Where do you want to vacation?
And that is just what happened with our first ever Passports. Why Scotland? Why not! Their summer is grand, 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and much rain, sometimes sideways. Oh, and drive on the other side of the road! An adventure! Bought some new luggage and the planning began.
Not knowing anything and I mean anything at all about travelling to Scotland let alone outside the US, I found a wonderful travel company that was advertising and had popped up on my FB feed: www.Sheencotravel.com These people really were wonderful. I contacted them via email, some back and forth about budget and time and idea of what we wanted to do. Then they emailed me the most wonderful itinerary with links and pictures of the places we would stay. Sign us up! I would read that itinerary probably fifteen times before we arrived in Scotland.
June 27th: Our adventure began with a grueling early morning, really late-night flight from San Francisco to Chicago, a layover, and a second flight to Scotland. Arrived in style we did with a car and driver waiting for us to take us to our first accommodation, The Bonham. But as Murphy’s law usually follows us, the power got knocked out in the airport as soon as we cleared customs, all the doors shut and locked automatically and the lights went out. Luckily, the authorities corralled all the incoming arrivals and walked us out of baggage to the main exit and our driver skirted us around the crowd and on our way. Restless and tired we were, but excited and the Bonham kept our bags until our room would be ready. We set off into the city.
That first day we wandered, found food and enjoyed temperate weather, no rain. And I can say it was an amazing city. The architecture, the voices and accents, the bagpipes playing in all the tourist stores, and cobblestone streets! Oh, the things to see: a view of Edinburgh from atop the 287 steps of the Scott Monument, Princess Street, Castle Hill, Edinburgh Castle and more. Those stairs though in the Scott Monument, all stone, 60 then a landing walkabout, 60 and another, and as you continue to go up those stone walls seem to close in on you and get more narrow as you rise. Truly not for the claustrophobic. Once I reached the top, I felt I had reached my limit and very promptly told the teenager to have fun because I was going all the way down, “See you at the bottom!” That is a single two way staircase where my shoulders touch on both sides, no way to pass people politely when ready to immediately descend.
The next day we were ready, bundled up and moving. Two days of walking Edinburgh. Wow, on day two we racked over 7.8 miles on foot, in the sideways rain on purpose! Edinburgh Castle, and tea there is amazing.
But breakfast at the Bonham is unparalleled. All the best for breakfast: Black Pudding, Haggis, eggs, toast, tomato, mushrooms, potato scone and bacon. And coffee and juice. Well, you can see why walking so much was necessary. And can I just say that black pudding is delicious; I wish I could get some here in the US.
Now something to note when visiting castles in Scotland: You may take pictures outside the buildings and in designated areas but well, many of the wonders like the crown jewels and the historic Stone of Destiny you need to purchase a book if you want to look on them after your visit. We did not purchase books in all the castles we visited and there are a few I wish I had.
June 30th: Off to pick up our own car, and drive to the Highlands! Okay first thing you must know about driving on the other side of the car and on the other side of the road, especially in a city with small streets… we will call it, “The Scotland Wheel of Terror,” The steering wheel that is. I didn’t drive, the husband did. And I didn’t bring enough valor essential oil for the trip, I ran out in the last few days. Note to self: bring full bottle next time!
On the road from Edinburgh on the way to Invergarry are the stunning beautiful and green mountains of the Trossachs National Park, Loch Lomond and if you know when to look you’ll see the famous Kelpies.
And of course, Sterling Castle, which by the way has very little parking. You know what it’s like driving in a new place, trying to find parking and a uniformed person is telling you to keep moving? Well add to that the wrong side of the road and the unfamiliar side of the car! Avoiding one domestic argument we were routed down from castle hill and struggled to find parking on a city street below the castle stronghold where we met a resident who was enjoying a cigarette by his car. I could not understand a word he said when I asked him if tickets or towing was the standard for leaving your car too long. Even my husband who seems to have an ear for the Scottish accent, looked at me in wonder struggling to understand the fellow. He was a friendly man, we were pretty sure he said they, meaning the police, don’t usually come by very often.
Not wanting to chance having our rental car towed on our first day we set off at brisk pace across a field past some Scottish cows and up hiking trails to the Castle on the hill. Breathtaking and green. Everything is green. Green or stone that is. Afraid of losing the rental car, we ventured only through the castle walls into the main courtyard and the outlaying grounds where there is a statue of King Robert the Bruce.
Come to find out days later, The Sword of William Wallace is kept on display inside Stirling Castle. Now we have reason number one to return.
There is so much rich history about this place that sits overlooking Loch Oich. The Castle of Invergarry was the seat of the Chiefs of the powerful branch of the Clan Donald, known as the Clan Ranald of Glengarry. Its situation on Creagan an Fhithich—the Raven’s Rock – overlooking Loch Oich in the Great Glen, was a strategic one in the days of clan feuds and Jacobite risings. Today only the ruins remain of what was once one of the most renowned homes in the realm. The redcoats of Butcher Cumberland burned it in 1746 after the Battle of Culloden. The walls stand in refusal to fall from time and they seem solid yet haunting and alone.
What you see here now is a mansion on the estate that is wonderfully serene and only 500 yards from the Castle ruin. I found absolute calm from the hum of busy life here. This Hotel estate is so very welcoming and the food is outstanding. The library is very peaceful, the staff is incredibly friendly, and the surrounding area is just beautiful. You must have dinner reservations here to dine so please make yours when you check in.
We took a drive to the Castle most seen on postcards from Scotland and used in the filming of The Highlander. I have dated myself admitting that I have seen that movie when it was not an old movie as my daughter would say.
Eilean Donan Castle- wow- it sits on an island where three lochs meet and dated from the 13th century. It took nearly 30 years to restore after it was destroyed in a Jacobite uprising in 1719. It is amazing to see and the family owned castle used to have family living in it as recent as the 1980’s but now it is on display, unfortunately no pictures inside are allowed and all I can say is wow!! You have to see this! Just stunning.
July 2nd: We drove onward to Urquhart Castle, which dates back to 580 AD. This castle used to be a Pictish hill fort, then by the 1200’s a stone hill fort, and by the 1300’s it became a strategic fortress in the wars for independence. By the 1400’s many of the castle buildings were ruined during the 150 years of struggle between the MacDonald Lords and the crown. In the 1500’s the Grants wanted a more comfortable and defensible home fit for a Laird and rebuilt the tower.
This castle is huge and I cannot possibly post all those pictures here, you’ll have to visit- there are a lot of steps good luck you might need some essential oils for your tired feet after, I know I do! PS the Castle sits on the banks of Loch Ness in the Highlands and no we didn’t see Nessy.
We continued our trek visiting the battlefield on the moors of Culloden where the Jacobite final rising in 1746 came to a brutal head in one of the most harrowing battles in UK history. In less than an hour around 1,300 men were slain, more than 1,000 of them Jacobite. Needless to say, it was sobering and we headed to two distilleries Glenfinnan and MacCallan and I can’t say I’m a fan of whiskey 🥃 but I gave it a try. The moors were windswept and cold so I can see why people like the warmth it gives! Me, I think I’ll stick with my essential oils.
In Inverness, we relaxed at a place called Kingsmill. There is a wonderfully charming hotel that has a more modern contemporary building across the parking lot that even has a lift (elevator). Elevators in Inverness are teeny tiny. I would not want to get stuck in one of those!
I found Inverness to be less crowded than Edinburgh and the streets still scary driving on the other side and narrower but certainly less stressful. We enjoyed the days walking and I found myself intrigued by doors. All the homes are stone, the doors seeming to show their personality in color shape and size. Definitely time to pick a new door color when I get home.
In the middle of a suburban neighborhood amongst the residents out walking their dogs we found this fenced in flat stone. The plaque reads: The Broad Stone. The Broad Stone dates from before the 15th Century. The central hole would probably have supported a pillar or stone cross. It is thought to have been a town cross or shrine for pilgrims and wayfarers, possibly marking the well of the “Skower Burn” which used to flow through this area.
July 4th: We started off today on a long drive from Inverness back to Edinburgh. The views are amazing driving through the Cairngorms. There are so many castle and castle ruins and giant manor homes 🏡. We stopped for lunch at Blair Castle, which is an amazing place with an antiquity collection where once again you may only take pictures in an allowed area. This Castle Mansion is completely museum-like and vast. I can tell you that I have never seen so many rifles and firearms adorn the walls as in this castle, one crazy musket rifle barrel was at least 8 feet long. How do you hunt and what do you hunt with something like that! There were so many Narwhale horns! I wanted so bad to take a picture of them they seem to me like unicorn horns and amazing!
The drive back onto Edinburgh was 😜. We, and I should say I use we liberally, my husband drives and I navigate, was rough. When we start getting near cities the roads and highways and roundabouts come faster than the GPS can keep up so we made some wrong turns. However, we managed to get settled in at our last destination, Dalhousie Castle.
This Castle is a 13th century fortress set within acres of wooded parkland on the banks of the River Esk. This castle has been mostly unchanged for 700 years. Edward I stayed there before defeating William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk, Henry VI unsuccessfully besieged it for six months and Oliver Cromwell took it in 1648. More welcome visitors included Queen Victoria, who took tea at the castle in 1840, and Sir Walter Scott, a close friend of the 9th Earl.
While visiting this Castle we enjoyed one of our trip highlights, which was an encounter in Falconry. The Falconry staff on site are very friendly and knowledgeable. First, we each flew and fed a Falcon but then a 10-month-old owl was just spectacular to fly and feed. The Falconer surprised us when the young owl didn’t fly off the hand after eating the morsel of chick telling us to, “Just chuck him.” I had to make sure I heard him right, chuck him, did he mean throw him off my arm? He sure did; stating that the little guy is still learning to fly across the field after eating and he forgets to go so you have to throw him off. Don’t be worried, he takes right to the air. But each time he returned for more chick, he had to be chucked off. Great fun!
Now mind you this is a Castle, and they don’t have lifts or elevators in Castles. Our room was a top floor, 96 steps to the door and a folly of five more inside the room to look out the rampart from our window. Do the math, into the castle main and down two for the lobby to check in, up two and to the car for the luggage, then up 96 steps, and back down 96 for something left in the car and needed for dinner. Then back up 96 to dress for dinner, down about half to the library for cocktails and confit. Then brought down the remaining 96 to the main floor and then down another dozen or so to the dungeon where we had the pleasure of dining –The Dungeon Restaurant. It is an ancient barrel-vaulted dungeon and don’t be confused, it isn’t cold or damp. Quite the contrary, the dungeon was extremely warm and incredibly fun. Then full belly, back up to the room to retire. I can’t think of a better way to work up an appetite or work off an appetite.
However, this Castle is known for its wonderful spa and Turkish style steam bath, we were unable to enjoy due to my daughter not meeting the minimum age of 16, no exceptions. So very disappointing not to be able to sample the spa as it was part of our package to be able to use the spa and something we were looking forward to doing, even purchasing swimsuits in Edinburgh for the stay.
Exploring the Castle, we enjoyed a library and a less formal breakfast area overlooking the grounds. And the first night a wedding was in full swing with wonderful Scottish music sounding from the hall. This Castle once belonged to Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, ?-1342. A soldier, and elder son of Sir William Ramsay, who fought at Bannockburn (1314), he was one of the Regent’s Commanders and Borough Muir, where England’s ally, the Flemish Army was defeated. He was present at the capture of Leuchar’s Castle (1335) and came to the assistance of Black Angus, the Countess of Dunbar, relieving the siege of her Castle at Dunbar in 1338. He recaptured Roxburgh Castle from the English in 1342, something Sir William Douglas had tried unsuccessfully to do. When Sir Alexander was rewarded by being made Constable of Roxburgh and Sheriff of Teviotdale, Douglas was outraged and captured Ramsay while he was praying at Hawick and Douglas imprisoned him in the dungeon of Hermitage Castle. Without food or water, he died, although it is said he survived for seventeen days by eating the grain that fell through from the Castle granary above the dungeon.
On the way to the dungeon at Dalhousie, you will see a sword hanging on the wall with this posted next to it: Thomas Yeudall- Claymore Armory: this is an exact replica of William Wallace sword which hangs in his monument at Stirling. The cross quillon bars and side rings were constructed to replace the original ones by Robert Selkirk in 1505 to give the sword a more modern appearance. The blade is of Swedish steel tempered to 75%, the hilt is if Ayrshire Oak bound in high quality leather. (It was in reading this that we discovered what we missed at Stirling Castle and I don’t think my husband will ever let me forget it!)
July 5th: Having had enough driving in Edinburgh the day we picked up our car, we decided to hire a taxi to take us into the city for our last day in Scotland. Because there were two things left on my daughter’s bucket list: eat at The Witchery and an underground ghost tour of the Vaults under Edinburgh.
We were we were fortunate to be able to get in to The Witchery at the end of our Journey. We had reservations at the beginning of our adventure but there was a mix-up at the witchery and only because my daughter really wanted to go there, we tried to fit it in at the end of our trip. We were able to have an odd hour late lunch of 3pm at the establishment. This place is truly creepy. The service is not what I expected for such a sought-after place and after the mix-up at the beginning of the trip it wasn’t a surprise. However, the food was superb.
This is printed on the back of the menu: “Established nearly forty years ago by James Thomson OBE, in a historic building at the gates of Edinburgh Castle, the Witchery takes its name from the many hundreds of witches burned at the stake, on Castle hill, during the reign of James VI than anywhere else in Scotland and the area around the Witchery by the Castle remains deep in history. The Witchery occupies a substantial Sixteenth Century building in Boswell’s Court, named after former resident, James Boswell, uncle of Dr. Johnson’s biographer. It has been in continuous occupation for over four centuries, latterly as committee rooms for the Church of Scotland and as the Rectory of a nearby church. Castle hill has always been at the center of Scottish history, The Palace of Mary de Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scot, stood on the opposite side of the street, adjacent to some of the Witchery’s luxurious suites in Jollie’s Court.
Originally built in 1595 for merchant Thomas Lowthian, the candlelit Witchery is entered from a traditional close off the Royal Mile, where the original inscription on the doorway bearing his initials and motto ‘O Lord in thee is all my traist’ can still be read, whilst the ancient stone doorway built into the tower in the Secret Garden features the arms of the Duke of Gordon, Keeper of the keys to Edinburgh Castle.”
I will tell you this, besides the incredible history of the place and the scary ambiance, the food… well especially the dessert was phenomenal. I had a lavender meringue pudding they called it -with raspberry jam and blueberries and strawberry clotted crème. I could have followed the waiter back to the kitchen and licked the bowl, I kid you not.
After the meal, we had some spare time waiting for our Ghosts Stories tour so we sat on some benches by Parliament. There in the square is a statue that caught my attention, James Braidwood 1800-1861. I remember thinking he only lived 61 years – and wondering who he was that he had a statue in the square. I got up and looked at the other side of the monument…well, this one is for all my firefighting friends: Father of the British Fire Service. “This statue is dedicated to the memory of James Braidwood, a pioneer of the scientific approach to firefighting. It also recognizes the courage and sacrifice of fire-fighters, not only in Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service, but all over the world. In 1824, Edinburgh suffered two disastrous fires which destroyed much of the old city. As a result, the City Council decided to create the world’s first Municipal Fire Brigade and James Braidwood was appointed to take command.
Quickly establishing an effective service, he developed new fire-fighting techniques, many of which are still used today. In 1832, he left his native Edinburgh to establish London’s first full-time fire brigade. Always at the front of the action, he was killed while fighting a fire in London’s Tooley Street.”
And then it was time. Finally, the last of the bucket list: The creepy Evening of Ghosts & Ghouls tour was led by a fun Frenchman named Jeremy from Mercat Tours. He kept us captivated with his storytelling style and I must admit his accent proved to make the story telling memorable. Before we went below, Jeremy took us around the St Giles Square and through some very tiny walkways. He taught us that if anyone ever asks you what to do when you hear “Gardiloo” being shouted from above, please as quick as you can hold up your hands and yell, “Hold your hands!”. If you are not quick enough you could find yourself doused in excrement!
The buildings in Edinburgh seem tall to me but there are only a shadow of what used to be. 12 and 13 story buildings without indoor plumbing! Buckets of shall we say brown water thrown from a window into the close (close is smaller than what we are used to as an American alley- really feels like an outdoor hallway but does pass between buildings). Just a lesson from our guide Jeremey! All the while he introduced us to ghosts and told of short and long rope hangings in the square with angry mobs as well as explained how the square is built on top of many buried bodies.
We had already walked the mile, and my teenager had really soaked up the lore and wanted to see firsthand the underground vaults. These vaults were only discovered and excavated in the 1980’s! Jeremey told us stories of how grave robbers used the underground tunnels to move dead bodies to the surgeries as it was a lucrative business.
People hid in these tunnels, many businesses had storerooms or workrooms in the vaults, some people were simply seeking shelter with nowhere to go once kicked of their highland lands. But some under cover of night could move things through the tunnels without detection and so, ghost stories abound. In reality, the vaults are not truly underground but the remnants of arches from a great bridge that spanned the valley near the Castle hill. Those arches hold up a main road of the city and there are a great number of vaults.
All that ghost and ghoul stuff made this American want a glass of wine! Personally, I wish I had sampled some Claret that was purported to have been stored in some of the vaults. Well, next Holiday, right?
We really enjoyed the rich history and the fun food – where else can you eat Salmon every day, Mackerel, Trout, Hare, Haggis, Black Pudding and remarkable dessert everyday. Oh and the little toast trolly on the breakfast table, have to buy one of those! However,what I did miss was a good hearty salad like no other, and we nearly missed our connecting flight in Chicago. When we arrived home we certainly needed a vacation from our vacation. Already dreaming where we can travel to for our next adventure.