A Weekend in Edinburgh

Maddie and I planned a three-day weekend in Scotland as a chance for us to experience traveling together while abroad.  The journey was interesting, as we had to finagle some tricky logistics with our overnight train.  But the final train ride itself was gorgeous.  The Scottish countryside has such rich colors, with beautiful palettes of blues, greens, yellows, and earthy browns and reds.  We passed by bodies of water that were so blue as to make Bermuda reevaluate itself.  And the rolling hills perfectly illustrated why the area is known as the Highlands.

Almost immediately after stepping off the train we were greeted by the sound of bagpipes, reiterating to us that we were indeed in Scotland.  Edinburgh is similar to Bath in its depth of history but this is demonstrated in a different stylistic way.  Bath has more Georgian/Victorian architecture, whereas Edinburgh has more winding cobblestone streets.  These shadows of two different histories are fascinating echos of the past that add to the atmosphere of these cities.

Our hostel was conveniently placed just off of the main thoroughfare for tourists.  Thus we were close to all of the major attractions, but just far enough away to keep the noise level down.  The hostel was castle themed, with stony exteriors and carpeting with deceptive stone patterning.

Our assigned room was aquarium themed (I was labeled a bass and Maddie was a jellyfish).  We each had our own sections of bunk bed and a lock box for important personal belongings.  A room of 10 girls from all different cultures is surprisingly manageable.  Even with potential language barriers, what ultimately matters is respect.  As such I actually slept pretty well (though this may have been due to exhaustion).

The first major attraction we visited was Edinburgh Castle, which was absolutely amazing, especially in terms of its history.  The site has been fortified for almost 2000 years.  It’s incredible to think years ago someone pointed to this rocky hill and said, “This is the perfect spot for a fort.”  And so it remained for millennia.

The castle featured a great mixture of authentic artifacts and newer models and recreations.  These helped both to put the castle in context while illustrating how people lived.  I was also struck by the power of symbols.  People fought and died for representative objects, whose great power is granted simply by those of us who give it power.  It was a huge victory to capture a standard, let alone the Scottish Crown Jewels and royal stone.  Women were also central to this story, as during a siege two women supposedly smuggled out the great honors of Scotland.

We were able to see sections of the castle where prisoners would have been kept during wartime.  This history of imprisonment continued through WWII.  It was fascinating to consider the conditions of the prisoners.  Hammocks were the bedding of choice, and rations involved basic items such as bread, cheese, and alcohol.  Though unfortunately prisoners from the American Revolution would have been considered pirates, and hence they would be given less bread rations than their prisoner of war comrades.

But I was perhaps most struck by the beautiful views of the city laid out at your feet when standing at the top of Edinburgh castle.  The weather was very cooperative, and thus a wonderful blue sky was our backdrop throughout the weekend.

As we left the castle it was interesting to note what what segments of American culture crossed the pond.  For instance, we saw a Pancho Villa Mexican restaurant while walking along High Street.  And then we saw a most surreal sight in the form of a cowboy (from Michigan of all places) demonstrating bull whip techniques to a large collection of tourists.

Later that evening we attended a free ghost tour.  There were fun but harrowing tales of grisly deeds (in the words of our guide, “No Netflix; we had torture”).  She was a great storyteller, laying out stories of murder, witches, and cannibalism.

We later discovered that many of the tales were true.  The horrific murders of people who were then sold to anatomists was a notorious tale in the city’s history.  And while a local clan of cannibals may have been grossly exaggerated or may not have existed at all, the tale has indeed captured the city’s imagination.

The following day we decided to focus on the sights of Edinburgh.  But as we walked down the street after breakfast, we came upon a massive event.

Hundreds if not thousands of people dressed in red were marching down the street, led by numerous powerful drums and a flamboyant fox.  It became apparent that these were people protesting fox hunting in Scotland.  It was a well organized event led and escorted by police, and was a fascinating demonstration of Scottish politics in action.

As we continued on our way we then passed by the palace (where the queen will stay when visiting Scotland) and abbey ruins (the site a king’s crowning) to take some pictures from afar.  The indirect visit made us glad we had explored the castle the day before, as we were already familiar with the impact and history of these buildings as we viewed them.

From there we began a trek to King Arthur’s seat, a local hike to the high point of nearby hills.  You could see the city below, the water by the city outskirts, and distant hills on the horizon.

As we descended we saw the ruins of another abbey, whose date suggested this casual section of stonework was older than our home country.  As we continued on our way we passed by a beautiful lake (or perhaps a loch?) where numerous birds apparently accustomed to being fed resided.  We ended up vacating rather quickly when the birds became a bit too eager for food.  I didn’t want to be around for the documentary version of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous bird-related movie.

From there we worked our way up to Carton Hill.  It gave us beautiful views overlooking the water, complimented by nearby Grecian style columns (part of a monument whose funds dried up and thus was never completed).

After grabbing some lunch and stopping by our hostel, we headed to the Museum of Edinburgh.  This was an interesting place highlighting local events, people, and craftsmanship, and was a nice contrast to larger museums that aren’t necessarily specific to the region.

That evening I had some excellent chicken and sampled some Scottish whiskey (I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you what feature makes Scottish Whiskey Scottish.  But my palette isn’t that sophisticated).  We then visited the Banshee, a location mentioned to us on our ghost tour.  A free cinema was present, so we were able to catch the second half of The Guardians of the Galaxy.

Our last day focused on local landmarks and museums.  After grabbing breakfast at a french owned cafe, we visited the statue of Greyfriars Bobby.  This was in memory of a 19th century dog who captured the heart of the city through his great loyalty.  Supposedly his master died, and his dog visited his grave for years.  The city seemed to love Bobby, who was cared for in his old age by a particular Edinburgh family.  He is now immortalized in stone, in addition to the naming of some nearby commercial venues.

We then perused the National and Royal Museums of Scotland.  Here we saw great displays highlighting science, history, and culture.  But perhaps what was most interesting was a section devoted to Scottish history and culture in particular.  It was clear that Scotland maintains a unique and strong national identity, even when sharing limited island land space with other neighbors.  We were also able to go to the top of the museum to get some lovely views of the city, including Edinburgh castle and King Arthur’s seat.

From there we visited the people’s museum, which focuses on everyday lives throughout the city’s history.  The exhibit may have been a bit dated (I’m going to guess 1980s), but this was a great way to connect with the past on a more human level.  It’s main features were displays that included wax figures demonstrating various historical occupations and situations.  The figures helped one to humanize and imagine the circumstances of the people who lived through these eras.

Finally after grabbing some dinner to go we boarded our train and began the journey back.  While appreciating our view of the countryside I realized that the large body of water we were passing was in fact the North Sea.  It was a gorgeous view complimented by the setting sun.  After some more transportation finagling with the tube and trying to find some water to quench my thirst, we eventually made our way home, having experienced the amazing country of Scotland.

 

 

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