Sunday, March 17, 2013


Edinburgh Castle
East side of Edinburgh Castle

Glowering down on Edinburgh like an old Scottish Lord sits the formidable fortress of Edinburgh Castle.  Seemingly growing out of a massive mountain of solid granite, the Castle commands unquestioning respect by its sheer size and bulk. It would give any potential invading army reason to think twice about scaling its sheer cliffs and walls only to stare down the barrel of one of the biggest cannons every made.

Mons Meg
The cannon balls weigh 300 pounds apiece!

It isn’t known when the castle first appeared on the “rock”, however archaeological evidence shows that it has been continually occupied since the Bronze Age. That isn’t surprising given its defensive vantage point. From the castle walls, you can see for miles in every direction plus there’s a breathtaking view of the bay, the Firth of Forth, where foreign ships could be spotted in plenty of time to sound an alarm. The first documented evidence of an existing Castle was in the 9th century and was used as a royal residence as well as a fortress, much like the Tower of London.

View from the Castle facing the Firth of Forth (the bay) in the distance.
Statue of Braveheart (Sir William Wallace) at the front gate.
King Robert the Bruce is on the other side.
The oldest building within the Castle walls is St. Margaret’s Chapel.  Margaret had been the wife of King Malcolm III and was known for her devout faith. Its tiny interior is austere, yet somehow made comfortable by the soft light and color provided by small stained glass windows, perfect for contemplation.

St. Margaret's Chapel, the oldest building in the Castle

The most notable  royal residents of the Castle was Mary Queen of Scots. After her insanely jealous husband, Lord Henry Stewart Darnley had her Italian secretary stabbed 60 times while he vainly tried to cling to the very pregnant Mary’s skirts in Holyroodhouse Palace, she fled to the Castle for protection.  There she gave birth to her son, James VI of Scotland who would eventually succeed to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth I to become James I of England.

Since this was my second time visiting the Castle (first time in 2009), I spent more time exploring the Royal Palace.  A surprising discovery was the room where Mary’s little future king was born. It is a small space, partitioned off from a somewhat larger room containing the fireplace. It has beautiful wood wainscoting topped with hand painted decorations and is softly lit by an expansive window. The setting was intimate and comforting in a time that should have been a joy, but one that I am sure was also mixed with fear. I felt awed and at the same time privileged to be in the same spot where a king was born and because of the pristine condition of the interior, it seemed as if it could have happened yesterday.

Royal Crest over the fireplace in Mary's quarters.

The Royal partition separating the main room from the birthing chamber.

Room where King James VI was born, June 19, 1566.

Dense rain clouds that had been nothing but a brooding presence up until now suddenly released its cargo by the buckets cutting my visit to the Castle short. It wasn’t the gentle Scottish rain I had known on my last trip either. Droplets the size of dimes pounded down to earth so hard they bounced a foot off the pavement.  By the time I made it back to my hotel, thunder and lightning split the sky in a royal storm and lasted all afternoon and into the evening. Needless to say, I stayed in the rest of the day and watched “Shaun the Sheep” cartoons on the BBC.

Holyroodhouse Palace

The next day was clear and cold so I headed to my very favorite place in Edinburgh, Holyroodhouse Palace. I learned last time that there had been an Augustine Abbey on the Palace grounds since 1128 called Holyrood Abbey (Holy Cross). And like all good Abbeys, it provided a guest house (Holyroodhouse) for its distinguished guests (mostly Scottish Royalty) until around 1500 when James IV (Mary Queen of Scots grandfather) replaced the guest house with a proper Palace. It was eventually burned down by England’s Cromwell who then rebuilt it, but Charles II in 1671 tore down Cromwell’s version, rebuilding it to look much like it does today.

Holyroodhouse Palace

Ruins of Holyrood Abbey.

Holyrood Abbey and the grounds behind the Palace.
A Stewart Palace

I am a Stewart on my mother’s side but I’d never known exactly what it meant to be a “Stewart” until I began to tour Holyroodhouse Palace. From the huge painting of King George IV in full Royal Stewart regalia in the dining room to the Great Hall decorated with the paintings of all the Stewart kings did it begin to dawn on me that Holyroodhouse was a Stewart Palace! It was Mary Queen of Scots , having been raised in France, who changed the spelling of “Stewart” to the French spelling of “Stuart”, but otherwise it was the same clan and family. Always made to feel that the “Stewarts” were the poor relations of the family (or non-royal), I practically swelled to twice my size in pride!

Painting of King George IV in full Stewart Regalia.
With all the stately and elegant trappings of the Palace, it was the Palace grounds I loved the best. I had the whole place to myself as I wandered on the winding paths lined with flowers and plate sized hydrangeas. Maybe it was because I could imagine the likes of Lady Di and Queen Elizabeth II walking on these same paths that made them so special.

It was here in the gardens that I proclaimed Holyroodhouse Palace as my very own!
Haggis and Home

That night several of us went to a dinner and stage show which was advertized to include “typical historic Scottish tunes and melodies with a demonstration of Scottish singing and dancing and the Addressing of the Haggis.” I should have known the minute I saw the sea of silver hair in the audience that we were not going to get the kilt kicking Scottish party as I’d hoped, but a combination of a syrupy Lawrence Welk sing-a-long and a bad Las Vegas lounge show, but thankfully the Address of the Haggis saved the evening.

Now, haggis, if you haven’t heard, is ground up and seasoned sheep’s organs stuffed into the sheep’s own stomach and cooked. A traditional and ancient Scottish dish, it's an acquired taste. If you don’t like the taste of liver, you are out of luck. Even Robert Burns, Scotland’s own poet, described it as “gushing entrails—warm-reekin’, rich!” The ceremonial serving of it goes like this: an honored guest, it is "ceremonially piped" (escorted in by manly men in skirts playing bagpipes) to the table where it is “addressed” by reading Burn’s extremely funny poem, “Address of the Haggis”. Then it is crudely stabbed and served with “neeps” (mashed turnips) and “tatties” (mashed potatoes). I don’t like liver, tongue or various other parts of an animal, but I did get a few bites down because it was pleasantly seasoned, but unfortunately, the liver taste couldn’t be completely masked. Sean was smart and didn’t try it. It may have been a relative after all!

Sean didn't try the haggis. He said it didn't look very appetizing.
Time to say “See you later!”

On the last night of our tour we had a farewell dinner at the hotel. We were piped in by a burly Scot in royal Stewart plaid and served, you guessed it, haggis. Everyone who had caught Sean mania brought their wooly sheep and lambs and we sang Auld Lang Syne, lyrics by none other than“Rabbie” Burns. I’ve never been sure what the title of the song meant, however the intent is clear--friends should not be forgotten. I’d made so many good friends on this trip and I will miss them dearly, but I will never forget them. So here’s to you, fellow travelers of the England, Scotland and Wales tour of 2012—I’ll see you later!

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
And surely you'll buy your pint cup! And surely I'll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine.
But we've wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun til dine.
But seas between us have roared, since auld lang syne.
And there's a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o' thine!
And we'll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.

English version
(Auld lang syne means something like "old times sake" or "old long since".)
Our wonderful tour guide, Anita and Sean.

NEXT TIME: In May I'm touring the historic parts of Charleston, Savannah, Jekyll Island and on down the coast to St. Augustine, Florida. I've always wanted to see this part of the country, especially after I read "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Berendt. Be sure and read it if you can in the meantime. (It is the book and not the movie that makes you want to see the beautiful homes and courtyards of Savannah.) Until then, Happy Traveling!

Sunday, March 10, 2013



The last time I was in Edinburgh the town was in the midst of its annual August Festival Fringe. The Royal Mile, lined with booths selling trinkets of every variety, was alive with street performers and revelers. It had been so much fun dodging the thousands of locals and tourists while trying to negotiate my way down this mile long street that connected Edinburgh Castle to Holyroodhouse Palace. I fed off the energy around me and felt like a medieval farmer who goes into town only once a year on festival days, awed and excited. This time however, the Royal Mile had been given back to the cars, buses and taxies; the festival was over, the Military Tattoo gone for another year. And, it just wasn’t the same. (In 2009, my friends Kay, her husband Tom and I spent two weeks in Scotland timing our visit to see the famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a spectacular show featuring hundreds of marching bagpipers and drummers using Edinburgh Castle as a backdrop.) In short, Edinburgh didn’t feel right without Kay and Tom or the festival. But my new friends Paula and her husband Chuck hadn’t seen this beautiful city and perhaps I could recapture some of the delight I had felt when I had first visited if I saw it through their eyes so I volunteered to show them around.
Along the Royal Mile

Scotland is almost on the same latitude as Alaska so Edinburgh is often rainy, dark and gloomy, and the day we arrived was no exception. Coming from hot and sunny London just a few days ago to cold and rainy Edinburgh was rather depressing. I had to bundle up in long johns and a coat and I was still cold! The weather wasn’t too bad the day we arrived in late August, but it was soon going to turn ugly.

The location of our hotel could not have been better. We were in the heart of Old Town--right off the Royal Mile and midway between Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse Palace, the Queen’s residence when visiting Edinburgh. Old Town was built in the Middle Ages; its towering dark stone buildings loom over narrow winding streets, blocking the light. Alleyways called “Closes” lead off of the Royal Mile and open into a hidden world beyond. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole as I walked through one of these narrow, dark tunnels emerging on the other side into an amazing landscape of medieval high rises. At the height of the Industrial Age, 80,000 people were crammed together like sardines in tiny apartments and the poverty had been appalling. However, today only 4,000 people live comfortably behind these ancient facades; its dreary past is long gone and what exists now is an alive and dynamic city with flowers tucked into every nook.
One of the long, narrow alleyways called a Close.
The banner reads: "Heave awa' chaps, I'm no' dead yet!

One Close I wandered into opened onto a secret garden. Just a few feet away the street was crowded  with traffic and bustling people but inside, the cool sanctuary of the garden was peacefully empty. I'd again followed the rabbit into an enchanted place that seemed made just for my discovery. It was a public garden called Dunbar's Close Garden, but tucked away out of sight it waited patiently to delight only those who took the time to explore the hidden corners of Edinburgh.

"Laid out in the character of Edinburgh in the 17th Century garden in 1977
when it was donated by the Mushroom Trust"

After settling into our rooms, Paula, Chuck and I walked all the way up the Royal Mile to the imposing Edinburgh Castle which is perched on top of a massive granite outcropping rising several hundred feet above the city. From there, we descended a set of steep stairs called “Patrick Geddes Steps” to the legendary Grassmarket below. Built to accommodate the weekly market, it had been a notorious part of the old city, a hang out for rowdies and prostitutes who partied in the door to door pubs. We stopped for drinks at the “The Last Drop”, an apt name for a pub I thought until I heard that the public gallows had been located right outside their door and the name commemorates the final hanging they had there. We thought it was very possible that the resident ghosts of the dearly condemned departed could be sitting right next to us, so to be on the safe side we raised our glasses and wished them well.
Paula and Chuck in Grassmarket with Edinburgh Castle behind them.
The Last Drop, a ring side seat at the gallows!
 After dinner, we walked down the Royal Mile past landmarks like St Giles Cathedral all the way to Holyroodhouse Palace. The Palace was closed for the day, so we could only peer through the magnificent ornate gates and marvel at one of the most beautiful palaces I had ever seen. As we turned to leave, I noticed that the street in front of the Palace was called “Horse Wynd”. (Either “Wynd” means something else in Gallic or someone had a great sense of humor, I don’t know which.) Across the street from the Palace is the new Scottish Parliament building—a strange dichotomy of ultra modern design and symbols of primitive Celtic life. However, I think it aptly illustrates the ancient collective Scottish yearning for a modern independence. Fiercely proud, they feel they are first and foremost Scottish and the Rampart Lion (the symbol of Scotland) will one day roar again!
St. Giles Cathedral. The Queen awards Knighthood of the Thistle in Thistle Chapel.
One set of gates into Holyroodhouse Palace
Does it really mean that??
 The sun was beginning to set as we walked back up the Royal Mile, throwing amber light and ruddy shadows on the buildings turning them into a master painting. We ended the day by having a great Italian meal across the street from our hotel.  It seems Scottish chefs know how to make a mean eggplant rigatoni!
Along the Royal Mile
The Old Toll Booth
Edinburgh in sunset.
(Double click on any picture for a full screen slide show.)

TO READ MORE about St. Giles Cathedral and the Palace of Holyroodhouse check out my blog "Been There, Seen That!" ***Listed on the right of the screen is a heading called "Blog Archives". Click on 2012, then click on July.

DON'T MISS: The Military Tattoo.  When you visit Edinburgh, make sure you see the Military Tattoo. It takes place every year in August.  Make your reservations early.  Best seats face the Castle. It will be one of the most exciting shows you will ever see especially if you have any drop of Scottish blood in ye at all!

Next time: Edinburgh Castle, Palace of Holyroodhouse and Haggis