Today we woke up around 5am to catch the first tube train to get to King’s Cross for our 7am train. It was an excruciatingly early morning, but we were all to excited about going to Scotland to be concerned that much about it. It was a five hour train ride, and we arrived on a cold, cloudy drizzly day. If we had any doubt we were in Scotland, though, we were quickly reassured by our tour guide, who wore a kilt and played bagpipes.
He was pretty good at the bagpipes, too. He gave us a bus tour as we drove around Edinburgh and we got to get a first glimpse at the many sights and historical monuments in the city. Some of my favorite locations included the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson and the massive monument to Sir Walter Scott, which was funded by donations that poured in from around the world after his death.
It was an especially interesting time to be in Scotland, as the day before we arrived was September 18th–the day of the Scottish referendum vote. We found out as we were on the train to Scotland that they had voted to stay. Despite this being the outcome, nearly everyone we talked to seemed to think it was a wasted opportunity, and a variety of signs could be seen supporting both sides throughout the city and the countryside.
Some of the signs included drawings from children–future politicians!
After about the hour-long tour, we were dropped off at our hostel, the Elas Guesthouse.
Our group took up several rooms, so we didn’t have to room with people we didn’t know. For us this weekend the accommodations worked fine, though if it had been just me or a smaller group traveling I don’t think I would recommend it–there were no safes to put your valuables in and the kitchen wasn’t open to residents to use, and the owners are smokers so we had to open our window because of the smell in our room.
After settling in, we set off to get lunch, since it was 2pm and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The Group was joined by one of our professors and her daughter (a junior in high school who is also spending this semester over here and has become good friends with everyone in the group) as well as another student who was staying in the hostel. Our group was part of a larger tour organization called International Friends that scheduled everything. The guy we met was a part of this tour group, but didn’t know anybody else,so we welcomed him to come to lunch with us and ended up hanging out together most of the weekend. His name is Razul and he was studying in London like us, but came from Azerbaijan, so we had a lot of really interesting talks about differences in culture and in religion, since he was Muslim. It was a really cool way to experience one of my favorite things about travel–meeting new people and learning about different cultures through them.
After grabbing lunch at a place called Grand Cru, we headed to the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is the street that forms the backbone of the Old Town in Edinburgh, connecting Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. It’s a good place to shop and eat, and sight-see as there are many interesting attractions along the way. One of these is St.Giles Cathedral.
St. Giles was the most beautiful cathedral I have been into in the UK, and I’ve been to my share of cathedrals since I’ve been here. We spent a long while looking around at the beautiful architecture and stain glass windows before finally dragging ourselves away to walk around more.
We decided to go on a historic ghost tour at The Real Mary King’s Close. A “close” is a small, alley-like side street that branches off from the main road. Mary King’s Close was one that was built centuries ago, and had since been built over to form a sort of underground tunnel. The tour guided you through this place as well as reconstructions of the houses and rooms that existed there. It was interesting and educational, but not overly scary so if you’re looking more for a spooky ghost tour I would suggest something else. We thoroughly enjoyed it though, and afterward we grabbed a quick dinner from Sainsbury’s and brought it back to the hostel to eat before heading to bed.
Saturday was an optional tour of the Highlands. We had gone back and forth about going on this trip, but finally decided at the last minute that we wanted to do it. It was absolutely worth it and we didn’t regret it one bit!
It was another early morning to meet the bus at 7am, but as soon as we got into the countryside it was absolutely beautiful.
And that was just barely getting into the highlands out of the lowlands–there was a marked difference, and it only become more incredible as we went on.
As we rode through the beautiful scenery, our guide, Fred, played music varying from traditional Scottish bagpipes to epic soundtracks of movies set or filmed in Scotland to a woman singing in Gaelic (pronounced “Gallic” and quite distinct from the Irish Gaelic, as we were informed). It was the perfect way to see the Scottish highlands.
We stopped several times for photos, which we couldn’t get enough of– I have nearly 200 photos just from that one day! Around 12 we stopped for lunch at small cluster of restaurants and stores nestled in the nature. Directly behind the gravel parking lot where our bus waited was a beautiful stream that the Sams and I explored for a few minutes after lunch.
The finale of the trip was a visit to Loch Ness and the Castle Urquhart ruins that sit on its shores. The castle has a fascinating 500 year history, and we loved getting to climb around and explore the ruins, set smack in the middle of the incredibly gorgeous highlands.
After a little over an hour of exploring the castle, we all met at the dock to take a boat ride along Loch Ness. It was cold and windy, but absolutely amazing.
After about 45 minutes on the water (during which Sam K and I totally saw the Loch Ness monster) the boat arrived at the dock and we disembarked, only to reembark our bus. We were nearing the end of our trip, with mostly the 3 hour ride back to Edinburgh ahead of us. We drove through Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, and then made our way back through the rolling hills of the Highlands until finally returning to Edinburgh around 8pm. Fred dropped us off at Prince’s Street with instructions to head to Rose Street, which was lined with pubs and restaurants. We sat down at the Amber Rose pub, which had a great deal of getting 2 meals for only £10. After enjoying our dinner there, we headed back to our hostel. We debated watching Braveheart (we were in Scotland after all) but decided since we had another early morning it would be best to get some sleep.
Sunday morning, the Sams, Razul and I all woke up just before 6am in order to see the sunrise. One of the must-see places in Edinburgh is Holyrood Park, and the highest point in the park is a large hill overlooking Edinburgh called Arthur’s Seat. We decided to hike up this hill to catch the sunrise at 6:45.
It wasn’t an easy climb, especially since we were running late and had to hightail it in order to get there before the sun came up (by “came up” I really mean came up from behind the low lying clouds, not the horizon. Leaving the hostel it was dark but by the time we were doing the more serious hiking it was plenty light enough for us to see–no safety hazards there!). After arriving at the top, huffing and puffing and gasping for breath, we agreed it was absolutely worth it. Even before the sun came up, it was a beautiful view of the city of Edinburgh, just starting to wake up, laid out like a twinkling carpet beneath us, with the North Sea stretching beyond the horizon to the one side. As the sun peeked through the clouds, it became an even grander view.
The Sams, looking thoughtful as they gaze out over Edinburgh
Around 8, we finally headed back down. The guys returned to the hostel to meet with Rae, but I had decided to visit Edinburgh Castle so I walked the length of the Royal Mile, stopping along the way to grab a delicious sausage roll for breakfast, to the castle. It opened at 9:30 and I got there about 8:30, so I ended up wandering down to the Grass Market area, where I sat on a bench and read for a little bit. A little after 9 I headed back to the castle to be at the front of the crowds. The castle is £16 to get into, and I had heard it was worth it but not worth the crowds. After my visit I absolutely agreed with this and was very glad I had decided to get there early. I was the second person in line to buy tickets and didn’t have to wait in any lines. You can buy tickets online beforehand if you want to really be ahead of the game, but if you get there early enough you don’t have to.
Built on a chunk of volcanic rock, the castle overlooks the city and has a long and fascinating history. I started the visit with a 30 minute guided tour that is offered for free. It was a good way to get a quick overview of the castle and its history. Afterwards I went through the castle on my own, using the small handout provided to make sure I didn’t miss anything. You can buy audio tours and guide books to accompany you, but I was perfectly content with the free handout and reading the informational plaques at each site.
A stain glass window in St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh
It took me about 3 hours to go through everything in the castle, and I still didn’t go as in depth in some of the museums as I would have liked. Finally at 12:30 I left and met up with the rest of the group. On my way out of the castle I came across a favorite historical figure:
Casually holding a claymore sword with William Wallace
The rest of the group had spent the morning hiking the Holyrood Park more, and we were all ready for lunch. We ended up going to The Elephant House, where JK Rowling had written much of the first book of Harry Potter, overlooking Edinburgh Castle. I, in particular, was very ecstatic to be able to visit here. I brought the Harry Potter book I was reading and read some of it while I was there. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter graffiti that covered the bathroom walls in layers. The cafe on the whole was a cute place to eat and hang out, and had managed to not turn into a “Harry Potter mania” or anything like that. The food was really good and well priced, and it was mostly just the bathroom walls they had allowed to be taken over by Potter fans. I, of course, added my own contribution.
My note on the door
The view of Edinburgh Castle from the window
Outside The Elephant House with my Harry Potter book!
From there we wandered along the Royal Mile to do some last minute shopping, then met back up with the group to take our bus to the train station. We were sad to leave Scotland, but we made so many great memories and it was a wonderful experience–the highlight of the trip so far for all of us!