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Last day in Scotland!

Breakfast this morning was basically the same as every British breakfast we’ve had – hot food, cold toast, croissants, tea, juice, cereal – and then it was off to Stirling!

There are two major things to do in Stirling. The first is to visit Stirling Castle, and the second is to visit the William Wallace monument. Pamela and I opted to do neither. (But if you’re curious: the reason for the monument is that this was the site of the Battle Of Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace led the Scottish resistance to their first real victory over the English.)

Stirling Castle

But we skipped these, because we weren’t super-excited about doing another castle (especially one with an entry fee that was over £15), and paying for a cab ride to and from the William Wallace memorial also didn’t really seem worth it. Instead, we explored the “Top of the Town cemeteries”.

We actually spent quite a while wandering around a couple of the cemeteries near Stirling Castle. The stones, in general, weren’t as old as we had expected: we did see one clearly dated in the 1500s, and a couple with numbers that might have represented dates in the 1600s, but the vast majority were from around 1850 and later.

Angel on a headstone

Two interesting things that we noticed about these stones: first, there were a surprising number of people born in the late 1700s who lived into their 70s and 80s, and second, a lot of the stones were memorial stones for entire families. They’d start off with one or two names on them and the rest left blank, and then more and more people were added as time went on. It’s not clear if all these people were actually interred there or not; we suspect not.

A typical multi-person memorial

Once we were done with that, we got lunch at a pub that actually felt oddly North-American, and then started the walk back up to the castle. The bus was waiting for us at the castle, which is on top of the hill, and the road to get there is very steep, so we wanted to leave plenty of time so that we didn’t have to hurry back.

Along the way, we passed the Church Of The Holy Rude (where “rude”, often spelled “rood”, is an old word for the cross of the crucifixion). I wanted to take a look inside; Pamela wasn’t that interested and had seen a souvenir shop near the bus that she wanted to check out. So we split up and I investigated the church.

The Church Of The Holy Rude

It was pretty nice! All big stone pillars and stained glass windows. The people there gave me a little map and some information about the church so that while I wandered around I knew what I was looking at. The church was built in stages, with annexes and towers added on over the years, and based on some of the construction they think the original plans called for another tower that was never built. But the best story is that at one point (during the Reformation, I think), two ministers had a disagreement and the congregation was divided, some supporting each minister, and they “resolved” it by actually building a wall across the church and turning it into two separate churches, with one minister preaching in each half! (The wall’s gone now; a later minister managed to re-unite the two halves.)

Inside the Church Of The Holy Rude

Also, king James VI was coronated in that church (as an infant). They’re very proud of that, and there’s a stone marking the location.

We’ve got more great weather today: it’s warm, but not too hot or humid, and it’s partly cloudy, so we’re getting a lot of sun. We keep hearing how lucky we are. It’s a good thing we have good weather, though, because everyone’s getting tired, and if it was grey and rainy it might be getting really bad. I keep hearing people talk about how they miss their beds or their homes or whatever…and most of them still have the whole Ireland leg of the trip to do yet! Pamela and I have been on vacation for 12 days now, and are getting ready to go home…and we’re not the only ones. The mood on the bus is getting a bit punchy, with people randomly singing or saying ridiculous things; we’ve spent too much time on the coach, I think, and it’s kind of like cabin fever.

I’m definitely tired. I got plenty of sleep last night, but the trip and being sick are catching up to me. I fell asleep on the bus this afternoon and slept right through our entrance into Glasgow, including at least half of Roxy telling us about the city and what there is to do around here. (Short version: surprisingly little.) We did stop very quickly at Glasgow Cathedral for some photos, before Muffin dropped us off at the hotel.

Glasgow Cathedral

Our hotel room doesn’t appear to have wi-fi, so Pamela and I are wrote our blog posts, and then went out to wander the city and look for wi-fi somewhere. There’s surprisingly little to do around here…there’s a big street full of shopping, but it’s not interesting shopping: it’s all pound shops (i.e. dollar stores) and shoes and clothes and whatnot…a great shopping strip for locals, but nothing really that you’d do while on vacation. We passed several buskers, including a guy about dad’s age singing “Walking On Sunshine” while playing guitar, a mid-20s woman speaking and rapping about social injustice, and a band of guys in kilts playing bagpipes and drums (I was amused enough to buy their CD).

We also found the best busker ever: an energetic ginger fellow playing and singing anything you could think of on an amplified acoustic guitar. (I think the first thing we heard him sing was “The Bear Necessities” from The Jungle Book, and at one point he sang a medley with “Blitzkrieg Bop” spliced into the middle of “Footloose”. He was great.)

We ended the day at a local pub for our last night with the tour group…we were told not to wear yellow or green tops, though, or we might find ourselves unwittingly taking sides in the local soccer rivalry. And then tomorrow morning it’s onto the plane to Dublin!

(We ended up not finding any wifi, so I bought some time from the hotel hotspot. This probably means that Pamela won’t post anything tonight. And given that I paid for it, it’s disappointingly bad.)

 

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The Isle of Skye

Well, last night we got some of the best sleep we have all trip. The hotel is weird and probably not deserving of the three stars it claims to have, but the beds were comfortable and we were in them early…around 10:00 or so. With that solid night’s sleep behind us, we both woke up feeling a lot better than we did last night!

On the topic of the hotel…this morning, we couldn’t get our email or anything. This is because apparently the hotel hasn’t been paying their Internet bill! If you tried to do anything online, you just got a page for British Telecom saying “Service suspended; your payment is overdue”. Very amusing, but also annoying. Certainly doesn’t reflect well on the hotel!

This hotel has an overdue internet bill

I took a short wander outside before breakfast this morning; it was quite misty, but I took a few pictures. Breakfast was very average…though apparently there was a medical emergency and somebody came looking for anyone with medical training! We currently have three nurses and possibly a doctor in our group; one of the nurses went to help out. Pamela and I missed the whole thing, though we heard about it after, and saw the ambulance. The story we got is that an old lady who was at the hotel had a stroke; we doubt that’s true because the ambulance was in no hurry to take anyone anywhere.

The deep, calm waters of Loch Ness

Nessie leaving Loch Ness. Doesn’t the terrain look exactly like the Whiteshell?

Then we started this morning with a cruise on Loch Ness. It was a little drizzly and misty, so while it was very pretty, nobody really wanted to be outside on top of the boat. It was a nice relaxing cruise, but the weather wasn’t great for photos. The scenery in the area was very similar to the Whiteshell! Though we did see a beautiful old castle on the shore (Urquhart Castle), which you wouldn’t get in the Whiteshell. We didn’t see Nessie, so that was disappointing.

Urquhart Castle

The shores of Loch Ness in the morning rain and mist

Now yesterday I said we had taken a longer drive than necessary, but I was wrong; I had misunderstood our guide. That bit was today: we did a scenic drive through the highlands. Specifically, we went for a drive on the Isle of Skye, which is just off the west coast of Scotland (you can get there on a bridge). There were no “attractions”, per se, on the island; it’s just a pretty drive. Lots of lochs, Gaelic signs, long-haired highland coos (aka cows), mountains, and windy roads. We made a couple of stops for photos, with lunch in the town of Portree.

A river that apparently has the water of youth in it. You need to wash your face in it for seven seconds.

Portree

Like I said, it was a nice drive, and Roxy played all Celtic music on the coach instead of the club/dance/techno tunes that she normally does, so that was a nice touch. Unfortunately, she also insisted on giving us a couple of her history lessons along the way. I honestly don’t think there’s a single person on this bus that cares. Several of us do enjoy history, but it’s a bit much, and while she tries hard, she’s not the best storyteller. We’ve even got a history major on the bus, and he’s said he’s had enough. Oh well…

The weather really cleared up as the day went on: by the afternoon we had bright sunshine and big expanses of blue sky. But it wasn’t hot, like it was earlier in the trip. Really, it was gorgeous. Hard to believe that we’re almost as far north as Churchill, MB!

A stream in the highlands

This tall rock has a name that I forget

We also stopped at Eilean Donan castle. (Roxy pronounces this “illan donnan”; I don’t totally trust her in these matters but it sounds plausible.) There’s some weird story associated with this about a baby boy whose very first drink was drank out of the skull of a raven. It gave him the power to understand and speak to birds, but there’s some questionable parenting involved.

Eilean Donan

Our last stop for the day was by Ben Nevis (sp?). This is the highest peak in Scotland…though it’s not particularly high by, say, Rocky Mountain standards. Roxy says she’s never seen the top, and was getting optimistic with the nice weather we were having, but by the time we got there, it was cloudy again, and the peak was not quite visible. Oh well.

Ben Nevis, its peak in the clouds

For the night, we’re in a town called Fort William. It’s a “young” city, at least relative to the others we’ve been in, since this has only been around since the 15th century. It really gives you a sense of how old everything is here when a 500-year-old city is young. We’re a little ways away from the town pubs and restaurants, so most people opted for the coach ride into town for dinner, but a few of us just ate in the hotel bar. A great choice, actually…Pamela and I had a Cajun chicken breast dinner that actually was real food, not deep-fried, and felt like it might be prolonging our lives instead of shortening them.

The Scottish Highlands

Tomorrow’s an early morning again: up at 6:30, on the bus at 7:45, so we’re hoping to get to bed nice and early again. And tomorrow night we’ll be in Glasgow for our last night with the tour group before we’re on our own again, so we might actually head out to the pubs with everyone for goodbyes. We both want to, but it depends how we’re feeling.

 

Winding through the highlands

After our nice leisurely day in Edinburgh, we’re on the road again today. We’re told that the drive from last night’s hotel to tonight’s hotel could be done in not much more than two hours, but we take all day to do it, because we take the scenic route and make a couple stops. So, after breakfast was served (I didn’t have any), we had about a 90-minute drive in the drizzle and cold to the Scottish town of St Andrews.

A bustling St Andrews street

This seems to be a really sleepy little place. It has an old ruined cathedral, an old ruined castle, a very prestigious university (the one where Prince William met Kate Middleton), and a very prestigious golf course (if they decide to let you play there, you have to book a year in advance, and it costs about £1,000).

The ruined cathedral in St Andrews

St Andrews on the coast, and it was cold and damp and rainy and windy. For some reason, I had a series of massive coughing fits for about 15 minutes when we got off the bus, so that really got my morning off to a good start :). There’s not a lot to do in town, and neither Pamela nor I were really excited to be there. We saw the old cathedral and its graveyard (where William Wallace’s gravestone is), as well as the castle (from a distance). Then we saw a Costa Coffee, and I was all over that. Hot chocolate and a brownie served as my breakfast, and Pamela bought a gingerbread man with union jack buttons because it amused her.

The ruined castle in St Andrews

We did have a older local gentleman apologize for the weather (“It’s no alwaes like this!”), and then we stumbled across a cute little churchyard that was out of the wind; I took the opportunity to take a few pictures. We had nothing that we really wanted to see, so we just meandered through town. We saw parts of the university (it’s spread out quite a bit), and passed a coffee shop that proclaimed “Will and Kate met here for coffee” (with “for coffee” in much smaller letters). We eventually made our way to the official St Andrews Links golf shop, where we were supposed to meet the bus. We nosed around the tiny little shop, and were quite ready to leave about 20 minutes before the bus was. So I took a few pictures of the golf course, and we hung out with all the other people who were waiting to get back on the warm bus.

St Andrews golf course

As we continued towards Inverness, the scenery really started to remind me of driving through BC. It was hilly, and very green and lush, with streams and even pine trees at times. Quite nice; not exciting.

Pitlochry, Scotland

Lunch was at a town (city?) called Pitlochry. We just stopped for about 45 minutes to grab a quick lunch, but it’s clearly a popular coach stop. There were another six or seven coaches in the parking lot that we were in, and the area was full of restaurants and gift shops. Pamela and I ended up in a fish & chips shop run by a burly Scot. Deep fried food is very popular in Scotland; Pamela’s hoping to find a deep-fried Mars bar somewhere. We had “chicken breast chunks” and chips (with white vinegar instead of malt vinegar, for this first time this trip), and I had an Irn Bru. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before.

Just some of the coaches parked in Pitlochry

Irn Bru is a soft drink that’s very popular in Scotland. In fact, it’s apparently more popular than Coke, making Scotland one of the few countries in which Coke isn’t the #1 soft drink. Irn Bru is basically orange pop, though it’s got a more complex flavour than, say, Orange Crush; I think it tastes a bit like cream soda.

We kept heading north, and made it to the Glenlivet distillery for a tour and whiskey tasting. It was neat to visit such a well-known distillery, and the free scotch at the end didn’t hurt either! We had three options; I think the one I chose was an 18-year-old. The amusing highlight of the tasting was probably the fact that most of the people on the bus obviously don’t drink scotch.

The Glenlivet warehouses

Quotes afterwards included:

  • “Our tastebuds are destroyed.”
  • “My stomach hurts.”
  • “Very bad memories.”

I was apparently one of the few people on the bus who will actually drink a scotch on occasion. I was probably most amused by our 18-year-old American, who has been enjoying drinking legally for the first time. He…was not a fan of the scotch :-).

The Glenlivet distillery. The new distillery is on the left; the old is on the right

Then, just after leaving the distillery, we passed a golf course named “Ballindalloch Castle Golf Course”. Which amused me and seemed worth sharing.

A nice display inside The Glenlivet.

Overall, the drive today felt a lot more familiar than probably anywhere else we’ve been. Some of the houses could have been right at home in Canada. There were cattle pastures by the side of the road, and forests of pine and birch. Some of the hills and windy roads in the highlands might have been the Trans-Canada through northern Ontario. Of course there were plenty of discrepancies, starting with the fact that we were driving on the left side of the road, but the scene was not nearly as foreign as most of what we’ve been looking at on this trip.

Sheep in the Scottish Highlands

We’re now at a hotel that’s just full of character: the Loch Ness Lodge Hotel. It’s kind of small, and the rooms are freezing, but it feels like stepping back in time. There are about a dozen of us in the library right now: tartan carpet, tartan curtains on the bay window, couches, a wood fireplace with a roaring fire, and one wall covered in a bookshelf full of old books. And we’re all on our iPads and smartphones and laptops because it’s one of the only places in the hotel that you can get wifi 🙂

 

A lazy day

We didn’t have to leave the hotel until 9:00 AM today. 9:00! Can you imagine? That means we could sleep until 7:30!

Seriously, it’s been a while since we’ve slept in like this. Combined with an early night last night, it was fantastic…and we could have slept more. But we got up, showered, did not have to pack our bags, had breakfast, and met the group on time for departure to Edinburgh Castle. Roxy was not her usual perky self this morning; she was out drinking last night with some of the others and seemed to be feeling the after effects 🙂

Our bus driver also had the day off (EU regulations demand it), so we were all given day passes for the Edinburgh transit system (well, one of them; there are at least two), and Roxy took us to Edinburgh Castle. She gave us our entry tickets and left us to our own devices.

Approaching Edinburgh Castle

Pamela and I wandered through the castle, which was very cool, because unlike Cardiff Castle, it’s not just an outer wall – it’s full of buildings and streets inside like it would have been originally, so it feels a lot more real…you can get a sense of how it might have operated. There’s been a fort on Castle Hill since at least 600 AD. (Quote from the information sign: “Three hundred heroes rode to their doom after a year drinking in a hall on the castle rock” — doesn’t that just sound Scottish somehow?) I gather that the current castle setup was started by someone named King David I in the 12th century, but the only building that remains from that period is one church. The castle’s been invaded several times so most of the buildings have been knocked down and rebuilt over the centuries.

Buildings in Edinburgh Castle

Also in the castle, we wandered into an impressive-looking building called the War Memorial. It was built after the First World War, and has of course been turned into a memorial for the Second World War and later wars as well. On the inside, it was absolutely stunning. It’s like a church inside: all stone arched ceilings and stained glass windows and engravings and such. I didn’t expect anything at all like it, and was quite blown away. Unfortunately, because photography is prohibited inside, I can’t show you what it looks like. But I can relay the engraving that was in the room dedicated to the unknown soldiers, which really struck me:

Others also there are who perished unknown
Their sacrifice is not forgotten
And their names though lost to us are written in the books of God

The Scottish War Memorial

Next we went to the tower that held the old Scottish crown, scepter, and sword, plus the Stone Of Scone, aka the Stone Of Destiny. There are whole big complicated stories about these: they’ve been lost, stolen, recovered, broken, repaired, hidden, found, modified, and so forth over the ages. The most modern bit is about the Stone Of Scone. This is just a rectangular chunk of rock from a place called Scone. Historically, all Scottish kings were crowned on it. Back in the 13th century, King Edward I stole it from Scotland, and it was only just returned in 1996! (There’s a lot more to the story; look it up if you’re interested.)

Edinburgh Castle’s “main street”

A snail I found in the flowers

By then, I was getting hungry and Pamela was getting bored, so we skipped the rest of the castle and headed out. We were looking for a place to eat, and actually ended up in a Pizza Hut; we’re still feeling unwell and we just wanted some familiar food that we knew would fill us up. It did the trick, and then we went wandering the Royal Mile — a stretch of road full of various shops — and did some souvenir shopping.

Edinburgh, we’ve decided, is an extremely pretty city. It’s just really beautiful to look at in most of the older part of the city. Part of this is because it’s a very hilly city…which also makes it kind of tiring to wander around. So we certainly took our time. It was really nice to not be in a hurry for once. We had the option of getting back to the hotel for a free dinner at 7:00, but other than that we had nothing on the schedule.

A lot of people rub this toe.

So after shopping, we ended up at an unusual place called the Camera Obscura. This is a tourist attraction centered around…well, optical things, is the best way I can describe it. There are optical illusions and holograms and stereoscopic photos and a maze made of mirrors and all sorts of stuff. One highlight, for me, was this hallway that you walk down that’s basically a catwalk through a big round tube. The room is dark and the inside of the tube is covered in coloured lights, and it’s rotating as you walk along, and it’s absolutely disorienting. It’s a very weird feeling, and you need to grab onto the rails because you’re convinced that you’re tipping over.

Pamela’s very bad day

The reason for the name “Camera Obscura” is because of what’s on the top floor: a dark room with a white table in the middle, with an image of Edinburgh projected onto it from a mirror and three lenses on the room of the building. This gives a live image of what’s going on outside, in quite clear detail: you can easily recognize people walking on the streets below. An employee controls the “camera” and points it in different directions around the city, so you get a bit of a city tour thrown into the mix.

And then you can also go out onto observation balconies on the top floor and look over the city. There are binoculars and telescopes up there too. Overall, it was a surprisingly neat thing to do for almost two hours, and a nice break from the cultural and historical stuff that we’ve been immersed in for the last week.

Edinburgh, viewed from the top of the Camera Obscura building

We headed back to the hotel then and spent some time just reorganizing our bags and going through receipts and things, making sure we had records of what we were bringing back to Canada and how much money we owed each other and whatnot. Then we headed down to the hotel dinner to check out the menu, decided we didn’t feel like nibbling at another weird British meal that we were only half-interested in anyway because we weren’t feeling great, and agreed to walk across the street to a conveniently located KFC. Along the way we met another member of the group who had reached exactly the same conclusion :-). So we ate, went to the pharmacy and bought ourselves some drugs, went to the grocery store for snacks (yogurt and chocolate milk), and returned back for a relaxing evening.

So really, today was a vacation from our vacation! We both needed it, and we’re feeling better now than we did yesterday at this time, so that’s promising. It’s an early morning tomorrow, back on the road and going to Loch Ness! (I think.)