Category Archives: United Kingdom

The Highlands

Getting out to the Scottish highlands can be a little tricky when you’re a solo traveler trying to not spend a fortune, but the backpacker solution is to get a good deal for three days in the highlands with Haggis Adventures.  So a motley crew of us ended up going around in a bus like this-

Of  course, it almost didn’t happen.  I got the girl at the hostel desk to call the Haggis office for me and she told me the tour would start at 9:45am the next morning… at 8:42am I was in the perpetual argument of convincing myself to get out of my bed when another hostel worker stuck his head in to ask what was I doing, didn’t I realize my tour was going in two minutes?  What?!  That got me up, and within five minutes I was downstairs with my packed bags hailing a cab to speed me to the departure point, wondering why it normally takes me 20 minutes to pack if I could do it so quickly.  Shots of adrenaline will do that I suppose.

Anyway, I made it because it turns out Alan the driver is a saint and waited a few minutes extra for me.  I didn’t perk up until lunchtime when I got something in my stomach, but by then the scenery had picked up as well-

So it turns out the highlands are pretty.  Really pretty.  As in you will no longer wonder why the Scots settled the South Island of New Zealand because it looks just like it.  Granted, the South Island is a lot bigger so they probably still win overall, but it’s a close call.

One thing they don’t have in New Zealand though- castles!  Really, I think I said this before if we could get an artistically-placed castle or two in the American West it wouldn’t seriously deter from the scenery.  States could even charge permits and admission or whatever to help their budget crises.

Hanging out in said castle, whose name currently eludes me.  I’ve seen a few of these so I can’t say much except it was like any castle only more so, but the kitchen was exceptional.  This was because they tried to recreate what it must have been like back in the day with wax figurines and the like, which gave the whole thing a bit of a wonderfully disturbing feel.

Me with Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the U.K., in the background.  The north face of Ben Nevis is considered to be one of the hardest climbs in Europe due to the swiftly changing weather and almost cliff-like steepness, and in fact this is what North Face climbing gear is named after!  The more you know…

Another interesting detail about the highlands is how, well, empty it is compared to most of Europe.  You travel through this huge amount of space without hardly seeing a soul- turns out the reason for this is a few centuries ago the English forcibly resettled all the Scots to the lowlands so next to no one lives there today.

An aside- it goes without saying that the Scots and English do not particularly like each other.  It seems like the Scots will leave the U.K. sooner instead of later (and if you had that much North Sea oil and whiskey to export I wouldn’t blame you), but I think that will be an interesting debate when it happens.  Not like the English can invade again, right?

The most interesting point I learned about the English-Scottish relationship though was how it turns out Scottish children don’t actually learn about Scottish history in school, the argument being that it would just incite greater hatred towards the English.  I couldn’t quite believe this and was a bit dumbfounded- by the same argument does this mean we shouldn’t teach American kids about slavery because it would inflame racial tensions?  Call me odd, but I’ve never been met with a thorny problem and thought “you know, being more ignorant would surely solve this issue!”

Anyway, some of the loveliest scenery in Scotland is found on the Isle of Skye, and after a mere day there I have to agree.  I mean, just look at it!  For those astute moviegoers out there they filmed Stardust on the Isle of Skye, though I’m certain they waited a long time before they got the good weather.

My favorite Isle of Sky tidbit is how you need to cross a bridge from the  mainland to get to it, and when said bridge was constructed it was so overbudget it had the highest toll in the world to cross it (6.50 pounds one way for a car!).  The farmers weren’t happy so they made an exception for vehicles carrying livestock, which prompted everyone residing on the island to borrow a farmer’s sheep whenever they wanted to go to work.  Needless to say, the toll was abolished rather soon after.

Kilt Rock, the stone in the middle so named because of the tartan-like pattern in the cliff.  Allegedly where a giant put his kilt when hiding from another giant or due to a special type of volcanic flow, whichever you prefer.

Speaking of kilts, ever wonder what traditional Scottish people dressed like? (Before, yes, the English banned the style.) We went to a little show where the skill was demonstrated on one guy and a girl, and my friend Conor and I stepped up to the task.  Should be noted that unlike private school the girls aren’t the ones to wear kilts, only the guys, as the girls just wear tunics.  And I’m wearing a red-haired wig because about 80% of the Scottish population was redheaded at the time.

Something else very Scottish- a hairy cow!   Pronounced ‘airy coo’ and properly known as Highland Cattle, they’re mainly around for tourism these days.   And also very cute in that shaggy sort of way.And as a final detail, you see bluebells everywhere in Scotland and they are absolutely lovely.  Countless fields laced with blue.

Of course there’s more to say about the highlands, including a monster who may or may not exist, but that will have to wait until later.  Cheers!

Edinburgh

Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and is one of those places you fall in love with the second you arrive.  The stone buildings are beyond lovely, there are so many funky stores it can take an hour just to walk down a street, and odds are you can hear some bagpipes playing in the distance at any moment.  What’s not to like?

I went to Edinburgh twice, once when I flew in from Ireland and once again after heading up to the Scottish highlands and it turned out the European rugby championship was in town the next day.  It was an Irish team versus an English team and the Irish barely won, and how could I miss a fun bit of culture like that?

To start with, this is Edinburgh castle, perched intimidatingly on a hill and flying the U.K. flag higher than the Scottish one to great controversy (you learn pretty quick that anything dealing with the English is bound to be controversial around here).  It’s shockingly expensive to go in even when you remember everything in the U.K. is expensive, but it seemed a mild travesty to not go in so I said goodbye to my 12 pounds (US$19!) to enter the place.

To be fair, it is a rather nice castle and big enough inside that you can wander a few hours before you leave- they have a mess of cannons, the Scottish crown jewels, and all the other castle-y things one usually comes across.  My favorite was the prison- they redid the dungeons to look like they used to back in the day with a slight Disneyfication of wax models and spooky people talking in the background and such, which they did in perfectly entertaining proportions.

A Scottish guardsman at the castle.  You know how the English guards at castles wear red uniforms and ridiculous giant hats that make you conclude the queen’s primary defense is people will start laughing at the guards?  Well I wouldn’t mess with their Scottish counterparts- this guy is macho enough to wear a kilt, and stand rock-still when tourists pose for pictures beside him while still sending a “yeah, I could kill you in five seconds without my weapon!” look.  Definitely hardcore.

Speaking of kilts, I am going to be terrible and just post my opinion on this that I already said on Facebook-

Dear Scottish souvenir stores- please stop stocking my high school uniform.  Sincerely, recovering private school student.

Bonus for Ellisians, our plaid is in this picture for you to find!  Though those more expert than me say the exact plaid doesn’t mean anything because synthetic dyes are “only” one or two centuries old.

Speaking of things that annoyed me in Edinburgh, here is the view looking up from the lovely lobby of the hostel I stayed at, which was a converted barracks.  See where the steps end on the top floor?  Yeah, that’s where I lived.  And you’re not allowed to put a lift in the old buildings because they’re protected.  Needless to say, this hostel was one of about five or six places thus far on my trip where I felt obliged to use the backpack straps on my bag instead of the wheels.

On the other hand, I am fairly certain that this pig is one of my favorite things in Edinburgh (that and his other bretheren I consumed at this place).  It’s a hole in the wall type establishment called Oink where their only product is making cheap sandwiches out of a roasted pig.  They have one pig a day and work until they sell out, typically just after lunch.  And my God, it was delicious.  I became as obsessed with the pig place as much as one can be over the course of only a few days.

What you get at the pig place for 3.50 pounds.  You choose from either sage and onion or haggis, though I went for the former instead of the latter.  Not that there’s anything wrong with haggis- I tried it a few times while in Scotland and have no opinion on the taste one way or another frankly.

Anyway, now that I’m done ranting about the deliciousness of the pig roast let us move on to some more Interesting and Important Places, shall we?  This is a view of the Scottish Royal Museum, with Dolly the  Sheep in front and one of James Watt’s first steam engines in the back.  The Scots are one of those people who have done a disproportionate number of contributions to science and culture considering their size, and like such nations they are always proud to remind you of this fact.  In fact, Scotland is the first place after Hungary where you can mention something random and people are quick to tell you “did you know the Scottish invented/discovered/created that?!”  It got a bit much when they proudly told me Pontius Pilate was born in Scotland and hence they’re responsible for killing Jesus though.

A word on the Scottish Royal Museum before I forget- I’ve seen enough national museums by this point that don’t strike you as particularly impressive, but the Scottish version is not one of them.  Not only is everything expertly done and crammed with enough steam engines and prehistoric relics to satisfy anyone, there are even people going around in period costume telling you about how back in their day if you misbehaved your ear would be nailed to the church door or whatever (you will inevitably conclude from this place that Scotland was a pretty rough and dreary place to live for most of its history actually). The nicest thing about the museum though?  I remembered that the physicist James Maxwell is Scottish and asked a curator if they had anything from him- said curator was sorry to report that particular part of the museum was closed for renovations, but snuck me in so I could see the Maxwell case.  How kind is that?

The curator also mentioned offhand that there is a Maxwell statue erected in Edinburgh for the man, so I obviously needed to do a quick pilgrimage the next day to see it.  For any interested physicists the statue is located in George Street in the newer part of Edinburgh with traffic going by it on both sides, but these are the things we put up with to have pictures with our idols…

And for non-physicists who are wondering who on Earth James Maxwell is that I harassed a curator and went out of my way to find his statue, Maxwell is the guy who figured out that electricity and magnetism are related and the equations for them- equations so important that it’s from this Einstein figured out his theories of relativity actually!  So if you’re thinking of the most important physicists of all time first would be Newton, second would be Einstein, and third would be Maxwell.  The fact that I have taken two years of courses studying his equations and have a third coming up didn’t hurt my interest in the guy either.

Now that I’m done with my geek moment, I should make a note that one of the reasons it was a touch difficult to find Maxwell’s statue is there are so many erected in memorial to famous Scotsmen in Edinburgh (I say Scotsmen because I never saw a woman statue).  Some you can’t help but stop and pose with, such as the Hume one above, but some they could tone down on.  Like Sir Walter Scott.  He has several as well as a several-story memorial.  Now I realize the Scots are proud of him, but have any of you actually read Sir Walter Scott?  The man is boring– so boring that most English classes these days won’t touch his works knowing everyone will just reach for the Cliffs Notes- which I realize upsets the four Ivanhoe fans out there but it’s my blog!  And I needed to somehow explain why I never took a picture of any of the Sir Walter Scott memorials in Edinburgh.  The End.*

*I realize you’re not supposed to end things with “The End” but this is a blog, not high literature.  If it was high literature you would now be asked to critique what the pig roast sandwich symbolizes in my journey and what the theme of my James Maxwell search was, and I would mark you off for writing “she’s a nerd” because that’s not a complete sentence.