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Travel Stories: Edinburgh

Posted by in Travel Journals


(I traveled to Scotland in the Winter of 2015, this is what I saw.)

1:54 PM MCO 12/16

To say I’m late to the airport would be accurate, but would imply a set of facts I’d disagree with.

The first is that I’m worried.

The second is that my lateness is the result of poor planning or circumstance.

Neither of these is true, I am late because I planned to be very early and consumed every moment of that buffer doing things I knew would put me behind.

I’m not “late,” what I am is deeply on time. On time to the point where any further delays could result in me missing my flight.

Fortunately, my years of travel have taught me to be prepared for just these eventualities, and I’m already half naked.

2:11 PM MCO, Screening 12/16

TSA Pre is amazing, except when you don’t get it.

I didn’t get it.

So for now I wait, and hope that none of the minor human miseries of the airport, delay this process any further.

On the bright side, the only things between me and Scotland are a screaming baby, 200 warm bodies and the Atlantic Ocean.

T minus one hour until the gates close.

2:19 PM MCO 12/16

There is an animated Santa flying across the gate sign, which I think is meant to be cheerful, but only serves to remind us that it’s nearly 80 degrees out, and any hope of a reprieve is hiding behind a few hundred ordinary, human lives.

2:45 PM MCO, Tram 12/16

Did it!

2:51 PM MCO, Group 5 12/16

A fascinating tale of sorority fears is unfolding in front of me. Traveling to a new school, learning where you fit in, Instagram stalking, going out, Barbie dolls and stereotyping.

There is a fascinating CW series in here somewhere.

Revise: I was being pat, there is something interesting happening here, I just don’t have the software to process it.

I hope this girl gets what she’s looking for, and I hope what she’s looking for gets her.

2:56 PM MCO 12/16

I’m off to Scotland where I expect to find ghosts, castles and rain, preferably in that order.

But first Newark, where I expect to find … New Jersey.

3:22 PM MCO, United 12/16

Protip – When boarding late, put your carry on in the first available bin, even if it’s a few dozen rows ahead of you. When the bins fill up and people are milling around wondering whether they’ll need to throw their socks off the plane for weight, you’ll thank me.

6:20 PM EWR, 12/16

If there is one really nice thing about the Newark airport it’s that he feels believably like the Christmas season here.

Jackets, hats and pitch black by 5PM. I couldn’t be happier.

Revise: I love visiting Winter. It’s a nice change of place when you live in a place with only one and a half seasons. I’m pretty sure actually *living* in Winter would get old pretty quickly.

8:28 PM 30,000 ft 12/16

I always wonder who the temperature on planes is meant to be comfortable for. We are in a box 30,000 in the air, where the ambient temperature is -47 degrees. Odds are cold air isn’t what most people are looking for.

The nice Scottish family to my right are having headphone troubles, which on a 6 hour flight without other clear sources of entertainment, can tend to balloon rapidly. I can only hope things work out.

1:20 AM 30,000 12/17

The flight map is broken, which is one of the most flatly disorienting things I’ve ever experienced on a plane, especially since I’ve been passing in and out of consciousness regularly for the last two hours.

I could be anywhere between 15 minutes and two hours away from landing.

Here is a question, since I’m getting into Scotland at 7AM, will my hotel room be ready? Something to think about.

8:10 AM Edinburgh, Black Cab 12/17

Edinburgh is lovely, in the subtle pervasive way that turns grey and fog into a feature rather than a liability.

Low stone walls and gnarled, knobby trees line the road, giving the bumper to bumper traffic a sense of rustic character that highway traffic sorely lacks.

Most interestingly for me, everyone speaks better English, which is how I will refer to the lilting Scottish brogue that runs like Whiskey through the native’s speech.

I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do when I make it to my hotel 7 hours before checkin, and I wish I had some kitschy Gaelic phrase to explain it to me.

Fun facts – Black cabs take credit cards.

9:04 AM The Dunstane 12/17

The Dunstane is baldly and unashamedly charming, with the high roofs and tiny rooms to match its Old World elegance.

They also have a surprisingly loose policy on check in times. Instead of having to spend my morning as some kind of cyber hobo in their gorgeous lobby, I was lead right up to my room.

12:36 PM W Coates 12/17

Planning. Check.

Nap. Check.

Now off to Edinburgh Castle.

1:02 PM Castle Wynd South 12/17

A surprising number of pizza places, including Mama’s Traditional American style pizzeria.

Revise: no seriously, the love of pizza is intense here. I’ve passed at least a half dozen pizza places in a quarter mile.

1:16 PM Edinburgh Castle 12/17

Getting to a Castle is surprisingly difficult, but what a gorgeous view.

1:25 PM Edinburgh Castle 12/17

It’s funny to think that cannon emplacements are probably the best places to find stunning views.

That which you want to see, you may someday fire a hundred pound iron ball at.

2:01 PM Edinburgh Castle 12/17

The castle served as a prison for many years, during the War of American Independence and the Nepolenic Wars among others.

Hard to get into, hard to get out of.

2:16 PM Edinburgh Castle, Great Hall 12/17

A brilliant great hall was built in 1503, turned into a barracks by Oliver Cromwell and restored in 1887.

It reminds me of nothing more clearly than the fact that people were tiny, oh so tiny a few centuries previous.

2:23 PM Edinburgh Castle 12/17

During WW2 the Scottish Crown was his away for safe keeping beneath the medieval toilets next to David’s Tower.

This history of Scotland resemble nothing more clearly than Game of Thrones, for reasons that are both obvious and still interesting.

The Stone of Destiny was a thing, the Brits stole it, which might be the saddest story ever told. 1292 (John Balliol)

2:58 PM Edinburgh Castle 12/17

The sword, the scepter and the crown. The Scottish Royal jewels are worth every second of the walk.

The scots even name their stairs. This is a magical place.

3:15 PM Scottish National Museum 12/17

The Scottish National Museum is free (a first for me in Europe), funded by the National Heritage Lottery. Thank you gamblers of this great land for your service.

4:26 PM Near Waverly 12/17

Santas are on the March. I’m off the the portrait gallery.

8:24 PM Royal Mile 12/17

I’m waiting for a murder tour and might just be able to catch the lighting of the Royal mile — sponsored by Virgin Money.

Luck be a ghost tour, tonight.

That being said, it might be a touch difficult to sort the tour folks from the rolling mass of Christmas cheerers, let’s see how this turns out.

Revise: Either I missed them or they missed me, neither would surprise me at this point. But seeing as I came out here to see ghosts, I handed ten pounds to the nearest person in white makeup and now I’m going to explore some vaults. The should be a hoot.

7:40 PM Vaults Below Royal Mile 12/17

On the way to see a vault where children were farmer I passed a church of Scientology. They were offering personality tests for free!
These concepts aren’t related.
You can keep a cannibal in your basement, as long as you keep him chained to a wall. That’s a law here. Yup.

Ghost. Check.

7:27 AM Dunstane 12/18

Mornings are hard. Off to the Highlands…maybe.

8:31 AM Bus 12/18

Scotland wants me to miss my tours, but with a bit of data and a tactical phone call I made it from the odd, empty alley I had wandered down to the tour bus.

Almost the wrong one…

I’m not sure where the bus full of Chinese tourist would have taken me, but it wouldn’t be Sterling and Dundain.

My bus has 5 people, two from China, two from Sydney and little old me.

Fun facts

1. Edinburgh was built up, because the wall forced them too.

Unfortunately the top levels were made of wood, which led to a wee fire that charred the old city.

2. Edinburgh’s nickname was Auld Ricky “old smelly”

3. They use to tax Windows.

4. One of the first countries with universal education, 75% were literate in the 1700s.

5. 1 in 4 are privately educated.

8:41 am new city 12/18

Edinburgh is quite possibly the most consistently pretty cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to be in.

8:52 am ferry road 12/18

Fun facts

1. Queen Margaret brought Roman Christianity to Scotland, and setup a ferry service to help pilgrims. 11th century.

Added buttons to suit sleeves to keep scots from wiping their faces.

2. Scotland has 5 million people, Edinburgh 500,000. Explains a lot.

3. The highlands are basically infertile. All crops are grown lowlands.

4. They’re building two aircraft carriers, one will be immediately mothballed and the other cant afford planes. Tax dollars at work.

9:09 am outside of Edinburgh 12/18

The Scots love Scotland in a way I find deeply charming. Except for taxes, they aren’t big fans of those.

Revise: Al (our tour guide), let me know that Scots just really don’t like taxes, something about tea parties and representation.

9:29 road to sterling 12/18

1. William Wallace was the second son of a noble, man at arms, probably would have gone into the church.

2. Wallace was a low lander, wouldn’t have worn a kilt because they didn’t exist in the 12th-13th century.

3. Wouldn’t have painted himself blue (piktie).

4. Wallace was 6″6′ maybe taller.

5. Scotland ran out of direct line of nobility, 13 nobles were in contention for the throne, Edward king of England was called to arbitrate. He wanted the Scottish nobles to pledge fealty. Eventually they agreed. Edward does some unpleasant stuff.

6. Edward ceased the castles, marched in armies. Edward picks John Bailel to be king of scots, a puppet King.

7. 1294 Edward asks for a Scottish army to take France, Scotland denies him.

9:55 am sterling castle 12/18

The key to Scotland.

10:03 am road to Doune 12/18

Scotland is just peppered with fairytale villages.

Fun fact

Doune castle was in Monty Python and the pilot episode of Game of Thrones.

10:27 AM Doune Castle 12/18

Castles were not built for people who are 6’4″

So far two near concussions.

11:07 AM away from Doune 12/18

73% of older scots voted to stay with UK, 71% of 16-17 voted for independence.

Scotland was promised more power if they voted “no”. Didn’t happen.

Highlands of Scotland are the same mountain ranges as Appalachians.

When you think of the cultural touchstones of Scotland (tartans, bagpipes et al) you are thinking of the highlands.

Callander, a small town, became a Victorian tourist trap when Victoria and Albert decided to visit and wrote about their experiences.

11:20 am highland boundary fault line 12/18

Black mail has its origin in Scotland, Rob Roy had a highland cattle protection racket, which he was quite successful at.

11:34 am Loch Lubnaig 12/18

What’s the difference between a Loch and a Lake? Language. That and Loch sounds cooler and sometimes have ancient sea beasts.

The highlands look uncannily like the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s sort of amazing.

“Scots have been brought up on a diet of oatmeal, that’s why we’re so healthy… And regular. ” — guide

12:15 PM road to Inverness 12/18

I’m super sleepy.

12:58 PM road to Inverness 12/18

Rain. Check.

The highlands are this odd combination of Appalachian mountain ranges and marsh. The damp cuts to its roots and seems as much a part of it as the grey of the sky and the green of the Earth.

It’s also hypnotizing, and combined with the jet lag left me half asleep for the story of the Jacobites and Stewart Kings of Scotland — which I think is some kind of tragedy.

Inveraray not Inverness. Words are hard.

Scotland has a “right to roam”, so you can hang out on someone’s land for 24 hours as long as you leave it as you found it.

2:32 pm inveraray 12/18

Had lunch with a lovely Australian couple. We talked about healthcare, gun control, and ghosts. It was stellar, and my ambassadorship to the US holds strong.

Pro tip (and I’ve heard this before) – Apparently it’s cheaper for Australians go vacation in other countries (Bali, Thailand), than it is for them to go to their own vacation spots.

They also have a reality television show (Embassy) about when they need to call the Australian embassy to work out the trouble they’ve gotten themselves into.

Revise: their names are Jason and Marob.

Fun fact -

Australian Barristers (who are different than solicitors) wear powdered wigs during trials.

2:56 pm road to Edinburgh 12/18

Sheep for three miles.

3:50 pm road to Edinburgh 12/18

1. Wallace is on a fishing trip, British soldiers ask for taxes or a fish. He offers them one, they want both, salmon fight breaks out and British soldiers end up decapitated.

4:17 pm road to Edinburgh 12/18

“You can’t walk through Scotland without tripping over a head.” -Al

William Wallace might have been a longbow man.

5:23 pm road to Edinburgh 12/18

In and out of consciousness.

Reminder: don’t step on the heart of Lothian.

7:00 PM The Dunstane, restaurant 12/18

I’m still working up the courage to try the Haggis. How does one know whether one likes something stuffed into an animals digestive track?

8:20 am Rabbies Cafe 12/19

Off to learn a little bit about Roman Scotland, apparently only one other person is making this trek with me — which is just about perfect.

Not only do I get an impromptu private jaunt, but the weather is holding up beautifully — grey rather thank wet — which for this time of the year is basically tropical.

8:48 road through Midlothian 12/19

Fun facts

1. Has some of the highest concentration of MS patients.

Ally has more energy than any your guide I’ve ever met.

The other person on the tour is from Perth western Australian, originally from Glasgow.

Maggie Thatcher joke. Broken noses. Authors. Coal mines. 25k pound hand bags.

9:03 am east Lothian 12/19

I feel like I’m in middle earth, if middle earth had wind turbines.

The only problem with having a fun tour guide is that you’re notes end up looking like a jazz riff, I think I’m just going to embrace it.

Salters road, rolling hills, green and brown under a canopy of grey blues. Sheep dyed blue and pink.

2. Scotland is powered 35% by renewables, the hope is to be 100% by 2020.

3. Apparently using your middle finger as a pointer finger is a thing here. Pro tip.

9:14 am road through Midlothian 12/19

Thomas the Rhymer.

Predicted the future, had a fairy lover. Cool dude.

9:39 am nearing Scottish border (Jedburgh) 12/19

Ally is part stand up, part radio DJ, part political commentator. Truly wasted here.

Now Listening: traces by Corrine pulsworth (?)

10:20 AM Abby of Jedburgh 12/19

I’m becoming a big fan of audio tours.

10:32 AM outside the Abby 12/19

Jedburgh Justice – hang first try later.

Sue is the other person on the bus with me — a hard cursing, hard smoking spitfire of a Western Aussie. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but between her and Ally, it’s bound to be interesting.

10:57 am English Border (north Cumberland) 12/19

I think I just survived a hurricane. Or a double hurricane or whatever it’s called when a 200 pound guy is almost blown across the plains Dorothy-style.

11:19 am road to Hadrian wall 12/19

If you ever see a marked sheep in Scotland, it’s pregnant. Say congrats.
Green for triplets, blue for twins, red for singlets.
It could also mean they’ve been vaccinated, but they’re probably preggers.

Ally is doing voices now. Purely brilliant.

Now Playing: Lanterns on the Lake, Lungs Quicken.

Sue is so damned Australian. Like fake Australian as if she were an actress sent from a secret government agency to teach me about Australia through the power of brilliant dramatization.

11:31 am North Cumberland 12/19

Over the hills and through the woods to Hadrian’s wall we go.

3:42 PM road to Edinburgh 12/19

Lessons for the day

1. Vindolanda is one of the more interesting collections of Roman “things” I’ve ever run across.

2. Northern British mud is slippery.

3. When you have two sprained wrists, trying to brace yourself after falling on Northern British mud is a lost cause.

4. The Romans really loved importing stuff for their dread fortresses — France, Mediterranean just about everywhere.

5. Number try to jump a fence when you have two sprained wrists, when if the fence is locked, especially if you can see the latch and easily open it.

7:41 PM The Dunstane 12/19

The Dunstane is busy tonight. A Christmas party? Discussion of accent confusion, present exchange, merry making and Christmas cheer.

In any corner of the room, couple enjoy quiet meals — behind the bar, subdued Christmas music plays — rather than the Frank Sinatra that filled the room the last few nights.

As for me. I’m about to try Haggis. Wish me well.

Revise: Haggis is pretty great. While I am fairly certain I got a particularly upmarket version of the dish, it was absolutely lovely and was honestly one of the tastiest things I’ve had here.

11:05 am The Dunstane 12/20

Of course for my last morning in Edinburgh the sun decides to make its appearance. A wily devil that one.

Now to spend the next day or so sitting in airports. Fortunately, I’m mostly charged and I’m sure I’ll find at least one plug between here an Newark.

11:17 AM Taxi to Airport 12/20

I can go Edinburgh to find Castles, rain and ghosts. I found all three and also discovered that Scotland is an amazing, beautiful place.

No matter what I was doing, where I was going, Edinburgh just felt right. If I had another week here I couldn’t begin to scratch the surface of what the place has to offer.

I love it so much that it has reduced me to travel speak and empty platitudes.

What I can say for sure is this — there are a vanishingly small number of places I’ve visited that I would consider living in (Tokyo, Montreal to name two more) and Edinburgh is one of them. It’s warm, inviting, hip and a little bit weird.

Scotland I will miss thee.

(Insert Gaelic Phrase I will likely not look up)

4:44 pm Edinburgh Airport 12/20

Apparently Aer Lingus doesn’t open their gates until two hours before flights, which means it’s another hour of listening to Tom Waits, drinking hot chocolate, and reading Ready Player One for me.

Life is tough.

9:43 Pm Dublin Airport 12/20

The one nice thing about a 12 hour layover is that you get to catch up on your reading. Just finished Ready Player One, now onto the next.

7:27 AM Dublin Airport 12/20

Finished A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, would recommend. Next on the agenda, Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone.

Protip: The Dublin Airport is quite an ordeal. They did a passport pre-check before checkin, regular security, and then a US Customs pre-clearance — now the door leading to my gate is closed until further notice.

They really, really want to keep passengers wrangled.

Arrive early. The night before if possible.