Having gone twice to Scotland, one would think that I would have check it off my bucket list and moved on. But this place of history and tragedy; charmed with a touch of mystery and superstition keeps drawing me back. I simply cannot get enough. And if I dare to say, when I’m there, I feel like I’m right at home.
Upon my return to Scotland earlier this year, I could not resist the allure of returning to one of the most beautiful churches in Edinburgh, St. Giles Cathedral. It is a magnificent church that sits along the Royal Mile and entices locals and visitors alike. St Giles is part of the Church of Edinburgh and has a history that dates back almost 1000 years. When I walk in, I can’t help but be taken by the beauty and history that is within its walls. Like many of the old churches in Europe, there are lavish stained-glass windows and Mediaeval stonework that could take all day to look over. As a history buff, all I can say is that I was in heaven.
The church is filled with memorials and monuments that gets me wondering how many bodies are buried within its walls. But the most fascinating room for me was the Thistle Chapel. A small room on the corner of the church, the Thistle Chapel is one of the oldest rooms there. The room was created to honor the 16 Knights of the order of Chivalry and is still used today to honor those who have served or represented Scotland. When I toured the room, I was overtaken by the intricate wood carvings of the seats that line the circumference of the room. There is also one specific seat for Queen Elizabeth to conduct ceremonial duties. On the walls above the seats there are the crests of the current and prior honorable recipients. Once the crest is placed it cannot be removed. Unfortunately, someone didn’t get the memo and decided to steal one of the crests when no one was looking. Thanks to this incident, the room is now locked, and visitors can only enter at certain times with a guide. As the guide explained, the obvious missing crest is noted by the distinct fading wood coloration. I could only be hopeful that it wasn’t an American. It was that same feeling you get when someone is accusing your child of stealing gum from the candy stand. Not good. Walking away, I looked for my next stop.
The feeling was quickly dissolved when I realized that outside of the chapel there are two walls that listed the history of the monarchs dating back to the very first rulers of Scotland. I was intrigued by the list. However, I couldn’t help but be focused on the period of the 1700’s. Carefully studying the monarchs before and after Bonnie Prince Charles. I was reminded of the Battle of Culloden and how life in Scotland was changed from that brief battle that ended the Jacobite rising of 1746.
As I stepped outside the church, there was an overcast of clouds. The wind blew, and a mixture of snow and rain began to fall onto the crowded streets. I suddenly found myself with an urge for a dram of whiskey. Such a desire could easily be quenched by the many pubs and taverns found around the Royal Mile. But, I decided on a little adventure instead, so I walked over to the famous Maggie Dickson’s Pub on Grassmarket Street. The brisk walk was brief, but I knew that I was about to arrive at a place that had a grewsome history. This place would not only satisfy my thirst for warmth, but it would give me a chance to see the area that was once the setting for outdoor markets and public hangings.
Happy to be greeted by warmth, I ordered a second round, while reading about the famous Maggie Dickson. Convicted for killing her baby, she was hanged, but survived the execution by sheer luck. Because the law was not specific, she was able to walk away free without possibility of another conviction. I couldn’t help to think how strange it was to name a pub, an establishment that is the setting for happy drunks and celebrations, after a woman who killed her own child. It was then that I was reminded that the Scottish celebrate everything and anything that is Scottish. It is a culture that has survived uprisings, famine, and tyranny. Death is very much a part of their history and apparently it is embraced in every aspect of the culture.
Finally, able to feel my fingers, I decided to step outside and walk around the famous Grassmarket Street. In the distance, I could see a round disk that stood out from the cement and cobblestone around it. As I got closer, I realized it was the marker for the spot where so many public hangings had once been public entertainment. Entertainment. That is such a strange word to describe what happened to so many people who may or may have not be innocent of the crimes they were accused of. At least a hundred died there by historical accounts.
The experience left me a little numb, so I decided that while in Scotland, one should do what the Scottish do; step into the nearest pub and have another dram of whiskey. The day turned into evening, and suddenly I found myself singing songs and learning about the Rugby sport. It was an interesting lot of people. They explained to me the rules of rugby and I returned the favor and explained what I knew about American football, which was not very much, but it was good conversation by Scottish standards.
I have fond memories of that night. Probably one of the best nights I ever had as a lone traveler. It felt like I was back home with a group friends that I haven’t seen for a while. One thing is certain, the Scottish love their whiskey and they love conversation.
Rather than spending the evening at the local tavern, I walked down the Royal Mile and found a kiosk that offered a variety of city group tours. I had been intrigued by the Ghost Tour signs for the past few days, so I thought I would give it a try. I purchased a ticket and took my spot with the rest of the group. It was a cold and misty night. Typical weather for a night in Old Town Edinburgh, and the perfect setting for a ghost tour. From that point, it was a short walk to the famous Underground Vaults
As we walked down into the darkness, I felt an urge of excitement. I kept thinking what a perfect place for a ghost tour! Scotland is a place where ghosts and superstition are intertwined in its long history, and no doubt Edinburgh was the center of it. As I walked down into the abyss of darkness, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.
Standing in a room lit only by flashlights, our guide shared various stories of the history of this gloomy place. As I walked around to inspect one of the rooms, I felt a sudden chill hit my body. I didn’t know if it was the dampness of the room, the stories that were running through my mind, or a combination of them both. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was not alone in the room. Looking around, I desperately searched for a reason for my unrealistic thoughts. Feeling a rush of nervousness, I quickly walked back to my tour group hoping to find comfort, or at least a sense of safety among them.
It was then that our guide began to tell the story of a local worker and his encounter with a Banshee in the early 1900’s. Her presence, known only by the sound of her wailing into the night is said to be so fierce that people die from the sheer sound of it. Then suddenly he turned off the flashlight. It was summer camp all over again! At this point, any thought of fun was far from my mind. I was ready to leave. Although I kept telling myself what I was feeling was nothing short of my friendly tour guide doing a good job of getting the best of me, the thoughts in my head were making me anxious. I was ready to leave. But what had seemed to be an eternity, was suddenly over and we were headed back to the surface.
There was no doubt that the guide earned his money that night. After stepping out of the vaults, I felt a sense of relief that I had finally stepped back into reality and away from the fear my mind had tried to process as reality. As we gathered outside the entryway, I couldn’t help but notice there was a tavern across the street. I said my good-byes, gave Simon a generous tip, headed directly into the crowded establishment, and ordered a double shot of whiskey. I earned it.
The next day, looking out towards to skyline, there was a hill in the distance that towered over Edinburgh. I had been told repeatedly by the locals that the hill was a must do before returning home. Of course, the adventurous side of me was eager to see what the fuss was all about. I should have done my research before heading out to what could have been my last adventure. The feeling that I would die from missing a step in the slippery rock and narrow slopes of that hill worried me. In my mind, I would not leave that hill alive.
It is known as Arthur’s Seat and is one of the highest peaks around Edinburgh. It stands at 822 feet with an awesome panoramic view of the city. At a distance, the trail did not look so ominous. However, the closer I got to it, the more I realized I might have made a mistake. Dressed for the occasion, I didn’t let the weather discourage me. The day was cold with a mixture of light rain and snow, topped off by the peek a boo teasing of the sun throughout the day. I remember comparing Scotland’s weather to the weather in Texas. No doubt the weather had a mind of its own.
The climb was anything but easy. The terrain was unlike any other I had ever encountered, but I was determined to get to the top. However, the slopes began to get harder to climb and my energy, as well as my determination, were quickly diminishing. It didn’t help my self-esteem that there were dozens of people who whizzed on by like pros. Here I was, three months post knee scope surgery, out of shape, and gasping for air. What was I thinking! But, I was determined to get to the top despite losing my balance and nearly falling off the face of the earth. I clearly remember the terrain. The path was riddled with rocks and at times the boulders seem to block my efforts to get to the top of the hill. But somehow, I managed to get there without fail.
There was a moment of accomplishment at the top of that hill. I had actually climbed 822 feet and survived. Regaining my sense of direction, I found the view of the city as spectacular as the locals had said it would be. It was at that moment that every difficult step, every deep breath, and every negative word spoken under my breath was quickly replaced by the peaceful sound of nothing. I realized then why the locals loved this place so much. As you are standing 822 feet above the city, the distance brings a peace and calmness that many drive miles away from the city limits to find. For them, it’s just a climb away.
The experience of visiting Scotland is one of the most amazing trips I have ever done. The endless possibilities of activities, as well as the experience of just being there is simply awesome. Naturally, this trip could not be complete without spending the day shopping on the Royal Mile. For those who love shopping, the Royal Mile is a perfect place for any tourist. Nestled between the castle and the palace, there are countless shops that are a shopper’s dream. This activity alone would take me an entire day to rummage through. Imagine! Nearly one mile of shops that contain every type of textile imaginable. I found an assortment of plaid, or tartan as it is known in Scotland, as well as a vast amount of cashmere that had me debating if I should buy another suitcase just for the return trip home.
I saw more color combinations in plaid than I ever thought imaginable. There is even a history behind the color patterns and what it represents in the Scottish culture. As one of the ladies at a shop explained to me, the colors not only represent the regions, but more importantly, represent the clans living in those regions of Scotland. The natural dyes used were dependent of the area where they were found. So naturally, it came to represent the people who lived there. She also shared the fact that sheep outnumber people three to one. A fact that explains why just about every type of clothing is made up of wool. I myself purchased several articles of clothing made from it.
After a long day of shopping, I decided to break away from the flocks of tourists and find a quiet place to regain my sanity. I felt as if I had been in a marathon competing against a vast array of tourist looking for bargains. My feet, as well as my credit card, were worn out. The best tip I can give when visiting Scotland is to make sure you wear your comfortable shoes. The terrain, even in the city, can be brutal on your feet. The area is made of hills and ancient volcanic rock, making walking anything but effortless. It can be more like a hiking experience, especially when the terrain is cobblestone, steep stairwells, and steep slopes.
There are so many emotions that can be experienced when traveling to a country like Scotland. The feeling of walking through a castle or standing at the top of a hill while gazing down at the city can be exhilarating. The range of emotions that stir the imagination and ignite the passion for travel is priceless. Scotland was my first international trip four years ago. Since then, I have not only traveled there twice, but also to many other countries. It was that one experience of being surrounded by history and culture that inspired me to go out and absorb life. It is by far, the best thing I have ever done.