As promised, it was raining when my plane landed in Edinburgh. The weather forecast for my stay wasn’t especially favourable – and it looked like this was going to set the tone for my trip as I rode the tram into the city centre. Then something unexpected happened; as I stepped out of the tram at York Place, the vengeful spring sunshine burst through the heavy clouds in a million golden columns of light and the afternoon breeze chased the fog away, leaving a beautiful sunny afternoon behind. Edinburgh is a stunning city even in the worst weather, but in the post-rain halo it left me speechless.
You know, I was joking when I wrote that it was my Australian curse to have the sun follow me everywhere I go, but I’m kind of starting to believe it.
As if to prove this point, the glorious sunshine continued on my first actual day in Scotland. At the crack of dawn, I got up and made my way into the city to take my place on a bus bound for the Highlands – I didn’t know it yet, but this all-day tour of Scotland’s natural treasures would turn out to be one of the best things I did in my entire time in Europe. Although the term ‘Highlands’ apparently refers generally to the northern parts of Scotland, in our case the twelve-hour visit was headed towards Loch Ness and the Cairngorms National Park. It was a long day, and filled with activity, but there are a few things that stand out for me.
First among these would be Glen Coe. Apparently this area – which is known in part for the bloody history of the extermination of Clan MacDonald – is regarded as one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world. Standing at the outlook and staring into the appalling majesty of the glen, I didn’t find this at all hard to believe; this place absolutely exemplifies the indescribable, breathtaking splendour of the Scottish Highlands. I had never seen anything quite like it before, and I doubt I will soon forget about it.
Another highlight of the trip was a visit to a Whiskey Distillery. This was actually much more interesting than I expected, and I learnt a lot during the guided visit – whiskey, after all, is part of Scotland’s history too. At the end of the visit, we also had the opportunity to try some of the delicious single-malt produced there and buy some, if we had room in our luggage. I didn’t really – my backpack isn’t that capacious – but I bought a tiny bottle anyway. It was just too good to ignore.
Finally, we made our way to Loch Ness via Fort Augustus. Before letting us out onto the boat, our guide for the day encouraged us to keep our eyes peeled for Nessie, but forbade us from referring to her as a “monster”. He pointed out that Nessie – if she exists – “has nae done anything wrong.” Although I didn’t identify anything that could reasonably have been Nessie, I did enjoy the awesome spectacle of Loch Ness’ scenery.
I mentioned once before that I was tired of letting my shyness get in the way of having fun and company while travelling, and I’m pleased to report that after the first few efforts to make friends, I’m just not that shy anymore. Although not an advertised feature of the tour, an all day field-trip on a bus crystallises relationships quickly, and before the end of the day I had a new friend. My age, from Los Angeles and absolutely charming, she ended up being very welcome company the next day.
Accordingly, she and I passed the next morning getting to know both each other and the city of Edinburgh a little better. This involved – as it always does – a lot of walking around. Initially this was just the two of us blundering through the city, but in the afternoon we joined a walking tour and saw things in a bit more detail. From Calton Hill to the Princes Street Gardens and the Royal Mile, it’s a beautiful and historical city which easily took out one of the top spots on my list of Best Places in Europe.
Unfortunately, the end of this day was also the end of my time with my new friend. It’s always a sad thing to part company with someone whose company you’re enjoying, but honestly my overwhelming feeling was one of contentment. We may never see each other again – although I hope we do – but my new friendships are woven organically into my travels. For me, Edinburgh will always be gilded with the memory of friendship, and I’m thrilled by that.
At dawn on my final day in Edinburgh, the city finally ran out of patience with me, cleared its throat and politely indicated the exit. The lovely warm weather we had been enjoying melted away into an overcast sky, blistering wind and rain. Maybe the weather magic actually belonged to my friend from LA.
It was fortunate that my final day was mostly dedicated to indoor activities, the first of which was the National Museum of Scotland. In reality, this is more like two museums. The first half – from the side I entered on – is more or less dedicated to Natural History, whereas the other wing is the complete history of Scotland. Entry to the entire museum is completely free.
Natural History museums are something I know a little about at this stage, having previously declared myself the Lord of Natural History due to my tendency to visit the museum in virtually every city I’ve ever been to. This one was a very good example of the genre, and was also full of children soaking up some learning. I feel like in the past I might have found this annoying, but honestly I was just pleased to see kids so excited about science. I guess my experience here has changed me in more ways than I initially realised.
The real jewel of the museum complex is the Scottish History wing. Beginning all the way back at the formation of the British Isles, the museum has thousands of artefacts from every period of the country’s often troubled and tumultuous history. These are presented in a narrative from the lowest floors up to the roof level, and it’s quite spellbinding to follow the story of a people and landscape that have evolved over thousands – even millions – of years. This might be the first time I’ve ever seen a museum so defined by a single story and I loved it. It tells of a proud, independent people who have soldiered and struggled for their entire existence, and I left feeling privileged to be in Scotland and with a deeper appreciation of their history and traditions – which I’m pretty sure is exactly the mission of the museum.
After lunch, I climbed further up the Royal Mile to the gates of Edinburgh Castle for a guided tour. Sitting atop an ancient volcano, the castle is a highly defensible fortification visible from anywhere in the city, trailing the Royal Mile behind it like a comet tail. Although the entry price is a little steep – like the hill – and the weather was absolutely glacial, I think the tour was worth it.
More than anything, it was interesting to hear the tale of a castle that has long been considered impregnable. The complex is more like a little town in itself, with barracks, outbuildings, a church and a whiskey store. It also hosts the Honours of Scotland – something like the crown jewels – and the Stone of Destiny, upon which Scottish kings have historically been crowned. This was purloined by the English for a great many years before finally being returned to Scotland in 1996. It’s now kept under constant guard – who knows when the English will try and nick it again.
The castle is also home to the National War Museum. This happened to be packed with people when I was there, and accordingly I didn’t linger too long, but I enjoyed my visit all the same. Scotland has a long and very violent history, and the museum does a good job of presenting it without judgement – all the way from ancient weapons, to feudal wars, to Scottish Special Forces in Afghanistan. The story of uniforms in Scotland was also an interesting one, as the troops have historically insisted on being permitted to wear kilts, even once they became part of the British Army. This continued right up until the First World War, when chemical warfare and shrapnel made trousers the preferred choice, even among Scots.
In my travel journal, at the bottom of the entry on Edinburgh, I’ve written: “I love Edinburgh and I love Scotland”, and I think that pretty much sums it up. From the charming accents, to the breathtaking scenery, great museums and new friends, this place was a wonderful surprise and I absolutely cannot wait to go back.
To see a gallery of my photos from Edinburgh and the Highlands – although they absolutely do not do it justice – click here. In this singular case, I refuse to offer any alternative, as I feel it would be unjust not to see even my inferior depiction of this beautiful country.