neeps, and tatties, get a glimpse of William Wallace’s sword, and confirm the existence of square-sliced sausages. Alas, the last one I still haven’t gotten to, so the question still remains: “Are they REALLY square?”

Our trip starts out with a bit of bad luck. As our plane from Madrid is on its way to landing, we are informed that both of the Scottish airports are closed due to a crazy windstorm, and that we will be landing in Newcastle, England. Landing is followed by lots of waiting, a 5-hour bus ride, an overturned truck on the main road, a directionless bus-driver, complaining Spaniards, and bad sandwiches when we finally arrive at the hotel at 2 in the morning. (“How can you fuck up a sandwich?”)  But thankfully, the rest of the trip turns out quite smoothly.

Edinburgh is one of the most charming cities I’ve ever visited. It’s got cobble-stoned streets, these old red telephone boxes like in London, very cozy pie shops and clothing stores, a dark, violent history, and of course its very own castle. As we walk down Princes Street, the holiday season here hits us full force: carolers on the corner, German-styled winter markets, a big red Christmas bus-turned-restaurant blaring Christmas music.

We make our way up the Royal Mile, visiting shop after shop of souvenirs to see if we can find me my very own Lee clan tartan scarf  — no luck, it seems the Lee’s just don’t exist anymore.  The Royal Mile stretches from the Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Abbey and contains pubs, eateries, historical attractions, churches, and many tourist shops.

The Royal Mile is also full of these little passageways, called closes, which lead to back courtyards and connect to different houses. They’re the principle setting of Edinburgh’s violent history during the time of the plague and the site of many ghost and murder tours. We decide to tag along on a night tour, which leads us through a network of dank underground vaults that used to house hundreds of poor immigrants, into a cemetery that is home to several plague pits, and to a mausoleum where many visitors were allegedly attacked by supernatural forces…and by supernatural they mean a man in a black cape and Darth Vader mask who suddenly jumps out into the doorway.

One of the best things about living in Europe is being able to visit castles. I love them! Especially the ones with drawbridges and winding towers and old battlements, which is pretty much all of them.

Edinburgh Castle sits atop the volcanic Castle Rock and was mainly a military fortress from the 15th through 17th centuries, involved in many historical conflicts including the Wars of Scottish Independence. We visit the Great Hall, the barracks, which used to house prisoners of war, the war exhibitions, the battlements, which offer a great view of the city below, and the different towers where the princes resided.

We drive out of Edinburgh for a day to visit Wallace’s Monument. Remember Braveheart? William Wallace was the guy Mel Gibson played, a knight and leader revered all over Scotland for his bravery in fighting against the English during the Wars of Independence. Wallace apparently had to reach about 6’6 in order to be able to wield a 66-inch sword, so you can imagine how upset the Scots were at the casting of Mel Gibson as their national hero.

On the grassy knoll at the site of the monument, a man dressed up as a peasant soldier vividly recounts to us the battle and victory at Stirling Bridge, right below us.

We climb the 246 stone steps of the tower and reach the very top. The icy wind is blowing steadily as we see the Stirling countryside sprawled out below, probably not all too different from how it looked seven centuries ago.

And on to more castles! Stirling Castle is one of the most important castles in all of Scotland, the site where many Scottish Kings and Queens were crowned, including Mary Queen of Scots. The exhibitions here are fascinating; there are replicas of how the Great Kitchen looked then, how the nobility dressed, what the different statues and carvings represented.

I love unicorn tapestries. The Queen’s outer waiting room.

A bit of shopping on Victoria Street, and then down to the Grassmarket, the site of horse and cattle markets as well as public executions.

Aside from the quaintness and festiveness of all the shops and bars, another thing I really enjoyed was the friendliness and politeness of the Scottish. In Madrid, I’m used to strangers scowling at me, shoving me out of the metro, not saying please or thank you, so, pretty much the opposite of warm, friendly, and welcoming. It was such a nice break in Edinburgh; I was finally able to exercise my cheesing muscles to the extent of overdoing it, as well as my English-speaking politeness while basking in the warmth of hospitality. I had such a good time I’m considering coming back when the weather is kinder.

P.S. Haggis is quite good, just not every day.

Advertisements