Scotland: flights home

The last day of our trip on Friday was AWFUL.

Left Aberfeldy at 7am.

Just Andrew and I, luckily, so one else could make us late.

I had a sore throat and the beginnings of a head cold.

We returned the rental car (after missing the airport off-ramp because we were driving INTO the sunrise).

We checked in at our ticket counter and were informed our plane had been rescheduled for an hour later (which they didn’t tell us when we checked in online the night before).

Except it wasn’t an hour … it was closer to 2 hours.

So long, in fact, that we had time to get me sore-throat lozenges… plus lunch… plus went and found the rest of my family who left 2 hours after us and whose plane took off before ours.

So that’s awesome.

Flight to Newark and my head cold in earnest (so I start hoarding napkins, Kleenex and paper towels)

Land in Newark at 4:15p – our connecting flight is at 430p! Ha!

We still have to get our luggage and go through customs… Which wasn’t terrible but they were understaffed.

Finally go wait in line so Continental can get us on another flight.

Woman in front of us throws a temper tantrum.

Get up to the counter, informed we were rescheduled for a 5:30 flight but we missed that too…

So we get put on a 7:30 flight. Same as the temper tantrum lady, actually.

So we got some more airport food … And Andrew’s head cold is now coming on.

About 30 minutes before we are supposed to board they change gates. Awesome.

PLUS all this time (at Newark) it is raining and thundering… so more flights are canceled or delayed so the airport is getting CROWDED …

And Andrew and I are both sniffling like crazy.

We finally board about 8:30p … and then don’t take off til 9:30p or so.

With both Andrew and I sick and awake now for almost 24 hours.

We both slept a bit on the plane to LAX, finally landing, getting luggage, getting picked  up and getting home around 1a.

26+ hours after we stared.

And then Andrew had to work the next day.

I still can’t wait to go back :)

Do you have any horrendous travel stories?

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Scotland: St. Andrews part 2

Once we had walked all through the Cathedral and gravestones, Dad wanted to visit St. Andrew’s Castle site before it closed so they did that…. While the 4 ‘kids’ walked way out the long pier just behind the Cathedral near East Sands beach …

So gorgeous to see St. Andrews from that direction …

For his souvenir, Andrew wanted whisky! We found a liquor store (though I’m sure that’s not what they call it)… and Andrew picked out a bottle of Edradour (the distillery he visited in Pitlochry) …. So fun.

Our parking pass was up at 5p … so we stopped by and got Andrew’s whiskey and went to meet Mom and Dad by the car.

Of course, once we got there we noticed that parking is free after 5p, so we could have stayed “out” without worrying – but no matter.

We were all getting hungry, the big sites were closing, and Andrew and I had to leave early to catch our flight the next morning … .

But first – dinner.

Being in a college town there were all kinds of pubs. Everywhere, practically. We had passed by one – The Central – with a photo of some delicious-looking bangers and mash advertised outside … so obviously we had to go there!

Dinner was … interesting.

  • The bartender was not super polite
  • But, some nice man gave up his seat so all 6 of us could sit together (and then disappeared so we couldn’t buy him a drink)
  • Both Kevin and Chelsea ordered meals that the pub was out of and had to change their order

But my bangers and mash were quite good! I wasn’t able to finish it… but I was also coming down with a cold, so no one else wanted to share it either …

Not much left to the trip … drove home. Finished packing. Earlyish bed.

Thursday night Kevin, Andrew and Chelsea walked down to town to the pub at the Blackwatch Inn for drinks and darts.

I had to bully my dad into reading in his bedroom so I could go to sleep, though.

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From Andrew:

Our last night in Aberfeldy, Kevin, Chelsea and I walked down the road for one last night of drinks and darts to the Blackwatch Inn.

We got a small table right next to the entrance and immediately got a few pints and began talking with a young Irishman. He had been living and working in Aberfeldy for a year or so and was asking us how we liked the trip and Scotland and if we planned to go to Ireland at all. He gave Kevin and Chelsea some recommendations for Ireland and we talked off and on with him for an hour or so.

photo by Chelsea

It was warm and dark in the bar, a perfect complement to the cold drinks. We got a few games of darts in, it was fun playing with 3 people.

The pub is such a good place to relax and enjoy the company of close friends or family. Such a welcoming environment. It was a great way for me to end my Scotland journey.

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All that’s left now is to go home! SO sad!

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Scotland: St. Andrews part 1

When we got to St. Andrews we parked on North Street, about across the street from St. Salvador’s Chapel – and Butts Wynd.

We separated – Mom and Dad to the golf course to buy something for Grandpa, and the other 4 of us to find St. Andrews College so I could get a hoodie.

We passed “Butts Wynd” a street very unfortunately named ….

… and of course the first thing Kevin does is write a song about it …. Kind of early 90s pop-ballad song, all with varying lyrics ending in ‘butt’s wind” … obviously.

We walked down to the Museum of St. Andrews which is cute and small-ish but still interesting.

Among other things – they had a plaque commemorating a visit form Prince William and Catherine Middleton (a month or 2 before they were married) and a seal-press with scratch paper to emboss/press/whatever its called your own seal.

I had to ask the employees there where the bookstore was (so I could get my sweatshirt) and we backtracked all the way to Market Street …

For whatever reason, we always put off picking out souvenirs.

By our last day in Scotland – at St. Andrews  – I had despaired of finding a fun Scotland ornament to take back.

I do, however, love university and college hoodies. So being at the oldest university in Scotland was the perfect place for me to pick out a souvenir.

I am now the proud owner of a purple St. Andrews University hooded sweatshirt … and Andrew picked out a St. Andrews coffee mug to take home.

The plan was to meet Mom ad Dad at St. Andrews Castle at 3p. When we got there, though, we decided to go on to the Cathedral instead. There was only a couple hours left before both sites closed – and we had already seen 3 castles in 3 days on the trip.

On to the Cathedral … and the rain still held off a bit….

 

The Cathedral is now only ruins – walls and spires picked clean by centuries of scavengers – surrounded by a still-in-use graveyard…. And a climbable tower.

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From Rick Steves:

It was the relics of the Apostle Andrew that first put this town on the map and gave it its name. There are numerous legends associated with the relics. According to one of these (likely untrue) in the 4th century, St. Rule was directed in a dream to bring the relics northward from Constantinople. When the ship wrecked off shore from here, it was clear that this was a sacred place. Andrew’s bones (an upper arm, a kneecap, some fingers and a tooth) were kept on this site and starting in 1160, the cathedral was built and pilgrims began to arrive. Since St. Andrews had a direct connection to Jesus, his relics were believed to posses special properties, making them worthy of pilgrimages on par with St. James’ relics in Santiago de Compestela, Spain (of Camino de Santiago fame). St. Andrew became Scotland’s patron saint; in fact, the white “X” on the blue Scottish flag evokes the diagonal cross on which St. Andrew was crucified (he chose this type of cross because he felt unworthy to die as Jesus had).

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We walked down the small road to the end of the town where St. Andrews Cathedral ruins are….

There is a big stone wall all around the property – still standing – including entrance gates.

There are partial walls (mostly just foundations of walls) of the Cathedral so you can roughly see the layout of how the Cathedral used to be …. But grass is completely grown in… There is one spot where a large stone step still remains where the altar used to be … but otherwise its all grass

… and seagulls. Very strange to see 2 seagulls nesting on top of an ancient stone pile that used to be the wall of one of the most important Cathedrals in Europe.

Bizarre.

There is a climbable tower … and an unclimbable tower….

… and everywhere you look are gravestones.

The graveyard is MUCH more recent than the Cathedral… how bizarre to choose to be buried near the ruins of a Cathedral. I think I saw headstones from as late as the 1980s!

I wish we could have taken some kind of guided tour here… I did the best I could with the Rick Steves book. But I’m sure there is a lot more to learn about.

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From Andrew:

While we were at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Kevin, Chelsea and I decided to climb to the top of St. Rule’s Tower, located in the center of the cathedral grounds. Admission to the tower was free with the passes Terry purchased for us, we simply had to retrieve a token to get through the gates.

Once inside, we climbed the 155 stone steps to the top of the tower and were rewarded with a gorgeous view of St. Andrew’s and the sea. The tower is a remnant of the Church of St. Regulus which dates to the 12th century. St. Andrew’s Cathedral was built over these grounds over a period of a century in the late part of the 12th century.

After about 15 minutes atop the tower, the three of us began our descent in order to feed the parking meters. However, just as we got halfway down the extremely narrow stone staircase, a lare group of maybe 40-50 tourists began their ascent. None of them appeared to speak English or to care to let us by at all. We were trapped for about 10 minutes while tourist after tourist shoved by us. It was hilarious. I don’t know how they all fit at the top of the tower’s platform.

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(Just a few hours left of Scotland…. so sad)

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Scotland: East Neuk

Once Mom had gotten her St. Andrew’s sand, we jointly decided to get back in the car, drive south to the little East Neuk fishing villages and find the fish and chips place both Rick Steves and a friend of my mom’s had recommended – the Anstruther Fish Bar.

Of course, we followed Kevin’s GPS driving … and it (again) took us off what appeared to be the main route through ANOTHER 1-lane “road” through a field. And this time we DID run into another driver coming straight toward us.

I have no idea what the protocol is, but she had a tiny pull-out – so she pulled off to the side, partway into the field, to let us pass.

Yes, I DO mean a 1-lane road.

After that, we found our way to the road the Anstruther Fish Bar was on, but couldn’t find the building. I don’t know what the GPS was telling him, but Kevin led our car first north a mile or so, then south … all along the same small road. Yes we had found Anstruther – and it was, in fact, a TINY fishing village. We had found the road it was supposed to be on, and we even had the address…

… but, bizarrely, the buildings on either side did not appear to be in any kind of numerical order …. 36…. 47…. 25…. 19…. ??

And, believe me… it’s not as though we were misreading them. The road we were on was gain one lane. Or, rather, slightly wider than one lane but that INCLUDED cars parked on either side at intervals.

There would be a car parked on the right, half on the sidewalk…. And once we had gotten around it there would be a car parked on the left, halfway on the sideway only 12 or 15 yards down the road…. And then, of course, once we got around that, there’d be another car coming in our direction …. But once they saw there were 2 cars on our side, they would actually have to back up a ways so we could get through.

Combine all of that with the big Mercedes Andrew was driving, still trying to understand the building numbers and at one point a man in a ladder, painting the second story shutters ….. it was insanity! And hilarious!

 

Not to worry …. We eventually found the Anstruther Fish Bar.

For a small town, the restaurant took up 3 store fronts.

It is set up kid of in the style of a diner – our waitress wore a paper hat and everything – with a small ice cream counter near one of the doors.

We got there around lunchtime and it was quite crowded…. In addition to a few families, we also saw several high-school-age uniformed students (presumably on their lunch break) as well as a group of old (old old) people who appeared to be all there together.

We finally were seated, but only by breaking up our party to a table of 2 (mom and dad) up some short stairs and a table of 4 (me, Andrew, Kevin and Chelsea) down near the ice cream counter.

All 4 of us ordered the “special” : Haddock fish and chips …. According to everything we had heard, as well as all the signage on the outside of the restaurant, this was the best fish and chips in the UK.

Apparently all restaurant meals include a drink and bread and butter … so we all got cans of soda… AND each got a single slice of white bread – straight from the bag…. Sliced in half and served on a small Styrofoam plate.

It was absolutely one of the STRANGEST things we were served the whole trip!

Also, I don’t really understand why ….

As I said, the restaurant was pretty crowded that day … and there was a man with a video camera who appeared to be getting some kind of stock or ambiance-type footage of the restaurant on a busy lunch. We soon found out he was taking footage for the website!

He ended up filming quite a bit of our table … when we were served our fish and chips in particular. I’m SURE it’s because we were pretty much the only table of young people in the whole place.

Andrew and Kevin kept joking about giving each other high-fives over the food and other such cheesy ridiculousness and hopefully have that footage used on the website.

Apparently the Anstruther Fish Bar has been dubbed the best fish and chips in the UK … buy no less authority than the Scottish Tourist Board and others.

… but I wish I had had fish and chips somewhere else to compare it to.

It was just fish and chips to me …. Along with that bizarre slice of bread.

Once we were done with lunch, we (obviously) got some of their homemade ice cream and went outside to eat it …

As it had started raining again…. We stayed in front of the restaurant, under the eaves, eating our ice cream.

While we were standing there, a big van (12 or 15 passenger) with the word ‘Ambulance’ painted on the side double parked right in front of the restaurant.

A group of old people started to cross in front of us and line up to get in the van. And I’m talking REALLY old. The kind of old that when they walk by their eyes are glazed over and they wouldn’t hear you talk to them because they have to use all their energy to stay standing up …

So, as they passed us, one of the younger ones (maybe only 85 or so, in the blue sweater in the photo below) saw Dad – of white beard and bald head – and said to him, “Hey, come along with us!”

Andrew said it sounded like they knew each other and had been talking earlier – but that is NOT the case. This adorable old man just took the chance that Dad had a sense of humor and poked a bit of fun at him!

Hilarious and awesome and we couldn’t stop laughing!

 

Finishing our ice cream, still laughing at Dad being invited to join the Ambulance, we hopped in the cars and headed back to St. Andrews….

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Scotland: West Sands Beach

Thursday. Our final day in Scotland. It feels like the week went by so fast! There’s so much more to see in the country!

I added St. Andrew’s to the itinerary primarily because of Dad … and his desire to see the golf course.

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From Rick Steves:

St. Andrews

For many, St. Andrews is synonymous with golf. But there’s more to this charming town than its famous links. Dramatically situated at the edge of a sandy bay, St. Andrews is the home of Scotland’s most important university – think of it as the Scottish Cambridge. And centuries ago, the town was the religious capital of the country.

In its long history, St. Andrews has seen two boom periods. First in the early Middle Ages, the relics of St. Andrews made the town cathedral one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christendom. The faithful flocked here from all over Europe, leaving the town with a medieval all-roads-lead-to-the-cathedral street plan that survives today.

But after the Scottish Reformation the cathedral rotted away and the town became a forgotten backwater. A new wave of visitors arrived in the mid-19th century, when a visionary mayor named (appropriately enough) Provost Playfair began to promote the town’s connection with the newly in-vogue game of golf. Most buildings in town date from this time.

Today, St. Andrews remains a popular spot for both students and golf devotees (including professionals and celebrities such as Scotsman Sean Connery, often seen out on the links). With vast, sandy beaches, golfing opportunities for pros and novices alike, playgrounds of ruins, a fun-loving student vibe and a string of relaxing fishing villages nearby (the East Neuk), St. Andrews is an appealing place to take a vacation from your busy vacation.

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We left Aberfeldy early-ish to drive about an hour and a half to the east coast to St. Andrew’s. It rained on and off the whole way there, but once we arrived the rain had stopped for a bit.

Upon arriving in town – a tiny, coastal college town – we went straight to West Sands Beach. Just off the Old Course, and the site of the filming of the opening scene of Chariots of Fire, West Sands Beach was at VERY low tide when we got there (maybe 10:30a or so).

The walk from the parking lot (of the golf course) to the beach was over a wooden boardwalk, through beachy weeds – very northeast-U.S. beachy. Definitely reminded me of the beach in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or similar. There was even a looks-like-it-is-about-to-fall-over wooden slat fence keeping the overgrowth from the sand.

In true tiny-tourist-town fashion, as soon as we stepped on to the sand we saw a lifeguard picking up the little bit of trash that was present on the beach.

We spent maybe 45 minutes or so at West Sands Beach …

When you walk on to the beach, the town of St. Andrew’s is to the south (your right) with only coastline visible to the north (your left). We stepped on to the bright sand, and the ocean felt so far away! I just tried to imagine what the opening scene of Chariots of Fire must look like (since I’ve never seen it) … with a lone runner jogging down the beach…

We all started heading toward the water – but at different speeds. The ocean was at low tide, yes, but parts of the sand were still pretty wet and muddy. Andrew was wearing canvas boat shoes that ended up getting pretty wet. Chelsea was wearing suede boots and I don’t think she came very far out at all.

We were generally headed in the direction of what looked to be some climbable rocks … as we got farther and farther out toward the water line, we began to see something strange on the wet sand.

Andrew thought they were worms – and they certainly looked like they could be … brown, squiggly thin piled on the sand…. But then – especially as we got even closer to the water – we started to see these piles appear from the sand!

I still haven’t looked them up to see specifically what it was… but we came to the consensus that SOMETHING (crab, worm, something) was under the surface of the wet sand and expelling or regurgitating thin columns of sand up onto the surface. … just like those Play-Doh factory toys …. Squeezing out Play-Doh spaghetti.

I still tried to avoid stepping on them, but I was kind of glad to know I wasn’t surrounded by worms!

360 degree video:

Turns out the dark rocks were totally covered by slippery sea plant of some kind, smelling and not at all climbable. They must be under water once the tide comes up …

SO beautiful there :)

After visiting the beach, it was just about lunch time …. that story coming up!

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Scotland: driving home from Inverness

Andrew and I drove back home to Aberfeldy, just the 2 of us …. Listening to 2 hours of Scotland radio, intermittent rain, glorious countryside (virtually no cities and very few towns on the A-9 from Inverness)…

…. taking photos of the silly-to-us-Americans road signs:

I love alone time, just hanging out with Andrew.

Especially since he was always willing to drive ….

Watch this 2 minute video of part of the drive below (complete with Andrew talking about the radio station)  …. It’s shot at sunset and frankly gorgeous….

or there are a couple more driving videos here:

Dinner:

When we returned from Inverness, hungry, our best option was to order delivery from “The Place on the Square” in Aberfeldy. So, pizza at 10p again, basically. But Dad and Andrew ordered some other food –just to try it. “Donner meat” and haggis! While haggis is apparently super touristy – it wasn’t even on most menues we looked at – Andrew still wanted to try it …

Blech.

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Scotland: Urquhart Castle (part 2)

So, after lunch at Urquhart … and after spending as much time as possible waiting for Kevin and Chelsea, we decided to go on to the Castle itself

The castle itself feels a lot bigger than it looks – especially since a couple of the towers still have working stairs. In one corner, you can go down a flight, or up 2 flights from the ground-level.

(Of course, the stairwells are extremely narrow and a bit claustrophobic – but that’s no reason not to explore).

The castle had one small gate, with a path leading down to the water. Easier to defend that way, I assume.

So we spent about an hour wandering around the castle ruins …. Until Kevin and Chelsea got there.

Then we spent another hour or so wandering around the castle some more …. Laughing, taking photos, and such until we were politely asked to leave by a castle guide.

Not even close to sunset, but apparently they close at 6p.

SO gorgeous ….. wait til you see the drive home …. coming up next!

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We left Culloden Battlefield around 1:30p or 2p and headed back west through Inverness to Loch Ness

I had cut up some veggies that we snacked on in the car … Mom had brought some “crisps” for more snacking.

Kevin and Chelsea were (finally) on their way north, so we told them to meet us at Urquhart Castle (on the North side of Loch Ness).

Great story about visiting Loch Ness from Jackie Travels

We had a *basic* ideas of where we were going (without the GPS), but again, the streets and sites are all really well signed so we didn’t have much trouble finding Urquhart Castle at all….

Unlike Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle, Urquhart Castle is still in ruins, on the coast of Loch Ness. When we got there it wasn’t super clear where to go to show our Explorer pass (to get into the castle). Of course, whatever we did was apparently wrong, and the employee was rather rude to us about it. Whatever. The only real rudeness on the whole trip (and the guy behind us in line kind of stood up for us).

For lunch, Andrew had gone to the grocery store to get stuff for sandwiches. We very precariously wrapped 8 slices of bread in paper towels and then in a plastic grocery bag, plus meat and cheese in their original packaging, plus cut up cucumbers.  We decided to wait to eat until we got to Urquhart Castle, and luckily they have a small café with tables inside and outside (where we sat). Mom even finagled some “rogue condiments” from the café so we had mustard and such to put on our sandwiches.

(rogue condiments)

Urquhart Castle is still in ruins – just a shell of what it originally was. Its previous owners blew up the Castle to keep the Jacobites from taking possession of it.

While there’s not a whole lot of historical information available at the castle itself, the visitor’s center features a 10-ish minute video dramatizing the castle’s history up until it was destroyed ~1692. Regardless, it is quite the beautiful location right on the lake….

 

Yes, Urquhart Castle is on Loch Ness. When we were planning our trip, pretty much EVERYONE asked us if we were going to visit Loch Ness.

Apparently, most “Nessie” sightings take place in the deepest part of the lake – just in front of where Urquhart Castle is situated.

Standing at the Castle, it’s easy to see how someone could fool themselves into thinking they saw something. Between the dark, deep water and the wakes of boats and birds I’m sure could talk yourself into anything.

Sadly, we did NOT see Nessie.

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From RICK STEVES:

Sightings on Loch Ness

In July of 1933, a couple swore that they saw a giant sea monster shimmy across the road in front of their car by Loch Ness. Within days, ancient legends about giant monsters in the lake (dating as far back as the sixth century) were revived – and suddenly everyone was spotting “Nessie” poke its head above the waters of Loch Ness.

In the last 75 years, further sightings and photographic “evidence” have bolstered the claim that there is something mysterious living in this unthinkably deep and murky lake. (Most sightings take place in the deepest part of the loch, near Urquhart Castle). Most witnesses describe a water-bound dinosaur

(resembling the real, but extinct, plesiosaur). Others cling to the slightly more plausible theory of a gigantic eel. And skeptics figure the sightings can be explained by a combination of reflections, boat wakes, and mass hysteria. The most famous photo (dubbed the “Surgeon’s photo”) was later discredited – the “monster’s” head was actually attached to a toy submarine. But that hasn’t stopped various cryptozoologists from seeking photographic, sonar and other proof.

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Kevin and Chelsea left Aberfeldy around 11a or noon … drove ~2 hours north … stopped for lunch and THEN got to Urquhart, with maybe only an hour or 2 til the site closed.

The other 4 of us had plenty of time to wander the grounds of the castle – especially since there weren’t really and placards or exhibits to read.

Mom walked down to the lake’s shore to get a small Ziploc bag full of sand. She gathered sand from the west coast (in Oban), from Loch Ness …. And then the next day she would get sand from the east coast (in St. Andrew’s). Each in its own labeled baggie…. And I imagine she got more when they went to Ireland! I don’t think she was totally positive what she was going to do with this sand – but I’m picturing some kind of decorative display in little jars.

 

The castle is “protected” by a grassy moat … or, rather, steep grassy hills … ideal for sliding or rolling down if you’re a kid.

 

 It was SUCH a gorgeous day …. More on the Castle itself next ….

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Scotland: Culloden Battlefield (part 2)

 

After going all through the Culloden visitor’s center …. learning about the politics of each side and how the battle progressed…..

…..at the backdoor, we got an audio guide to the actual battlefield.

It’s an audio guide tied to GPS, so as we walked along the clear path through the field, every 30 yards or so we hear a “ping” sound, stop, and the audio guide would tell us about where we were on the field.

You start (at the star in this image) behind Government lines (marked by a line of tall red flags) … and continue in a circle clockwise on through the Jacobite line (marked by a line of tall blue flags), then back around, past the mass graves … and back to the visitor’s center.

 

 

Part of the reason why the Jacobite army lost SO badly is because of the ground they were standing, running and fighting on… and you really can see that when you’re standing out there – on the damp, soggy, uneven moor land. It seems impossible to think they tried to run across it with any real force.

As you follow the path along the way back – away from the Jacobite line toward the Government line – you pass the mass graves of the Highland clans.

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From the website:

Lying on either side of the road driven through battlefield in 1835 these headstones bear the names of the clans. Erected by Duncan Forbes in 1881 they mark where the battle dead, who amounted to over 1000, were buried by local people, some of whom were known to them. They were identified by their clan badge, a plant sprig worn in their bonnet.

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Just near the grave markers is a memorial Cairn. Made of stone. It’s the highest, most solid landmark on the battlefield – fittingly so.

Again, this was one of my FAVORITE parts of the whole week….

In large part because of the striking visitor’s center exhibit and the battlefield audio guide, I feel like I really experienced this ‘tourist attraction’ more than any other on this trip.

After Culloden, it was on to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle ….

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Scotland: Culloden Battlefield (part 1)

Continuing with our Scotland photos and stories. …. I kind of love dragging it out this much…. I loved that vacation!

Andrew got up EARLY Wednesday morning and walked to the grocery store to get food for a picnic lunch…. Even with not a ton of sleep we were up and ready to leave about 9a.

Kevin and Chelsea elected to stay and sleep in … but Mom and Dad got up early to come with us.

But first, gassing up!

We had an approximately 2 hour drive north to Inverness, on the main, big highway through the country … through the National Park.

We read from the guidebooks about where we were going and talked about Scottish movies and generally had a relaxing drive…. Especially since Andrew was driving!

(drive by photo of the country side. This is pretty typical of the whole 2 hour trip!)

(gas station coffee. Not great but better than nothing)

Since Kevin and Chelsea weren’t coming north until the afternoon (if then) we decided to go to Culloden battlefield first.

Gaelic and English

The building on the left was the Visitor’s Center with exhibit and history and all …. Through that doorway straight ahead is the battlefield …

Before visiting Culloden Battlefield, I honestly had NO idea what it was about. I put it on the itinerary basically based on Rick Steves’ recommendation and the fact that it was near Loch Ness. Not always the best way to plan excursions, but in this case it TOTALLY worked out.

Culloden Battlefield – including the visitor’s center and audio tour – was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip.

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FROM RICK STEVES:

The battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746) marks the end of the power of the Scottish Highland clans and the start of years of representation of Scottish culture by the English. It was the culmination of a year’s worth of battles, known collectively as “the ’45.” At the center of it all was the charismatic, enigmatic Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788).

Charles Edward Stuart, from his first breath was raised with a single purpose – to restore his family to the British throne. His grandfather was King James II, deposed in 1688 by Parliament for his tyranny and pro-Catholic bias. In 1745, young Charlie crossed the Channel from exile in France to retake the throne for the Stuarts. He landed on the west coast of Scotland and rallied support for the “Jacobite” cause. Though Charles was not Scottish-born, he was the rightful heir directly down the line from Mary, Queen of Scots – and so many Scots joined the Stuart family’s rebellion out of resentment at being ruled by a foreign king (English royalty of German descent).

Bagpipes droned and “Bonnie” (handsome) Charlie led an army of 2,000 tartan-wearing Gaelic-speaking Highlanders across Scotland, seizing Edinburgh. They picked up other supporters of the Stuarts from the Lowlands and from England. Now 6,000 strong, they marched south toward London, and King George II made plans to flee the country. But anticipated support for the Jacobites failed to materialize in the numbers they were hoping for (both in England and from France). The Jacobites had so far been victorious in their battles against the Hanoverian government forces, but the odds now turned against them. Charles retreated to the Scottish Highlands, where many of his men knew the terrain and might gain an advantage when outnumbered. The English government troops followed closely on his heels.

Against the advice of his best military strategist, Charles’ army faced the Hanoverian forces at Culloden Moor on flat, barren terrain that was unsuited to the Highlanders’ guerilla tactics. The Scots – many of them brandishing only broadsword spears – were mowed down by English cannons and horsemen. In less than an hour, the government forces routed the Jacobite army, but that was just the start. They spent the next weeks methodically hunting down ringleaders and sympathizers (and many others in the Highlands who had nothing to do with the battle) ruthlessly killing, imprisoning and banishing thousands.

Charles fled with a ₤30,000 price on his head. He escaped to the Isle of Skye, hidden by a woman named Flora MacDonald (her grave is on the Isle of Skye and her statue is outside Inverness Castle). Flora dressed Charles in women’s clothes and passed him off as her maid. Later, Flora was arrested and thrown in the Tower of London before being released and treated like a celebrity.

Charles escaped to France. He spent the rest of his life wandering Europe trying to drum up supportiHighH to retake the throne. He drifted through short-lived romantic affairs and alcohol and died in obscurity, without an heir, in Rome.

Though usually depicted as a battle of the Scottish versus the English, in truth Culloden was a civil war between two opposing dynasties: Stuart (Charlie) and Hanover (George). In fact, about one-fifth of the government’s troops were Scottish, and several redcoat deserters fought along with the Jacobites. However, as the history has faded into lore, the battle has come to be remembered as a Scottish-versus-English standoff – or in the parlance of the Scots, the Highlanders versus the Strangers.

The Battle of Culloden was the end of 60 years of Jacobite rebellions, the last major battle fought on British soil, and the final stand of the Highlanders. From then on, clan chiefs were deposed; kilts, tartans and bagpipes because illegal paraphernalia; and farmers were cleared off their ancestral land, replaced by more-profitable sheep. Scottish culture would never recover from the events of the campaign called “the ’45.”

___

The visitor’s center is clearly new. 2007, I think. It’s run by the National Trust for Scotland … and it is clear that a ton of work (historical, archaeological, social) was done in the planning.

Interesting detail: the logo for the site is really just a red and a blue line. Clearly not parallel lines, but I couldn’t really Figure out what we were supposed to think based on this ‘logo’ …

But we soon realized those lines represent the British government battle line (red) and the Jacobite/Bonnie Prince Charles Highlander battle line (blue).

The visitor’s center is laid out so well – you follow a clear path through … with the “government” point of view told on one wall and the “Jacobite” point of view told on the opposite wall.

Below you can see the red arrow pointing to the left and the blue arrow pointing to the right (just below the words Continental War) to help orient you ….

It really was a brilliant design strategy! I learned so much!

(there was a small theater with screens on all 4 sides, showing a film of the battle reenactment.)

It’s amazing how thoroughly I was able to understand the history and battle, just from the visitor’s center.

All of the indoor exhibit deals with the history, environment and plans leading up to the Battle of Culloden…. … And prepares you for visiting the battlefield itself (post to come) …

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Scotland: Parallelogramophonograph

Still Tuesday in Edinburgh …. .

Since Kevin had spent a few days in Edinburgh before we got there, he already had a chance to go to some of the Fringe Festival shows …. In fact, I think he went to see this improv group from Texas two times already. So when we were in Edinburgh for the day Kevin wanted us to see them too ….

Parallelogramophonograph – Improvised Plays from Austin, Texas

(The improvers pamphletting outside their venue)

Whereas my friend Nathan’s improv group does improv competitions and genres, Parallelogramophonograph does more long-form improv. Full, nearly play-length stories.

It’s pretty fun!

We could easily tell they’ve been working together for a long time.

I was reminded again how very much I love actors. We ran into the improv team (and their tech guy) just before the show – they were out on the Royal Mile pamphletting, trying to bring in more audience. Actors are all so charming …. Especially the ones that are *slightly* insecure. … Adorable. Seriously.

So the “play” they put on for us is all improvised, but they ask the audience for some kind of suggestion….. the team – 2 girls, 2 guys – had announced that their story that night would be darker, a murder mystery or similar….

So of course, the question they asked of the audience was for a happy memory. The winner: Playing in a field with my dog Friskers.

The play was very good – surprisingly well-structured for improv … along with several laugh-out-loud moments. It was Andrew’s first experience with improv. I’m really glad we stayed in the city to see it!

The “venue” was just one of the conference rooms that the Radisson Hotel rents out – with curtains, lights and chairs. If I had to guess, I’d say it held maybe …. 50 audience members. From what they told Kevin, it sounds like they would have to sell out all their shows just to break even. Not sure if that will happen for them, but what a fun experience nevertheless! So glad we went!

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Tuesday late afternoon in Edinburgh …. Still pouring down rain, still with time to kill before the show…. And still not hungry enough to get dinner …. Walking away from Grey Friar’s cemetery, we were at a little bit of a loss as to what to do and where to go.

It just so happened that we passed the National Library of Scotland. I think Kevin suggested we go in …. And it was such a fun idea! They had an exhibit on banned books going on that was super interesting!

Such an fun little unexpected treat ….

The ‘Banned Books’ exhibit had sections on books banned because of religion, politics, society and sex,…. Along with a final section on living with censorship. Plus, of course, going into the library gave us a chance to sit down (my feet and legs and back were so tired by this time of day) and dry off a bit.

We couldn’t take pictures of the exhibit, which is too bad. I would have liked to take photos if only so could remember all the books I want to read now!

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Scotland: Grey Friar’s cemetery

(still in Edinburgh, Scotland) …. ..

The rain finally cleared up for a little while – while we were underground of course.

After leaving the pub we made our way back to St. Giles Cathedral to meet mom and dad… and shortly after that it began to rain in earnest again.

Our next plan for the day was to see one of the shows that was part of the Fringe Festival – but that wasn’t until 7:40p, so we had about 2 hours to spend in the rain.

One of the other parts of the Edinburgh Ghost Adventures show that we watched had them visiting a haunted cemetery… So, of course Andrew and I wanted to find it!

The cemetery is called “Grey Friar’s” and is apparently haunted by the McKenzie Poltergeist (named after the tomb in the cemetery that has seen much of the action).

I’m pretty good with maps, so we were able to find Grey Friar’s without a whole lot of trouble.

Of course, the whole time it’s raining harder and harder and Andrew’s hair has started dripping again…

Being in a cemetery, of course the ground was muddy … but as soon as we got there we clearly saw a crowd of umbrellas around one of the tombs – part of what we can only assume was a guided tour of the cemetery.

That cemetery is HUGE.

But we only ended up spending maybe 20 minutes there because of the rain.

Once we got to Grey Friar’s we kind of lost Dad. He likes to read and explore and learn things – even more so than I do. Once the rest of us were getting ready to leave we had to search him out. There was music coming from inside the church so we thought maybe he had gone in there…. But no … Finally he was spotted, in a grey/black jacket with the hood up… all by himself at the far end of the (rain-drenched) graveyard wandering between the gravestones…. Looking pretty creepy, actually…

 

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Scotland: Underground ghost tour

After lunch, it was about time for our guided ghost tour – with Auld Reekie Tours.

This was the ONLY thing that I booked ahead of time …. 430p on Tuesday afternoon – the underground vault tour!

Last year, Andrew and I had watched an episode of Ghost Adventures (ghost-hunting reality show on the travel channel), when they get locked in to the underground vaults under Edinburgh.

It was one of the better episodes, so when we realized we were going to Edinburgh, visiting the vaults was one of the “musts.”

We met up with the tour guide at the designated street corner (in front of an old church on the Royal Mile)… along with about 12 other people. (sidenote: Mom and Dad did NOT go on the tour with us. Chickens.)

Since the tour goes underground, there was not really a need to wait til dark… but it certainly would have felt spookier.

Our tour guide was a guy (maybe late 20s) named Dominic. Sweet boy; very charismatic. He had that air about him that actors have – super friendly, super charming with a real feel for timing (both comedic and dramatic).

I was suddenly reminded of how much I really love actors!

He wore all black, but not in a creepy way. More like the way stagehands do – to better blend into the set. Or, in this case, the dark, dank underground haunted vaults…

So, we met Dominic in front of Tron Kirk and then he walked our group down a couple blocks and down a side street – then headed very steeply downhill.

Since the vaults are essentially built under the length of the Royal Mile, we had to go down to the entrance – basically just a couple of VERY steep steps off the side of a store front (where the Auld Reekie ticket office is).

The first room is a very faintly lit all-black room filled with glass cases hanging on the walls …. Glass cases with (very amateur) exhibits of instruments of torture.

Very strange.

Seems like the Auld Reekie owner is just interested in torture devices for fun … and decided to create this “exhibit” just to make the ghost tours a little weirder.

It worked.

So, according to Dominic …. The room we started in used to be just a cheap apartment – mostly for college students.

Apparently, one night (late 80s?), the tenants were having a party and a cup got thrown against one of the drywalls …. And instead of bouncing off, it went through!

So these partying college kids took a closer look … The drywall just came crumbling down. As did the 2 or 3 additional layers back there.

And all of a sudden, the Edinburgh underground vaults that had been sealed for at least 100 years had been rediscovered!

Now, it’s not clear to me exactly how many underground vaults there are … but the vaults that the Ghost Adventures crew investigated were HUGE. Several levels, yards and yards and yards.

The vaults that Auld Reekie tours are completely different. I wonder if maybe the vaults are all owned/rented by the owners of the businesses above (just like when they were originally built).

Some photos from various sources of the vaults one - twothree

The vaults that we toured were:

  • 4 or 5 in number
  • Off a single corridor (without apparent connection to other vaults)
  • The corridor was nicely/smoothly paved (likely a recent change for the tourists)

So the tour was about 45 minutes long … and it felt so short!

Dominic took us through each to the vaults in turn, NOT just down the line.

Nope, the order of the vaults visited was deliberately chosen for maximum storytelling power. Started off with your basic vault to learn a bit about the vaults in general, and then into vaults with escalating weirdness….

We actually started in the (dimly lit) corridor ….

Dominic warned us about physical sensations we may encounter – and I immediately began to feel a bit dizzy and light-headed. I’m sure just because we had essentially walked underground into a small, stuffy place. But I can see how some people might get a little freaked out!

We learned about the night watchman ghost that is occasionally seen at the end of the corridor – by guides and visitors. As the tour guide, Dominic needs to always always keep track of all the tourists in his tour. According to him, on one tour he was sure that he saw one of his charges wandering off into one of the vaults at the far end of the corridor … but, as soon as he reached the doorway there was no one there! The watchman has never bothered/harassed visitors; he’s just seen going in and out of the vaults at the far end of the corridor.

The other ‘spirit’ we learned about in that corridor was a woman who pays particular attention to the men.

Dominic told us about one guy, on the tour with his girlfriend, felt a cold hand near his crotch while they were standing around. It was only when he realized his girlfriend was a good 5 or 6 feet in front of him that he ran away screaming!

Which brings me to why Dominic was such an effective tour guide and storyteller : He genuinely seemed concerned. He told us over and over that if we needed to leave for any reason he would drip everything and take us out of the vaults. He gives his groups permission to feel scared, and to be aware of how they’re feeling. He appears equally respectful of skeptics, believers and fence-sitters.He doesn’t over dramatize anything. He doesn’t overplay his hand. … and he doesn’t exhibit any kind of condescension  that a skeptic might.

You can’t help but trust Dominic when he tells you what he himself has experienced … and the calm and reasonable way he tells you that women were getting attacked in a certain vault makes you really consider it might be true ….

He was fantastic!

Again, I really love actors….

So. The specific vault stories:

As I said, the first vault was just a good opportunity to tell us about the history.

These vaults were originally built under the Royal Mile as a place for storage for the businesses above. Unfortunately, the vaults were built/carved out of limestone or sandstone or something else porous. Which means that when it rains in Edinburgh, the rain seeps through to wet and ruin all the goods in the vaults.

Imagine bolts of fabric or barrels of flour sitting in puddles.

Needless to say, the soon were emptied.

In Edinburgh (at that time at least) it was illegal to sleep on the street. So all the homeless – prostitutes, drunks, families whose breadwinner had died, etc – started “living” in the vaults.

The vault is really just a stone room – maybe 20’x20’ … no walls, no running water, no toilets.

About 25 people would “live” in one vault, just using one corner as a ‘bathroom’ … but in reality just a pile of feces… Eventually it’d creep farther and farther into the room, mixing with the dirt on the floor, mixing with the water that seeped down, all over the floor where people were sleeping.

In order to eat (and mask the stench) they would build a fire…. But there’s no vent, windows or chimney of any kind. So they built the fires by the door to the vault, filling the corridors with smoke.

Some of the vaults were partway between the graveyards and the medical schools. Since autopsies were illegal, med students would buy the corpses on the black market to dissect. Grave robbers found the vaults handy for hiding bodies.

No law enforcement would come down to the vaults – to the stink and disease – so criminals pretty much had a free rein. Rapes, murders, stashing stolen goods …. I’m sure it ALL happened in the vaults.

And then – eventually – the city had had enough and just sealed up the vaults. And sealed up all that pain and crime and hate and death with it….

So sad….

The second vault that we visited had a big stone circle in the middle of the room. Apparently a local Wiccan group had connected with the Auld Reekie owner to use this vault for their wiccan/heathen ceremonies…. But after a few weeks some strange things started to happen in that vault after it was locked up for the night …

Things like … scratch marks on the inside of the door, and all the furniture in the room getting piled precariously in one of the corners.

Bizarre.

So the head of the wiccan group decided to stay overnight, locked in that vault, to figure out what was going on. The Auld Reekie owner locked this guy in with his sleeping bag. He chose to sleep in the stone circle – as the Wiccans believe that circle was a source of protection from various spirits.

He woke up in the middle of the night…. Hearing some kind of scratching or scuffling along one of the walls. As the vault has no windows or chimney at all, or course it was pitch black. So this guy had pretty much convinced himself that he was hearing a rat, the scuffling/scratching started heading up the wall and onto the ceiling!

Between hearing a series of voices just outside the stone circle and other bizarre happenings, he had had enough.

Once it got to what he thought was morning, he was gone – waiting at the front door to be let out.

That same day the wiccan group moved all their stuff to a different vault – permanently.

They left the stone circle, though.

It was thought that the circle was now – instead of a protection – a portal or doorway to evil spirits.

Dominic – bless his heart – raised his credibility even more. He says “Now, some of the guides will tell you not to step into or walk through the circle. But I know you all are adults. If you want to step into the circle I’m not going to stop you. Now is the time to do it.”

… and of course no one did.

Although I fully expected Kevin to.

We moved on to the last vault then, and as everyone filed out of the vault, I saw Kevin put one foot into the circle and then out again.

Show off.

He was carrying Chelsea’s bag at the time so we joked that a ghost would attach itself to her bag and he was going to carry it the rest of the trip.

The final vault required an explanation and warning before even entering.

We were strictly instructed to separate by gender at the door – boys to the left, girls to the right. Which put me right next to a bunch of strangers and Chelsea in the scariest of all the vaults.

Awesome.

According to Dominic, through many tours there would be scratches, pushes and other physical attacks on visitors. They eventually tried a few different combinations and by having men on one side and women on the other the attacks stopped.

On top of that, we were strictly instructed to turn off all electronics – phones, cameras, etc. Electronics of all kinds have been known to malfunction and break after visiting this vault. Of course, we had my mom’s cell phone on us and didn’t know how to turn it off. So far it’s fine.

Furthermore, the safety (electronic) light above the door wasn’t on. Dominic told us they just can’t get the light to work. They’ve had any number of electricians come look at it, and one day they went through something like 30 lightbulbs.

So the room was lit solely by Dominic’s flashlight …. But of course, since electronics have issues in this room, he told us all about the times that his flashlight has just stopped working (of course, he called it a “torch” since he’s British and adorable).

I know this sounds like just a bunch of talk. I fully acknowledge that not a single weird, paranormal or unnatural thing happened to our tour group.

However – I WILL tell you that this last vault was noticeably colder than the other vaults. What reason could there be? These are just stone rooms with no vents or ceiling fans, obviously.

But if I’ve learned anything from watching numerous seasons of Ghost Adventures – I’ve learned that pockets of cold air can indicate the presence of a ghost or spirit.

I’m just saying….

So, of course, since this was the final vault, Dominic was using his full power of anticipation and storytelling to really give us a chill.

Starting with dividing us from our other group members, plus the turning off of electronics and the light in the vault not working … needless to say, it is easy to see how someone could get all keyed up.

As he was explaining to us how he had to carry a backup “torch” because of the strange problems in this vault, his current “torch” began to flicker – until it finally went out completely (conveniently at a dramatic moment in his narrative) …. Spooky ….

Just before the vaults were sealed shut, there was a huge fire in old town Edinburgh (1824, I think). To escape the flames and stay safe many families sent their women and children into the vaults.

Initially this seems like a good idea – the stone walls and floor certainly wouldn’t burn. Instead, with the fire raging through the city, the walls of the vaults started heating up more and more  … just like a brick oven.

Ugh.

All those people were just cooked. … Just baked up like meat.

Ugh …. Bleck bleck bleck….

Not long after (around 1830 or so) the vaults were closed off and forgotten about.

So sad. So gross and so scary …

I can’t remember exactly how Dominic tied up the tour, but part of our ticket included a bit of shortbread and whisky at a pub next door.

We were guided to the pub at then Dominic disappeared (he had another tour to guide). Too bad… He was pretty much amazing. I would have loved to have a chat with him.

Not at all surprisingly, the whisky was not great. Not that I know – Andrew drank mine.

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Scotland: St. Giles Cathedral

After visiting Edinburgh Castle in the last morning, we headed a bit farther down the Royal Mile toward St. Giles Cathedral ….

The Cathedral is just maybe ½ to 3/4 mile down the hill from the Castle.

On the entrance side is a big open square where one of the Edinburgh Festival street performers was doing his juggling fire and sharp objects show.

Also in the square was a few rows of booths selling handmade goods/art/etc. My mom ended up buying a watercolor – a little ironic since it was raining so much.

We elected to go into the Cathedral first, and then find lunch.

I love cathedrals – and it turns out Chelsea does too!

Even without knowing ANY of the history of the location, the beauty of the architecture and the details of the tiny side chapels and stained glass windows give cathedrals such an air.

And walking into a cathedral that is still actively in use is always fun – especially if you come across a service (like we did at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome).

From RICK STEVES:

St. Giles Cathedral

This is Scotland’s most important church. Its ornate spire – the Scottish Crown steeple from 1495 – is a proud part of Edinburgh’s skyline.

Today’s façade is 19th century Neo-Gothic, but most of what you’ll see inside is from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Just inside the entrance, turn around to see the modern stained-glass Robert Burns window, which celebrates Scotland’s favorite poet. It was made in 1095 by the Icelandic artist Leifur Breidfjord.

The oldest parts of the cathedral – the four massive central pillars – date from 1120. After the English burned the cathedral in 1385, it was rebuilt bigger and better than ever, and in 1495 its famous crown spire was completed. During the Reformation – when John Knox preached here (1559-1572) – the place was simplified and whitewashed. Before this, when the emphasis was on holy services provided by priests, there were lots of little niches. With the new focus on sermons rather than rituals, the grand pulpit took center stage.

At the back end of the church, see the Neo-Gothic Chapel of the Knights of the Thistle and its intricate wood carving. Built in two years (1910-1911), entirely with Scottish materials and labor, it is the private chapel of the Knights of the Thistle, the only Scottish chivalric order. It’s used about once a year to inaugurate new members. Scotland recognizes its leading citizens by bestowing upon them a membership. The Queen presides over the ritual from her fancy stall, marked by her Scottish coat of arms.

Upon entering the St. Giles Cathedral, there was a big sign advertising “Photography permits” for ₤2.

Now, this is clearly just a way to get money from tourists without charging admission.

I’m totally OK with this. Especially since Westminster Abbey cost about ₤11 and I still wasn’t allowed to take photos!

I don’t know how much they enforce the photography permit, but I do think I saw a guide start to walk toward me when I was videoing, but stop when I (casually) turned so he could see my photo-permit-sticker.

Who knows ….

We happened upon St. Giles Cathedral just in time for a mid-day concert.

According to the “Music at St. Giles” pamphlet I found, the concert was put on by a Scotland/South Africa cultural exchange program group.

Singing as they walked down the main aisle, they performed a few African songs, but more were traditional worship songs – many of which I knew! Of course, the fact that I knew the songs made the errant notes from some of the sopranos even more apparent.

Nonetheless, having live music made the whole experience of exploring the Cathedral even fuller…

The other interesting and noteworthy part of St. Giles Cathedral was the Chapel of the Knights of the Thistle.

This is a small chapel in the back corner of the (huge) Cathedral – the private chapel of the only Scottish chivalric order (the Knights of the Thistle).

There was this sweet older woman back there – a guide of the Cathedral – answering questions and providing all kinds of details about the Knights of the Thistle and what they used the chapel for..

It’s only used once a year or so to inaugurate new members – but that only happens when a former member dies.

The Queen chooses one of the leading citizens of Scotland – a judge, the head of Education or similar…

The Queen presides over the ritual from her chair (ornately carved) at the end of the room. Her chair is marked by the Royal family’s coat of arms. As that chair is only ever occupied by the monarch, there is only one coat of arms. All the other chairs have several (in general 4+) coats of arms, designating all the different men/women who have been inducted into the order and assigned to that seat over the last 100 years since the chapel was completed.

It’s a lovely room, but without a guide there to explain the details, that’s all it would have been.

After St. Giles Cathedral we went to lunch.

Kevin had been talking about Thai food for a couple days, and Andrew knew I wanted REAL vegetables, so we found this Thai restaurant: Thai Orchid. It was a bit warm inside, so I started feeling a little bit sick, but all in all it was pretty good.

It wasn’t spicy AT ALL (I got a mostly broccoli veggie dish) … and snagged a couple bites from the others.

Next? Our underground ghost tour!!

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