The Best for Last?

It was a sad morning as we packed up and had to say goodbye to our lovely little Scottish farm cabin. It was much cooler this morning, but Meg came to greet us at the door again. No walk this morning, but she did get several biscuits just for being so darn cute.

Helen picked us up and we set out for a southern trek to Elcho Castle. I had never heard of it before but it’s a true hidden gem and an out-of-the-way spot that’s worth the trip. 

Elcho Castle one of Scotland’s best preserved 16th-century tower houses, was built around 1560 by a member of the Wemyss family. There is little history attached to the castle other than it simply served as a fine country residence for the family and servants. This was very evident as we toured room after room with its own fireplace and latrine – something we haven’t seen even in royal residences. They truly did live the high life but were also able to design the building to be both comfortable and easily defensible. 

Dave and I loved this little jewel. It’s very out of the way and you have to literally drive through a farm to get to it. But it is so worth it. 

Then we drove to Dumfermline Abbey and Palace. Charles the 1st, King of England and Ireland was born here in November 1600. He was the last King to be born in Scotland. The old 12th century abbey is very dramatic and striking in its dark, heavy beauty and the stone work. The more modern church isn’t nearly as impressive but in 1329 AD: Robert the Bruce was buried at Dunfermline and he was re-interred in 1818 sans his heart which is buried at Melrose Abbey. 

We stopped for lunch here at the brilliantly pink-painted Abbots House. We sat outside in a beautiful setting surrounded by an herb garden with the Abbey stretching out behind it. The service and the meal weren’t great, but the setting sure was. 

It was later in the day now and we were running out of time, so Helen continued to drive south towards Edinburgh. We stopped at the coast and the Forth of Firth to get a close–up view of the two large bridges. Both are pretty impressive structures, but the older railroad bridge is of particular interest. 

The rail bridge was begun in 1883, took 7 years to complete, cost the lives of 63 men and nearly 3.5 million pounds of metal and used 10 times as much steel as the Eiffel Tower. It was deliberately chosen to look strong, due to the collapse 4 years earlier of the first Tay Bridge. Until 1917, when the Quebec Bridge was completed, the Forth Bridge had the longest single cantilever bridge span in the world. 

We stopped for some photos then Helen actually took us to her home in Cramond. It’s a beautiful neighborhood and we can see how raising her girls in this area had a lovely community entity. Dave and I got to see Afternoon Tea Tours’ International Headquarters and she invited us for tea, which we started outside in the sun, then soon moved inside due to being too warm in the sun. Helen generously shared her life with us and now her home. So much more than just a tour guide. She has a beautiful garden and I was not surprised to see a large ceramic sheep stature standing guard in her garden. Loved it! 

Now we reluctantly left this lovely local, struggled through traffic going in to Edinburgh, and Helen dropped us off at the Hilton. Since my brain aneurysm, I don’t cry as easily as I used to, but I was most definitely crying internally when Dave and I hugged Helen not once, but twice, each. It was very hard to say goodbye. I enjoyed traveling with a girlfriend for several days and she was much more than just a tour guide for Dave and I. 

Dave and I checked into the hotel, had a great dinner in their hotel restaurant and tried to get to sleep for an early morning tomorrow as we put an end to our first Scottish journey.

Sheepdogs, Waterfalls, and Fish n’ Chips

It was a peaceful, comfortable night at the cabin and warm temperatures and a sheepdog named Meg greeted us this morning. I had seen photos of Meg on Facebook and heard quite a bit about her from Helen. She belongs to the farm across the road and is a special, special dog in that she is a very loving and friendly sheepdog. Meg is also a hard working sheepdog.

She was resting outside the door of the cabin and I went to say good morning. Helen goes out for a lot of walks with Meg so I figured we’d try one too. As Meg, Dave and I set up for a short walk, I could hear a cat meow. I turned around and an adorable silver tabby cat came running down the drive for us then insisted on going on the walk too. Felt like we had a little family walking down the road. 

Helen arrived and because the weather was so nice, she took us to some outdoor attractions…and they were amazing attractions! 

Our first stop was the Queen’s View in Highland Perthshire. It overlooks Loch Tummel and is said to have been named after Queen Victoria, following her visit to the area in 1866, but most believe it was actually named after King Robert the Bruce’s wife, Queen Isabella in the 1500’s. 

As we were enjoying the fantastic view and taking photos a single Tornado fighter jet buzzed the overlook and freaked Dave and I out because it was literally at eye level it was so low! Helen says that happens quite frequently as they’re practicing maneuvers, but for Dave and I, it was most impressive…almost as impressive as that view! 

The next agenda item today was Dunkeld Cathedral in the lovely village of Dunkeld. It is approached on foot through the narrow streets of Dunkeld which lead you to the Cathedral’s ornate gates. With the River Tay on one side and open land leading to hills on the other, the setting is idyllic. 

It was built in stages between 1260 and 1501 and has suffered extensive battles and rebuilds. Dunkeld Cathedral is a building of two very distinct partd. Its east end is a rather attractive parish church still in use today; its west end, apart from the bell tower and chapter house, a roofless ruin with a grassy carpet. Unfortunately for us, the ruins are being worked on and we were not able to enter but only look in and take very strategically posed photos to avoid scaffolding. it was still beautiful and the surrounding views are lovely. 

As we were walking along one of the paths up from the river, we noticed a pretty kitty cat sleeping on one of the benches and he was very calm and loving. He became the Dunkeld Kitty to us. LOL It also reminded us of William the large cat at Rosslyn Chapel that we saw n Monday and the we had our third kitty this morning at the cabin. 

On our walk back through Dunkeld, we stopped for lunch at a great little spot called Spill the Beans cafe. We all had some tasty soup and sandwiches and their selection of teas and desserts was impressive. I got a tea to go (or Take Away as they call it) and picked out a piece of mint chocolate pie. 

The next round of spectacular scenery Helen showed us was The Hermitage. It’s a national landmark set up in the 1700’s with wooded paths, wonderful trees and the crown jewel being the spectacular views of Black Linn Falls. With a viewing building that opens up directly over the center of the falls, you couldn’t be in a better viewing position unless you flew over it. There are beautiful moss-covered trees and huge rocks that create a blanket of green over everything and it creates a very magically, woodland fairyland. 

Our last stop today was to visit Blair Castle, which has been the traditional home of the Earls and Dukes of Atholl and Clan Murray. The oldest part of the castle dates back to the 1200’s and is a wonderful example of the wealth and power this family has had. It was a popular spot with Queen Victoria and the guides within the castle were wonderful and VERY knowledgable. Although there are still private residences within the castle that would be lived in, the current Duke, does not live here, but lives in South Africa. 

The setting is wonderful with a long, straight, tree-lined entrance drive and because it’s all painted white, the castle truly stands out against the backdrop of the Cairngorms Mountains. There are also expansive gardens and we saw swans sitting on their nest and a stunning brilliant blue peacock. 

For dinner tonight, we opted for an easy dinner at the cabin. So, we stopped at a local fish n’ chip shop and Helen, Dave, and I sat out on the porch of the cabin listening to the stream, sheep, and the birds eatings our take out fish with a few drinks. 

As we were eating we had an opportunity to see Meg the sheepdog at work on the farm. She was helping to herd from cows into a separate pen. What a great show! 

Because we only had one more day left of our adventure with Helen, she left us with her comments book to sign and she gave us a lovely book on Scotland. And somehow, in and amongst all of the time she spent with us the last five days, she had two prints made of photos she took on our borders tour last Monday. The photos were of the touching rainbow that appeared while we were having tea and the other photo was of me admiring the rainbow out the window. I was very moved by the extremely thoughtful gifts and look forward to looking through the book she gave us and finding more areas I want to go in Scotland! 🙂 

After Helen left us, I then had to try and come up with words to express what our adventure with her in Scotland meant to us to write in the book. Not an easy task….I needed more wine! I think Dave and I came up with some good words. It’s difficult to put our feelings into words. I hope we succeeded.

25 Years in The Making

After a lovely breakfast at Viewfield House and a chat with its owner Hugh MacDonald, Helen picked us up and we set out to explore the south-west side of Skye before heading back to the main land.

Another fun sighting were the large, docile Highlander cattle. Helen told us they come in six colors and I think we saw them all in this trip. They certainly are imposing creatures as they mosey along in their fields.

We passed two flat-topped mountains called MacLeod’s Tables. Helen told us a fabulous story about the MacLeod chieftain offering a dinner to traveling clan chiefs with his own men circling the tops of each mountain with torches. Must have been an impressive sight.

Helen drove us to an area called Waternish where we stopped at the ruins of St. Mary’s church and a graveyard. The church was originally built in the 1500’s. High up on a hill behind the church was a stone erected in 2000 called the Duirinish Stone. For some reason the path leading up to the church was calling my name and I felt compelled to follow it. Twice along the path I felt I should probably stop due to a steep incline or muddy path, but I continued to the top. It was a beautiful view, but horribly windy and and cool, so I didn’t linger.

We wandered around the remarkable graveyard that was heavily used by the Clan MacCleod. It was a beautiful spot and Helen said it was quite an unusual graveyard due to the hilliness. Some of the words written on the tombstones were very eloquent and it was a wonderful setting.

Helen then took us to a broch. Dave and I had no idea what this was, so we were intrigued after she told us what it was. Dun Beag is a broch, one of around five hundred to be found across mainly the north and west of Scotland. Brochs were built in the last centuries BC and the first centuries AD. So, they’re older than castles. We walked up a fairly steep hill in some pretty dramatic winds, but it was worth it when we arrived at the top.

It seems that most Iron Age, land-owning families lived in these kinds of stone structures. They would have had several levels for storage, food, and daily living. It’s a fascinating structure and one probably few people in the U.S. are aware of.

We worked up an appetite climbing that hill and stopped for lunch at a hikers hotel/restaurant. We were certainly feeling like hikers at this point, but the group of husky, well-built, outdoorsy men sitting at three or four tables appeared to be the real deal.

Dave tried a tasty soup called cock a leekie, which is basically chicken (cock) and leeks (leekie). He loved it! Another Scottish winner. There was a lovely bridge across from the restaurant with a great view, although fog was covering the mountain tops, it was still fabulous and we took many photos.

Now came the moment Dave had been waiting 25 years to see: Eilean Donan castle! The first time he visited Scotland, there was a mix up in travel plans and he never got to it. It was very disappointing and he was REALLY looking forward to seeing it on this trip. We were even staying in a guest house that is literally across the street.

We walked over to the castle and Dave was just like a little boy, then to add to the excitement a helicopter and police boat were doing drills on dropping people into the boat and picking them up again. I had to admit watching this WAS exciting, but it got old after awhile and there was a castle waiting!

The castle was founded in the thirteenth century, and became a stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and their allies the Clan Macrae. In the early eighteenth century the Mackenzies were involved in the Jacobite rebellions, which led to the castle’s destruction by government ships in 1719. The present buildings are the result of twentieth-century reconstruction of the ruins. But even though you know a good deal of it was rebuilt somewhat recently, it was still really fascinating and well done.

Above the main entrance is a Gaelic inscription which in translation reads: “As long as there is a Macrae inside, there will never be a Fraser outside”, referring to a bond of kinship between the two clans. Despite scaffolding setup for some re-work, the castle is beautiful. As we exited the castle, we discovered a group of Scottish dancers in the parking lot (car park) who were dancing in normal plain clothes to Scottish songs, mainly the song “Eilean Donan”. They were going to historic spots and dancing. Great fun!

We ate dinner in town at a local pub that had some slow service, they we headed to Donan House, our hotel for the night with possibly the best view of the castle. Our room had THE view and Dave was beyond thrilled when it finally became darker out (not until about 9:45) and they flood lit the castle, Really beautiful!

Landscapes and a Claw Foot Tub!

The weather Gods were smiling on us today! Sunny, light winds and no rain. Just perfect! Our morning started out with that fantastic view from Dailanna House, a tasty breakfast and a day will with delightful surprises and scenery.

The drive from Glenfinnan to Mallaig was filled with everything from the beautiful White Sands of Morar to helping a lost dog.

The striking white sands of Morar were the perfect foil to all of the heather, ferns, and grasses that hadn’t yet greened up with new growth for 2013. I immediately took my shoes off and did little beach combing. I did NOT stick my toes in the water. The sand was much cooler than I was expecting so I wasn’t about to “test the waters” so to speak.

As we were getting ready to leave, an adorable sheepdog came trotting to us and didn’t seem to belong anywhere. Helen was smart enough to look at his tags on collar and his name was Spot (was expecting something a wee big more Scottish) and he belonged to the Hendersons. Helen decided to call them to see if they were missing a dog…they were and said they’d be down in 5 minutes to pick spot us. So, we took turns holding his collar so he wouldn’t run off again. Mr. Henderson arrived and thanked us and Operation Spot was complete!

We then caught the short ferry ride from Malaig to Armadale. The winds were howling on board and I ended up going inside for most of it because it was quite cold, but it was uneventful except for the fact almost everyone with a alarm on their car had it going off at one point or another.

After landing on Skye and driving off the ferry, we started the most amazing trek on the island along the island then up and around the Trotternish peninsula. Each bend in the road created a new landscape of color, texture, and scale. We’ve never seen anything like it and Helen loves to share that beauty with people. Her excited adds to our excitement.

Skye has everything: rolling hills, grassy moors, jagged rocks, peat-filled fields, sparkling lochs, soaring mountains and of course, the ocean. There was almost too much to look at. Either side of the car produced a series of little stories. Helen put in a CD of music of Robert Burns sung by Eddi Reader. She has an amazing voice and Robbie Burn’s words set to modern, Celtic music is beautiful. I hope to download if from iTunes at some point.

We continued past the Old Man of Storr – an amazing rock formation high up in a cliff. Speaking of cliffs, we stopped atop a very windy cliff top to view the waterfalls and the rock formation at Kilt Rock. The power and and beauty of the rocks and the water in that area is breathtaking. And their signs warning of impending danger, struck me funny.

Dave and I asked Helen to pull over in several locations, We both wanted to get photos of those ever-prevalent sheep and some of the newest member to the moor, those baby lambs. Soooo cute! Helen travels with a small, white stuffed sheep given to her by a customer and she travels wi it and take photos of her in many locations. Called Morag, she has kind of become a sort of mascot this trip, putting in many appearances.

We stopped to see croft houses and the spectacular ruins of Duntulm Castle at the very tip of Trotternish Peninsula. Again, just more beauty and with some super weather. We’ve been very blessed.

Our final surprise was to appear at a fairy tale room at Viewfield House in Portree. Helen had recommend we stay there and Dave booked the room. We had no idea it would be as grand as it was. Two fireplaces, fantastic views of harbor, large antique furniture pieces and a claw foot tub in the very large bathroom. Jaw dropping and delightful all the way around. Hugh MacDonald, owner and host, met us and helped with our bags.

We then met with Helen and had dinner down overlooking the colorful little Portree harbor at the Rosemont Hotel & Restaurant. An excellent meal! Dave even tried the local whiskey, Talisker. He enjoyed it.

Helen dropped us off, then went to her B&B, the. Dave and I asked Hugh for a night cap. We ordered up two Drambuie and took them up to our room where we promptly, and FINALLY were able to have a drink and a toast Scotland…IN Scotland.

Of course I took a bath in the claw foot tub too, are you kidding me? How could I not.

Glens, Lochs, and Legends

Our journey north and west started with some sun, so that was promising, but we were learning the Scottish weather is as unpredictable this week as a moth’s flight path. 

We ate the wonderful lemon muffins and scones for breakfast that we bought at Forsyth’s Tea Room yesterday. They were very tasty! We picked up around the apartment and said goodbye to Edinburgh. Helen picked us up around the block and we were on our way! 

As we drove out of Edinburgh and in and around daily traffic, we were reminded that Edinburgh is a thriving, modern community in and amongst great history. Dave and I also noticed the extremely tricky, roundabouts (or rotaries) and we were both glad Helen was driving. 

Helen is great fun, and an excellent guide mixing historical information and personal stories about the areas we stop at, viewed, and drove through. She feels it’s the journey that is important, not so much the destination and boy, is that ever the case in this kind of country. 

Our first stop today was Doune Castle in the village of Doune. The semi-ruin is a wonderful representation of a late-medieval 1300’s stronghold and an example of the power and wealth of Robert Stewart, the Duke of Albany. He lived like royalty and they called him the “uncrowned king”. You can tell throughout the castle that he had extensive wealth, even in its shell. Really wonderful. 

Dave and I were both impressed with how large and extensive this castle is and we both agreed it was better than we were expecting. The movie MONTY PYTHON’S HOLY GRAIL was filmed extensively here inside and out and they most certainly take advantage of that notoriety in the gift shop and for the audio tour. Terry Jones from Monty Python narrates the recorded audio tour. They interject bits of sound effects throughout the tour as only Python can do. It makes for a very entertaining and informational tour. 

The sun was still out and our tour continued north and west. I remembered a little goody bag that Beth had given to me when we were in their store the day before with specific instructions for us to open it with Helen when we were on the road. So I grabbed it and opened it. There was a lovely note for us to have a wonderful journal and a small package of Scotch Whiskey Fudge. Quite tasty! 

We drove past Stirling Castle where we had been two days ago and info a part of the country known for beauty and rugged landscapes. Little did we know just how MUCH beauty and just how much rugged we would encounter. 

Each glen and loch we passed created a new landscape and Helen was wonderful with letting us know what we were looking at and its place in Scottish history or lore. As we entered the area known as The Trossachs, Helen put in a CD of Scottish Movie Themes, so as we were going through Rob Roy country, we were listening to Rob Roy’s movie theme, VERY effective and helped set the “mood”. 

Every spot was dramatic in one way or the other and as Helen was describing the area of Rannoch Moor we came upon it and were stunned at how vast, dramatic, rugged and beautiful it was all at once. 

Helen indicated the “marsh” area is actually peat fields and it can become quite muddy. Helen is a walker (we call them hikers in the U.S.) and said one really has to know what you’re doing if you’re walking on that kind of terrain. 

Next up was Glen Coe. Glen means valley and loch means lake. At the entrance to the Glencoe Pass we stopped at a beautiful waterfalls then proceeded to view the glen. There was a stunning area of three mountains called The Three Sisters where Clan McDonald lived. They used to hide their cattle in between two of the mountains called The Lost Valley. Just spectacular scenery. Then we start imagining the difficulties living in such surroundings and the hardships they had to endure….but then again, most didn’t know better, so they were used to it. 

More than 300 years after the event, Glencoe’s name is still synonymous with the brutal slaughter that occurred there in the early hours of February 13, 1692. Thirty-eight men, women, and children, all MacDonalds, were murdered in cold blood by troops carrying out government orders. We saw the area where the signals were given to begin the massacre. Very sad. 

We stopped at the Glencoe visitor’s center for a wee big of Mackie’s Icecream, Helen says they’ve been around for years and it’s a Scottish tradition to have some, Delicious! 

As we continued on our way around the Trotternish Peninsula and around Loch Linnhe, Helen wanted to stop at artist Bill Lawrence’s studio to make a purchase. She said WE didn’t have to buy anything, but Dave ended up buying 6 photo greeting cards that Bill’s wife Susie had done on film, not digital and we bought a lovely B&W drawing Bill did many years ago. He’s very talented at pen & ink and colored pencil. Really special drawings and he and his wife were very sweet to us. 

Our final adventure stop for the day was at Glenfinnan Monument. It’s a statue of, and monument to, Prince Charles Edward and the Jacobites who followed him. The location for the monument is significant because that’s where Bonnie Prince Charlie landed by boat in 1745. It’s also a remarkably beautiful spot on Loch Sheil. 

Dinner was at a local restaurant and our overnight accommodations were at the lovely Dailanna Guest House in Fort William overlooking Locheil to the hills of Ardgour. Florence our host was lovely and the house couldn’t have been more comfortable with an amazing view to boot!

Churches, Gravestones, and a Police Escort

We slept in a little bit today, which was quite nice, then we headed over to the Edinburgh Larder for breakfast again and again, it was very good! The weather was overcast and cool, but not raining….yet. 

Our first stop today was at Greyfriars Tolbooth and Kirkyard (graveyard). It’s a wonderful, still active church with a lively history and one charming story about a dog. 

Dave and I wandered around the Kirk for a little bit. Some of the tombstones are extremely old and some of the stories and eloquent words engraved on them are heartbreaking. We then went into the church which has been damaged and rebuilt over the centuries. 

Greyfriars was the first church built in Edinburgh after the Reformation. In 1562 Mary Queen of Scots had granted the land to the Town Council for use as a burial ground but it did not open until Christmas Day 1620. 

However, the most famous story from the nineteenth century, is that of Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was a Skye Terrier, looked after by John Gray for the last two years of the old man’s life. After the death of Gray, Bobby reportedly guarded his grave for fourteen years, capturing the heart of the Lord Provost, William Chambers (whose own statue stands nearby on Chambers Street). Chambers organised for the Town Council to pay for Bobby’s dog licence, and so saved him from being rounded up and destroyed. Bobby was buried just outside the graveyard, near where his stone stands today. One of the most famous images of Edinburgh is the statue of Bobby on George IV Bridge, near the entrance to the Graveyard. It was erected in the year after Bobby himself died, 1872. The story spread across the world, helped by Disney releasing the first moving picture based on the little dog in 1961. In 2006, a new version, directed by Bafta award winning Director John Henderson, was released. The statue of the little dog is really special and they created a small trough around the base to be kept filled with water for other canine friends. 

We then visited Gladstone’s Land which provides a unique glimpse of life in the Old Town in an old 17th-century tenement building of the overcrowded Old Town. Completed in 1620, this was the home of a prosperous merchant and contains remarkable original painted ceilings which just blew Dave and I away. Very unexpected when you walked in. The building is the most important example of 17th-century high-tenement housing to survive in Edinburgh. Its site and the extent of its accommodation mark its prestige in terms of mercantile dignity. 

The rains came, but we continued to explore the Closes on the Royal Mile. The Old Town of Edinburgh, Scotland, consisted originally of the Royal Mile and the small streets and courtyards that led off it to the north and south called closes, a Scots term for alleyways. These are usually named after a memorable occupant of one of the apartments reached by the common entrance, or the occupations of those that traded there. Most slope steeply down from the Royal Mile and many have steps and long flights of stairs. Some still have amazing courtyards, and we tried to find those. We never got to all of them. 

We bought tickets for Mary King’s Close tour then stopped at Forsyth’s Tearoom, a charming little hideaway with a charming little woman and her helpful friends. As other online reviews have mentioned, this little eclectic tearoom is like visiting your grandmother’s kitchen for tea. Christine, the owner/baker/tea maker, is just as unique. Dave and I had a lovely bite to eat and posed for a photo. We also picked up a few home made goodies for breakfast on Thursday at the apartment. 

The Mary King’s Close tour was next. Mary King’s Close is an old Edinburgh close (alley) under buildings. It took its name from Mary King, daughter of advocate Alexander King, who in the 17th century had owned several properties within the close. The close was partially demolished and buried under the Royal Exchange, and with it being closed to the public for many years, the complex became shrouded in myths and urban legends; tales of ghosts and murders, and myths of plague victims being walled up and left to die abounded. 

However, new research and archaeological evidence has revealed that the close actually consists of a number of closes which were originally narrow streets with tenement houses on either side, stretching up to seven stories high. Our tour revealed some of those tales and our costumed guide Paul, was a terrifically droll narrator. It was amazing that people continued to live underground. 

Then, we visited St. Giles Cathedral. The church has been one of Edinburgh’s religious focal points for approximately 900 years. The present church dates from the late 14th century, though it was extensively restored in the 19th century. In 1638 the National Covenant was presented and signed in front of the pulpit. This was a document of great importance in the history of Scotland and an original copy is displayed in the Visitor Centre in a non-descript case. The small museum is very nicely done and worth a visit. 

There is remarkable beauty and spirit throughout and it’s history is long and varied. For more information, READ HERE – dinburgh/stgiles/ 

One of the most beautiful, striking areas is the Thistle Chapel built in 1911. It is small, but exquisite, with carved and painted fittings of extraordinary detail. One figure depicts an angel playing bagpipes. The Order, which was founded by King James VII in 1687, consists of the Scottish monarch and 16 knights. The knights are the personal appointment of the monarch, and are normally Scots who have made a significant contribution to national or international affairs. Prince William was installed as a knight last year and his marker was just placed in the chapel. 

After our busy day, we Were quite hungry and decided to go down to the Whiski’s pub for dinner. When we walked down to our corner, we say flashing lights, the roads were blocked off and police whe everywhere. Apparently, a man and woman had taken some people hostage at the pharmacy just a few door up for our apartment. 

Well…we hadn’t expected this! We ended up having winner at a pizza place, the walk a block around our apartment, the met up with Beth & Fiona. Dave spoke to an officer and we were finally able to get back into our apartment, but with a police escort! He told us to stay in the building…no problem! 

Everyone we spoke to said this kind of incident was high unusual. I hope so! We joined everyone else in gazing out the window watching the police and fireman. Things were finally resolved peacefully and no one was hurt, thank God, but it sure put a cramp in packing!

Stirling Castle

I finally set the alarm clock right this morning and Dave and I were up and out the door at 8 a.m. We stopped for breakfast about a half a block away at The Larder, a terrific little spot. Dave had an assortment of sausages, bacon, freshly-baked bread and organic eggs. All Scottish made or grown. I had a terrific freshly baked croissant with Scottish farm-grown cheddar cheese and tomatoes, but the real treat was fresh-squeezed orange juice! That’s extremely rare anywhere, but even more so in this type of tourist location, LOVED that! They also serve tea from eTeaket, where we went on Saturday, so I had a small pot of that as well. A very nice start to the day. 

We made our way down to the train station and picked up tickets for Stirling. It’s about an hour away from Edinburgh by train. We almost got on the wrong train, but Dave asked and realized our mistake and we then DID make it onto the right train. Up until that little episode, we’ve done quite well on the train travel. Very easy and everyone is usually very helpful if we need it. 

Of course, as soon as we arrived in Stirling, it started to sprinkle. On went the hat and hood of rain jacket. It never really downpoured, it was just enough to be annoying. It was very windy and cold still. I wore my gloves and heavy LL Bean turtleneck sweater. 

There is some fascinating history behind Stirling Castle, and boy does it have some spectacular views! They would most certainly be able to see enemies closing in which is why it was so fiercely fought over for so many years. Since the 12th century the castle has been the favored home of Scottish kings and queens, a strategic stronghold, and in the 17th century, a garrisoned fortress for soldiers. 

Some important highlights that caught my eyes and ears are: 

  • In 1297 William Wallace (Braveheart) lead Scottish forces to victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. 
  • King Robert I (The Bruce) confronts Edward II army at Bannockburn in 1314 for a strategic victory for Stirling castle. 
  • Mary Queen of Scots was crowned queen at Stirling in 1543, when she was barely a year old. 
  • In 1566, a year after Queen Mary abdicates the crown at age 23, her son, Prince James is baptized at Stirling Castle where he becomes King James VI. 

There has been an extensive “renovation” project going on for several years. I don’t necessarily consider it a restoration, but more like a make-over. We’re always told that these old castles were actually very brightly painted in their days, so they have been painstaking research on how some of the royal rooms would have looked and reprinted them to those findings. After seeing ruins and dark, dingy, damp rooms, it was a tad startling to come into a room and see these brilliant colors. It took some getting used to, but I understand what they’re trying to do. 

They are also completely recreating a set of historic tapestries that were in the queen’s bed chamber. The originals are in the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art. Weaving is a true lost art and not many people continue to do it or learn that skill anywhere in the world. We were lucky enough to speak to one of the weavers of these massive tapestries. Soooo much time and effort. The final products are breathtaking and they’re using the same color thread that would be historically accurate to the time, so the colors are quite brilliant. Fascinating stuff. 

Dave and I did take a guided tour of the castle and as soon as that was finished, we found out a bagpipe band would be playing in one of the courtyards. Thankfully, the rain seemed to hold off a little for their performance and it was great to hear them in this kind of setting. 

We grabbed a bite to eat the. the sun came out and it actually warmed up as we went on a tour of Argyll’s Lodging which is a 16th townhouse owned by the 9th Earl of Argyll. We had s short tour of how the upper and lower classes would have lived. 

Then we walked back down the hill into the town of Stirling, but first stopped at the Church of Holy Rude, to view what is the second oldest building in Stirling after the castle. Founded in 1129 during the reign of David I (1124 – 1153) as the parish church of Stirling. It is said to be the only church in the United Kingdom other than Westminster Abbey to have held a coronation and still be a living church today. I found the most impressive part of the church was its original oak-timbered roof that was completed about 1414. It’s beautiful. 

Dave and I took a short stroll through the church’s kirkyard (graveyard) up to an upper area where ladies used to sit and watch jousting. VERY windy and cold and the rain was spitting at us again. 

We walked to the train station and caught the 4:30 train back to Edinburgh. Stopped at apartment to freshen up, the went for dinner a block away at Whiski’s Bar & Restaurant. Just your traditional Scottish pub food is served. Dave had fish n’ chips and I had Mac & cheese with our Belhaven, of course.

I’m now sitting at the window seat in the apartment drinking some tea writing this blog, uploading photos and people watching on the Royal Mile below. Dave and I are not night owls….and we’re also not in good shape! LOL We’re both tired and sore, I really miss my air jet tub at home, but loving every minute of Scotland.

The Borders, Abbeys, and Tea

Today was one of surprises, beauty, and sheep! 🙂 We’ll be seeing a lot of all three in the coming days I hope. 

SURPRISE #1: Dave and I were expecting to meet Robert Fraser this morning for our tour of the borders region of Scotland with Afternoon Tea Tours, but we were pleasantly surprised to find Helen Fraser greeting us outside the apartment instead! Her other tour today cancelled, so she was able to take us after all. It was sooo nice to finally be able to meet her in person after speaking via email for probably going on two years now. We already know quite a bit about one another so it was like meeting an old friend….but not. LOL 

The sun was currently shining, but it was still windy. Helen wanted to take advantage of the sunny skies and take us up around Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Park and the Salisbury Craig’s. A beautiful, beautiful area around an extinct volcano near Holyroodhouse Palace. There is even a loch up on one of the hills where swans live. 

Our main destination today was part of The Scottish Borders area. We traveled south of Edinburgh through magnificent rolling hills dotted with hundreds of fuzzy sheep, gentle green valleys and picturesque forests. Each small town was a reminder of this areas milling past and many are still thriving communities. We drove through rain showers, then the sun came out. 

The first stop was Rosslyn Chapel in the town of Roslin. But before we ventured to the chapel itself, Helen wanted to show us Rosslyn Castle, and its ruins. This was also where the final scene of Dan Brown’s famous THE DI VINCI CODE movie was filmed. As we walked down the path, I kept catching the scent of something and could not think of what it was. It wasn’t until Helen said it was wild garlic that I realized it was garlic I was smelling. We were enjoying the beauty of the area when a gentlemen was coming out of the only remaining livable part of the castle and asked if we wanted to take a peak inside before they left! Well, of course we do! 

SURPRISE #2: It turns out the public doesn’t generally get to see this building unless your paying guests or invited, so this was a very special, unexpected treat. The couple’s son had just gotten married at,the chapel and many guests stayed there at the castle during and after the wedding. They were just heading out today. It’s a fabulous old building with a grand stone staircase, lovely fireplaces, stone spiral stairs and sloping old floors. 

The family built for themselves a mansion within the shell of the structure, occupying the top two storeys of the five available in the east range of the castle. Even this was attacked, by a mob from Edinburgh in 1688. The house was later repaired. 

When we walked in the gentleman said he hadn’t seen the “sleeping lady”. The castle is said to be home to a sleeping lady who will one day awake and show the whereabouts of a fabulous treasure buried deep within its vaults. When this happens, the castle will again rise from its ruins. Very special to see it in this form, however. 

On to Rosslyn Chapel, which is a remarkable display of craftsmanship and conservation by modern efforts. The chapel has been in the same family, the St. Clair’s, since it’s foundation in 1446. It is still used today as a place of worship. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside, but we did have a wonderful tour and we were able to explore and admire the amazing detail of the thousands of sandstone carvings that are constantly struggling against age and the elements to survive. Thankfully, the current efforts to protect these priceless artifacts for future generations are continuing. And what a beautiful wedding those folks staying in the castle must had had. We drove through rain showers, then the sun came out. 

In the small village of Galashiels, there were lovely ruins of an old church, then up the road a “new” church had been built. Across the road, a beautiful stone bridge was built in 1655 for people to cross over the river that flows through that area to go to church. The bridge is called “The Bridge to Heaven”. We saw many more sheep as well. 

Next on the schedule was Dryburgh Abbey near St. Boswells. The abbey’s lovely ruins sit in seclusion in the trees and has some of the best Gothic church architecture in Scotland. It is also the burial place of one of Scotland’s most famous authors, Sir Walter Scott. The abbey, which dates back to 1150, is set in a stunning parkland landscape. 

It was a bit passed lunch time and we were a little hungry, but Helen had arranged an afternoon tea for us, so we didn’t want to fill up on too much. We stopped in at the Dryburgh Hotel, just down the road for a cup of soup and a roll. It was just enough to tide us over and the old country hotel was lovely. We drove through rain showers, then the sun came out. And we saw more sheep. The baby lambs are sooo cute. 

A prickly plant called gorse was in bloom all over Edinburgh and in The Borders and no where was it closer to us than our next stop at Scott’s View. This scenic view of the Eildon Hills from Bemersyde was one of Sir Walter Scott’s favourite views of his beloved Borderland. It is said that the horse pulling the hearse taking him to his interment at Dryburgh Abbey stopped at this spot, as it usually did on its daily outings with Sir Walter aboard. As we approached, the sun was out long enough for us to take some stunning photos, but we could see rain approaching again. The weather Gods, or someone, was watching us. 

We next drove to the village of Melrose. This is also one of Helen’s favorite towns. We parked the car and walked through the main street of charming shops and thriving businesses. It was nice to see a successful main street. 

Melrose Abbey sits very close to town, but it still offers some solitude and reflection among its stately ruins. It was originally founded in the 12th century by monks and it is believed that Robert The Bruce’s heart was buried here in 1331. The stunning beauty of this abbey was accentuated by the sunlight we were lucky enough to have on our visit. 

As we continued to drive through one charming village and amazing views, one after the other, Helen asked me to put in a CD of the Celtic artist Duncan Chisolm and it only added to the beauty of the area. We drove through rain showers, then the sun came out. Saw more sheep. 

The afternoon tea was at a lovely country house hotel called Cringletie House outside the village of Peebles. It’s a traditional Scottish Baronial mansion and Helen visits and brings tours here quite often. 

We were led into a warm sitting room with comfortable chairs and small tables, stunning views and a fire place. I decided on the Lapsang souchong tea. While we waited, it gave us an opportunity to get to know Helen better and vice versa. We will be spending a lot of time together this next week, starting on Thursday. 

Tea was served, along with some very tasty sandwiches, muffins, cookies and scones, and some fruit shots, lemon tarts, chocolate cake and mini macaroons. Everything was delicious! 

SURPRISE #3: While we were enjoying the tea and goodies, rain moved in again…then it actually started sleeting, then the sun came out again….then someone noticed a huge rainbow right outside the front window to my right. Amazing, the unexpected surprises we’ve had today and also the rain always seemed to stop when we were outside, but rained while we were in the car or inside. Then…this rainbow shows up. I think we had a weather angel watching over us today in Scotland, and I’m pretty sure it was my sister Dori. I haven’t allowed myself to think too deeply about her while on this trip yet, but this rainbow touched me very much and it brought tears to my eyes. I think those breaks in the weather and that beautiful rainbow was Dori’s way of letting me know it’s okay to have a wonderful time in Scotland this year and that she’s with us. 

The entire experience at Cringletie was fabulous. I’m going to have to start coming up with more adjectives to describe things! It was so special of Helen to arrange this for me. The setting, the view and the company were all I could have hoped for, I love sheep. 

I believe Helen, Dave and I will have a great time during our tour later in the week. Helen doesn’t like to think of herself as a common “tour guide” and she prefers to think of her customers as travelers, not tourists. She wants to give them/us an adventure, not a tour and I really like that. I also love her Scottish accent and will enjoy listening to that as well. Helen truly loves what she does and enjoys showing off her glorious country which makes her travelers all the more lucky. 

And, typically to the kind of day we’ve had today…as we neared our apartment, the rains came, but as we left Helen to walk back to the apartment, the sun came back out and it stopped raining. 

To The Palace, Please!

After a good nights sleep in our new surroundings, Dave went across the street and brought back breakfast and I stayed in finishing off the croissants and jam that Beth & Fiona left us. The sun was out and it appeared it would be a nice day. One forgets you’re in Scotland, however! 

Dave and I turned right when we exited the apartment and headed up the hill for our first stop at the impressive and imposing Edinburgh Castle…located on castle rock. 3,000, yes, I said 3,000 years of history are hidden away in the mighty royal castle set upon volcanic rock. The oldest part of the existing castle is St. Margaret’s Chapel, built by her son in 1130. It’s a beautiful, but tiny chapel where weddings can still be held today…with only about 16 guests. 

Despite the fact the castle is naturally well defended being built on such a steep, rocky hill, it has been captured and recaptured several times, which results in its changing role throughout history. Obviously, with the castle’s imposing height over the city, the views it affords of the dwellings and skyline below are spectacular. 

There is even a small dog cemetery where regimental mascots or soldiers dogs have been buried since 1881. 

The most prized possessions at the castle are the “Honours”, or Crown Jewels of Scotland. The Crown, Sceptre, and Sword of State. They were first used together during the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543 and have too long an eventful history to go into here. But it’s very special to see them. No photos allowed though. 😦 

The rain moved in swiftly and everyone was seeking shelter in any indoor venue possible, Dave and I ventured into the Great Hall where a musician was demonstrating 15th century instruments and music. It was very entertaining and we were able to see some fascinating instruments we have never seen before. 

We were also able to view the room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James in 1566. James would become heir to two thrones: not only the Scottish one, but also to the English because Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I would remain childless. Prince James would one day rule as James VI of Scotland and James I of England. The last true king of Scotland. 

Dave and I grabbed a quick bite to eat on the castle grounds, then made our way back down the Royal Mile to our apartment where I changed into my rain jacket and hat. We then walked down to visit Beth and Fiona at their store and had a nice chat. They’re a lot of fun and very caring. 

Our continued trek down the mile passed by the relatively new and thoroughly (in our opinion) ugly Scottish Parliament building. It is beyond us, how in this city of such classic and traditional architecture, such a modern building could be constructed. Just sayin’. 

We reached the bottom of the Royal Mile and our final destination – The Palace of Holyroodhouse. This is the official home of Her Majesty The Queen in Scotland as well as the rest of the royal family. Last year we would not have been able to tour it because members of the family were staying there, so we were glad they stayed away this time! 

I had done a lot of reading on Mary Queen of Scots last year and was particularly interested in seeing her pubic and private rooms here. I was disappointed no photos were allowed, but we were able to view some very special areas and pieces of history. 

Seeing Mary’s bed chambers and her state bed, which underwent extensive restoration and is now displayed under low lighting and in glass was impressive. Also, the room where her secretary, and rumored lover David Rizzio was murdered by her husband, Lord Darnley, is also marked by a plaque where his body was discovered after a group of people working with Darnley stabbed Rizzio 56 times. 

Also in that room are needlepoint pieces actually done by Mary Queen of Scots. Amazing items when you consider that many of them were complete in the 1500’s. 

The palace itself is a beautiful place. Not as extravagant as Buckingham Palace or Windsor Palace in England. If something this grand can be called “homey” that’s what I’d call it in the grand scheme of palaces. LOL And you cannot beat the setting with the mountains directly around it and a beautiful garden. I could live there easily with only a staff of three, one of whom would be a gardener, of course. 

The next stop, around the palace were the ruins of a 12th century abbey. Many construction problems in the following years, as well as destructive raids from those pesky English were its eventual downfall. What remains is a very romantic and picturesque setting. 

As Dave and I exited the grounds, we then realized we had the task of walking back UP the hill of the Royal Mile. Okay…lets go! We stopped in for dinner tonight at The World’s End across from the apartment. I had venison sausage and mashed potatoes with carmalized onions in a red wine gravy and Dave had their roast lamb dinner. We washed all this down with Belhaven Ale again. YUM! 

Of course, as I write this between 8 and 9 p.m., the sun came back out. That fickle Scottish weather. Who knows what tomorrow will bring!

FINALLY! We’re in Scotland!

Dave and I woke early to finish packing and headed down to Starbucks for Internet service so we could check what the weather in Scotland was going to be like today. Wasn’t looking great, but it is what it is.
We had a taxi pick us up at the hotel and take us to the train station. We arrived a little early and endured some mighty strong, cold winds out on the platforms. Dave believes he’s coming down with a cold, so that’s not good.

Train travel certainly is a painless way to get around the UK. Dave and I found it quite enjoyable. And we liked traveling first class as well. The scenery, for the most part, was beautiful with rolling green hills, small villages and farms and then along the coastline with some stunning ocean vistas.

When we found out we crossed into Scotland via train, we welcomed each other with a kiss. Finally, we’re here! Arriving at Waverly Station it was dark and cloudy, but not raining. Dave decided, against my better judgement, to lug the suitcases up several flights of stairs, a few hills and brick and cobblestone walkways up to the Royal Mile. Then we met the owners of the apartment we’re renting at their store, Cranachan & Crowdie.

What a wonderfully, warm welcome we received from Fiona and Beth. We’ve all been chatting online via email and now Twitter for some time and we felt horrible we had to cancel our visit last year, so it was wonderful to meet them in person finally. Hugs all around and I was called “lass”….now who doesn’t love that?

Beth took us up to the apartment and showed us around. It’s a charming spot in the heart of the Royal Mile about halfway between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. A basket with fresh croissants, jams, shortbread biscuits, and a bottle of wine also greeted us. A fresh bouquet of brightly colored tulips adorned the fireplace mantel and YES, we have Internet here! LOL

After Dave and I freshened up, we set out on foot to explore. Most of the rest of the day was spent getting aquanted with the city on foot and by bus. The bus tours were a great way to do this. It’s a busy, thriving city with so much to do. Very excited to wander around more this coming week.

A place I found online that I’ve had my eye on for probably two years now is eTeaKet Tea Room. I love their website and it looked like an adorable, yet modern, cozy tea room. Dave found our way over and we enjoyed a bite to eat and a lovely tea again. LOVED it! And, I bought more tea. LOL I enjoyed a small pot of their Pu-er tea and some lemon drizzle cake. Dave had a delicious scone and some coffee.

When we finished with bus tours, we walked back up to Royal Mile enjoying amazing views of Edinburgh Castle, which we’ll be visiting tomorrow. When we got back to our street, we noticed acitivity around the castle and Dave found out some bands would be coming up the Royal Mile to the castle so we hung around to see and hear them. It was only two bands, but we got to hear some bagpipes and see a short (very) short parade. I guess it’s a military ceremony that happens six times a year and this was their first time this year. It was VERY cold and windy out, but no rain and we even saw the sun later in the evening which give the city a whole new glow.

We were now very cold and hungry as it was almost 8:15. We stopped in for dinner at The Royal Mile Tavern where we enjoyed Belhaven Ale (a Scottish ale) and made a toast to Edinburgh. Dave ordered up Haggis, Tatties and Neeps. (haggis, potatoes, and turnips) and I opted for the classic fish & chips. I DID try the haggis…it actually wasn’t bad the way it was prepared. I’m still not sure it’s something I would order myself, but I can say I tried it and kept it down. LOL

It’s still VERY light out at 9 p.m., which makes it seems like it’s still early. We’ll enjoy a relatively easy day tomorrow, but it’ll be exciting seeing two of the biggest and most famous historic sites in the country.