An old travel diary, day 6: Oban to Fort William

It’s another travel day here.  This one opened with a trip out to McCaig’s Tower one last time for some morning shots of the Oban skyline, and then (after bidding our hosts farewell) we set off for the day’s first stop.  It was a bright enough morning, but as we’ve learned during our stay so far the usual state of the weather in Scotland is “unsettled.”  Based on my experience with weather reports in this country so far this means literally “we have no goddamn idea what the weather will be like; just wear like three layers and do your best.”
In practice, this seems about right.  So far we’ve been pretty lucky, the rain holding off or letting up altogether when we step out to visit one of the local sights.  The damp is in everything, though: it’s great for skin, I suppose, but it’s disconcerting to open a suitcase and find that everything inside feels just that bit moist.
Anyway, our luck continued to hold as we reached Dunstaffnage, our first stop for the day.  This tiny castle is largely a picturesque ruin today, but has a claim to fame as the prison, for a time, of Flora MacDonald.  (If you’re like me and going “who?” at that, she’s the person responsible for eventually escorting Bonnie Prince Charlie to Skye dressed as her maid.  This action eventually allowed Charlie to escape to France, where he apparently went on to let everyone down by idling away his remaining days in drinking and such.)
We also found our first geocache of Scotland here at last.  Huzzah!  This one was a nice hide.
From Dunstaffnage, it was a short drive to our next stop, Bonawe Iron Works.  This wasn’t a forge, but rather a smelting operation – a charcoal-burning smelter that had run for a surprisingly long time.  Here the smiths made some clever use of the landscape, placing the storage sheds for raw materials up at the top of the hills so that as the process moved along everything was gradually ferried downhill to the water, where a boat would carry the finished iron onward to be forged and wrought into useful things.  Quite a production, though: it took two tons EACH of charcoal and iron ore to make one ton of smelted iron.
The smelting apparatus is gone now, but the buildings are well preserved, and the exhibitions inside give a pretty good impression of what life must have been like back then.  The town was all crofters and fishermen until the ironworks showed up, though.  Industry must have really blown up the place (so to speak.)
It was only just late morning at this point, so as the trip to Fort William (our stop for the night) was quite short we made another detour, this time to Glencoe.  This is…well…a really beautiful spot; epic mountains, remnants of Scotland’s volcanic prehistory, rake steeply up either side of the glen, broken up here and there by huge boulders or entire hillsides covered with sharp, spiky gravel that sometimes shatters away from the mountains above due to ice or heavy rains.  As with most of the glens, sharp little ribbons of water constantly run down the mountainsides, cutting them a little deeper, eventually pooling to make wider rivers or lochs at the bottom.  Patches of sunlight drift across the landscape, moving with the gaps in the clouds, and patches of snow and ice still cling to the highest of the peaks.
This area (along with much of the highlands) is a haven for hikers, cyclists, climbers, and outdoorsmen of all sorts, including the truly batshit-insane: the ice climbers.  (The notion of trying to scramble up a sheer face of ice using just an axe and some spiky shoes and such seems like madness to me.  I’ll stick to snapping photos from here, thanks.)
After a quick lunch we resolved it was a good idea to get into the spirit of the place ourselves and do a bit of walking, so we left the car behind for a hike up to Signal Rock, where according to lore a fire was lit on the night of the massacre.
…and oh, yes, about that.  This is the place, all right, and here we got to learn more about the massacre itself.  It’s often presented as the Campbells being assholes, but at the place itself we learnt a bit more.  It was, as with so many atrocities, political: what we had was a king who needed to bring the unruly highland clans under control.  Fine: let’s establish an amnesty – any clan lord who comes in and swears fealty will be forgiven past crimes.  However, anyone who doesn’t will be treated as traitors and punished accordingly.
Not being complete idiots, most clans seem to have said basically “oh, fine, very well” and sworn fealty within the deadline.  However, the MacDonalds weren’t so lucky: a series of miscommunications and the wrong people being out of town led to their oath being rather late.  (There were some pretty sickening quotes from people being like “Yes!  Score!  Someone we can make an example of!” at this.)
Accordingly, troops of soldiers were sent out to Glencoe, very likely with no idea what it was they were actually there to do; as was the highland custom they were received with all hospitality.  For twelve days they hung out as visitors, while other troops moved into position…
And then the leader, a Roy Campbell, finally received his real orders.  (I can only imagine how that must have felt.) Thirty-eight were killed, with more driven out into the snow.  Interestingly, there are stories that some of the MacDonalds were warned and given a chance to flee.  Perhaps some of the soldiers had a bit of a crisis of conscience, in the end.
Today there’s not really much to indicate that awful things once happened there; in the parts that we saw there’s scarcely so much as a foundation to show where the MacDonalds lived.  Just the glen, all forbidding and majestic, and the deer and the eagles…and, naturally, the sheep.  (It looked as though a croft or two have been grandfathered in, and sit serenely in the middle of all that dramatic landscape.)
The hike up to Signal Rock was pretty and densely forested.  I looked as hard as I could for signs of wildlife but couldn’t find any, unfortunately.  (We were a rather noisy group, what with all the conversation.) Still, it was good to take in some of the wilderness and its atmosphere: ferns and lichen-covered trees and the distant sounds of wind and water. A bit restorative, even.
A quick stop in town netted us a second geocache, this one hidden in a fake rock near a war memorial.  Returning it was a bit problematic, as a car with a couple of people in it sat for some time just staring down the end of the street near the memorial.  I had to hang about for some time pretending to read signs before I could return it.
By this time it was getting late, so we made our way to Fort William to settle in at our next B&B.  The rooms were massive and had some interesting restrictions (like “no hanging things to dry in rooms”) that suggested Fort William’s status as jumping-off point for all sorts of outdoorsman-ly activator in the Highlands.  (And our hosts had easily the broadest Scots accents we’d heard all this trip.  Perhaps they become more pronounced the farther north you go.)
Settling in, we made a brief jaunt to the nearby hotel for some venison stew for dinner, then picked up one last cache on the way back to our rooms.  This one was at an old bridge between the hotel and our B&B, and even with the hint it was a very tricky find.  I doubt we’d have come across it at all if a pleasant middle-aged lady hadn’t eyed us curiously and asked “Are ye lookin’ fer somethin’ hidden?”
Ashamed to be caught out by a Muggle, we admitted we were, and she nudged us toward the  cache: an elaborately-rigged beer can hanging by some kind of stout fishing line from the side of the bridge.  The line it hung from was green, making it all but invisible.
Cache logged, we returned to our room to have a wash up.

An old travel diary, day 5: Pilgrimage to Iona

Day 5 dawned bright and early and a little crankily as the two of us, tired from a night of little sleep, scrambled downstairs for breakfast.  Here we learned something else about our hosts, as in one corner of the dining room a television showed what appeared to be something like the interior of an aviary or rabbit hutch.  Sure enough, after a few moments a plump, fluffy chick wandered by on the screen – not a chicken, though.
These were mottled and brownish and vaguely familiar…quail chicks, as our hostess informed us a few minutes later.  Quail almost never hatch their own eggs in captivity, it seems, since generations of incubated chicks have dulled the instinct, but somehow this particular batch did so.  (Taped below the television were a pair of cards congratulating our hosts, baby-shower style, on the fluffy arrivals.)
We paused for a moment to purchase some cold Scotch pies and sausage rolls for lunch before heading to the ferry for the first leg of our journey today: a ride to the Isle of Mull.  Mull is the third-largest of the Hebrides, and a popular spot for vacationers; certainly this morning’s ferry trip appeared to be full of them.   The ferry itself had a few interesting features, including a coffee shop, bar and cafe (all separate facilities) and an array of gambling machines.  There was also a bit of a clue as to the remoteness of the places we were about to visit – one of the vans was some sort of mobile branch of the Bank of Scotland, something I’ve never seen before anywhere, while another seemed to be the Royal Mail.
The crossing took about as long as my daily commute, and for a while there was little else to do except watch the landscape drift by and do our best to stay out of the rain.
The ferry from Oban lands in Craignure, and as far as I can tell there’s almost nothing there save the docks themselves – a visitor centre, a cafe, a petrol station, and a convenience store make up pretty much all the rest of the amenities.  From there, you have a momentous choice to make: go right to colorful Tobermory, unofficial capital of the island, or go left toward a second ferry trip that takes you to Iona.  There’s not really any way to do both in a day, and Mull’s most major road forms a “U” that essentially runs along one curve of the island, from one to the other.
We went left.
Here is the thing about the roads on Mull: even the most major of them is a single lane.  A single narrow lane, one that is often literally just wide enough for the car; every so often there are “passing places” into which, by some strange etiquette, one car will ease so that others may pass.  Even so, sometimes the passing places are so narrow themselves that I caught myself holding my breath a bit as a car pulled by.  Especially terrifying: passing, or being passed by, a bus on these super-narrow roads.  (It happened.  Several times.  Doesn’t get any less scary basically ever, let me tell you.)
This said, here is the OTHER thing about the roads on Mull: the countryside they pass through is gorgeous.  In the rain the craggy hills, green and implausibly steep, are cut here and there by these savage little silver ribbons which, close up, reveal themselves as rushing water.  Here and there a little farm or crofter’s house will suddenly manifest, white and gleaming even in the dimmer rainy light.  This is a place for the very, very deepest of introverts.
Every so often, a stone bridge of unknowable vintage would appear in or near our path, reminding us that humans do still have some impact in this place.  Or, perhaps, a ruin or old foundation, some long-ago person’s attempt at enduring change.  (Something has endured, but perhaps not what they believed.)
Other than that…sheep, of course.  There are sheep everywhere.  And cows, this time the shaggy, long-haired highland variety.  There are other animals too, of course: the sign that read “Slow Chickens” did indeed mean “hey, there are chickens wandering around loose in front of this cafe, please don’t run over them,” and “Otter Crossing 6 Miles” presumably meant just that, though to my sadness I didn’t see any.
As we approached Fionnphort and the ferry the rain gradually let up, though the sky did not lighten past a pale silver gray.  The ferry landing has even less going on than that at Craignure: a (closed) ticket office, a tiny shop, and an even tinier booth selling food called “The Creel.”  A house or two, and…that’s it.  Across the water the abbey we’ve come to see is visible.
This ferry, unlike the one from Oban, is tiny and mainly for foot passengers; it pitches and rolls with every heave of the sea, and though the ride is short I was glad to step off and be on land again.  Even in the gray light the sea looked greener here; a row of little buildings – one or two bearing signs indicating their status as guest houses, shops, or a pub – stretched out toward the abbey, and that was about it.  No great surprise, really; the entire island is only about one mile across and three miles long.
Perhaps it was my imagination or suggestion at work, but it felt a little different, somehow.  Perhaps it was the remoteness.  Perhaps it was the pilgrimage-like quality of the trek out there.  Or perhaps there is something to the story of a visitor who asked what made Iona special and was told that it was a “thin” place.  Somewhere that veils are readily pierced and an otherness closer to our everyday reach.
(Certainly it did a number on Mark’s phone, which mysteriously lost all battery power shortly after landing on the island.  I had to take over photography duties for a time.)
The island has been a place of worship for over 1400 years, and is still a place of worship today.  Long ago pilgrims would land there, as we did, and pause at huge stone crosses erected alongside the “road of the dead” to pray and contemplate as they approached the abbey.  This was founded by St. Columba, who came over from Ireland a preposterously long time ago and brought Christianity with him; the abbey he founded became a powerful pilgrimage site with a legendary scriptorium.  The Book of Kells was actually…written? Drawn? Composed? I’m not sure what word to use, but it came from here.
Pilgrimage sites were wealthy, of course, and that was bad.  Not because of the temptations of avarice for the Christians, unfortunately…in this case it was bad for the monks because Iona is pretty far north. And a certain people famous for raiding and ransacking places aren’t too far away.
Yep.  Vikings.  They raided the hell out of the place for what wealth it had, slaughtering many monks in the process.  It’s because of them that artifacts like the Book of Kells were taken to Ireland in the first place.  (An interesting aside, though: when the oddly named Magnus Barelegs came to raid the abbey he opened the chapel that contained the relics of St. Columba and, the story goes, stopped short and ordered his men not to touch it.  What power could make the man who supposedly burnt every tree on the Isle of Lewis check his swing, I don’t know, but I can see how the legend makes for a potent retelling.)
For a long time, the abbey was just a picturesque ruin.  It was one of the Earls of Argyll who rescued it, restoring the abbey to a workable state while retaining much of its ancient and historical properties.  Today, it’s still a working church and still conducts services; those seeking a deeper sense of communion can even come out and spend a week or two in retreat here, exchanging room and board and the chance at study for daily chores and such.
It’s not a large abbey, but it is weirdly lovely.  An artisan laboured for thirty years to carve the capstones for all the columns in the new cloister; the chapel that formerly housed Columba’s relics has been restored and now is a place for quiet prayer.  Saints of particular interest to the Celtic peoples (like Brigit, who shares a name with one of their great goddesses) are depicted in its tiny stained glass windows…though most windows are clear, letting in a clean, bright light that made my photographs look a bit as though I were trying too hard.  And what is, we were told, officially the very first Celtic cross ever carved – St. Martin’s cross – stands just outside St. Columba’s chapel, situated so that the light from the sun will cast its shadow to the chapel door.
In the nave, little clusters of quartz pebbles mark the graves of men who died so long ago their names are lost; they were found during the restoration.  The baptismal font is carved with Celtic designs that mimic the crosses outside; a plain silver cross sits atop the altar.  Stairs lead up to a tiny room barely large enough to sit in that holds a chair, a window, and a niche for prayer books – and nothing else; on the door is carved “Stand Fast.”
There are, here and there, elements that make me think as much of pagan acts of faith as Christian ones.  Seashells and stones and little trinkets are left in a window in St. Columba’s chapel.  Ferns sprout incongruously from the walls both within the abbey and without; these are, I’m told, a rare kind of fern that really shouldn’t be able to grow here.
As we explore, a service begins; as if on cue the sky brightens and sunlight spills over everything.  The wind outside the cloister is no less sharp or harsh or cold, but the change in the light underscores the point. Iona is a thin place, and good for contemplation.  Everyone seemed to feel something of the power of the place; Mark says there’s something about the austerity and the quality of the light that brings with it a sense of deep sacredness.
I obtain a trinket for my mother as thanks for her contribution to my funds for the trip: a tiny Celtic cross that echoes the ones outside, wrought in silver.  For myself, a different sort of trinket: a fragment of Iona greenstone, a weird combination of nephrite and marble that is reputed to have nebulously mystical properties.
The ferry ride back is even rougher than before as the wind picks up farther, but it is at least blessedly short; the sunlight stays with us as we return to Craignure, dappling the vivid green of the hills and making our next stop, Duart Castle, look impressive even with its unwieldy armor of scaffolding.
Duart Castle is the ancient home of the MacLeans, and is still owned by them; we were really just there to have a quick look round, as the place was about to close to the public any minute.  Had an unsuccessful attempt to geocache despite, I think, standing right next to it, though both of us accidentally discovered that stinging nettles are a thing in looking for it.  (I think I got off rather lightly, overall.)
A long ferry ride to Oban later we went for dinner at Oban Fish and Chips, centre of a local controversy some years ago when a BBC celebrity I’ve never heard of proclaimed their fish and chips “the best I’ve ever tasted.”  Good for them!  Less good: a second fish and chip shop apparently tried to sneakily suggest he’d said it about THEM instead.  It was written up in the local paper some time ago.  (Drama!)
Be that as it may, they were indeed excellent fish and chips, and the portions were MASSIVE; my “fish tea” would easily have been enough food for two people, really.  It was with very full stomachs indeed that we made our way up to the day’s final stop, as evening set in over Oban: “McCaig’s Tower,” a curious structure at the very peak of the Oban hills that vaguely resembles the colosseum, except all the arches are pointed.
Mr. McCaig was apparently a local banker who also fancied himself an art critic and philosophical essayist; his grand plan was to build a great tower in the middle of this construct and fill it with statues and portraits of his ancestors. It was to be a grand monument to his greatness – and if it provided some extra work for unemployed stonemasons, so much the better.
Unfortunately, he died before the grand project could be completed.  Oh, he left enough money to finish it, right enough – but, you see, his sister rather wanted all that delicious cash.  So it was that a deal was struck with the city: they could have the tower if she got the cash.
And so it was. Now “the crown of Oban” has worked its way into much of the city’s branding.  I wonder how Mr. McCaig would feel about that?

An old travel diary, day 4: Stirling to Oban

North, today.  To the Highlands, and then west, to the coast.
In the old days there was but one way to get from the lowlands to the highlands, and that was to cross the river Forth at the one spot one could easily build a bridge across it: Stirling.  As with Edinburgh, Stirling is built on and around a massive hill, though by the time one reaches it it’s clearly just one hill among many – and as with Edinburgh, the city is crowned by a great castle, ancient seat of the Stuart kings.
Stirling is an interesting contrast with Edinburgh, too: where the latter is all stone that looks gray in some light and golden in others, the buildings here are a humbler gray stucco that might, in winter, seem positively soul-crushing.  The castle itself, however, was once a literal bright spot in the landscape: a great deal of the thing was, back in the Renaissance, plastered over in a warm honey yellow they called “The King’s Gold.”  Today, only the Great Hall at Stirling is done up in this fashion, but even with twenty years’ fading after the restoration it’s plain just how vivid it must once have been.  (I hear there was some pushback about the color when the restoration happened.  Everyone forgets just how bloody gaudy the Renaissance actually was; how vivid and sometimes clashing the colors actually were.). It is also incredibly windy, or was today.
As seems increasingly likely to be the case everywhere we go, there wasn’t really enough time to see all of Stirling, though we covered a lot of ground, I think.  It’s a popular spot with…well…everyone, it seems.  Kids in princess clothes running around underfoot. A high school band in full Scottish regalia, kilts and all.  And of course the requisite squads of tourists, including ourselves, with all our many languages.  Some of us, as we did, wander the grounds with audio guides, listening to a really rather spiffy retelling of the tale of the ill-fated James V and his succession of French wives, the uncommon canniness of Mary of Guise, and the early life of Mary Queen of Scots.
We also got to hear of the Battle of Bannockburn, wherein Robert the Bruce was on the point of surrendering to the English – greatly outmatched – when one of the Englishmen, doubtless thinking this was his shot at fame, tried to cut him down.  This seemed to remind Robert the Bruce that this is Scotland…the land whose motto is literally Latin for “Nobody fucks with me and gets away with it”…and he chopped the guy’s head just about in half before letting loose his Highlanders on the English in maybe the most iconic ever Highlander charge.  It, uh, didn’t go well for the English.
The restored castle has a number of nifty features.  Costumed actors hang about being people from the Renaissance; we were particularly impressed by a young noblewoman doing embroidery and sharing with us – and everyone else – all the court gossip.  Chambers have been fitted out with furnishings appropriate to the time – in all their gaudy color.  Even the light fixtures, now fitted with electric faux-candles, have some sort of trick to them wherein the fake “flames” quiver as if in a breeze.
One room is hung with massive tapestry recreations of the famous unicorn hunt tapestries; these did not hang here at Stirling originally, but A set of unicorn tapestries did, and since nobody knows what the originals looked like, these were used as a basis for the reproductions.  There’s a whole exhibit devoted to the tapestries, showing weaving and dyeing techniques used, samples of the wool colors, explanations of the iconography – the works.
Another room – intended for the use of James V, who died before he could really settle in – has a crazily-elaborate ceiling set with medallions depicting all sorts of people, from the king himself to the Nine Worthies to fashionable court ladies to Julius Caesar.  These were carved in oak, which had to be imported from Eastern Europe; a previous King had cut down all the mature oaks in Scotland to build a ship. Oops.
We also heard the amusing story of an alchemist who resided at the castle for several years, attempting to turn lead into gold via various means with about as much success as you’d expect.  In a bid to restore his flagging reputation, he announced he would leap off the battlements and fly to France – and made ready to do so, appearing on the big day fully kitted out in…well, a chicken suit.  Let us call a spade a spade.
At the appointed moment, he leapt off the battlements as planned…and plummeted promptly into a bog.  This likely saved his life; he escaped with only a broken leg.  Afterward, he realized his big mistake: chickens are ground-loving birds.  If only he’d used eagle feathers!
Still, it seems that with this stunt he earned himself the right to hang around for a while.  As publicity stunts go it can likely be called a success in that sense.
Anyway, our time at the castle concluded, it was time to make our way cross-country.  This got off to a rough start right away when the GPS accidentally got us pointed toward Glasgow, entirely the wrong way.  However, we reasoned, there was nothing stopping us from just cutting straight across country to Loch Lomond and driving up it to our eventual destination, the seaside town of Oban.
(Yes, THAT Loch Lomond.  And yes, we made the requisite road jokes.)
In all, I’m not sorry we made this little unplanned jaunt; it let us have a good look at what seems to be the Scottish equivalent of the Midlands.  Gentle, rolling hills, winding roads, and lots and lots of those little gray stucco houses.  Still, we were all curious as to what the famous loch would look like, and eventually the trees lining the roadside opened up to reveal…
…something that looked rather a lot like it might belong in the Bracebridge area, to be honest.  Oh, the hills were rather steeper, yes, but still, not entirely unfamiliar to the Canadian contingent.
At one point we hopped out of the car to snap a photo and ended up talking to some Australians who ran some sort of metal detector business; as the conversation went on I drifted away from the group and found myself looking at some little pink wild flowers.  Primroses or something, perhaps?  Something that unfurled, slowly, from tight pink bud to paler-pink five-petaled blossom; it seemed poetic to think of, somehow, these little flowers unfolding quiet and unnoticed by the roadside.
We also had our first encounter with a particularly infamous denizen of Scotland: midges.  I miraculously didn’t get bitten, though Mark was less lucky.
From there we took a long, scenic drive through rolling hills along the sea coast.  Spotted no less than two pheasants (one male, one female), two deer, and a number of interesting birds, from mallards to something that might have been an egret.
Scotland’s west coast is dotted as heavily as the rest of it with castles; we drove past Clan Campbell’s seat, which is surprisingly fairytale-style, though we were too late to go in.  This seems to be a bit of a trend; nearly everything of tourist interest in Scotland shuts down no later than six pm, usually by five, meaning that you often find yourself with only twenty minutes or so to see a place.  Ah, well.  It was still cool, even if the Campbells were apparently backstabbing assholes, according to legend.  They reputedly set the MacDonalds up to get slaughtered en masse at Glencoe.
We also stopped briefly at Inverary, a town that was very obviously laid out in the Georgian era: the entire Main Street is composed of solid, white-plastered buildings with black-painted trim.  There’s a historic jail, a pub older than Canada, and one of those sweet shops that seem to be everywhere in Scotland so far, catering to nostalgia for sweets I’ve never heard of, or have only read about in books.  There’s also a bell tower which apparently has some of the most splendid bells in Scotland, though sadly we didn’t get to hear them ring.
From there the road turned north, leading us past many, many small villages, the names of which weren’t always evident.  This is another thing I’ve noticed about Scotland: they do not seem to give a damn either about road signs or about signposting the names of villages.  I suppose if you don’t already know where you are, the general reasoning is you don’t need to; Karen hypothesized that many of these signs may have been taken down to stump the Nazis and then just never put back up again.
We did stop in one called Kilmartin, though: this tiny little village is home to a charming church  with bright-purple doors; a terraced cemetery spirals away from it down the hill.  As we hopped out for a look we noticed that apparently the village is also home to some carved stones dating back to the medieval era; a fortuitous find, and one that made for an interesting addition to our photo collections as we made our final descent into Oban.
Oban is known as “the seafood capital of Scotland,” and is a quaint little seaside town that, like many spots we’ve visited so far, seems heavily slanted toward tourism for its livelihood.  It’s also somewhat baffling to navigate by car, as our GPS kept directing us to roads that had no signage.  Eventually we made our way up a very steep hill to our local lodgings, where we were greeted by our very affable new hosts and shown to our surprisingly spacious rooms.
The landlords were even kind enough to book us a spot at a local seafood place called Ee-usk (the phonetic pronunciation of the Gaelic “iasg,” or “fish”), and so after dropping off our bags we set off down the hill to eat.   Walking the hill really drove home just how steep it truly was; anyone living here must surely have powerful legs.
The tide was out when we arrived in the harbour, but the restaurant was cute; an airy green space and a surprising if intriguing section of the menu where they specified the sources of their fish.  As in, “Our mussels come from Nigel on the Isle of Mull; he grows them on ropes and we don’t know what he does to them, but they’re sweet and tender!” (Loosely paraphrasing there, but only loosely.)
Well, the only thing to do seemed to be to order the sampler plates, then; Mark ordered the fish sampler and I ordered something called the “seafood platter” that offered up a mix of oysters, langoustines (think tiny lobsters), mussels, and a massive crab claw.  It was…seriously delicious; kind of a foodgasm, especially after a convenience-store lunch and on an empty stomach.  Afterward we hauled ourselves all the way back up the cliff and into our B&B, where we crashed into bed.  A rough night as it turned out, but there is always another day, no?

An old travel diary, part 3: Things ancient and nautical

Before I begin, something I forgot to mention last time: ever heard of John Knox?  Big figure in church reform?  His house is a visitor attraction?
Well, he’s buried in Edinburgh, near the Mercat Cross.  This is fine, except there is now a car park there where the cemetery used to be.
…and no, they didn’t move any of the bodies.  And no, nobody besides Knox has a monument.  But he’s got one: a plaque, in spot number 23.  I took a photo to prove it.  I hear a Porsche is normally parked on top of him, but he was visible today.

Our first stop today was the National Museum of Scotland.  This has recently undergone an extensive renovation, and is both huge and rather lovely.  We came to get a grounding in the history of Scotland – and this we did, seeing as there were extensive exhibitions on pretty much everything going all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs.  I don’t associate Scotland with volcanoes, but it was volcanic once; the huge hill they call “Arthur’s Seat” and the spine of the city along which the castle and Royal Mile run are both the remnants of a volcanic age.  (Today, of course, they just look rather rugged and majestic, dotted here and there with flowers.)

Eventually, along come the Picts, or “the painted ones,” of whom we know little; there were several examples of their navigation stones (?) on display.  At least, the plaques assure us that’s what they are; they don’t seem to bear any resemblance to maps of the area.  Instead, they’re covered with strange crescent-moon-like arcs intersecting with combinations of lines and circles; nobody seems to know what they mean, but they’re interesting in an eerie sort of way.
After them come the Celts, as we know them; there was a special exhibition on of Celtic art at the time we happened to be there, and it was, I feel, well worth the ten pounds or so of entrance fee.  Much of their art is lost, of course, as leather, fabric, and wood aren’t known for their sturdiness over thousands of years, but there was a remarkable collection of cloak-pins, torcs and other jewelry in various metals.  (One hoard was found by a guy who literally bought a metal detector, took it out to play with, and walked about seven steps from his car before he got a beep and unearthed a massive trove of bronze and gold jewelry.)
Also on display were the remnants of “carnyxes,” a kind of horn, usually shaped like a boar’s head; there was a video of a man playing a modern reproduction.  It’s a weird, haunting noise,  and it’s pretty easy to imagine it being pretty scary to an enemy army.
Then there was the Gundestrup cauldron, all in silver and lined with panels showing (on the outside) eerie faces set with glass eyes and (inside) some rather mysterious scenes featuring horned men, warriors being perhaps baptized or drowned, and a number of other strange scenes. A hole at the bottom was mended with a silver shield boss depicting a warrior woman that had just finished fighting a lion…though it didn’t look all that dead, rather as though the two of them were taking a nice break.  Clearly it had been well used, though why had it then been tossed into a bog in the end?  Odd.
Anyway, many examples of intricate compass-work, elaborate knots and swirling spirals; other pieces on display showed the ways that Roman and later Christian elements worked their way into the iconography.  The knot work we know today is really a kind of fusion-art, it seems.  Nothing happens in isolation, I guess, especially in Europe.
I mentioned the Romans, and they were next; them you know so I won’t devote a ton of time to them.  After that things start to get more familiar: the clans, Robert the Bruce (we saw a drinking cup of his, which also featured a lion at the bottom, surrounded by shields bearing the insignia of his clan.) Gradually we move toward the unification with England, the Catholic/Protestant troubles, and the insane burst of literary and scientific flourishing that happened during the 1700s (with its darker side of course; the medical school Edinburgh was so known for was also the unfortunate root cause of a good deal of body-snatching.)
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay to see the whole thing; the day was getting on and we had a lengthy jaunt by bus to make to get out to our next stop – the Royal Yacht Britannia.  A hasty picnic was assembled from ready-made sandwiches and portions of fruit and such, and eaten as we waited for the bus to take us there.
The Royal Yacht Britannia is, or was, the Queen’s residence at sea, and apparently one of the places she’s most fond of; Royal honeymooners like Charles and Diana have used it as well.  It’s a sleek, dark-blue ship with a band of gold running around its edge…literal gold, of the 24 carat variety.  Inside, it’s surprisingly simple, apparently at Her Majesty’s request; everything looks a bit like a somewhat swankier version of a country house as of, say, 1952. Lots of chintz furnishings, bamboo, etc.  I suppose this was the Queen’s equivalent of going to the cottage, though of course when she does, she brings with her something like six tons of luggage.
An extensive entourage, too: the yacht had something like two hundred plus sailors aboard at any given time while it was operational, keeping everything neat and tidy and sort of disturbingly shipshape.  (State dinners with many guests could take up to three hours to set tables for, as someone had to go round with a ruler and make sure everything was just so.). Every teacup and wineglass and fork had its own place, and people could end up changing uniforms up to 16 times in a day, so the laundry was vast.  (Some amusing signs of the humanity of the sailors, though: the lockers in the berths were covered with stickers for everything from bands to some sort of contest for a PlayStation.)
There was even a full band on board at all times, which seems kind of crazy to me.  How often during an average day does one – even the Queen – require a band of marines?
Visiting is a reminder of a couple of interesting differences between the UK and North America.  One: the UK is obsessed with status.  There were no less than four different messes available for the sailors: one for the officers, one for the lesser officers, one for the senior regular shipmen and one for the average seamen.
Two: the UK is a lot more into boats than I am.  I suppose that if you have built an empire on naval power you’re more likely to be all about boats, but there was a great deal of stuff about the glamour of sailing! And sailing technique!  And the glories of the sea! And so on that as a child of a landlocked city I have to admit I don’t really get.  I don’t swim and I don’t share the fondness for The Seaside that many Brits seem to have.
By this time it was getting on to late afternoon/early evening – or, as Mark calls it, The Time It Rains In Scotland.  Feeling a bit tired and hungry we set off for a pub recommended in Karen’s literature, at 9A Holyrood.  She’d gotten it into her head that this was along the Royal Mile, and although I did say a few times that we needed to cut to the right through one of the closes, we’d made it all the way to Holyrood Palace without sighting the place.
At around this point I explained that it was actually parallel to the road we were on, and we trekked back up the hill and left, locating it almost at once.
Dinner was burgers and some cider, both tasty.  Made an abortive attempt to locate a geocache (nearly impossible without data on this thing) before eventually retiring early to plan our drive for the next day.  I feel rather lame for not doing something interesting with our last evening in Edinburgh, but then…who knows, maybe the planning will turn out to have been for  the best, ultimately.

An old travel diary, part 2

I begin to fear my hair will never be dry again.

Not because it rained – though it did rain, sort of, off and on for much of the afternoon, interspersing patches of wet with some extraordinarily lovely golden sunlight – but because Edinburgh is even on bright, sunny days sort of quietly damp; no amount of brushing is sufficient to tame the frizzy halo I acquired almost immediately upon stepping outside.

Ah well. There’s a lot to talk about today so I’d better get on it.

Breakfast was…well, I hesitate to say “the full English” for obvious reasons, but yes: the return of the English Breakfast that so haunted Mark during our walk in Cornwall that by the end of it I think he might’ve stabbed someone for a pancake. Still, time dulls all such things, and both of us tucked in rather happily. (We beat the Whitings to breakfast – quite a rarity! They must’ve been very tired indeed.)

Had a chance to talk a bit further with our landlady as well; she’s Hungarian. And there’s been a good bit more talk of the Brexit, as well, as a number of people are sounding a bit panicky over the result. (In the news, anyway; the actual local Scots are uniformly enraged to varying degrees.)

Anyway. Our first stop for today was Edinburgh Castle, at the top of the Royal Mile. Although it was early, the buskers were out in force; a young, hipsterish man made a puppet play the cello, and there was of course the ubiquitous bagpiper. (Something I forgot to mention yesterday: our time to first piper on day one was a whopping…two hours.)

The castle was relatively thronged with visitors today, and I heard a remarkably huge array of languages as we wandered through it. There’s an audio tour that guides you through the various buildings and exhibitions, and it’s surprisingly well-produced – also very informative. Lots of it is of course tangles of dates and times and military actions, but all the same I feel I came away with some highlights. A little cemetery for dogs – the beloved pets and mascots of a variety of regiments, officers, and governors. The remnants of a war prison, including some rooms hung with the hammocks the prisoners would have slept in and some spectacular ships and boxes made of bone and wooden scraps…and even some bone dies meant to be used to forge money, for the very enterprising captives.

A tiny but interesting museum devoted to the Royal Scots regiment, who I think I can say were some remarkably hardcore motherfuckers. The whole place was full of stories like “one of them fell at the Battle of Waterloo while carrying the regimental standard. A comrade tried to take the flag, couldn’t pry it from his grip, and eventually resorted to just carrying bearer and standard both. So impressed were the French by this act of gallantry that they withheld fire until both men were behind their allies’ line.”

There’s also rather a lot of fuss over a gentleman I’d never heard of named Charles Ewart, whose claim to fame is capturing the French standard at the Battle of Waterloo. (Literally, capturing the flag.) For this he’s earned himself a painting hung in the great hall at Edinburgh Castle, with its unusually well-preserved medieval hammer-beam ceiling and a built-in spy hole for the laird to keep an eye on his nobles.

It is rather easy to forget, living as I do in modern day Canada, exactly how heavy the emphasis once was on war and soldiering as intensely honorable, even honor-bound, but good lord is it impossible to escape in the UK. Edinburgh Castle contains a pretty remarkable reminder or two, the aforementioned museum included of course, but there’s also an extraordinary war memorial the size of a small cathedral, a really rather beautiful example of 20s/30s design which honors, of course, the men who died in “The Great War.” It is both sort of poetic to see, and also sort of tragic, knowing as I do that less than twenty years later another conflict along even grander lines would come along.

A huge block of green marble holds a silver casket containing a register of the honoured dead, with St. Michael above with his nets, and each panel of the walls of the place is elegantly inscribed with a variety of the war dead (chaplains, the naval men with “no grave but the sea,” etc.) above a bronze relief showing them in action. Below that, a “register of honor” – a list of names, bound in red leather on a lectern.

Also housed in Edinburgh Castle are the “Honours of Scotland” – the Crown Jewels. Yes, Scotland has its own and here they are, displayed alongside the Stone of Destiny, upon which Scottish monarchs sit to be crowned. Unlike England’s Crown Jewels, these escaped destruction at the hands of Cromwell – there are a variety of stories about how they got smuggled out of the Lord Protector’s reach, including ‘stashed under someone’s dress’ and ‘disguised in a bundle of seaweed.’ When Scotland joined the United Kingdom, the Honours Scotland were placed inside a giant chest – easily large enough to hold a refrigerator – and sealed away until, many years later, Sir Walter Scott spearheaded an effort to go dig them up.

Astonishingly, they were in pretty great shape and all the pieces were still there. Even more astonishingly, there was a piece there that wasn’t there before: a wand, tipped with crystal and made of the same precious materials as everything else. To this day nobody has any idea what on earth this was for or how it got there. Paging Kenneth Hite.

What else do they keep at a castle? Guns, of course. There is, of course, “the one o’clock gun,” first conceived as an auditory signal for the boats in Leith harbour to accompany a visual one. (Why one and not noon? Well, as the guide says, the Scots are famous for their thrift, and ammunition is expensive.) The one o’clock gun is still fired today, though the modern artillery piece is a far cry from the cannon that must once have served this function.

Speaking of cannons, there’s an epic example at the castle as well: “Mons Meg,” a bloody HUGE thing that fired stones about the width of my torso and weighed something like six tons. Somewhat impractical to use, of course, and so as armament technology improved she was increasingly only fired on special occasions until at last a charge blew a hole in her side; too heavy even to smelt down, she was left to rust for some time. After some time away in England for display she was eventually welcomed home – literally, with some degree of pomp – to the castle battlements, where she’s still on display, hole in the side and all.

At around this point it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a small cafe (haggis, again!) before stopping in at the Writers’ Museum.

This small but fun for book people museum is nestled into the former home of a wealthy lady, and features exhibitions on Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. All of them are fascinating little collections of paraphernalia of the lives surrounding each author: Robert Burns’s sword cane, Scott’s canes (he was lame from a childhood illness), Stevenson’s ring inscribed with the name given to him by the Samoans among whom he passed his last days (I forget the word, but it translates into “Teller of Stories.” If I were to swipe, Nathan Drake-like, a ring from a museum, this would be the one.)

There was also a cabinet on display. Unremarkable in itself, but the plaque revealed that this cabinet had once stood in Stevenson’s bedroom…and that it had once belonged to Deacon Brodie. Brodie was a model deacon by day…but by night, a dissipated man of many vices. Sound familiar? If it does, it’s because he’s the probable inspiration behind Stevenson’s tale of Jekyll and Hyde.

Also in the room? A cool little diorama of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, left anonymously at the museum by some interested patron. Better still, it’s one of many that this person left anonymously at different literary sites around Edinburgh, with inscriptions on the back that these items were meant to honor libraries, books and reading. Awesome, anonymous artist. I hope that whoever you are you’ve seen that the museum has your work on display.

Our next stop was all the way down at the other end of the Royal Mile: Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s home when she’s in Scotland. This will, incidentally, be in about a week, so it’s probably a good thing we happened along now.

Holyrood is an intensely symmetrical place. Lots of pains taken to present balance – and, in the apartments open to the public, to present an avenue of increasing opulence and impressiveness for visitors to be escorted through on their way to meet the monarch. Plaster ceilings and painting after painting after painting of James and Charles (both Jameses and Charleses, really) and tapestries of increasing impressiveness eventually culminate in…the King’s Bedroom, a room in which the King almost certainly did not actually sleep, but rather conducted very small and intimate meetings in the presence of a preposterously elaborate and expensive bed. Odd choice of a meeting room but I suppose that is the 1700s for you. Amusingly, the king who designed it also had it done up with paintings that liken the monarch to various mythic heroes, including Hercules.

Beyond that is a long gallery. Which is…exactly that; a long, long gallery full of paintings. These have a certain similarity of style to them, and as the audio guide explains this is because they were all painted by the same Dutchman, who was commissioned to do a portrait of all of the king’s ancestors going all the way back to the 300s. That’s a lot of kings and queens; enough that he was banging these out at about a painting a week. (Part of me wishes I could see the writeup of that job on Clients From Hell.)

Also in the palace are the apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots, who as we know had a hard time picking a good man and suffered greatly for it; his ambitions are shown plainly in a heart-shaped bauble on display in the chambers, along with many other trinkets of the time. Lots of memento mori jewelry, a lock of Mary’s hair, hand-embroidered purses and such by the queen, etc. (One item was labeled only “Memento mori of the Winter King.” What a Feylord was doing there I’ve no idea, but it seems something like that should be less unassuming.)

The special exhibition this time was absolute Karen Nirvana by the way: an exhibition of gowns and hats worn by the Queen at various times throughout her reign, accompanied by an array of fashion plates and such. As a costume fan myself I also enjoyed these, though maybe not AS much as my mother in law. (I have to say, though, NOBODY’s hat game is as good as Her Majesty’s.)

On our way to dinner we stopped for an unusual errand: locating the grave of Adam Smith so Mark could add him to the list of philosophers at whose grave sites he’s been photographed. As it happens, we took the wrong turn to start with, and a long rainy few minutes were spent hunting up the grave – but we did find it and the photo was taken; amusingly, people have scattered a good bit of money at the gravesite, as though so doing might bring economic mojo to the one making the offering. (We added a Canadian nickel to the collection.)

A quick dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant later it was time for the ghost walk. This too was amusingly touristy, if well-presented; our guide was a young lady from Surrey named Amandine who regaled us over the next few hours with gruesome tales of torture (Mark got to serve as demonstrator for her digression on flogging), local ghosts, and the body snatchers…well, serial killers…Burke and Hare.

We toured the “vaults” in the process, demonstrating one of Edinburgh’s most curious features: the place is built in layers. Here, the vaults that supported a massive bridge were eventually walled in as the city grew (and the bridge is indistinguishable in most places from an ordinary street.). These, naturally, became havens for all sorts of unsavoury types, and are reputedly haunted by all manner of things, from lost children to a mysterious angry thing they simply called “The Watcher.”

I don’t think we saw anything in the way of actual manifestations or anything, but it was a diverting evening, and it concluded with a drink in a rather cute little cellar-pub at the end, where more stories were told for a time before they turned us out into the night (and we promptly discovered that you can’t simply go south if you want to go south, as going south and down might mean you end up below the level of the street you want to be on.). Eventually we returned home for an hour and some of writing (for me) and for Mark watching the Brits be conflicted about Brexit, some terrible game shows, and a bit of Predator 2.

An old travel diary, part 1

This is one of a series of journal posts from a trip I took years ago (as of this writing) and am posting here so as not to lose them.
I have never been very good at sleeping on airplanes.
This is pretty deeply unfortunate if you find yourself in the position of having to sleep on one or potentially go 24 hours without rest.  But here we are.
Our flight out was a surprisingly brief seven hours on Brussels Airlines.  As very long flights go it was a pleasant trip; everything about the Brussels Airlines planes is simultaneously rather adorably Euro and rather surprisingly twee.  Safety videos featuring cheery cartoon birds.  Sugar packets that say “Hello, sweetie, here’s some sugar.”  Given that their slogan appears to be “We go the extra smile,” perhaps I should not have been surprised.
Despite the surprisingly pleasant service, I completely failed to get even a bit of sleep.  Thirty minutes perhaps, no more.  The dry, strangely hot plane, the occasional stabbing pains in my hands, and the turbulence that seemed to hit the moment I got comfortable conspired against me, as did the fairly extreme thirst (note to self: buy a damned bottle of water for the flight home.)
Our descent into Brussels prompted Mark to make a quip about how all the people look like meeples from up here, and I can sort of see why – the Belgian countryside is indeed pretty damned reminiscent of an Agricola board or something.  It looked green and damp, a silvery gray sky overhead.
The “damp” is real, to be sure; walking off the plane I was promptly smacked in the face by a wall of still, humid air that clung even as we entered the terminal, which is…surprisingly modest, considering that Brussels is the heart of the EU and all. 70s-ish carpet, molded plastic chairs, that vaguely pinkish granite-look tile I remember from department stores of times gone by.  I’d expected something a bit more grand.  Certainly something with a bit of air conditioning at the very least; I feel I can barely breathe in here.
It’s been nearly impossible to get onto the Internet in the airport, for some reason, but we’ve managed it long enough to learn that during our flight England decided to bail on the EU.
I really can’t think of much to add, sleep-deprived as I am; the vote was close, and I expect at least some of the 30% or so of people who didn’t turn out will be having regrets about that.  Scotland won’t be leaving though.  Which I suppose means it isn’t really the “UK” any more, is it?  …Ugly.
Ah well.  In the absence of other entertainments, I suppose I shall go for a bit of a walk before the next flight to Edinburgh.
— Much, much later —
Well.  I’ve now been awake for pushing 29 straight hours, so goodness knows if I can stay conscious long enough to finish and send this.  But here goes.
By the time we landed in Edinburgh everyone had been awake far, FAR too long, and this manifested in some interesting ways.  Karen developed a kind of tunnel vision, focusing so intently on our need to locate a taxi that she kind of ignored our need to get money (or mine for a SIM card; I still haven’t got one as of this writing.)  I started to lose the ability to stay conscious if I wasn’t actively doing something.  And Mark got horrifically maudlin and Enid-ish at the same time.  Absolutely none of this was helped, naturally, by the part where three flights arrived at the same time leaving us with a massive lineup in security to go through…or the part where Brussels was having some kind of labor strike, leaving us all in some doubt as to whether our luggage would in fact be there when we went looking for it.
Fortunately, it seems we were spared that particular indignity, and we were soon free to wander about the country.  Our first local was our cabbie – gregarious in ways I don’t often see from his Toronto cousins, and pretty keen to talk about his reaction to the Brexit vote as well, decreeing it a sad day for Scotland.  (This sentiment was shared pretty widely among the Scots we met today, but more on this in a minute.)
The next twenty minutes were a little surreal, as we drove through Edinburgh.  The buildings here are generally made of stone in various shades of gray and brown, though doors and shopfronts are pretty vibrantly colored.  It’s as though someone took the streets of Bath, all Georgian-flavoured, and nestled them into a colorful bed of The Annex.
Our guest house is run by a very helpful woman who is also very much not Scottish; after dropping off our bags, collecting our keys, and changing into fresh underclothes, we set out pretty much immediately to go on an orientation walk.  A few minutes’ argument eventually saw us settling in at a cozy little cafe that would not have been out of place in Toronto for some carrot soup and smoked salmon sandwiches…and then the walk continued.
Edinburgh grew up around the central spine of the Royal Mile, a pretty, steeply-slanted street that links Edinburgh Castle at one end with Holyrood Palace at the other.  Along it, you can stand at pretty much any point, fling a rock, and hit either a site of historical significance, a touristy spot, or both.  In the course of today’s explorations we walked almost from one end to another, including a long side trip to the parallel Princes Street, the city’s major avenue for high-street shopping.
Our initial scouting trip revealed:
  • A museum of surgical history.
  • A writers’ museum.
  • A ghost tour, which came recommended by the travel book I got.  We booked a run for tomorrow night.
  • Statues of David Hume and Adam Smith, along with a monument to Sir Walter Scott.
  • Kids playing in a bouncy castle thing.
  • A busker dressed up as a cowboy.
  • St. Giles’s cathedral, which was hosting a textile art exhibition of scenes from the Book of Revelation.
  • Some lovely views.
…and “Mary King’s Close,” which we explored later in the evening, after obtaining some British pounds at last.  This is an odd architectural phenomenon in Edinburgh: from the Royal Mile, tiny, narrow streets run down at a steep angle toward the river, buildings perilously tall and perilously close to one another.
And “close” is indeed how these little streets are known.  You can still see scads of them leading away from the Mile.
For reasons I do not yet fully understand, it was decided at one point to park a brand new shiny administrative building right on top of some existing closes, turning them effectively into cliff dwellings of a sort.  Here, the poor lived twelve to fourteen to a room in houses with ceilings too low to stand fully upright in; era they kept twenty or more cows to a single shed; here they hurled buckets of raw sewage down to the loch below, where today there is a train station.  The presentation was eager and energetic, if a bit tourist trap-y; the girl guiding our tour reminded me of Kate from high school.  Something in all that raw, naked enthusiasm.
It reminded me of something one might see in a Dark Souls game, or a D&D city.  The poor crushed together in a not-quite-underground.
At one point, just before our tour, we walked past St. Giles’s cathedral to find a protest apparently in progress.  Hand-lettered signs read “1 <3 No Borders” and “You are welcome here,” and a series of angry Scots shouted things through bullhorns to an appreciative audience.  Both the audience and the speakers were interestingly mixed; at one point a young mother with a kid sitting on her shoulders got up to speak.
Police were on hand, but the last I saw things were going along peacefully; the crowd began its downhill march down the Royal Mile toward Holyrood Palace as we ducked down into the closes.
Exhausted, we visited a local pub, the Old Bell Inn, for dinner.  A real local spot, this, full of people who were obviously there every Friday and who were settled in apparently for the duration with pints coming plentifully.  The food was hearty – Mark had haggis and I had a steak and ale pie – and maybe a bit heavy on the pepper, but satisfying.  The live music for the evening was starting up just as we left, but I doubt very much we could have stayed conscious much longer; exhausted, we staggered back to the B&B and fell into bed.
I have some patchy memories from walking back: little snails crawling along a long stone wall, nibbling at (?) the edges of some trailing purple flowers.