Monday, September 16, 2013


Day three, funnily enough, was our first full day in Scotland. We had a big day scheduled, which should tell you that everything went wrong. In the end, everything worked out incredibly well, but as our plans were unraveling we thought we were cursed. Thankfully though, I didn't cry.

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About a month before our trip I asked Alan if there were any other tours he wanted to go on. I tossed out a couple of options and we settled on a one-day trip up to Loch Ness. We were supposed to stop in Pitlochry, drive through Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands, visit stunning Glen Coe, and of course, take a sail on the famous Loch. It was supposed to be a long day, with our bus leaving Old Town Edinburgh at 8 a.m. We were advised to arrive at a cafe at 7:45 a.m. We got there at 7:30 a.m. and buses for every tour company but the one we booked with showed up. More and more people started arriving. We met a young guy who told us he was going on the Loch Ness tour, so we stood around talking with him for awhile. Then at one point he mentions that he's on the TWO DAY tour.

Um, trouble. (At least the scenery was good.)
Meanwhile, we see a tour guide from one of the other companies looking for two of her scheduled passengers. We're standing there but no one ever asked us what tour we were supposed to be on. We went inside to the desk for a tour company that was NOT the one we booked with and asked about our tour, knowing something was very, very wrong. It turned out that the lady looking for her wayward passengers was looking for us and that our tour had been farmed out to this other company. We had no idea we were supposed to check in at this desk, nor that we weren't going on tour with the company we booked with. Alan was livid. I was sad and frustrated. At this point I thought we'd made a huge mistake in going to Scotland and that the whole trip was going to be one error after another and that by the time we got home I'd need another vacation to make up for it.

At this point, while not apologizing for the confusion - or really even acknowledging that it was confusing and not at all clear what was supposed to happen with our original tour - the ladies at the desk for the other company offered to put us on a different tour. I wasn't overwhelmed with the options; in fact, one of them was impossible since we already had other plans. We left the cafe feeling really dejected and confused about what do to for the remainder of the day. We didn't get very far when we decided to go on the tour that we had been offered as a make up. It was leaving at 9 a.m. and it made a stop in the town I had found out just weeks prior my great, great, great grandfather and mother were born and raised in before leaving Scotland for Pennsylvania. In Ireland we were unable to track down any of my ancestry because we had no information about the origin of my family, but this was an honest-to-goodness opportunity to go to a place that wasn't terribly far removed from me (okay, 125+ years is a lot, I admit).

I'm SO glad we went on this tour, and I'm happy to recommend Highland Experience Tours based on our experience once we got on the bus - especially our guide Iain. He was funny, informative, and so, so knowledgeable about the topics he was sharing with us. He made what could have been a ho-hum day into one that we thoroughly enjoyed.

Our first stop was the Forth Bridge, which is an engineering marvel. Built in the late 1880s after the collapse of another bridge in the same site, the Forth Bridge had the longest single cantilever bridge span in the world until the Quebec Bridge was completed in 1917. Today it's the second longest single cantilever bridge in the worth. The Scots are very proud of this bridge. It was also the first major structure in Britain to be made out of steel.

The picturesque village near the bridge, South Queensferry, is rumored to be where smugglers and pirates would come ashore, so that was fun to hear about although I can't find much to support that claim. That said, they do have a history of some pretty interesting customs dating back 300 years or so, including something called The Burry Man. (This defies description; the link is worth clicking on.)

Our next stop was my ancestral home, Dunfermline. This is also the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie, and with Alan being a Carnegie Mellon University graduate it was interesting to hear about the early days of his childhood before he became a steel magnate in Pittsburgh. Obviously, my family stayed poor, but being in Johnstown, PA, they were directly involved (in that they were the workers) in the industrial revolution that Carnegie helped spearhead in the U.S.

What we didn't know about Dunfermline was that in addition to being a beautiful town, it is also historically significant for its Abbey and its importance to Medieval Scotland.
The Abbey, whose foundation goes back to 1072, was built by King David I of Scotland in honor of his mother the saintly Queen Margaret. The church today occupies the site of the ancient chancel and transepts of the large medieval Benedictine abbey, which was sacked in 1560 during the Scottish Reformation and permitted to fall into disrepair. Part of the old abbey church continued in use at that time and some parts of the abbey infrastructure still remain to this day. Today, Dunfermline Abbey is one of Scotland's most important cultural sites, having received more of Scotland’s royal dead than any other place in the kingdom (excepting Iona). The tomb of Saint Margaret and Malcolm Canmore, within the ruined walls of the Lady chapel, was restored and enclosed by command of Queen Victoria. 
What was most interesting to us was that this is also the burial location of Robert the Bruce. In 1818 they discovered a series of skeletons, and they knew they were royal but it was hard to distinguish among them. However, most medieval Scots were about five feet tall. At over six feet tall, Robert the Bruce's skeleton was much larger. There was also another element of this skeleton that made it easy to identify it as Robert the Bruce's - before he died, he told his faithful right hand man that his biggest wish was to have gone on Crusade. Alas, he was never able to. He asked this man to take his heart on his next crusade so that he could join his men. The skeleton they found had the rib bones ripped away over the heart area so that the heart could be removed.
Robert the Bruce was buried (in 1329) in the choir, now the site of the present parish church. Bruce’s heart rests in Melrose, but his bones lie in Dunfermline Abbey, where (after the discovery of the skeleton in 1818) they were reinterred with fitting pomp below the pulpit of the New church. In 1891 the pulpit was moved back and a monumental brass inserted in the floor to indicate the royal vault.
We were standing right next to the royal vault. It felt so strange to be at such a consecrated location; never mind the final resting place of one of the most pivotal figures in Scotland's fight for independence.

Aside from all of that, the grounds are lovely as well.

Leaving Dunfermline, we drove past a series of standing stones in the middle of a nondescript field. There are standing stones everywhere in Scotland. We didn't see any that rivaled Stonehenge, but the fact that they are just there in a field for anyone to visit is a departure from the locked down and guarded nature of England's circle of stones.

After this, we stopped in the small village of Culross, which is part of the National Trust for Scotland. While picturesque and steeped in history, this was more of a stretch your legs part of the journey as there wasn't much to learn or do other than take pretty pictures.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the town was a centre of the coal mining industry. Sir George Bruce of Carnock, who built the splendid 'Palace' of Culross and whose elaborate family monument stands in the north transept of the Abbey church, established the first coal mine in the world to extend under the sea (1575). The mine worked what is now known as the Upper Hirst coal seam, with ingenious contrivances to drain the constant leakage from above. This mine was considered one of the marvels of the British Isles in the early 17th century, until it was destroyed in a storm, in 1625. During the 20th century, it became recognized that Culross contained many unique historical buildings and the National Trust for Scotland has been working on their preservation and restoration since the 1930s.

Our next stop was the big one of the day, Stirling Castle. It is said that whoever controls Stirling, controls Scotland. Stirling is where Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned ... well, Queen of Scots ... in 1542, at just six days old.

Most of the buildings of the castle date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and it is a true fortress castle (as opposed to say, Ashford Castle, which we loved but is not a castle like this or Edinburgh Castle). The last major siege of the castle took place in 1746 as part of the Wars of Scottish Independence when Bonnie Prince Charlie tried to secure the castle for himself.

[Side note: For those who don't know, Charles Stuart was called The Young Pretender after the Stuarts lost the throne and were put into exile. As part of the Jacobite uprising (undertaken to return the Stuarts to the monarchy), the Battle of Culloden decimated a number of Highlanders and ultimately led to the weakening of the Scottish clan system, including the subjugation of Highlanders by the banning of the wearing of tartan except "as a uniform for officers and soldiers in the British Army and later landed men and their sons." (I've read a lot about this as follow up researching after I read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander.)]

Prior to any of this though was the Battle of Stirling Bridge, led by William Wallace (you might remember him from that little independent film, Braveheart - incidentally, the Scots hate that film and it's misrepresentations of the man and the battle) in 1297 during the First War of Scottish Independence. On the drive up to the castle we got to hear what actually happened (our guide, Iain, likened the movie version to the bombing of Pearl Harbor without Pearl Harbor), or at least what people believed to have happened based on oral histories and excavations of the site. Today, you can see the Wallace Monument from the castle (below).

Our final stop of the day was Rosslyn Chapel, which has become popular based on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci code, but in its own right is a magnificent place steeped in history that is not related in any way to the Knights Templar or the descendants of Jesus Christ.
Rosslyn Chapel, formally known as the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew, was founded in 1456 on a hill above Roslin Glen as a Catholic collegiate church (with between four and six ordained canons and two boy choristers) in the mid-15th century. Rosslyn Chapel and the nearby Roslin Castle are located at the village of Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland.
Unfortunately you cannot take pictures inside, so I can't show you how truly remarkable the architecture is (you can click here to see several images of both the interior and exterior). Thank goodness they were able to restore the chapel by erecting a steel canopy over the chapel roof for fourteen years in order to prevent further rain damage and to give it a chance to dry out properly as the stones were water-logged and the chapel was covered in mold and fungus. Based on the tour, I understand that a large portion of the monies needed to complete the restoration came from the revenue that has been generated by Dan Brown fans and The Da Vinci Code pilgrims.

I don't have many great pictures of Rosslyn Chapel because as we arrived a giant tour bus also arrived, thus eliminating the chance of getting many good exterior shots. We had two hours there, so in addition to getting the visitor's lecture, we also walked down to the ruins of the old Roslin Castle and then just hung out on the grass waiting for departure time. We talked a bit with one of our fellow travelers who was on an eight week trip to Scotland prior to speaking at a conference. Apparently she does this every year. That's my kind of travel!

That night we sought out our first taste of Haggis at a restaurant in Old Town called Arcade Whisky and Haggis House. It came highly recommended on ChowHound and Yelp and rightfully so. Now, I know what you're thinking ... isn't haggis made with innards? Yes, my friends, it is.
Haggis is a savory pudding containing "sheep's pluck" (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal's stomach and simmered for approximately three hours. Most modern commercial haggis is prepared in a sausage casing rather than an actual stomach.
And you know what? IT IS AMAZING. I mean ... so, so, so tasty. I was sad that we both didn't order the haggis with neeps & tatties (potatoes and turnips) and whisky sauce because I wanted to eat all of it myself, not just my half.

After dinner we wandered over to Deacon Brodie's Pub for a few pints of ale before calling it a night. All in all, this was a most excellent day in Scotland and we finally felt like our trip was in full swing.