If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you’ve probably noticed that I’m in Scotland with my husband on holiday. It’s terrible timing, actually (we’re moving two weeks to the day we get back and needing to downsize considerably, among other reasons!), but it was set in stone quite awhile ago. Which, I suppose, means we needed it! So here we are, in the rain and the mist and the damp, enjoying a true vacation.
Rather than just the nifty shots I’ve been sharing on Instagram, I thought it would be fun to share a complete account of our adventures, if for no other reason than to make sure that others travelling to Edinburgh eat at our favorite restaurants, haha. So what follows is the first half of our Scotland week; prepare for castles and rain…
We arrived on Sunday morning to a damp drizzle – welcome to Scotland! Quite tired from our journey as we had not only jumped forward five hours but had hardly slept on the red-eye flights, we gratefully accepted a cup of tea from Mike’s parents at their rented flat just off the Royal Mile, which is the Times Square of Edinburgh – a long (quite touristy) stretch of road from the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, Holyrood Palace, at the bottom to the medieval Edinburgh Castle at the top. After a bit of time settling into the flat and exploring its adorable (if mostly unusable, due to the chill) rooftop terrace, we set out onto the Royal Mile to get an overview of Edinburgh.
Here’s the thing: Edinburgh may have lots of kitschy, tourist traps, but there is an amazing history backing it. In contrast, we New Yorkers were struck by how NYC feels like the Kim Kardashian of cities – famous for being famous. Also, for the record: I love touristy gift shops.
We meandered our way through the drizzle up towards the castle, getting a few shots of adorable pubs and bagpipers and the castle itself, before heading down to an area called Grassmarket below the castle, to have dinner at a pub with Mike’s parents. Naturally, I had fish and chips (not for the last time!) to inaugurate my Scotland visit.
Then that evening, we listened to (a.k.a., tried very hard not to fall asleep to) a stunning organ concert at St. Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile (below). Fatigue from essentially a sleepless two days set in, but we resisted strongly, as a.) it was an incredible concert, and b.) we knew that if we could just hang in there till normal bedtime in Edinburgh, then we could skip jetlag. Fortunately, some of the later pieces were quite powerful and literally woke us up! There’s something incredibly powerful about a live organ in a huge cathedral like that.
The next day, we slept in (QUITE late!) before heading to spend the entire morning at Edinburgh Castle. It was very atmospheric, aka rainy and foggy, which my husband Mike found absolutely delightful. (We have different tastes regarding weather.) The history at the castle, as with all the historical buildings around here, is storied and extensive, but it is summed up pretty easily with, “I want that castle.” It changed hands between Scotland and England frequently over its three or four hundred-year active use, and then it became the collection of partially preserved buildings it is today.
The great hall was beautifully restored at some point (and is frequently used for official functions – I can so see Kate and William walking around a party there!) and has the most amazing woodworking and ceiling beams. It gives you just a small taste of how grand all these buildings were in their heydays.
Also, I must recommend both the castle’s café and gift shop. The café had the most delicious scone (with clotted cream and jam!), perfect for a morning snack and with a stunning view out to the Firth of Forth, and the gift shop had a wonderful, if slightly overpriced, selection of Scottish gifts, from gorgeous scarves to mead (for the husband) and jewelry.
We then went to the National Museum of Scotland for a couple hours, grabbing an in-depth look at their “Scotland through the Ages” exhibit, which was very entertaining and highly informative. The most impacting section was the one with the full-size steam-powered machine for a textile factory that took up over two stories, but I completely forgot to take pictures at the museum, so you’ll have to visit to experience it. Heading home in the rain, we picked up dinner and had a quiet evening in, watching the classic British TV show “Keeping Up Appearances” and British reality shows, including the delightfully satisfying “The Hotel Inspector” – essentially Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares” (the superior UK version), but for hotels in the UK.
Tuesday was one of my favorite days. We took the train out to Linlithgow (which I cannot say without thinking of John Lithgow’s face) to see Linlithgow Palace, one of the most well-preserved edifices we saw here in Scotland. I confess to walking up the road to the Palace and thinking, “More ruins? Won’t this be the same as yesterday?” Oh, how wrong I was.
First of all, this was a palace, rather than a castle, so its emphasis was daily life, rather than military defense. And it was remarkably well-preserved. Best of all, there were numerous artist’s illustrations of what the rooms would have looked like in their prime. It really transported us to stand on the stones and imagine, with the help of a drawing, what we would have been surrounded by 800 years ago or so.
By far the most amazing part was the view. Brilliantly situated on the natural loch (lake) nearby, its views were idyllic and breathtaking in every direction. And the sun started to come out for us! Which definitely helped cut through the chill and give the palace a little more life.
For lunch, Mike and I strolled into the town, a minute down the hill, and chose The Four Marys Pub for lunch. Mike kept it real with fish and chips, while I opted for mac-and-cheese with leeks and bacon on top. Very hearty, warming pub fare, in the cutest little pub we’ve visited yet. I mean, we sat next to the working fireplace, for heaven’s sake! Surrounded by soothing Scottish accents of the lunchers around us. It was delightful.
And then, as we stepped outside into the chill and the returning drizzle, we discovered exactly why Britain loves its pub fare. For with our comfort-food lunch still steaming in our tummies, we felt warm and fortified against the weather, eager to explore the next castle. Lightbulb!
Our next stop was Blackness Castle nearby. This was essentially a prison, though it had a small castle on the same grounds. There were both nice prison quarters (much lovelier than most New York apartments, I must say) and despicable ones – including literally a pit, accessible only by trapdoor and partially flooded twice daily by the tide, for the lowest status prisoners. Later, much of the residence was used for billeting solidiers, so the great hall and accompanying rooms were kept in fantastic shape, complete with clean wood floors. I have to say, the smell was lovely – a cross between wood smoke and damp stone, like my dad’s workshop growing up. And the great hall was gorgeous! In a moment of silliness, I sang the vocalise from Sleeping Beauty there – it just seemed necessary.
However, it was cold. I was getting better about dressing for the weather (with my wardrobe and cold threshold, apparently no less than four layers would do), but the wind was super biting, the frequent sunlight notwithstanding. I was more than happy to head back to our flat and warm up.
I should mention that both Linlithgow and Blackness were chosen in part because they were locations used for the Outlander series, which is a book series I devoured and cannot evangelize enough (SO GOOD!) set in Scotland. So part of being here is very much reliving that wonderful book series and putting visuals to what were just imagined places in my head. I’m gonna have to reread the entire series as soon as we get home – but I’ve already started stealing brief moments from the first book when my husband puts it down. (He’s just started it but reads very, very slowly, so it’s an exercise in patience.)
Having been warned that the rest of the week forecast nothing but rain, we were delighted to wake up on Wednesday to sunshine! It inspired us to revise our plans and head up Arthur’s Seat that morning, since we weren’t sure we’d get another chance.
Arthur’s Seat is the volcanic rock bluff overlooking the city of Edinburgh. It’s gorgeous and dramatic and covered with hiking trails, but we opted for the singular route direct to the top, given the chancy sunshine and our other plans for the day. It was quite a hike, even for me. Granted, it was slightly muddy and incredibly windy, and we did take a short detour to the ruins of a chapel, but the views were tremendous. I actually didn’t take photos at the very top, because it was rather like Christmas at the mall (so many people!) and the wind was crazy AND it began to rain/hail, but you get the idea. If I lived here, I’d hike around there all the time!
Afterwards, we headed to Holyrood Palace at the bottom of the park. As I mentioned, it’s the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen in Scotland, and the audio tour gave us a clear picture of how many official duties and functions she has to endure…every single summer. I mean, really, how many times must one be given the keys to the city? That’s one part of the monarchy I don’t quite get out here, but it’s all so pretty, that I, as an ignorant American tourist, will just appreciate it and keep my mouth shut. 🙂
The history of the palace has many gruesome moments, including the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots’ favorite advisor in the middle of dinner in her bedroom, and the destruction of numerous paintings by Cromwell’s troops in the 17th century – you can still see the slashes in places, despite the restoration. It was fascinating, a very recommended tourist stop if you’re visiting, as are the abbey ruins next door.
By the time it finished, however, we were starving! We opted to eat at a pub about halfway up the Royal Mile called “The World’s End.” Another excellent fish and chips for Mike and an out-of-this-world Cullen Skink for me. What, you might ask, is Cullen Skink? It’s smoked haddock chowder, and it is pretty much the most satisfying, flavorful soup you could ever have. I am so going to try to make this when I get home, despite how difficult it appears it will be to find smoked haddock in the States. It is actually a really simple soup (just potatoes, onions, and some cream, along with the smoked haddock), so it would be a lovely addition to our rotation of fall/winter comfort food staples.
That afternoon, we just walked around Edinburgh, trying the infamous Deep Fried Mars Bar (worth it – but I really only need to have one in my lifetime) and checking out lots of little shops (a.k.a. avoiding the rain). We also saw a few things we wanted to check out the next day, but I’ll have to leave that for you to discover in my next post…Edinburgh Part II!