Sunday, May 14, 2017

Exploring the Towns, Brochs and Castles of the Isle of Skye

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That first morning on the Isle if Skye, I was unable to enjoy the view from Hillview B&B because I awoke to rain, drizzle and fog.  It looked like the sun was trying to come out but the rain won and I never did see the sun that day.  Once again, breakfast was fit for royalty.  Eggs, sausages, fresh veggies and fruit, cereal, porridge, toast.  I certainly don't eat this well during breakfast at home!

With the group together again on the bus, it was decided that since the weather wasn't so great, we would take a scenic drive around the island and stop at a few attractions along the way.  I was pleased with this decision as it has always been my dream to tour the Isle of Skye because it's so renowned for it's rugged beauty and because I have ancestral ties to the island.  From what I gathered from other family members who had done research into the family background, I had connections to the Isle of Skye and to the Clan MacDonald.  When I mentioned this to Andrew (who, like everyone else I met in Scotland, never heard of the name MacEachern) he asked "which clan MacDonald?" because apparently there are quite a few.

As we drove further into more remote areas of the countryside, the road started to narrow until it was down to one lane with passing places every few hundred yards.  Eventually, we turned onto an even narrower road marked with a sign that read "buses not recommended" and all I could think at that point was "now this is my kind of tour!".  It's when you go off-the-beaten track that you see the things that aren't in the guidebooks.  As we drove along that narrow road, traffic became lighter until it is was nearly non-existent and neighborhoods turned into vast fields of sheep and lonely old farmhouses and steep valleys with deep blue-grey streams and rivers running through them.  Soon, the sea and other islands of the Inner Hebrides became visible.  There were some steep embankments along the narrow highway that made the drive a little nerve-wracking but the incredible scenery eventually drew my attention away from the road and to the far-reaching vistas before me.  It's safe to say that sheep outnumber people in those parts.  On that day, I saw a few other tour buses and the odd car but for the most part, those far-reaching remote areas of the Isle of Skye were pretty desolate.

When I was doing research for this trip, the Isle of Skye wasn't a part of my original itinerary until I started coming across information about it.  The pictures I viewed online were what did it for me and I made extra time and put aside extra money to make sure it was a part of my trip.  If you've never been to the Isle of Skye than be forewarned that if you look at the pictures online and expect to see the same thing in person, you will be disappointed; those pictures are very misleading.  The Isle of Skye is far more beautiful in person than any picture you will see anywhere.  And the island has more than looks going for it.  The history is intriguing, brutal and colorful and the people as hearty as they are friendly.  And one would have to be quite hearty to thrive in that wild (and, I'd imagine during the winter months, unforgiving!) landscape.

As we drove along, Andrew told us stories about that history and some of the notable people who were a part of it and I also learned about some random, but nonetheless, interesting facts about Scotland.  I learned about an extraordinary man named Callum MacLeod who, after becoming fed up with the state of traveling on his island of Rassay (a small island which can be seen from the Isle of Skye), single-handedly built a road.  I learned that the United Kindom, including Scotland, uses a mix of the Imperial and Metric systems.  I learned that one of the reasons there are so may sheep in Scotland is because they have no predators there.  I learned about the Highland Midge, a fly that is similar to what I know as mosquitoes here in Canada but much worse.  I learned that a popular travel company filmed a very comical commercial on the Isle of Skye and they cast some of the local sheep.  I had the opportunity to meet some of those sheep.  Well sort of.  

Our first stop (where we actually got out of the bus and ventured into the rain and wind) was at a 2500-year old tower (or Broch as it is commonly known in Scotland).  It was a bit of hike uphill to get to Dun Beag Broch and by that time the winds were hurricane-force mixed with monsoon rain.  Some of the people on my bus were reluctant to even go outside in that weather until Andrew reminding them that they may never get another chance to see it again.  I walked off the bus like it was just another day as I deal with similar weather frequently back home in Atlantic Canada. On the way up the hill, some tourists chased some sheep that were grazing near the trail.  It was quite funny.  I'm not sure the sheep thought so as it darted off into the field to join some other recently-spooked sheep.
Dun Beag Broch
Some Spooked Sheep

We continued driving into some more remote areas of the island, passing by notable landmarks including The Old Man of Stor and Kilt Rock with it's waterfall cascading 60 metres into the ocean. We visited the ruins of Duntulm Castle which has ties to the clan MacDonald of the area.  As I roamed those ruins, I wondered if I had ties to this castle somewhere down the line through my supposed connections to a Clan MacDonald on the Isle of Skye.
The ruins of Duntulm Castle
Kilt Rock with it's waterfall cascading 60 metres into the ocean

Our first big stop of the day was for lunch in the seaside capital of Portree.  I set out to explore the town on my own at first but met up with some of the others in the group who were going for lunch at a little cafe by the waterfront.  Cafe Arriba is a tiny, funky little place with a young and hip clientele.  We sat at the table at the back corner near a window overlooking the scenic waterfront and ordered some coffee and sweets.  This is when I got to know some of my fellow travelers a little more.  A retired couple from Calgary, a woman from Pennsylvania who recently retired in Florida, a widowed man originally from Italy who had been married to a Scottish woman.  This is the part about traveling I really enjoy.  Those dinners, lunches and drinks in far flung places with complete strangers from all over the world...who are like people you've known all your life after only a couple of hours and food and drinks.  With a about an hour to kill after we finished our lunch, we wandered the little streets of Portree in search of souvenirs.  I found a book about Callum MacLeod and his handmade road, a beautiful picture of the city of Edinburgh to hang on the wall of my new apartment and some scarfs for my sisters.
A sign on the wall of Cafe Arriba in the town of Portree.
A good read for the road.

The weather was starting to clear a little bit when we got back on the road to continue our circumnavigation of the Isle of Skye.  The next time we stopped, it was at a museum to visit some restored traditional black houses that were once widely used in the Highlands of Scotland.  There was a very nice gift shop there.  Unfortunately, due to the remoteness of the shop, there was no ATM or internet connection in the area and I had forgotten to get some cash so I was unable to purchase the items I'd been eyeing.
A traditional Black House

The rain was much heavier when we returned to the bus to settle in for the last leg of the day's journey.  We drove along some more remote country roads and despite the weather, the scenery was still among the most beautiful I'd ever seen.  Andrew purchased a CD at the gift shop and the beautiful sound of traditional Gaelic music lulled me in and out of a semi-sleeping state. 

Back in Broadford it was still raining so I had Andrew drop me off at the bottom of the hill so I could grab some takeout again.  I didn't feel like walking down the hill and back up again so at least this way, I would only have to do it once.  Macaroni pie and chips became somewhat of a staple for me in Scotland.  That evening, I stayed cozy and warm in my room at Hillview while the rain continued to fall and the wind howled through the night.  My last thought before slipping into a deep sleep was a wish for nicer weather the following day. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Making my Way to the Lovely Isle of Skye

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I slept very well during that first night of my grand tour of Scotland...and ate like a Queen the next morning!  I'd never experienced a complimentary breakfast that large before.  I ate so much, I almost had to be carried out to the sidewalk.  Every time I finished, more food would be laid before me and boy was it delicious...and homemade too!  I waited out front for the bus to arrive and while I waited, I noticed something peculiar; there were no cigarette butts or wads of gum on the sidewalk or anywhere else for that matter.  Back home, roads and sidewalks are littered with crushed butts and gum.

I was the first one picked up that morning and when I got on the bus, Andrew told me he liked to give everyone a chance to sit up front so he offered the very front seat to me.  I felt bad taking it from the lady who had been sitting there the day before but I also liked the idea of being able to see more through the front window.  The woman who had been sitting there the day before, didn't seem to mind that I took her seat because she just took the seat next to me.  At first I was a little annoyed that I had to share my seat with someone but after we got to talking, I realized she was good company and we had a lot in common.

Once we had everyone back on the bus, we made our way to the port of Mallaig to catch a ferry to the Isle of Skye, stopping at various points-of-interest along the way. One of them was a place called Glencoe, a beautiful area featuring a large valley (or glen as it's known in Scotland) where, in 1692, a massacre occurred.  The victims of this massacre were members of the MacDonald clan attacked in the early morning by men under the command of Captain  Robert Campbell.  Most of those men possessed the surname Campbell and to this day, The Clachaig Inn in Glencoe displays a sign that very obviously indicates that Campbell's are not welcome and will not be served.

After we passed Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom, we arrived in the town of Fort William where we were booked in for a tour of Eilean Donan Castle.  Once used for defensive purposes and now open for tours and special ceremonies, the 13th century castle is one of the most visited (and photographed) in Scotland.  In North America, most of our buildings are from the 1800's and 1900's with a scattered few from the 1600's and 1700's. As I walked through the halls of that spectacular building, I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that parts of it were built in 1200's. 

When we arrived in Mallaig, the first thing I noticed was the famed Jacobite Express parked at the train station.  Had it been earlier in the season, a ride on that train would have been part of our itinerary.  I settled for a photo op instead.  The ferry to the Isle of Skye had not returned yet so we had an hour to kill before boarding.  I set out to explore the little town and when I was done looking in the shops and taking pictures, I found a grocery store where I picked up some snacks to eat on a bench by the boat docks.

It was a short sail to the Isle of Skye and by the time we arrived, the weather had changed for the worse and it was time to settle into our accommodations for the night.  I was dropped off at a cute little B&B on top of a hill with an amazing view.  Hillview B&B would be my base for the next two nights.  I settled in and left again on foot in search of something to eat.  The weather was much worse by this time but I was so hungry, I decided to tough it out and get the most out of my stay in the town of Broadford.  

Because I packed so lightly, I didn't have much in the way of rain gear, although I know now that I should have because I had heard that September is a particularly rainy month in Scotland.  I set out into the damp, foggy, windy evening and walked down the hill to the main road in search of a restaurant, pub or grocery store.  I made the mistake of assuming that there would be a take-away place nearby.  I walked for 45 minutes in those dreadful conditions before I found a place that was open and willing to prepare me something to take back to the B&B.  At first, the woman who greeted me said they didn't plan to prepare anything from the takeaway menu that evening and it would be a very long wait if they did.  I think she and her coworkers must have felt sorry for me when I thanked them anyway and turned to leave.  They also must have noticed I was soaked to the bone and traveling on foot so she asked me to take a seat and within ten minutes, an order of chips and macaroni pie was brought out to me.  I thanked them profusely and ventured back out into the rain storm and returned to Hillview to enjoy my meal.  By the time I got back, I and my container of food were completely waterlogged.  Disappointed, I opened the container, expecting to see an inedible pile of mush but found a perfect meal untouched by the sogginess of its container. 

Once again, I slept like a baby in a beautiful, comfortable room that didn't fit the budget tour I had booked.  And I wasn't complaining one bit!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Farewell Edinburgh, Hello Highlands

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Packing only took a few minutes that last morning in Edinburgh thanks to my budding talents as a light packer.  I checked out of the hotel, grabbed a light breakfast on my way out and walked along the Royal Mile for the last time.  I was thankful to have so very little luggage to carry all the way up to Cafe Nero to meet my tour bus for the next leg of my Scotland Adventure: a 5-day Best of Scotland Experience Tour through Highland Experience Tours.  The sun was just starting to rise as I made my way up the street and there was hardly anyone around compared to previous days.  Seeing the old buildings and narrow side streets without large crowds gave the scene before me a slightly eerie look and, in a way, made it easier for me to put myself back a couple of hundred years and imagine it 1716 instead of 2016.
Edinburgh at Dawn

I signed up for this tour online through Viator because I had used the company in the past and had a very good experience.  After much research, I decided that this tour would would be the best for me to see as much as possible in the short amount of time I had available.  I don't usually like guided group tours but with only nine days to explore Scotland, I needed a starting point and I don't think I would have been able to see much in such a short period of time on my own.

I reached Cafe Nero with some time to spare so I took a seat outside and waited for my bus to arrive.  Only a few people were there when I arrived but slowly but surely, more people started to trickle into the waiting area.  Dozens actually.  I hoped to myself that they were not all getting on the same bus as me or my chances of getting a window seat would be slim to none.  Fortunately, when my bus arrived, only a few people got on and I had a seat all to myself.

Andrew, our guide for the tour, briefly introduced himself and informed us that we would be stopping in Glasgow to pick up more passengers.  He remained fairly quiet for the next hour, pointing out a few landmarks along the way.  Even as a passenger on a bus, I was able to get a good idea of what driving is like in the UK; fast with lots of confusing roundabouts.  Watching the road from the comfort of the bus made me glad I didn't rent a car for my first time in Europe. 

After the stop in Glasgow and with all passengers onboard, the mood on the bus changed.  Andrew became more chatty which got everyone else talking.  I soon discovered that there were other Canadians on the tour and people from all over the world including Brazil, Italy, Belgium, Norway, The United States, Denmark and India.

As we drove toward our first stop, we got a crash course on Scotland, it's people and some of it's history.  We also learned about a game that is played in the Scottish Highlands called Shinty which Andrew described as a combination of Hockey and modern warfare.  

The bonnie banks of Loch Lomond was the first stop.  I first heard that ghostly beautiful song about this famous loch as a child and was always curious if Loch Lomond in Scotland looks similar to Loch Lomond in Cape Breton.  Many places in Nova Scotia and especially Cape Breton Island are named after places in Scotland and I always assumed that it was because homesick Scots named places in the New World after places that looked similar back home.  Turns out Loch Lomond in Scotland looks nothing like Loch Lomond in Cape Breton; my Loch Lomond is surrounded by flat countryside and thick forest whereas Scotland's Loch Lomond is much bigger and is surrounded by mountains.  I walked along the banks of the loch and onto a little trail that went through a little village.  On my way back, I spotted a family of Highland cattle (with very cute babies!) resting under some trees.
Loch Lomond
Young Highland Calf

In the town of Inveraray, we stopped to have lunch and explore the pretty little town.  I wasn't overly hungry so I walked up and down the narrow streets, looking in the shop windows.  I found a tiny take-out restaurant close to the waterfront and went in to see what they had for light meals. This was the moment I was introduced to the Toastie - a Scottish name for what I know as a toasted sandwich. The girl behind the counter looked at me like I had ten heads when I asked her "what exactly is a toastie".  I must say, although there wasn't much to it, that toastie was quite delicious and quite filling.  I ate it on a bench by the boardwalk by the water where a bunch of seagulls and pigeons who saw me coming with food harassed me non-stop.

Kilmartin Glen is the site of 350+ Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments including burial chambers and the Temple Wood Stone Circle.  I was able to get a birdseye view of the area from atop nearby Dunnad Hill Fort which we hiked before visiting the ruins.  Likened to Stonehenge by some (but on a much smaller scale) Kilmartin Glen was as fascinating as any ancient ruins.  After a coffee break and little stroll through the village of Kilmartin, we were off again.
Some ruins at Kilmartin Glen
The view from Dunnad Hill Fort

I've been to some interestingly-named look-offs in my travels but I have to say the Rest and be Thankful  look-off near Argyll and Bute in the Scottish Highlands is by far the most oddly-named, beautiful, historical look-off I've ever been to.  The name comes from a stone with 18th century carvings that was found nearby that had the words "rest and be thankful" carved into it.  The scenery was vast, untouched mountainous land that looked wild and unforgiving on that cool fall day.  I can't imagine what a place like that is like in the dead of winter. 

The Rest and be Thankful Look-off
This was my first time ever taking a multi-day guided tour and I must say I was quite pleased with the pace.  I saw so much that first day and learned so much about Scotland.  It was early evening when I was dropped off at my guest house in the beautiful seaside town of Oban.  Ulva Villa was right on the main street.  When I booked this tour, I had two options to choose from for accommodations: Guest house or hotel.  I ticked guest house because it was cheaper and I don't really expect anything fancy when it comes to a place to lay my head for the night.  I assumed that the guest houses would be more like hostels with bunk-beds, shared bathrooms and limited facilities. I'd love to see what the more expensive hotel options were like because my guest house was anything but a hostel; it was a lovely private room with all the amenities of a hotel and more, including my own bathroom.  I left my bags in the room and set out to explore Oban and find something to eat before it got too late.  I didn't find anything open except a grocery store where I bought some snacks and fresh fruit to take back to my cozy guest room and relaxed for the rest of the evening.   

Friday, April 7, 2017

A Tour of Edinburgh Castle and a Solo Visit to one of the World's Most Haunted Graveyards

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All the walking and exploring must have done me in by my third morning in Edinburgh as I slept in a wee bit longer than I usually would (I also picked up on some local lingo...WEE - Adjective Scottish - meaning little). I didn't bother with breakfast at the hotel because I still had leftovers from my trip to a nearby grocery store the night before. On my way up the street, grabbed a cafe mocha (for some reason this became my drink of choice during my time in Scotland) at a place called Dino's Cafe on the Royal Mile and headed towards Edinburgh Castle.

I took my time walking along the Royal Mile in the late-morning sun. It was a surprisingly lovely, warm September day and I wanted to make the most of my last full day in Edinburgh. I noticed more shops and restaurants I hadn't noticed the previous days and the pipers and buskers were out in full force.

I arrived at the castle to the sounds of Scotland the Brave being performed by a lone piper outfitted in full traditional regalia. A large crowd had gathered around the entrance of the castle and the lineup to get through was quite long. Fortunately for me, I had already purchased my tickets online a couple of weeks earlier and one of the perks of buying in advance was it allowed visitors to skip the lineup and go right on into the castle grounds.

I knew from looking at pictures and from what I had heard that Edinburgh Castle is big but I wasn't expecting it to be quite as big as it actually is. I put an entire afternoon aside to visit thinking it would be enough time and it wasn't. I wandered around trying to see as much as possible and got lost a few times because the place is like a maze! I visited the National War Museum of Scotland and tried to find the exhibit that features something about the Cape Breton Highlanders but didn't find it. I watched a man in period costume do a pike demonstration (a pike is a type of weapon the Scots used in war, apparently with quite gruesome results). And I got to see the original Crown Jewels of Scotland which left me awestruck as I stood before the real crown jewels worn by Queen Mary of Scots during her coronation in 1543.

I walked around those grounds where battles were fought and royalty once walked and tried to visit every building and every exhibit but I just didn't have time to see it all before closing time. I was one of the last ones to leave in a large crowd of other visitors who were also trying to squeeze as much in as possible. I exited the main gate of the castle and made my way back onto the Royal Mile. It was a nice evening and I didn't want to go back to the hotel just yet. I walked down the street and noticed people were still going into St. Giles Cathedral. I wandered into the grand cathedral which I heard is home to a statue of an angel playing the bagpipes. I picked a good time wander in too; a little orchestra was practicing near the front of the alter and the music was hauntingly captivating.

The inside of the ancient cathedral is beautiful and I could have stayed in there for hours just looking at all the sculptures and artwork. I noticed some war memorial plaques on the wall and scrolled through the names to see if I could see my last name among them. I saw MacDonald and MacLellan and MacKenzie...but, alas, no MacEachern.

It was almost dark when I left St. Giles and my time in Edinburgh was running out.   I wanted to ensure my last night in the city would be memorable so I pondered my options while taking a break in Parliament Square. One thing I knew for sure was I wasn't ready to return to the hotel just yet. I remember thinking that the calm weather and impending darkness made for perfect conditions to take another stroll through Greyfriar's courtyard...alone and by the light of the moon and stars only.

It took a while for me to find the Greyfriar's Kirkyard although I had already been there twice. Once I found it, I entered and was pleased to see that I had it all to myself. I saw no shadows or figures of living beings lurking around but I was hoping for non-living ones.

I walked around until I found a comfortable place to sit. I listened carefully but all I heard was the sound of the wind rustling the leaves in the trees. When my eyes were sufficiently adjusted to the darkness, I peered into the night searching for any sign of shadowy figures or apparitions but all I saw were headstones.  I spotted the tomb of Sir George "Bluidy" MacKenzie. I stared at that creepily imposing building, waiting for some figure to come out of it or to hear a blood-curdling scream. Nothing.  So I walked right up to it, did a 360 degree turn to make sure no one was watching and checked the door. Locked. I'm certain I would have gone in had it been unlocked. I love everything paranormal but I remain a skeptic.  I always will be until I see or experience something undoubtedly paranormal. That night in Greyfriar's Kirkyard, said to the one of the most haunted locations in the world, I got nothing. No kicks, slaps, punches or pinches. No disembodied voices. No ghostly apparitions. Not even the heebie jeebies. Heck, the hair on the back of my neck didn't even stand up.
Sir George "Bluidy" MacKenzie's tomb

Upon leaving Greyfriar's, I got lost again. I love getting lost in new cities though so it wasn't a big deal. It's during those times that I find the places that are not in the guide books. I walked and walked, not really knowing where I was going, and just watched all the people out for a stroll in that beautiful city on a Saturday night. I went up streets I hadn't seen before, went through little alleyways that led to other unfamiliar streets and up some stairs that led to another street. Edinburgh is probably the only city I have traveled to so far where I felt 100% safe doing this at night by myself.

When I did finally find my hotel, I settled into the bar area and ordered myself a plate of Veggie Lasagna (which was delicious by the way!) and a beer.  The excitement of the city as I saw it through the restaurant window had me torn between going to bed after I ate so I could be well-rested for my early wake-up call the next morning...or taking another stroll, my last evening stroll, up The Royal Mile.  I finished my meal, grabbed a heavier sweater from my room and enjoyed a long stroll up that lively street on that last night in the City of Edinburgh.  You only live once right?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Haunted Graveyards and Underground Vaults of Edinburgh

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It was starting to get dark as I made my way back onto the Royal Mile and to the square near St. Giles Cathedral. The street was alive with tourists and locals alike gearing up for a Friday night in Edinburgh. The solemn sounds of distant bagpipes mixed with the laughter and chatter of half-cut revelers priming for a big night out on the town could be heard. A new bride exited St. Giles Cathedral with her new groom. Office-dwellers dressed in business suits walked hurriedly towards waiting cabs presumably as excited for it to be Friday night. With a few minutes to kill before meeting my guide from Auld Reekie Tours, I stopped in at Cafe Nero and ordered a Cafe Mocha to go. I arrived at the waiting spot and, for what seemed like a long time, I was the only person there. I was beginning to think I had the wrong directions when other people started to show up. Not long after, Ethel, who would take us on a nighttime tour of Greyfriar's Kirkyard and The Underground Vaults, arrived.

I was excited to visit Greyfriar's Kirkyard again but this time under the cover of darkness. As we walked toward the graveyard, Ethel explained that it's one of the most haunted locations in the world and past guests on the tour had been physically attacked by the angry spirit of Sir George Mackenzie, the man who imprisoned, maltreated and even murdered hundreds of Presbyterian Covenanters. As Ethel was explaining this, it became evident that some of the guests on the tour had already gotten a head start on the drinking. Their laughing, cussing and plain ol' disruptive behavior caused Ethel to show her more authoritative side. I personally thought she should have had them spend some alone time in Sir George MacKenzie's tomb to set them straight.

While I admit the graveyard was quite creepy in the dark, I didn't get any spine-tingling feelings or sense anything off about the place, although I was hoping I would. Sometimes I get these strange feelings when I visit a location and have no explanation for it. The feeling of the hair on the back of my neck standing up or that someone is watching me. I get these feelings every time I visit Warren Lake in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The place just creeps the heck out of me. That night at Greyfriar's Courtyard, one of the most haunted locations in the world, I didn't get punched, slapped or kicked like others have reported and it was quite disappointing. I wondered if it was due to me being with such a large group. I pondered the idea of returning to the graveyard alone the following night.

Our next stop was the underground vaults which are also a hotspot of paranormal activity. I was surprised to learn some of the history of these vaults and what they were used for over the years. I can't imagine up to thirty people living in one of those dark, damp, tiny spaces but, at one time, immigrants hoping to prosper in a new life in Edinburgh did just that and faced disappointment and even death. Disease was rampant and so was criminal activity. The plague was particularly unforgiving in those conditions and if it didn't kill you, it was likely you would fall victim to murder. If you weren't lucky enough to make a living above ground in Edinburgh, eventually you fell into a life of crime to survive. Illicit activities such as gambling, prostitution and robbery were just some of the professions many fell into while trying to survive in the underground vaults. The police only turned a blind eye to it all. As far as anyone above ground was concerned, the vaults were out-of-site and therefore out-of-mind as long as it stayed below ground. While I can admit that the vaults were also quite creepy, I can also say that I did not get any goosebumps or heebie jeebies.

The walk back to the hotel was interesting to say the least. It was still fairly early but it was starting to get a bit rowdy. I took the long way around and started at the top of the street and made my way down and around a couple of blocks. I wanted to get a feel of what Edinburgh is like on a Friday night. I passed lots of drunken stag and hen parties and rowdy students already three sheets to the wind, some ready to be carried home even at that early on an hour. I made my way through the crowd of staggering revelers like an old pro. I had been in the city not even two full days and I was already navigating the crowded streets like a local, weaving in and out of crowds. As I walked, I noticed some comical signs had been put out outside some of the pubs to lure in the weekend crowd. Lots of signs advertising Haggis and beer. I told myself before I left home I would force myself to try Haggis while in Scotland but once I arrived, I couldn't get myself to do it. Many people tried to convince me that I had to try it and the new, politically-correct vegetarian Haggis (yes that's a thing) was even pushed on me but I just couldn't do it.

I contemplated ducking into one of the little pubs along the Royal Mile to take in some live music and have a beer or two but decided that being alone in a place that was getting rowdier by the minute might not be the greatest idea. I opted instead to grab a beer at my hotel bar. I took my place in the restaurant near a window where I could watch the big party unfold on the street outside and asked the friendly bartender for a plate of Cheesie Fries and a bottle of the best local beer he had available.

Much later that night as I was sleeping, a loud commotion outside stirred me awake; a fight on the street between some drunken blokes....welcome to Friday night in Edinburgh!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Real Introduction to the History and Culture of Edinburgh

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My second day in Edinburgh was off to a great start.  I awoke refreshed and rested and ready to take on another day of exploring.  Breakfast in the hotel dining area was a tad confusing and I don't think I quite grasped what it was I was supposed to do.  I walked in, I was stopped by a server who gave me instructions and I proceeded to follow those instructions.  There was no defined queue or waiting area and various items were scattered all over the place.  I found out later that the server who greeted me must have thought I had pre-ordered and pre-paid for breakfast.  I thought it was free and ate until I was stuffed.  I never was billed for it but discovered later that breakfast at the hotel was not free.

I had free time before making my way to Starbucks on the Royal Mile to join the free walking tour through Sandemans New Europe Tours so I grabbed a coffee and sat on a bench in Parliament Square and people-watched for a while.  This is one of the things I miss about living in a city; just sitting somewhere, like a fly on the wall, and watching everyone go on with their daily lives and taking in the excitement that buzzes in the air of the downtown area of any city.

The walking tour left not far from that area so I walked around the corner five minutes before the scheduled departure and met my guide, Fraser.  There were more people taking the tour that I thought there would be.  Fortunately, Fraser had a tall flag that he waved in the air as we walked along so we wouldn't lose site of him.

I admit, I wasn't expecting much from this walking tour.  I only signed up for it because it was free and I thought I might learn a few things or see things I would otherwise not see.  I assumed the only good thing about it would be that it's free.  How very wrong I was.

The tour lasted about two hours and delivered way more than I expected.  In fact, it was one of the best walking tours I've ever been on!  Not only did I see historical buildings and monuments, I learned the history of them the notable people who lived in Edinburgh throughout history.  I learned about the gruesome public hangings that the townspeople came out to watch.  I learned that the South Bridge is cursed because the first person to cross it after its construction crossed in a coffin. She was the eldest citizen of the city and it was decided that she would be the first to cross - dead or alive.  I learned that J. K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, got inspiration from gravestones in Greyfriar's Kirkyard when choosing names for some of her characters.  I learned that some of the graves in this graveyard were looted by grave-robbers but they didn't steal jewels; they  stole the actual bodies for medical and science research.  I learned about Greyfriar's Bobby, the beloved dog whose grave at Greyfriar's Kirkyard has been turned into a shrine of flowers and gifts left by admirers. I learned that the fountain that stands in dedication of this beloved dog was once a two-tiered fountain with an upper level for humans to drink from and a lower level for dogs to drink from.  The statue's nose has been rubbed for good luck so much that Bobby now looks more like a pug than a Skye Terrier.  I learned that the term s**t-faced originated during a time in Europe when residents had no flush toilets and to dispose of waste, it was acceptable to simply toss it out of a window and into the gutters.  This was usually done late at night when, coincidentally, the drunken patrons of local pubs would be on their way home and I'm sure you can figure it out from there! I learned that one of the public square's off the Royal Mile was historically used and is still used to this day for gathering the city residents together to announce important announcements such as royal births and the results of Brexit.  I also learned that Scotland has a very bloody, brutal where, I noticed throughout this tour, every story told ends with someone or many people being killed.
Greyfriar's Kirkyard
The gravesite of Greyfriar's Bobby
When the tour ended, we parted ways near the National Museum of Scotland.  Now, some people may say that the "free" tour ended in front of the museum so that everyone would naturally wander into the museum and pay the entry fee, therefore making the entire tour some sort of trick to get people to go to the museum.  Well, I personally doubt that.  I tipped my guide generously and was glad to pay the small entry fee to the museum as it was somewhere I planned to visit anyway.  This made it all that more convenient because I would have gotten hopelessly lost trying to find it.

I didn't want to spend too much time in the museum as my time in Edinburgh was short as it was and I had so many other things to see and do but I did walk through every room on every floor, stopping at the things that interested me the most; the exhibit about Alexander Graham Bell (because of his ties to Cape Breton Island where I live), Dolly the cloned sheep and the observation deck with the view of the city were among some of the most interesting exhibits for me.  Overall, the population of Scots around the world may be relatively small but they've certainly done their fair share of notable things as I learned at the museum.

Upon leaving the museum, I must have taken a wrong turn.  I thought I was going the right way but when things started to look unfamiliar, I realized I was quite lost.  I walked for well over an hour and ended up in a residential neighborhood that looked nothing like anywhere I had been in the city up to that moment.  I kept walking hoping to find someone to ask for directions but the neighborhood was like a ghost town.  Eventually, I ended up back on St. Mary's St. and at my hotel where I grabbed a bite to eat and got ready before heading back down the Royal Mile to meet another guide to take me on a Haunted Graveyard and Underground Vaults Tour.


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