Tuesday, September 17, 2013


This was our first full day in Edinburgh and true to form, we packed a lot in.

After a pretty restless night of sleep (there was a bar a few doors down from us that had loud, drunk people spilling out until past 3 a.m. every night), we slept in a bit and then made our way up the hill to Edinburgh Castle. Much to my chagrin, it was another bright, sunny day. In fact, this might have been the warmest day of our trip. Thank goodness I packed a few short sleeved shirts at the last minute because otherwise I might have expired by 10 a.m.

After our visit to Stirling Castle the day before, I had an idea of what to expect from Edinburgh Castle, but my expectations were definitely exceeded. Simply put, Edinburgh Castle is the most bad ass fortress castle we've ever been to. It doesn't hurt that the view from it is also stunning.

Human habitation of the site is dated back as far as the 9th century BC, although the nature of early settlement is unclear. There has been a royal castle here since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century, and the site continued to be a royal residence until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. From the 15th century the castle's residential role declined, and by the 17th century its principal role was as a military base with a large garrison. Its importance as a historic monument was recognized from the 19th century, and various restoration programs have been carried out since. As one of the most important fortresses in the Kingdom of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle was involved in many historical conflicts, from the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, up to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and has been besieged, both successfully and unsuccessfully, on several occasions.
Because we purchased a pass for a number of historic sites across Scotland the previous day at Stirling, we didn't need to wait in line to get tickets or to get in. Fast pass, for the win! We started out joining an informal tour, but quickly ditched it when there were a lot of bad jokes. That was kind of disappointment, but I understand the intention behind it. I'm wondering if a different tour guide might have been a better fit for us, but it's not something I think too hard about.

For the first half hour or so we just wandered around the main courtyard area checking out the various signs and sights. The information is laid out really well so not taking a tour isn't a hardship and I didn't feel like we were left with any huge gap in our knowledge. 

The three areas of the castle that I was most interested in seeing were St. Margaret's Chapel, The Scottish Crown Jewels, and the Royal Apartments. The chapel is tiny, with a doorway that was created to accommodate a much smaller person, however, that didn't stop some moms trying to bring in their giant strollers. One stroller was so big it actually couldn't get through the door. I tried to tell one lady that the room was too small and too crowded for her to bring it in, but she laughed and kept going. I wonder how many people's feet she ran over?

The oldest building in the castle, and in Edinburgh, is the small St. Margaret's Chapel. One of the few 12th-century structures surviving in any Scottish castle, it dates to the reign of King David I (ruled 1124–1153), who built it as a private chapel for the royal family and dedicated it to his mother, Saint Margaret of Scotland, who died in the castle in 1093. It survived the slighting of 1314, when the castle's defenses were destroyed, and was used as a gunpowder store from the 16th century, when the present roof was built. In 1845, when it was "discovered" by the antiquary Daniel Wilson, it formed part of the larger garrison chapel, and was restored in 1851–1852.
The chapel is still in use today and if you're so inclined, you can even book a religious wedding ceremony there for less than 20 attendees. No reception space though, as you can imagine.

Our next stop was the Scottish Crown Jewels and I think we must have gone in through a back entrance because as we were leaving, I glimpsed a very long long in the courtyard to come into the building's front door, as it were. The Crown Jewels, or Honours of Scotland, were so interesting and I loved learning about how they were made, used, and protected over time.
The Honours of Scotland - also known as the Scottish regalia and the Scottish Crown Jewels - dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, are the oldest set of crown jewels in the British Isles. The existing set were used for the coronation of Scottish monarchs from 1543 (Mary I) to 1651 (Charles II). Since then, they have been used to represent Royal Assent to legislation in both the Parliament of Scotland and Scottish Parliament, and have also been used at State occasions, including the first visit to Scotland as sovereign by King George IV in 1822 and the first visit to Scotland as sovereign by Queen Elizabeth in 1953. 
There are three primary elements of the Honours of Scotland: the Crown, the Sceptre, and the Sword of State. These three elements also appear upon the crest of the royal coat of arms of Scotland and on the Scottish version of the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, where the red lion of the King of Scots is depicted wearing the Crown and holding both the Sword and the Sceptre.
I have to go on another little side rant here. (But of course, you're thinking.) 

You'll notice that I have no pictures of these relics or the rooms in which they're housed. That's because there were many, many, many signs explicitly stating that photography in these rooms was forbidden. These are not suggestions for visitors. These are rules for visitors, and like we saw throughout our entire trip, there are large swaths of tourists that blatantly disregard these rules. My experience on this trip is that the worst offenders were the Spanish, Italian, and Japanese tourists. It's not like they could claim that they can't read English either, because these rules were posted in multiple languages throughout the building. And yet ... cameras and flashes everywhere. I noticed this with the Sistine Chapel in Rome, but my personal experience is that large groups of Japanese tourists have a distinct lack of decorum when it comes to behavior in public spaces. There was a lot of screaming across the room to each other, pushing people out of the way, touching walls and cases, flash photography, etc, etc. Maybe it's because I love rules, but this behavior was abhorrent to me. No matter how many times the docents tried to tell this one particular group not to touch things and not to use their cameras, the second they were five feet away from him or her they'd start up again. So disrespectful. I wonder how they'd feel if people behaved the same way in Himeji Castle, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But I digress ...

We also visited the Great Hall which now looks like an armory, with its walls covered in swords and sabers of all types, and the Scottish National War Memorial which commemorates Scottish soldiers who died in World Wars 1 and 2, as well as more recent battles. This building was beautiful, but we didn't really spend much time here other than to look around. 

After the castle we made our way back down the hill for lunch at a place across the street from our flat called Oink. Going through our guidebook months before our trip I highlighted this place but didn't think anything of it after that. When we checked in to the flat, the concierge (?) told us that they roast a whole pig every day and serve it up until it's gone. Roast pig? Sold! 

We grabbed two sandwiches and went back to the flat to eat and relax for awhile. After not getting much sleep the night before I definitely needed a nap. The verdict? Those sandwiches were amazing! I want to franchise this place for anywhere that I live in the future. There's a reason this place gets 4.5 stars on Yelp (and the dissenters are just insane - I make a damn fine oven-roasted carnitas and I know my pig ... this is good pig).

After hanging out at the flat for awhile we made our way out for a self-guided walk of Old Town and Edinburgh University. Our first stop was Greyfriars Kirkyard, a beautiful old cemetery right off The Grassmarket. According to our pub tour guides, many of the headstones served as inspiration for the name of many of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter characters. In fact, she started writing the novel at a cafe around the corner (however, they kicked her out after awhile because she'd only buy one tea but sit there for hours). There's definitely a Tom Riddle grave there. Can you imagine being Voldemort? Your poor family! The kirkyard is also part of the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier that guarded his master's grave for 13 years. Recent research says that this is a made up story, but I choose to believe that Bobby loved his master so much he didn't want to be parted with him. 

Another interesting tidbit about Greyfriars Kirk is that it is said to be haunted. I can't vouch for the presence of the so-called Mackenzie Poltergeist (said to be the most well-documented paranormal phenomenon in the world), but upon close inspection it certainly has an element of the macabre: many of the monuments and mausoleums are engraved with skeletons, skulls, coffins, and other symbols of the damned. But that's only if you look closely. On a warm, sunny day, the kirkyard is actually quite beautiful. In hindsight, I'm pretty thankful for this because I definitely believe in ghosts and spirits and some of the reported incidents are enough to put a person off graveyards forever. 

The student section of Edinburgh is interesting, in that it's not really all that interesting. We remember LOVING the Trinity College campus in Dublin, and its surrounding environs, but there's nothing like that with The University of Edinburgh (at least that I saw or noticed). It actually reminds me a lot of the University of Pittsburgh (where I went to school), in that there's no core campus area and a good number of the buildings are scattered throughout the cityscape. I actually remarked to Alan that their library looked a lot like my Forbes Hall. Basically, it's a 1960s monstrosity of concrete. In Pittsburgh that's fine, but in a city as beautiful as Edinburgh with such historic buildings and monuments around every corner, it sticks out like an eyesore. There was one beautiful building we saw, however, and it was where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went to school. 

We continued on our walk and found a really great park called The Meadows that I would really have loved to have had a picnic for. It reminded me of a combination of Central Park and Golden Gate Park. We walked past the school that served as the inspiration for Hogwarts, and then we turned down a lane toward The Grassmarket and there was the castle in all of its glory. I had no idea we were about to come upon that view so it was quite surprising and pleasant. At this point it was quite warm & toasty so we stopped in to The Beehive Inn for a drink (cold cider for me) before heading back to the flat to rest before dinner.

For dinner, we tried to go to a mussel place but they had no seats inside until after 8:30 p.m. and all of the outdoor tables were filled with smokers (side note: people in Edinburgh love to smoke!). Then we tried another restaurant down the street from our flat. They also told us that they had no open tables until after 8:30 p.m. We tried to go to a place we'd walked by several times but they were closed for a private function. Then we tried to find a restaurant that Alan read about and swore was on Cockburn Street but alas was not. Cockburn Street itself however is absolutely adorable.

We finally decided to try getting dinner at Deacon Brodie's Pub where we had drinks the night before. We walked upstairs and the people in front of us got the last table. She wouldn't have anything available until ... 8:30 p.m. What is it with Edinburgh and 8:30?! I was getting hangry by this point, and we had a ghost tour that we needed to be at within 1.5 hours, so rather than trying somewhere else that was just going to turn us away, we got pub food at Deacon Brodie's. We were quite shocked to find that it was pretty tasty and exactly what we were in the mood for.

At one point I ordered the darkest beer they had on tap (Dragonhead Stout from Orkney Brewery) and the bartender asked me if I was sure. "Should I not be?" I asked. "Well, it's a bit dark even for me," he replied. I assured him that I am a fan of dark beer and that I could handle my libation. In response I got a double chest bump. That's because I'm 2 legit 2 quit.

From Deacon Brodie's we walked down the Royal Mile to the Merkat Cross to meet up with our underground vault tour with Mercat Tours. Our guide, Linda, was really great. She knew her ghoulish history and how to convey her stories with enough weight to them that caught your attention and captured your imagination, while knowing when to throw out the hook to real you all the way in.
The Edinburgh Vaults or South Bridge Vaults are a series of chambers formed in the nineteen arches of the South Bridge in Edinburgh, Scotland, which was completed in 1788. For around 30 years, the vaults were used to house taverns, cobblers and other tradesmen, and as storage space for illicit material, reportedly including the bodies of people killed by serial killers Burke and Hare for medical experiments. As the conditions in the vaults deteriorated, mainly because of damp and poor air quality, the businesses left and the very poorest of Edinburgh's citizens moved in, though by around 1820, even they are believed to have left too. That people had lived there was only discovered in 1985 during an excavation, when middens were found containing toys, medicine bottles, plates, and other signs of human habitation.
Now, remember how I said earlier that I do believe in ghosts? Well, I experienced a supernatural phenomenon while we were down there. We were in the second vault when all of a sudden my back started hurting something fierce. I felt like someone was stabbing me repeatedly in the same area with a screw driver and then turning it. It wasn't near my kidneys, but rather higher up. I started thinking to myself, "wow, this is the strangest indigestion I've ever had." I tried to breathe through the pain but it got worse and worse. I started to freak out a little bit because I wasn't sure what the hell was going on. I wasn't really listening to the story anymore because I was just concentrating on the pain. I somehow tuned back in to hear our guide say that many people report that while in that particular vault they either get very cold, or they have really sharp back pain. She led us out and the second we left it went away. Gone, like magic. I never saw or heard anything untoward, and I certainly didn't get cold or feel cold around me.

I started taking pictures in the next vault we went into because it was light enough that I felt like my iPhone would be able to pick up the image of our guide with the candle in front of her face, and then I took a picture of Alan listening to her. Let me stress that while taking these pictures I didn't see anything untoward. The room looked normal. I didn't feel any coldness, and I didn't hear any sounds except for those who were on the tour. I took a couple of pictures and then put my phone back in my pocket. We continued on with the rest of the tour and I felt a little out of it from the back pain situation, and pretty much freaked out by it all, but I kept my cool.

When the tour was almost concluded and we went into the last vault and I got a weird vibe from it. While I was one of the first people in the vault, despite the fact that our guide kept telling people to fill in to the back of the room, I wasn't going back there. No way, Jose. I don't know why I was so adamant about it, but I stuck right by her side. I wanted nothing to do with the back of that room. Well, it turns out that is the most (reportedly) haunted vault in the area and there have been a number of people on the tours who report a malevolent presence - pushing them, making them lightheaded and dizzy, etc. One woman reports that she even heard a voice say "Get out!" before she was pushed. (And get out she did, she ran the heck out of there.) Thank goodness nothing like that happened during our tour because after my previous experience I might have pissed myself.

We finished up, thanked our guide, and walked back to the flat. When we got there I was looking at the photos from the day on my iPhone and something pretty damn crazy jumped out at me. I forwarded the picture to my best friend without telling her what I was seeing and asked if she noticed anything interesting about the picture. She responded almost immediately: "The hell is that green thing over Alan's shoulder?"

Look a bit closer.

But wait, there's more!

This one's a little harder to see (easier on my iPhone for some reason), so let me help you out again.

Don't tell me you don't see it. 

(I promise you that I did nothing to doctor the two original images - they are straight off my iPhone. The subsequent zoomed pictures have minor edits. In the picture of Alan all I did was add the arrow and the text. In the second picture I messed with the levels since the image wasn't showing up as good as it does on my iPhone, but I promise you that I did not add those faces. I can run actions in Photoshop, but that's about it.)

So there you go, I went to two haunted places in Edinburgh in one day. In what is widely considered one of the most haunted places in all of the U.K. I felt nothing. The birds were chirping, the sun was shining, all was well. Then, to cap off the night I was effed with by a ghost and then got two pictures of faces when I had no expectation of doing so. You can call me crazy now if you like. My self-esteem can take it. I know what I know.