Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Arthur's Seat and Holyrood Palace

My last day in Edinburgh I checked out of the hostel and after manouvering my bags into the smallest luggage room ever headed back to the bottom of the royal mile to tackle Arthur's Seat, a volcanic spur sitting next to the palace. Possibly not the best idea to climb a steep mountain (and check you're wife's insurance policy before you chuck her off the side of it cos it is classified as a mountain) during the windiest day ever but hey, theres nothing like the risk of being blown away to keep life interesting. Eventually made it to the top where it was so windy you had to move in a crouch (I saw one girl get her feet swept out from under her, lucky she wasn't too close to the edge) and many a hat went flying off into the distance. Enjoyed the view and struggled to hold my camera steady enough for a few photos before retreating downhill to the ruins of St Anthony's to enjoy lunch in the shelter of a few big rocks.

Decided while I was in the area I may as well visit Holyrood Palace so picked up the obligatory audio guide and headed in. The palace is one of the Queen's official residences so I got to see the dining room all set up like it would be when she was there but most of the other rooms were the historic ones which were really interesting. Got to see Mary, Queen of Scots' chambers including the apparently unremovable blood stain of her murdered secretary and headed outside to the picturesque ruins of Holyrood Abbey.

Stopped for a scone and tea and then found the Childhood museum which was full of old toys, games, huge collections of antique dolls and teddy bears and everything else to do with childhood which was a really fun museum to browse for a bit before returning to collect my bag and heading to the bus station for the long, long, long trip back home.

History and Ghosts

With only 2 days left in Edinburgh I set out to see as much of the city as possible and so joined a huge group for a free tour. Our group got the only Scot working that day which was cool and since the free tour guides are working just for tips, he really worked on making it a very fun tour. For 3 hours we braved the increasingly drizzly and cold weather to explore the old town. Started on the top half of the Royal Mile leading up to the castle where we got to hear lots of interesting stories from Edinburghs history. Headed down to the grassmarket, site of many hangings and other unsavoury goings on, where we stopped for lunch and to watch the few who dared tackle a deep fried Mars Bar. Then over to Greyfriars Kirkyard where we learnt about a few hauntings, saw the school that was meant to have been JK Rowlking's original inspiration for Hogwarts and visited the grave of Greyfriar's Bobby's master where Bobby, a Skye terrier, sat for 12 years thus earning him a statue outside the cemetery, lots of fans and 2 Disney movies. Headed back across the royal mile to hear about the man who inspired Jeckyll and Hyde and finally to the gardens below the castle for the story of the guys who once stole the stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey to return it to its rightful place in Scotland...for about 2 days.

Spent the rest of the afternoon doing a bit of aimless wandering. Visited the writers museum which is dedicated to Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and the one who's name I've currently forgotten, and walked to the bottom of the Royal Mile to see Holyrood Palace and Arthurs seat which I planned to climb the next day.

Headed out after dark into a very cold and windy night to join a ghost tour with the same company that runs the free tour. Armed with tiny wind up torches and a voucher for a free beer at the end we set off over the cursed North Bridge (most popular place to commit suicide in Edinburgh) and into New Town. Visited Calton Hill Cemetery with its many ghost stories and saw where a ghostly face had appeared over time on the back of one gravestone. Climbed up Calton hill to hear about the realm of the faries (not the nice Disney variety), witch burnings and the druid celebrations that are still held there every Beltane. Nearly got blown off the side of the hill while overlooking Arthur's Seat and listening to stories about the 17 dolls and coffins that were discovered in a cave near the top. Climbed down a steep flight of stairs back to the Royal Mile where we learnt about the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots secretary by her husband Lord Darnley and his subsequent murder some time later and finished with a story of modern day vampirism (some guy who took Anne Rice a little too seriously) before heading to a pub to warm up with a pint.

Aberdeen

Slightly overslept (surprising I know) and had to leg it to the train station to pick up my ticket and jump on a train for Aberdeen. Arrived to find it raining (even more surprising) but Aberdeen is a nice old town with lots of old granite buildings and a few cobblestone streets around the striking St Nicholas Kirkyard to explore. Followed some very confusing tourist signs that seemed to point around in circles but eventually, hidden behind an office building I found Provost Skene's house.

Sir George Skene was a merchant and Provost of Aberdeen in the 17th century (and is presumably on some far flung branch of the family tree somewhere). The housae itself dates from the 16th century, went through many changes of ownership, was used to billet Cumberland's troops on their march to Culloden and eventually became a public lodging house and fell into disrepair. It was nearly knocked down in the 1930s when the area was being cleaned up but the Queen Mother stepped in to save it and it was reopened by her in 1952 as a 'Period House ans Museum of Local Hisotory". It now has rooms decorated to reflect 17th and 18th century lifestyles, as well as regency and Edwardian rooms. The bedeoom has Sir George Skene's coat of arms worked into the ceiling and there is one room called the painted gallery which is entirely covered in paintings from the life of Christ which were discovered behind plaster walls during the buildings refurbishment.

Spent a little while exploring the older part of town around St Nicholas and strolled to Castlegate, the big old town square with the Mercat cross in the centre and hid for a while in a great second hand book store when it started to really rain. Found the art gallery which had a collection of works by Roy Goeke (maybe??) which were all really lifelike human figures but in the wrong size. The centre piece was an enormous sculpture of a new born baby girl that was about 5m long but somehow still completely real looking. Found yet another statue of William Wallace and then returned to Edinburgh.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Alone again, naturally.

Enjoyed a last free breakfast together in the morning, checked out of rowdy St Christophers and rejoiced that Sarah made it to the car before the nasty parking inspectors turned up. Headed to the High Street in front of the castle for a last shopping trip together. Saw the 3 brass plates marking the site of the last public execution in Edinburgh and looked at the beautiful St Giles cathedral before returning to Elephant house for a final scone and tea, after which I said goodbye to Fabio and the girls as they headed back to Inverness and I trudged into New Town to find Caledonian Backpackers for a nice relaxing day of doing nothing, aaaah :)

Edinburgh

After a tasty breakfast and a little shopping we started the day at the William Wallace memorial which was thankfully free of any Mel Gibson stuff but did have t-shirts of the Mel Gibson lookalike which was hilarious. The memorial is a tall tower perched on top of Abbey Craig just outside of town and the 245 steps to the top are broken up by museum rooms including Wallace’s sword, a rather cheesy video projection courtroom reenactment, the hall of heroes where you could vote for your favourite 20th century Scottish hero (c’mon Billy Connelly) and a fabulous, if freeeeeezing view from the top.

Heading out of town took a lot longer than usual cos we kept going in circles trying to find the right exit off the many confusing roundabouts but made it to Edinburgh pretty quickly and after navigating several more increasingly baffling roundabouts found a park right below the castle. Climbed up castle rock to the Royal Mile and up to the castle which is huge and very impressive.

Went on a free tour led by a Screech lookalike, checked out the Scottish honours (sword, scepter, crown and stone on destiny), prison of war museum complete with realistic sound effects and the tiny St Margerats chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh) before heading out to find the hostel. Decided to splurge for the last night of our trip together so headed out to Howie’s, a very nice restaurant built, as I later found out, over a cemetery for a delicious dinner. Strolled around town for a bit and found the Elephant House where JK Rowling used to hang out but unfortunately, just as it was closing.

A very Silly Place

Headed out early and stopped in beautiful Glencoe to see the monument to the Glencoe massacre and did a little hiking through the woodlands before setting in for another fun day of driving. On a whim decided to check out Doune castle cos it looked really pretty from the road though actually getting there was a lot more difficult than first thought. They were setting up to film a new HBO series there so we had to park in a paddock on the other side of town and take a mini bus to the castle. Upon arriving I was trying to work out why there were so many Monty Python books in the gift shop when it eventually dawned on me that the reason the name of the castle was so familiar was because its where they filmed a lot of Holy Grail, eek!

Picked up the audio guide (by Terry Gilliam and chock full of movie clips and python facts that kept me giggling the whole way around) and headed in. Started in the main doorway through which the Trojan rabbit was pulled into the castle. Saw the wall from which the French taunted the silly English knights and pelted them with farm animals. The courtyard was used for the wedding at Swamp castle and the Duchess’s hall upstairs made up the rest of Swamp castle, i.e the window the Prince climbed out of and the doorway where the world’s worst guards stood. Downstairs was the kitchen which made up all of Castle Anthrax. Run away!!

A bit more driving and we made it to Stirling for lunch. Split up to explore old town for a while. The church of Holyrood where Mary Queen of Scots’ coronation was held was closed but the old cemetery out the back was really interesting. Strolled past the castle and eventually found the beheading stone locked in its cage way out on the edge of town overlooking the William Wallace memorial. Met the others again to check into our hostel in a converted church in old town and another fabulous home cooked meal. Yay Tesco!