Old meets New - Edinburgh, Scotland in the United Kingdom
Literally, the city is split into two parts: Old Town and New Town. The Old Town includes Castle Rock (Edinburgh Castle) and the entirety of the popular Royal Mile. The Royal Mile, is what the locals call a 'Scottish Mile'. Meaning it's bigger/tougher than a regular mile as we know it. The Royal Mile is actually 1.8 miles in length with Edinburgh Castle on the upper end and the Palace of Holyrood at the lower end. The Palace of Holyrood is the official residency of the Monarchy in Scotland.
From my experience, everything outside of the Old Town falls into the New category. Honestly, I didn't explore too many areas outside of Old Town. It's the rich history of this place that drew me in and I had limited time to explore. With that, I want to share with you the most special aspect of my visit to Scotland.
Queen Elizabeth II passed away just before my trip. As I packed my suitcase(s), I watched the formalities of decades-long leadership change and plans were underway for the first Royal Funeral since Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. The Queen was laid to rest the same day I traveled to Edinburgh. The Queen was staying at her personal residence (Balmoral Castle) in Scotland when she passed, and her casket was on display for 24 hours at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh for the pubic to extend condolences. The country was still in official "mourning" when we arrived. The only real observation were flags at half-mast and the many, many bouquets of flowers at the entrance to the Palace of Holyrood. No matter one's political views, I felt fortunate to have experienced this country in-person at such an incredible, historic moment in time.
Edinburgh is not immune to activists and change-seekers. We witnessed an environmental demonstration along the front of Holyrood Palace with hundreds marching towards the Parliament Building. And we also spoke to locals about Brexit and Scotland's bid for independence from the UK. Last year the vote was nearly 50/50 to break free from the British Parliament and become their own nation. There will be another attempt by the Scots for independence in October 2023. Stay tuned!
The Holyrood Palace was open for self-guided tours, but no photography was allowed inside. The Abbey was closed for construction, but even as such, was still pretty awesome. For more information on the Palace of the Holyrood, click here: LINK
St. Giles Cathedral
St. Giles Cathedral is known as the Highest Kirk of Edinburgh and the Church of Scotland. It was founded in 1124 by King David I (nearly 900 years ago) and is still a working church today. To my surprise, photography was allowed inside. It was difficult to capture the magnitude of the space through images. For more information or for worship events, click here: St. Giles Cathedral.
Walking the Royal Mile
Edinburgh is essentially marketed as walk-able. The Royal Mile is the main thoroughfare in Edinburgh and getting there required a climb from our hotel (Mercure Hotel, Princes Street.) This is the tourist center and encompasses a long list of things to see, do, and experience. It's where you meet for tours, it has churches, cafes, shops, pubs, buskers, and museums. It's culturally, architecturally, and historically - amazing! Multi-level OLD buildings, spires, and amazing stonework. Everywhere you looked were staircases tucked away and disappearing into the landscape leading to family units (called a Close). These closes were connected to both sides of the Royal Mile and impossible to explore each one. Multiple generations live together in these units still today.
The tall brick spire building with red door and red window was very visible throughout the city. It was called the Tolbooth Kirk. It was not open to the public and had a food truck parked in the courtyard. I would have loved to see inside.
Enjoy these photographs, all taken on or near the Royal Mile.
Edinburgh Castle - also known as Castle Rock
At the top of the Royal Mile stands the world-famous Edinburgh Castle. It's perched on top of a volcanic plug and is an iconic landmark visible from most all places in Edinburgh. As we climbed up through the entry-way, we were reminded that we were following the footsteps of soldiers, kings, and queens. The history of Edinburgh Castle includes formal royal residences, military posts, fortress of the North Sea and was also used to hold prisoners. The Scottish Crown Jewels are housed here as well (and highly guarded.) The views are magnificent and we were fortunate to visit on a dry, clear day late in the afternoon once the bulk of tourists cleared out. Some of my photographs look like they have weird angles, but that is just how STEEP the climb was inside the castle walls. The walkway was an impressive artistic combination of cobblestone and brickwork. For more information about Edinburgh Castle, click here: LINK
City Center - Edinburgh
I traveled with a small group (17 ppl) with trip coordinated by Janice Adkins of Brevard Travel. We were fortunate to have lodging in the city center. Everything (mostly) was within walking distance. We stayed at the Hotel Mercure on Princes Street. The room was nothing fancy, twin beds, and my roommate and I both needed a tutorial to work the European toilets. We were introduced to heated towel racks and in-room tea service. Both pleasant amenities. The hotel had a restaurant and bar on site.
The weather in Edinburgh was on the warmer side. Mostly mid-70's (F) and we kept our window open in the hotel room most days/evenings. A light sweater was fine for nighttime and we only had rain once for a few hours while in Edinburgh. That would change after we exited the city.
Rose Street was located just behind the hotel and hosted many pubs and restaurants. We visited many of the establishments and my favorite meal was at Nicholson's Pub. It was a lamb stew with crispy haggis on top with a brown au jus (center photo below.) Hands down, best meal of the trip. The breakfast buffet at the Mercure ended up being the best of all the places we stayed. One European tradition that was different for me was adding baked beans to breakfast. Every buffet had them. I didn't try them, but I would like to think they did not the southern, sticky-sweet kind that includes bacon and brown sugar. During the trip, I also had fish & chips, mince-meat pie, salmon, cod, and another type of fish I can't remember the name. I forgot to take photos when my plate arrived almost every meal. Left photo: breakfast at the Mercure (sausage, haggis, mushroom, tatties/potato cakes, bacon, and an apricot danish.) Right photo: pomegranate crisp.
More of Edinburgh
The Cemeteries of Edinburgh were pretty cool. So many OLD graves. The Calton Hill Cemetery and Greyfreyer's Cemetery were my favorites. Yes, that is a statue of Abe Lincoln.
We spent some time in the Museum of Scotland, and I've included a video of the clock striking 12 pm (noon). This clock had multiple levels of working parts.
We also attended a live Scottish show with dinner one night. We saw authentic Scottish performers who were wonderful. A short video is posted from that event as well.
St. Andrews - the Birthplace of Golf
Yes - the birthplace of GOLF! My roommate and I booked a side-trip to St. Andrews. The city of St. Andrews is very walk-able. The bus dropped us at one end of the city, and all the old historic sites were at the opposite end of the city. We had 3 hours to explore and my roommate wanted to see the historic cathedral ruins, and my priority was seeing the birthplace of golf, The Old Course. I watched some golfers at Hole 18 as they finished up their game as well as watched people kicking it off at Hole 1. I imagined their excitement getting to play a round on THE most historic golf course! There was a tournament in process (Bing Crosby Classic), but I didn't recognize any player names listed on the board.
St. Andrews - Castle
Afterwards I headed towards the castle site. The lady that went in before me had a 'ghost' encounter and I got wrapped up with that. She had captured an apparition on her cell phone and claimed to have seen a face. I listened to her story and offered to run a video on MY phone while she went back inside the castle. Within the first few seconds I had a small ball of light go across my phone screen. I didn't stick around long after that (chuckling). I'll post the video below. The small ball of light is on the lower part of the screen and moves from right to left really fast. It happens within the first 3 seconds of the video.
More random photos from St. Andrews
We made a stop at Forth Bridge(s) where a trio of bridges cross an estuary called a "firth". The Scots call this the Firth of Forth and it makes me smile every time I say it. There's the old bridge on the far left. The center bridge is the new road bridge. And the red bridge is the rail bridge which has about 200 train crossings a day.
The tour also stopped in a fishing village called Anstruther on the eastern coast of the Fife Region of Scotland. It was a small, sleepy community with an impressive break-wall extending into the North Sea.
Our last stop was Falkland. We toured the Palace and Gardens. No inside photography, but one docent allowed photographs looking out the windows. The Palace owner lives in the Gardner's Cottage during the summer, and moves into the Palace in the winter to have access to heat (fireplaces.) He uses it just as it is on the tour. In fact, Bob Dylan was the record on the old player in the Library!
Inverness -All the Things
The group loaded onto a Mercedes bus with driver Ian, and guide Jodie, left Edinburgh heading towards Inverness. Jodie knew all the scenic stops and was a wealth of historic facts and funny stories.
Our first stop was the William Wallace Monument in Stirling. We could also see the Stirling Castle from the observation deck. I rode the van up and then walked the trail back down. There were some incredible wood carvings along the trail. To read more about the William Wallace Monument, click here: LINK
Driving along the M9 Motorway, we passed by the Kelpies (horses) statues in Falkirk. The Kelpies, the largest equine sculpture in the world are a monument to Scotland’s horse-powered industrial heritage.
Blair Atholl in Perthshire
We stopped at the Blair Atholl (castle) is a 13th Century expansive estate with a 4-story castle boasting a whitewashed exterior. Photography was allowed inside. The grounds were beautiful, and much to my surprise, there were Scotland Cows (also known as hairy coos) in an adjacent field.
The nursery had a creepy, broken baby in the bassinet, and I couldn't resist photos of it. EEK! The castle had a ridiculous amount of animal heads and may single-handedly be responsible for Scotland's current lack of wildlife. The biggest wild game is deer in Scotland. And that room of dishes (formal China) - holy cow! My photo doesn't do it justice.
Cairngorms National Park and Glenturret Distillery
We traveled through the Cairgngorms National Park for a long time. We also stopped at Glenturret Distillery for a factory tour and taste of single malt Scotch. The end product was sampled and we had a yummy lunch before heading to Inverness.
Our hotel was the Royal Highland Hotel in the middle of Inverness. Twin beds again and another impossible toilet. Think of a lawn mower that you have to prime multiple times before it will start. Sometimes, it takes multiple primes before it will go. The toilet was the same. For me, this hotel was a little creepy. It had extremely high ceilings. This was the first 'cold' night and that may have been another reason I didn't care for it. The staircase in the main lobby was impressive and was supposedly built to look like the staircase on the Titanic.
Loch Ness - yes, THAT Loch Ness
We kept our eyes peeled for Nessie! This was our first cold, rainy day in Scotland, and it couldn't have been more perfect for our boat ride on Loch Ness! I braved the elements and rode on the open-deck top of the boat. I loved the moody, foggy feel of the loch. And yes, I was pretty sure I saw the Loch Ness monster and took a selfie.
Loch Ness is part of the working lock systems connecting the North Sea to the south of the Hebrides. Loch Ness is at the town of Fort Augustus. Interestingly, the lock system follows an active fault line that splits Scotland straight down. We watched several boaters pulling themselves through the locks. There were at least six sets of gates and it appeared to be a time-consuming process. But I suppose it's still faster than sailing all the way out and around.
We stopped at Invermorriston Falls and a beautiful fairy bridge. And also stopped at Urquhart Castle, ruins from a 10th Century castle on Loch Ness.
This stop on the tour was a must-see for many of us. The Battle of Culloden was the last battle fought on Scottish soil and happened in 1746. If any of my readers are Outlander fans, you might understand the magnitude of this place. It did not disappoint. The cold rain continued and the historic site is much larger than I thought it would be. There is a line of red flags noting the battle line the Brittish Redcoats maintained. And the Jacobites' line was opposite. Not all Highlanders fought for the Jacobites, so there were families divided (like the Civil War in America.) The battlefield had stone markers for the mass clan graves. It was a very solemn experience, and I was thrilled to find the Clan Fraser marker (another Outlander reference.) Several resources are available if you wish to learn more about the Jacobite Rising, the British Army, the bonny Prince Charlie, and Culloden. Here's a link if you want to learn of of the history, click here: LINK
Eilean Donan Castle
This was the most photogenic castle of all the castles we saw. So, needless to say, it was my favorite! The day started with a chilly rain. The castle itself is perched on the Kyle of Lockalsh (major waterway), was built in the 13th Century after the original structure built in the 7th Century needed replaced due to war damage and decay. Donan Castle has been overtaken multiple times throughout history and it played a major role in the Jacobite Rising. If you're interested in reading about the history, click here: LINK
Scenic Stops and the Isle of Skye
Ian, our bus driver headed West towards the Isle of Skye. I like to think of this area fondly as Rainbow Road. We counted 10 rainbows while we were on the Isle of Skye, so lovely! We stopped at the Sligachan Old Bridge (Jodie called it a Fairy Bridge) where legend tells the story of the young maiden who put her face in the magical waters under the bridge and was gifted eternal beauty.
Another stop was the beautiful village of Portree in the northern section of Isle of Skye. My roommate and I did a quick walk down to the water where we discovered a cornucopia of sea glass. We both filled our pockets with an assortment of colored glass. Side note: my intention is to make some jewelry during the winter months, so we'll see how that plays out.
Kilt Rock and the Sheer Cliffs
Jodi had Ian pull-in at Lealt Falls for a quick stop and then on to Kilt Rock. Kilt Rock is named for a section of cliffs that look like the folds of a kilt. Due to a day of rain, Lealt Falls near the Kilt Rock boasted a heavy flow of water going over the cliff into the sea. I loved seeing this coastline and it's where my mind goes when I think of Scotland. Multiple rainbows were seen and I tried to photograph them all.
Isle of Skye and the Northern Lights
I truly enjoyed the scenery at the Isle of Skye, and if anyone reading this travels to the Isle of Skye please stay longer than 1 night. There was so much to see, but we simply didn't have time.
Being the nerd that I am, another bucket list item is experiencing Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights). The App that I use to monitor the sky (AuroraForcast) started alerting me about conditions being favorable for the possibility of an aurora. Into the wee night hours my phone started going off every 30 minutes with aurora alerts. So at 3am I got dressed and went outside to see if I could view any Aurora in the sky. Here's what I saw.... The blue dot on the photo on the left is where I was. The black photo is what I saw outside. (Laughing) So, Aurora Borealis is still on the bucket list. Shout-out to the nighttime hotel staff who unlocked the facility so that I could go outside in the middle of the night. I just know she thought I had lost my mind. She said she's never seen the Aurora. Should have been a clue that it wasn't happening.
Overnight in Kyleakin - Isle of Skye
Our overnight on Isle of Skye was in Kyleakin at the Kings Arms Hotel. It was right on the waterway and just a short walk to Saucy Mary's Pub. The location provided an awesome view of the Skye Bridge and lighthouse. Again, this is such a beautiful area and highly recommend more than 1 overnight here.
Last Day - Glen Coe and Trossachs National Park
After breakfast, we headed to Glasgow. We made a couple stops along the way as we drove through the mountains of Glen Coe and the Trossachs National Park at Loch Lomond. The area was full of rainbows and I would have loved to explore these mountains. We saw the tallest peak of Scotland called Ben Nevis (4,412' elevation) and visited the town of Fort William for lunch.
I saw a bridal shoot in process in Glen Coe and wish I could see the end product. Epic location for photography! I found a Pintrest image from the area and will share it, but please know it's not my photo.
We arrived early enough to explore, but I napped instead. I can say I was there, and the hotel was modern with a normal toilet. It had the best bed of all (a queen-size) and super comfy. Our Farewell Dinner was delicious.
Each area visited in Scotland was walkable and being on a bus meant that if you wanted to see something you had to use your feet to get to it. My Step Tracker App (Steps) showed an average of 4 miles walked each day of the trip (with one day over 9 miles.) The weather forecast ahead of the trip called for a deluge of rain almost every day and temperatures in the 50s. Not wanting to wear my heavy hiking boots for a multi-day soaker, I headed to the shoe store. I'm adding this to my blog because the pair of shoes that I purchased were amazingly comfortable and kept my feet dry. My legs and feet were not sore with these shoes (despite the hill and stair climbs throughout the trip.) The shoe is JBU by Jambu brand and I'm not sure how I've lived without this shoe.
Click here for the link to their website and to receive a 15% discount if you make any purchase: LINK
After the Trip
If you've read any of my prior blogs, you know I like to end with a story or funny photos from the trip. Sometimes it's weird events, and the ghost story would have probably been a good one to end on. But honestly, I'd rather focus on some lovely people I met.
Beryl, our Edinburgh Guide
Beryl is badass. She led our walking tour of Edinburgh with her 2-month old daughter. This tour was uphill, multiple miles long, and hours long. She was extremely knowledgeable about Edinburgh, Scotland, and shared all the history. To do all this with a baby swaddled to her chest was absolutely impressive. Keep on keeping on, Beryl!
Side note: the day after this tour, we were on the hop-on/hop-off bus and I saw Beryl on the street corner (she was waiting to cross at the light, with her baby in tow again.) I yelled and waved and she looked and waved like crazy. It was awesome. And, I would like to say that YES, I did see someone I know in Scotland. (It's a Hale thing!) Some say a Hale will see someone they know no matter where they go! Keeping traditions alive....
Jodie Stalker, our 5-day guide in Scotland
The person in the photo is our tour guide, Jodi. She joined us on the bus when we left Edinburgh. She was an awesome storyteller, as most Scots are! She had long red hair and freckles and is officially my favorite 'ginger.' Jodi's spirit is contagious, and what a great sense of humor. She's got a bright future working with Travel Writer, Rick Steves with a post in Italy for several months. She also got a confirmation from Disney Adventures and will lead tours in Ireland next year.
Jodi asked me what countries are on my International Bucket List and I told her my main bucket list destination is Italy. I asked her what US destinations she wanted to see, and she told me "Dollywood." No lie. I couldn't help but laugh out and asked her to explain. She told me that Dolly Parton has made such an influence on her through her philanthropic actions and visiting Dollywood would in-turn support Dolly Parton. I admit, I had no idea of the reach of Dolly's generosity. In fact, just yesterday Dolly was awarded the Carnegie Philanthropy Medal (article here: LINK).
With Dollywood practically in my back yard, I told Jodi she was welcome to stay at my house while she explored the area and visited Dollywood.
In this photo, Jodi was presenting a rainbow at Ben Nevis and it was raining (hence the spots on my lens.)
Ian, bus driver
Ian made me laugh the first time I interacted with him. I was rolling all my luggage to his bus in Edinburgh and he said to me with a small scowl and Scottish accent, "My God, are ye travellin' with ye whole family?!" (due the amount of luggage I had.) Good one, Ian! And I apologized for the extra luggage (sorry, not sorry.) Another lovely soul and I appreciate you getting us to and fro safely!