Scotland had been on my radar for some time and at a 9 hour bus ride away from London, I couldn’t resist making the journey. Umbrella in tow, we arrived in Edinburgh at sunrise and sloshed our way to our hostel. Unable to check in, we donned our rain gear and hit the streets, making a beeline for High Street, the center of all activity in the capital of Scotland. Looking up the hill, you can’t help but notice the enormous Edinburgh Castle perched strategically on the hill above. The site of numerous battles mostly between the Scottish and English, it remains one of the most photographed castles in all of Scotland. The city has a history that is dark with tales of grave robbing, thievery and murder. With so much of these happening, it’s no wonder that great tales such as Jekyll and Hyde and Harry Potter were written within city limits.
Starting off the day with the normal post-overnight fix of 4 coffees and cereal, we proceeded to join one of the free walking tours offered daily. Unlike any other walking tour we’ve taken, this one actually held our interest with its hilarious tales of Scottish spite against none other than the English. My favorite tale was of a time when the English had captured Edinburgh Castle and since they had the castle, they basically had Scotland. Well, any Braveheart fan will tell you that the Scottish are not very fond of being under anyone’s rule except their own but since they were severely undermanned after the last beating they had to use a bit of “strategery.” While the English, roughly 3,000 strong, were guarding the castle in the normal spot to the west of the castle (considered to be the only access point to the castle) a ragtag team of 30 Scotsmen literally climbed up the rock laden northern face of the castle and walked in undisturbed. Well, before long their cover had been blown – most likely due to the them lifting their kilts and showing the English below what 30 years of no sun exposure could accomplish – and their English capturers had taken up arms and began proceeding towards the castle. Finally realizing that they were outmanned by roughly 2,970 troops, they had the bright idea to burn the castle down and retreat as fast as possible. What in today’s terms would be an awful strategy actually ended up working since the castle was burnt down, the English decided that it wasn’t habitable and moved on to bigger and better things, namely the rest of the world.
During the tour, we befriended a German/Peruvian couple named Rainer and Maggie and went to Jekyll and Hyde pub for some pints of beer. Both well traveled we shared tips for several hours before agreeing to meet again for the “terror and horror” tour of Edinburgh by night. Back at our hostel we picked up a solo homesick Australian traveler named Sam and met up with Rainer and Maggie to begin the evening. To shake the cold, we first had some coffee and hot cocoa before setting out. Nearby, a large group gathered to hear bagpipes play and none of us could help smiling and dancing a jig. Off to the horror tour we went only to be sorely disappointed at the end. Led to the old, dark, damp tunnels of Edinburgh by our tour guide, he asked us all to turn off our lights while he recounted some lame-duck story of the Edinburgh of old. That which surely should have been expected occured next and a goon dressed as a goblin jumped into the room and screamed leaving the entire group with a little something extra in our pants. I’m sure most of us would gladly have left it as tip.
You cannot visit Scotland without diving into the wonders of its cuisine. With over 300 days of sunshine and a huge agricultural heartland, the selection of fresh ingredients in unparalleled. Oh wait, I’m describing California. Scotland has none of that and I’m not sure if the sun exists here at all. Still, there are some things that must be tried, namely haggis and deep fried Mars bar so I decided to make each part of a 2-course meal. Haggis is essentially scrapple in the sheep world. You take all of the leftover parts of the sheep, mince them and mix with rice and then stuff it back into the sheeps stomach before boiling or frying. With enough ketchup it is delicious. And for desert is the incredible and delicious deep fried Mars bar. The most interesting thing about the delectable desert is trying to figure out how the hell they were able to deep fry a Mars bar? My guess is they freeze first, then batter, then flash fry. Mystery solved.
Our visit to Edinburgh was well timed as we arrived right in the middle of the Fringe Festival, the largest Arts Festival in the world. With non-stop performances of art, music, theatre and comedy, not a day could go by without a visitor being entertained from dawn until the wee hours of the morning. Fortunately for us, there is an edition of the Fringe called “Free Fringe,” and we set out to enjoy as much of it as possible. First stop, a poetry reading. Huh? Well, it was Erin’s idea but it actually turned out to be great and since part of this trips mission is cultural experiences, I smiled cheek to cheek and went along. The reading was held in the upstairs of the Poetry School, a dedicated (and enormous) building for poetry and poetry alone, truly one of a kind. Arriving to the group of 3 poets, we sat down and listened to each of them. Believe it or not, there were rules as each poet could read only two poems and they couldn’t be more than five minutes each. But, since there were only 3 of them, they took up the alloted time by trading back and forth. My favorite poem was by Angela, the moderator, and it was about New York City. The poem, when written on paper was in the shape of an apple. Also, another favorite is when they did poems in the native tongue of Scots and stopped to translate for us after each unique word.
Set near the sea amidst rugged terrain and the quintessential rolling uber-green Scottish hills, the city was actually built in stages, with old Edinburgh taking up the hill complete with cobblestone streets and well-worn facades and new Edinburgh next to the valley below, more modern and planned. On the edge of the city are the hills aforementioned centered by a majestic mountain aptly named Albert’s Chair. Following the poetry reading and some tea and scones, I decided decively and forcefully it was time to do something manly and we began our trek upwards. Ninety minutes later we reached the lookout point below Albert’s Chair (which was covered in fog) and enjoyed the panoramic view of the city below. To be expected, it started pouring and we found ourselves in the basement of a pub with beer-in-hand enjoying some free comedy shows, my favorite being the stand up of Rob Heeney. It is true the best things in life are free. Now, if I only I could find some free beer. Wait, someone did leave three unopened Stella’s in my locker at the hostel. Now, if only I could find a fridge. 🙂
Aviemore – the Highlands
When in Scotland, expect rain. Lots of it. So much of it that when bragging about their amenities, at the top of the list, hostels and hotels list “dry room.” It’s in this dry room that nearly everything you’ve worn that day spend the night. Fortunately, everyone uses them so you get used to the wet dog and dirty sock smell pretty quick. The Highlands are basically defined as anything north of Edinburgh and Glasgow and that leaves a whole lot of land to be explored. We chose Aviemore as it isn’t as touristy as Loch Ness and is home to the largest mountain chain in the UK, the Cairngorms. Armed with rainjackets and umbrellas, we spent our first afternoon hiking to the peak of the Craigellachie Nature Preserve (have fun trying to pronounce that one with your best Scottish lilt.) Soaked to the bone, we passed one local who immediately struck up conversation, curious to know how long it took us to get to the peak since he used to do it in 30 minutes “in the olden days.” Lifting his spirits, we told him an hour. He does the hike every day and has been for 45 years. Along the way we passed fields of heather, moss-covered stones and trees, small lakes with reeds and ducks, mushrooms the size of my feet, bright green ferns and their dying red-orange brothers, and hares that given the amount of grass in the area, must be the best fed in the world. One lake in Craigellachie was so picturesque I decided to return at sunrise the next two days but wasn’t rewarded with great light or weather.
Waking Erin at around 8:30, we began our journey to the highest peak in the Cairngorms. The weather actually held off until mid-afternoon and we had moderate temperatures for the 5-hour roundtrip. On the hike up we came across a herd of reindeer. I inched closer and closer trying to get better pictures before realizing they were so tame I probably could’ve jumped on one and wrestled with it as if it was my dog, Tyson. The scenery was stunning with giant stones embedded on the sloped green mountainside, heather fields slowly taking over and small evergreens getting every last bit of sun before their assured death come winter. Quickly swirling clouds whisped near the summit threatening a white-out at any second, swooping and curling around the ridges near the peak. Halfway descended we stopped into the eco-lodge to take a look at the exhibit that was recommended by a fellow hiker. Following Scotland’s history dating back hundred’s of millions of years, we learned that the island was once at home near the equator and moved north at about the same speed as a fingernail grows. Not actually the same land mass as it’s southerly neighbor, to this day it still moves at about the same clip. Since England moves just a hair slower, predictions have it that in roughly 10 million years, Scotland’s ultimate dream will come true. It will be seperated and independent from England for good. Arriving back at the base, running and frantically waving our arms, we missed our bus. Since the next one didn’t come for two hours we resorted to thumbing it and within minutes were picked up by a honeymooning couple. After speaking with them for a bit we found out they lived in Scotland and asked if they lived around Aviemore. Proudly, they exclaimed “no,” and said they lived up north. Well, considering heading north from Aviemore one finds the sea in about a 45-minute drive, I guess when you live on such a small island every fingernails-length counts.
On our last day, it was pouring down rain and not wanting to miss out on anything the area offered, I took the wet walk 5 miles to Loch Morlich with a Londoner named Angela we met in our hostel. Erin holed up in a nice, warm coffeeshop and worked on her freelance writing projects. Arriving at the lake, I quickly realized that the walk had taken longer than I’d expected and that it was possible I’d miss our bus back to London. Bidding Angela farewell as she decided to walk back, I approached an elderly man who was feeding the ducks to inquire about the bus schedule back to Aviemore. Not quite sure, he immediately offered me a ride. Before returning though, he drove in the opposite direction and parked once more to feed the rest of the ducks at another part of the lake. Asking about this, he answered that he does this every day and has been for over 40 years. Hopping on the bus back to London and staring out the window, I wondered if the other old man had yet reached the peak in Craigellachie.