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Scotland and us: a twelve-day immersion

For miles both sides of the Scottish/Yorkshire, U.K. border, the view from our train was of soft blue skies, small, clear lakes, low trees, block-shaped haybales and green hills festooned with thousands of white dots: sheep. “Could we be in Scotland yet?” I asked my husband, Robin, that day last September. A conductor informed us when we did arrive (near Cockburnspath) — signified by only a modest sign.

In Edinburgh’s old station, passers-by helped with our bags. Heading to the Novotel on Lauriston Street, our Indian cabbie pointed out the Edinburgh Castle, atop a 350-million-year-old volcano, Castle Rock. We found Edinburgh, like many ancient cities, has an “old” town that is beautiful and navigationally baffling, interfaced with a more mundane, grid-based “new” town (i.e., everything newer than 300 years).

Our Trafalgar tour began with dinner in the venerable College of Surgeons Library, meeting fellow-passengers from Canada, England, France, Germany and our home, the U.S. We would begin exploring Edinburgh the next morning.

“Castles are fortresses. Palaces are just fancy homes,” announced Keith, our tartan-clad bus driver and city guide. After an aerobic castle ascent, we gawked at the city and its Firth of Forth (i.e., the estuary of Scotland’s Forth River) and trekked in a packed crowd past Scotland’s Crown Jewels (older, though smaller, than England’s).

LITERARY LIGHTS: Having read reverently from the canon of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson, these were our only sightings on their turf: The Edinburgh bus swung past a statue of Scott, allowing a blurred photo. A ghost tour, led by a stout but fast-striding Scotsman, showed us the path followed by Deacon William Brodie, city councilman by day; robber by night — a model for Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In a dinner show at Prestonfield, Burns’ “Ode to Haggis” was performed, with bagpipes, both in Scottish Gaelic and modern English.

But ‘tis a contemporary writer whose luring of book-freak tourists to Scotland may have left those icons in the dust.

The Elephant House advertises itself “Birthplace of Harry Potter,” but Keith insisted that was wrong. In their youth, he said his sister was friends with J.K. Rowling – known to have begun her Harry Potter saga in a café rather than her bitter-cold flat. However, the Elephant House quickly ejected her in favor of dining customers. Rowling’s actual favorite writing site was Black Medicine Coffee Co., the eatery on Nicolson Street with dark green awnings, Keith said — adding, “Joanne’s a lovely lass.”

George Heriot’s School, on a picturesque estate, was Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts School. Much later on our tour, we would ride an otherwise nondescript train, said to have transported millions of fans past the Glenfinnian Aqueduct, Harry’s landmark en route to Hogwarts.

Back in Edinburgh, a ghost tour included the centuries-old Grassmarket, where one Maggie Dickson survived hanging for adultery, then married her lover … and the scenic cemetery where 1,500 Reformists were imprisoned and starved; survivors slain. We learned Scotland’s last witchcraft execution occurred in 1727 when Janet Horne, of Dornoch, was burnt alive in boiling oil.

Our Trafalgar guide, Kate Allen, joked of her countrymen’s “dour” reputation. The Scots’ darkest past was longer ago than that of my country. I found their mordantly humorous candor a wholesome contrast to our awkward conversational taboos. Robin and I each have Scottish ancestors. Visiting McNaughtan’s Bookshop, a mile from our hotel, we learned its McNaughtan founder (likely distant kin to my McNett sons) was long gone, but liked the staff and the books. A kindly older Scotsman helped us when we got lost returning to the hotel.

While dining at Prestonfield’s “Scottish Show,” Robin enjoyed haggis (which I’ve never tried). I liked the shepherd’s pie (not at all like the same-named dish I recall from a long-ago school cafeteria!). The dessert, cranachan (berries, cream, toasted oatmeal, chocolate) was to die for.

HIGHLANDS: The next day our Trafalgar bus headed north on the 12-day “Highlands and Islands” tour (wisely suggested by our travel agent, since neither of us felt we could drive safely on the left side of a road). Repeated scrambles on and off a bus crowded with nearly 50 travelers, with instructions like “twenty minutes for the toilet, gift shop and thousand-year-old castle,” could get wearying. Yet we covered impressive territory, while enjoying Kate’s salty wit, deep knowledge of Scotland, and reassurance of never having lost a passenger. Tending to lag behind, I appreciated that.


At St. Andrews, we strolled the North Sea beach where two runners appear as “Chariots of Fire” opens. The chapel ruins made dark silhouettes. Later we wandered among the 12th Century ruins of Jedburgh Abbey, and nearby, spotted our first “hairy coo” (cow).

We left Edinburgh the following day, staying at Dundee, Kate’s blue-collar hometown where kids surfboarded with a zipline on a canal.

Near Inverness at Culloden Moor, where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army met devastating defeat, a video re-enactment, projected on four walls, shows the wild-faced, fur-draped, mace-swinging Scots charging the buttoned-down Redcoats (who would fail to duplicate their easy 1746 victory when facing remote colonists 30 years later). I rooted for Bonnie Prince Charlie because I love the song about the boat carrying him “over the sea to Skye.” Sadly, Kate reported, he died in Italy “a miserable drunk.”

At Pitlochry, we toured the Blair Athol Distillery. Informing us that leftover grain is fed to livestock, the guide commented, “The cows around here have happy smiles.” We purchased pints for gifts to take home. (Strong!)

No one on the Loch Ness boat excursion spotted “Nessie,” but all were impressed by crumbly Urqhart Castle, above Ness, requiring an exhausting climb. A British regiment blew much of it up in 1692 to prevent Jacobites using it. By contrast, at grand Dunrobin Castle, still home to the Sutherlands, we watched a falconry demonstration and heard about an estranged inlaw who built a castle nearby with a clock tower facing away from Dunrobin. (“She wouldn’t give ‘em the time of day.”)

ISLANDS, WAVES: On a ferry to the Orkney island South Ronaldsay, we sat with a couple from the Midlands and learned of “white horses” (breaking waves), and that those unmortared stone fences meandering over hillsides last hundreds of years. At John O’Groats, northern-most point of the British Isles, we studied a sign listing mileage to various points (New York, 3,230). At Lambholm, Orkney, we visited the Italian Chapel, a lovely, well-maintained little church built by 60 Italian POW’s during World War II on Sundays, after six-day weeks spent constructing Churchill Barriers. Scottish officers approved the project.

The prehistoric Scara Brae Village, an archaeological site, was discovered in the late 1800’s when high winds blew away the dune hiding it. At Kirkwall, we read memorial stones in the red brick, Romanesque St. Magnus cathedral.

Next, we crossed the Skye Bridge “over the sea to Skye,” saw many rainbows, and celebrated my birthday on the Isle of Skye as a rainy, windy, suspected tail end of Hurricane Florence hit after a long drought. Robin gave me a lovely wool scarf, and at dinner, in a small hotel in Broadford, Kate presented me with a chocolate cake. Since our table companions were already completing dessert, we failed to persuade anyone to help finish it, so I requested a box to take it to our room. The young staffer replied coolly, “We don’t do take-out.” (Is our country’s “doggy-bag” custom unknown east of the Atlantic?) We smuggled the cake out in a napkin.

By the next morning, wind forced cancellation of a ferry around Skye and castle visit. It was the only time I felt chilled (though weather was never hot). On a long “single pass” (i.e., single-lane) stretch of the A82, the main highway in the north Highlands, our bus once had to pass another of like size. Fortunately, Kate explained, traffic is light and drivers cooperate in such challenges (though we did see one overturned car). The bus we passed nearly straddled a low cliff. Our driver, Kevin, said that driver was new on the job. We held our breaths. Inched. Made it. Cheered.

While riding, Kate showed the film, “Local Hero,” about an American oil magnate’s attempt to buy a Scottish fishing village. Characters include a mermaid scientist. Kate spoke of difficult choices about economic development. Inhabited homes remain rare between towns on the remote, lovely Highlands. We often saw hikers on the hilly paths, which “commons” law makes open to all.

Declining an optional tour, we enjoyed a day of down time in tiny Ballachulish. I mailed postcards that would arrive home six weeks later, then discovered a little path around a moor in view of mountains and a lake. A blackberry patch remained resplendent with berries two months after the ones at home are done: nice, if somewhat watery.

SOUTH; WEST: Southbound for miles alongside Loch Lomond, we learned of many islands between yon bonny banks. We missed seeing either the one populated by Australian Wallabys or the nudist colony. I wondered how the latter population copes with winter cold or summer “midgies” – critters we fortunately missed, rumored more aggressive than mosquitos.

At Glasgow, in St. Mungo’s Cathedral, I lit a candle for my family’s two McNetts who never made it to Scotland. Otherwise we failed to do Glasgow justice. I had contracted a cold, and we were both too tired to explore much. Looking for art in the two “galleries” nearby, we found they were high-end mini-shopping malls.

Next day, we enjoyed Stirling Castle’s turrets, formal gardens and panoramic views – quite a task for the three Stewart kings (all named James) to construct with technology available in 1490-1600. It was home to Mary Queen of Scots, but the last king was said to have gotten bored and moved to London. Many tourists took selfies on the royal throne. We declined.

Troubadours Fergus and Gregor Woods hosted us for a delightful afternoon at Ledard Farm. After a long ride down a winding dirt road, we were greeted by Irish sheep dogs and enjoyed supper in MacGregor’s Barn, where Rob Roy had his coming-of-age party c. 1689. Walls were hung with ancient farming and combat tools, the latter including a tartan-adorned weapon believed wielded at Culloden. Occasional cobwebs helped make the atmosphere real. Woods (father and son) organized us into two teams for a contest singing “Campbelltown Loch, I wish ya was whiskey.” The prize, a thimble-sized dram, went to our opponents.

We said goodbyes and left Glasgow the next day.

CROSSINGS: After a train to London and coach to Southampton’s port, we boarded Queen Mary 2 to head home. I reported in detail on the same passage for Travelmag in 2015, so will avoid redundancy.

In summary, our last eastbound crossing highlights included sighting small, spouting whales from the sunny deck, and from a porthole below, dozens of leaping porpoises. By the westbound voyage, the sea was grey; decks, windy. In a sea chantey choir of about 100 volunteers, organized by QM2 social host Tommi Baxter-Hill, we surprised ourselves how well we sounded. Chantey lyrics can be raw. “A Drop o’ Nelson’s Blood (never did us any harm)” memorializes Lord Nelson, shipped home from Cape Trafalgar in a coffin filled with whiskey as preservative, and the crew’s rumored strategy once their own supply ran out.

Ocean liners normally dock before dawn, but Captain Christopher Wells had to make two detours, avoiding turbulence near Ireland, then accommodating an ill passenger’s airlift to Halifax. He apologized, explaining the situation clearly. If Capt. Wells had been in charge of the Titanic (attempting to cross from Southampton to New York, as was our QM2), she may have missed the iceberg. But we had to hand-carry our cumbersome luggage, and could not debark until noon. We missed our scheduled train to Virginia but caught the last one five minutes before it left Penn Station around 2PM.

Whew! Must pack lighter next time.

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