Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and has been for several centuries. Today it is a city of over half a million in the city proper, over 1.3 million in the Edinburgh city region. Although a bit smaller than Glasgow, we found it vastly more interesting and attractive. Our week there flew by.
We found a terrific flat through Airbnb in an area called Grassmarket. It was a steep climb of 49 steps up a narrow turret to get to our place, but it was relatively quiet, comfortable, clean, and RIGHT in the heart of the city. There was even a supermarket only a third of a mile away. Couldn't have asked for more!
But more there was. Out our bedroom window we could see Edinburgh Castle looming above us. From just down the street we got an even better view of the castle, so that's where we'll start today's blog. The front door of the castle was also just a third of a mile away. The flat supermarket walk took only five minutes, but as you can see, it's a bit of an uphill slog to the drawbridge entry way, so it was a bit more than five minutes for that one! But it made up for the climb with interesting and colorful buildings along the way.
It is a castle, so naturally there are cannons. A lot of them. We'll just settle for this one, ready to blast away at downtown Edinburgh.
And of course there be lots of other weapons. Here are two collections on display.
There are countless forts and castles in Europe that have rarely seen a shot fired in anger. This is not one of them. Since Edinburgh is one of the first places an invading English army comes to when, for the umpteenth time, it's trying to put down the Scots, there have been many battles, some of which resulted in the capture of the castle by one side or the other.
But there have been far, far longer periods when there were no enemies in sight. So they were brought here from hither and yon, and thrown in the dungeon. It is a place of shadows and stories, such as that of the fellow who thought he had found a way to escape, by burying himself in a barrel of dung. He hadn't done his research -- no compost trucks came by, back then. The castle authorities dealt with their refuse by tossing it off the ramparts. Our friend lost his life at the very moment he won his freedom.
We took the tour through this gloomy area, past places where prisoners of war and captured pirates spent days, weeks, years in these rooms. With all that time on their hands, some turned their skills to fabricating objects of remarkable beauty, such as this inlaid wooden chest to the right.
The castle now holds some of the most precious items in Scotland, the Crown Jewels of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny, a rock that every Scottish king stood upon, once upon a time, when taking the oath of office. But the waiting lines were an hour long, so we opted instead for the no-lines-at-all Great Hall next door to it. It was built 507 years ago for King James IV. In the 1650's during the English Commonwealth, troops loyal to Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scots and took over the castle. To accommodate all the troops they decided to staff the place with, they needed more space, so they built the barracks shown in the drawing to the right, right inside this glorious hall. Happily the Great Hall has been restored to its one-time glory.
Finally, to the ramparts! Immediately below us is a green area now called Princes Street Gardens, since Princes Street runs along the far side of it. This was a marsh until the mid-1760s, when the city began filling it in.
The area just out of view to the right is called Old Town, centering on a street called the Royal Mile. We'll head there one paragraph down. The area just beyond Princes Street Gardens is New Town, which started in 1767 and grew in stages over the next half century. The second photo below is a sketch of the original plan, and the third photo a closer look from the castle at what it looks like today. There are still many 18th and 19th century buildings in New Town, but not too many on Princes Street itself, now that it has become the prime shopping street in town. Look for ones that are only 4 stories (sometimes with a turreted fifth floor) and made of stone. As soon as one gets to the interior streets, as we'll show you a bit further on, the majority of the buildings are indeed original.
The Royal Mile is a road that descends almost exactly a mile from Edinburgh Castle to the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse. Leaving the Castle we first passed a variety of buskers, starting with a fellow chanting a Capella, followed by roughly one bagpiper every two or three blocks. Bagpipes are something of an acquired taste, and never more so than when you are midway between two bagpipers playing different tunes. Assuming, of course, that you can actually distinguish one bagpipe tune from another.
Running off the Royal Mile at right angles were numerous narrow passageways, called "wynds." We'll turn off the audio for a moment and walk down the street, admiring the stolid buildings along the Royal Mile and peeking as we go at several of these colorful nooks and crannies off to the sides.
Holyrood Palace is now the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland, and QE II spends a week there every year at the end of June. The official website says she typically "entertains" 8,000 guests during this week. Not quite sure how she entertains 8,000 folks with more than one of her famous hand waves.
In any event, it was interesting to get some historical thrills and chills walking through the palace. No photos were allowed inside, so we've included artist William Allan's version of the events done two centuries later. But what we can do is show you the impressive front facade of the palace, plus the ruins next door of the monastery of the Holy Cross (Holyrood) that gave its name to the palace.
With so much Scottish history on the Royal Mile and particularly down at this end, it's no surprise that the Scots chose a location across the street from Holyroodhouse Palace for the Scottish Parliament Building. In 1997 a referendum authorized partial autonomy (called devolution) for Scotland and the re-creation of a Scottish parliament that had ceased to exist in 1707 when England and Scotland merged to become the United Kingdom.
It's an odd building from the outside. We did not go in so can't say whether or not it improves upon closer inspection. One architectural critic summed up its complexity as "quite a meal." It was a collaboration of Spanish and Scottish architects, and the Architectural Digest called it "a Celtic-Spanish cocktail to blow both minds and budgets [it went waaaaay over budget]; it doesn't play safe, energetically mining a new seam of National Romanticism refined and reinterpreted for the twenty-first century." On the other side, one British satirical magazine bestowed its "Worst Building of the Year" award upon it.
We broke up our week in Edinburgh with a trip to Stirling, 40 miles to the west. It's home to Stirling Castle, yet another fortress that has seen more than its share of history. As we walked up from the train station we stopped at Holy Rude Church. The child Mary Queen of Scots was pregnant with on that fateful day in 1566 was duly born a few month later. Then came the equally unfortunate events that ended Lord Darnley's life. Mary seemed unbothered by her spouse's demise, and soon after married a chap who was widely viewed as involved in the plot to blow up Darnley. All this was understandably not good for Mary's standing with the citizenry of Scotland. Mary was forced to abdicate (and once again flee for her life), and the 1-year-old son she had to leave behind was brought to this modest church and crowned as James VI, King of the Scots. Of course he didn't actually perform any kingly duties in his diapers, there was a regency run by four powerful earls to handle things for the next 17 years. As you can see from this view from the Stirling Castle walls, the church is conveniently right next door.
The main entrance to the castle is suitably intimidating. Once inside we wandered through a small complex of buildings that were pretty much James VI's entire world for the 17 years he was waiting to be a king in more than name only.
The views of the surroundings were no doubt as lush then as now, and not complicated by the gash of the M9 motorway. A bit to the left today are some fields where archaeologists and gardeners have teamed up to recreate at least the outlines of what once were royal gardens. Looking to the west, he could see the upper reaches of the valley of the River Forth. These are the Scottish Lowlands. Low, but not flat.
To see the Scottish Highlands, James only had to look north. On top of the nearby forested steep hill, an outpost perhaps of the real hills behind it, is a monument. This is relatively new, a mere 150 years old. It commemorates William Wallace, the Scottish hero depicted in the movie Braveheart. Midway between the camera and the Wallace Monument you can just make out a three-arch stone bridge. In 1297 an English army was crossing a wooden bridge at this spot when Wallace's smaller army attacked and defeated it in the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
The largest room in the castle, and for many years the largest in Scotland, was the Great Hall, where banquets, dances and pageants were held. To get an idea of what folks filling the hall might have looked like, one only has to look at some of the many wood and stone carvings around the castle.
But a visit today takes you back to the 1540s, with tour guides in period costume and the royal chambers recreated as well as possible to reflect that period. The Scottish kings have considered the unicorn as their symbol since the 1200s, and there were once tapestries of unicorns here, now lost to history. 15 years ago a group arranged to copy the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry series owned by the Cloisters Museum in New York, renowned as the most famous and among the best-preserved group of medieval tapestries in the world. The copy was completed in 2012 at the cost of £2 million! We've seen the originals, and the copy is equally impressive both from a distance and close-up.
Back in Edinburgh, it was time to climb to Arthur's Seat. Like the hill that Edinburgh Castle sits atop, it is the remnant of a volcano over 300 million years ago. The name might be a reference to King Arthur, but he was really an English, not Scottish, legend, and a likelier source is a corruption of words referring to arrows. No matter, it's a wonderful hike up to its 822 foot (250 m) top, and terribly popular.
Part way up, with the help of our telephoto lens, we caught a good view of Holyroodhouse Palace and of the monastery, now ruins, that the palace grew from. From the summit there were wonderful views in all directions, such as the three bridges over the Firth of Forth (2 road bridges with white towers and a railroad bridge with red superstructure) that were 13 miles away, or Edinburgh Castle just 2 miles distant.
Looking even further away you could see the small volcanic hill in North Berwick 20 miles away, but we also took a moment to look down for there at our feet was the very national flower of Scotland, the thistle.
Yes, eclectic is the name of the game here. Some other exhibits: A map showing where the chunk of land that makes up the better part of Scotland has been in the last 650 million years as tectonic plates have floated about the globe; a dramatic collection of early airplanes; and a rare example of an Apple 1 computer designed and sold by Steve Wozniak. The customer received a circuit board and found his or her own container for it, such as this briefcase, plus supplied his or her own keyboard and monitor!
And more. Next, a hobby horse, predecessor by about 50 years to the bicycle, owned by a Scottish nobleman. No pedals on these puppies. Then a very early Dunlop tire, the world's first practical pneumatic tire, developed by Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop. And finally there's that pair of spurs on a plate. They belonged to a border reiver named Wat o'Harden. "Border reiver" is a fancy term for a class of chronic thieves who crossed the border between England and Scotland to steal from the other side. When the larder got low in the o'Harden household, his wife served Wat a plate of his spurs. "Spurred" on, he knew "wat" to do, pardon the puns.
Nowhere near as chaotic was the National Gallery of Scotland, one of the country's major art museums. Indeed, it recently acquired what is arguably the Mona Lisa of Scotland, i.e. its most iconic painting, Monarch of the Glen. It was executed about 1851 by Englishman Sir Edwin Landseer on a visit to Scotland, where he did much of his painting. Thanks to its use in advertising in the past few decades, it has become widely known in the UK and elsewhere.
It wasn't another rainy day, but we did visit one other sight that was largely "indoors," but on a boat. And not just any boat. This was the Royal Yacht Britannia. It was a half-hour bus ride away, but we scored front-row seats on a double-decker bus and enjoyed a sometimes thrilling ride down the narrow streets of Edinburgh.
To give an overview of the boat there was a model -- out of Legos -- in the ticket lobby. Later on we also encountered a helpful drawing showing some of the more important cabins on the ship.
This was no weekend pleasure boat but a large ocean-going ship that could and did sail around the globe to New Zealand and Australia. During its service from 1953 to 1997 it sailed a million miles. On board for a major state visit would be the Queen and Prince Philip, of course, but also up to 40 palace staff and a ship's crew of about 200!
Of course everyone wants to see what the Queen's quarters looked like. During the day, she spent a lot of time at her office desk with her secretary and other close staffers. Her bedroom is nearby.
Prince Philip's sleeping quarters are similarly restrained, but obviously a tad more masculine in tone. Nearby is a guest room with the only bed on the ship that sleeps more than one, and it's only a double, not a queen-sized bed! Prince Charles and Diana used it for their honeymoon.
There were of course other places for the VIPs to hang out. There was a large deck astern where deck chairs were set out, and a cozy room that faced it looks utterly charming. Nautical charts on the walls were actually doors that concealed games and a phonograph player on one side of the room and and a large stash of liquor on the other. The seating was casual but refined, wouldn't you say?
The glassed-in area one deck up from that open deck was also once open. It was enclosed after the Britannia made its home here in Edinburgh and the ship's kitchen started serving lunch to commoners like us. It was quite a lunch. And quite an espresso.
As for the main guests, they could use the small dining room for little groups of 18 or so. But for a state dinner on board, they could handily seat 30 with all the elegance of Windsor or Buckingham Palace.
Of course they also needed a place to socialize in before or after dinner, and there was just the spot for that as well, complete with baby grand.
Alas, the crew did not have quite the same experiences. A room the size of a modest living room was the social club for the crew, outfitted nowadays by a friendly mannequin. The sleeping quarters of course were full of those twin beds, but a tad closer together. And for many, their days were spent in larger rooms than the Queen might have frequented, but not quieter.
It was indeed a most interesting tour, living up to its reputation as one of the main tourist destinations in Edinburgh. Unlike most tourists, however, we took advantage of the fact that we were now on the Firth of Forth to do a walk upstream along this large estuary for another 6 miles, to Cramond. Among the sights was an island that once bristled with guns. Its main function was to prevent German ships, especially submarines, from going a few miles further upstream to attack the naval shipyard at Rosyth or the neighboring Firth of Forth railway bridge. In the third photo, hikers are heading out to Cramond Island, right at the opening hour posted on the shore that limits, thanks to the tides, when one can safely walk to and from the island. To their right just beyond the dike-like mound is a row of piles driven into the water at the start of WW II. This was to keep submarines or small attack boats from trying to sneak up the Firth to reach Rosyth and the bridge. At Cramond we walked along the small Almond River past boats that will not be going anywhere for many hours, until the tide has finally turned.
Before leaving Edinburgh let's take you on one more stroll about town. Circling clockwise around the Castle we come to New Town, with its rectangular street pattern and large numbers of row houses built in the late 1700s and on into the early 1800s. Many have a service entrance in the basement and small rooms on the uppermost floor, where cooks, maids and butlers lived out their days, leaving the more spacious and accessible middle floors for their once-posh owners. Any of our readers remember Upstairs, Downstairs, where the London house was organized exactly so?
The streets are wide, perhaps to accommodate horses and carriages that once plied the streets. Today some have taken to accommodating parked cars, and looked perfectly tatty, to use a British word for it. The conversion of so many ground floors into small shops probably preceded this descent from gentility.
Besides the hills topped by Edinburgh Castle and Arthur's Seat, a third somewhat lower hill rises from the center of Edinburgh, Carlton Hill. Looking WNW from its summit you can see New Town to the far left and its 19th century neighbor Bonnington. In the foreground is the Omni Centre, which claims to be the place to find "fun, food, film and fitness facilities." In the far distance you can just make out the towers of the bridges 12 miles away. Turning a bit to the right, you look down at Edinburgh's port city of Leith. Hiding behind one of its taller buildings is the Royal Yacht Britannia. These are densely packed parts of the metropolis.
But just walk around to get a clear view from Carlton Hill to the east and southeast, and you are reminded just how wild and how close the escape to nature is when you walk past Holyroodhouse Palace and climb to Arthur's Seat.
Finally, looking WSW, you can see Castle Hill. The Royal Mile slowly ascends through that forest of stone structures, right up to the Castle door.
The tall, dark and pointy spire is Edinburgh Cathedral. As we headed back to our flat we walked past it. We missed our chance to peek in as there was a wedding about to begin, but that wasn't such a bad thing, as we gained some insight into what a stylish Scottish wedding party looks like.
We'll finish by descending once again down colorful Victoria Street, seen here from Victoria Terrace, and take a quick look at Greyfriars Bobby, one of the most-photographed spots in Edinburgh. The story is that the wee dog Bobby stood watch at the grave of his owner for 14 years, until his own death. The Greyfriars graveyard where Bobby stood watch is next door to the pub. There are some who question this story, but that has not stopped two films and a variety of novels and children's books from making Bobby one of the best-known dogs in British history. Only steps from this bronze version of faithful Bobby is Grassmarket, a lively square where our flat was located. Since our bedroom was in the back, it was actually a calm place to return to.
And "returning" is what we now turn to. We hopped a train to Glasgow and a plane to New York. We spent two nights so we could spend an afternoon and evening with Louise's brother Richard and take a walk in Central Park, only blocks from his apartment. It's New York, so of course his is a tall building but not one of the ones here. These don't rent, they sell. For prices with 8 and sometimes even 9 digits after the dollar sign.
Then we hopped a bus for the 4 1/2 hour ride to Ithaca NY to visit Louise's daughter Lisa and family. We watched our grandkids for the weekend while Lisa and Ray flew off to an out-of-town wedding, and got to see Issei play mah jong with a group of friends he made a few weeks ago. They come to a bakery each Saturday and spend a few hours nibbling and playing, and when eleven-year-old Issei showed quite some interest in their game, he found himself invited to join them. He's now become a regular. We also got to send them off to school Monday morning, and in the second shot our granddaughter Elise showed us what going to school looks like nowadays for a busy high school freshman.
When we decided to take Amtrak home from upstate New York, the three nights it would take seemed like a long stretch. So it was no stretch at all to come up with a way to break up the trip. We hopped off in Milwaukee, picked up a rental car, and spent two nights exploring Wisconsin. Part of that was spent doing some short hikes in Glacial Moraine State Park, but the main focus was a visit to the home of Jazz and Cordelia, the good friends who invited us to Vienna 5 years ago. That was the event that prompted our first bike trip to Europe and infected us with a Eurocentric travel bug we haven't gotten over yet.
For several years now, they have invited a foreign exchange student into their home for a year of high school. This year their additional family member is Shinichiro, their first boy and first Japanese student. Shinichiro brought a yukata as a house present for Zosia, complete with instructions written out by his mom in Japan, but they hadn't attempted a fitting yet. Well, knowing full well that Louise would know something about Japanese women's clothing, they got to work and in short order had Zosia looking quite spiffy. Even her brother Konrad thought she looked quite special. Then, spirited soul that she is, Zosia tried out some moves with her Japanese outfit. We didn't have the heart to tell her that young women in Japan don't exactly do those moves, particularly not when wearing a yukata.
Well, that's it for this year, folks. We're looking forward to yet another trip to Europe next summer, so long as our bodies make it through another winter OK. Thanks for following us in 2018!