European Adventure 2019, Leg 3: Scotland

Leg 3, Day 1: Edinburgh
June 19th, 2019

It was another early rise for us that day. Today would not carry the same relaxed, stress-free character that a few of the previous days had. After we scrounged together a breakfast, Alix drove us to the Coventry train station, and we said our goodbyes. I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train. When I moved to Florida, my train ride was a total of over 30 hours, and I would not have done it any other way. They may be slower than planes, but they have the same directness as a plane, with less inconvenience and more intimacy than plane travel offers. If we had flown to Edinburgh, I would not have been able to see the gorgeous English countryside, spent as much time reading my book, and I would have not been frustrated with jealousy at another one of Danielle’s timely naps for as long of time.

Several hours later, we arrived at the Edinburgh train station, and it became quickly obvious that we were somehow simultaneously deep below the city’s surface and still lit by the sun. After a lunch break at the first McDonald’s I had outside of the US, we started a trek up escalator after escalator until we finally reached the surface, less than a mile from where we would be staying. Now this may have been the street level here, and it may have been less than a mile to travel, but the first thing you should know about Edinburgh before you travel there is the incredible amount of hills and stairways there are, most of them quite steep. We opted against a taxi to save money, and it is no exaggeration that the walk from the train station to the far end of the Royal Mile was the most we exerted ourselves the entire trip.

What seemed like 1000 stair steps later, we had reached the centerpiece of historic Edinburgh, the Royal Mile. I will admit that we spent 90% of our waking hours in Edinburgh on the Royal Mile, so I cannot reliably speak for the beauty and nature of the rest of the city, but from what I could see here, Edinburgh was an enchanting fairy-tale town unlike anything I had ever seen. The entire length is rife with historical landmarks, breathtaking medieval and renaissance architecture, and it climaxes at the far end with Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the entire city.

Tired as we were, we gave only passing notice to all of these features, as we were eager to unload our belongings at Castle Rock Hostel, which had a phenomenal view of the castle and the giant rocky hill that it stood atop. The hostel offered a good enough first impression. They had 24 hour desk service, and there was a sort of collaborative artistry feel to the place. Unfortunately, our room was up two more flights of stairs, and then at the very end of a long hallway. Our room was about as far from the building’s exit as you could get, which was quite demoralizing after carrying around all of our luggage by hand across a hilly city. Finally we reached the room where we would sleep for the next three nights. It was nice enough, the window had a good view of the southern part of Edinburgh, and the bunks were pretty cozy. We knew that due to our location in the hostel we would need to limit our trips outside, so we put away what we could, gathered our essentials and set back out to explore the city.

Because check-in and settling in took a bit of time, we needed to make haste back across the Royal Mile, unencumbered by baggage this time, to make our first stop, which was a walking tour of various locations around the Royal Mile. It would take pages and pages to regale everything we learned and experienced here, but I will spare the details and instead encourage anyone reading this to visit this magnificent city. There is so much more that could be said about this place, even from just my limited experience. If you want astounding architecture, go here. If you want creepy local legends, go here. If you want grand historical events, go here. If you want centers of knowledge and culture, go here.

After the tour Danielle and I spent a bit of our own time wandering the city, stopping at some of the innumerable gift and curiosity shops, discovering a few of the hundreds of back alleys, and having an early dinner eating a remarkable plate of haggis. For those curious, the haggis itself was ok, I would not see myself eating it on its own, but the dish I had was phenomenally prepared and served, with mashed potatoes on the bottom and mashed turnips on the top, surrounded by a delicious whiskey sauce.

We had another walking tour that evening, more focused on famous murders that happened in older times, and showing the various famous people buried in Edinburgh cemeteries. The tour was fine, but what was also interesting was our tour guides themselves throughout the day. Our first tour guide was from North Carolina, and moved to Edinburgh well into her adulthood, and stayed because of how wonderful it was. Our night tour guide was a German exchange student. I honestly chalked it up as a point in the city’s favor that this was the case. It speaks to the city’s modern culture of acceptance, its worldly appeal, and that there really is something for everybody to love.

We did not go to any bars or pubs, we may have if we were not exhausted, although from our hostel window we could hear how active they were well into the evening. We shared the room with another set of bunks, and the occupants stayed talkative for a while so we took a couple hours to wind down in our hostel room before turning in for the night. Tomorrow was going to be another adventure on this fantastic journey.

Leg 3, Day 2: The Highlands
June 20th, 2019

This was the greatest day of the entire trip. I am still gushing from it a year later.

Like most days, we woke up quite early, this time to take a taxi to the airport where we rented our car that we would spend many hours in the next two days. We found a great service stop that ended up being our food and bathroom fallback on our car trips that week. Danielle had driven on the left side of the road before when she studied abroad in Ireland, and though I offered several times to take over driving if she wanted, she felt more comfortable doing it herself. I’m a pretty good navigator, anyways. About thirty minutes past Stirling, the terrain of the island noticeably changed. Grasslands and farms gave way to large hills and valleyed highways. We stopped at a wayside rest by a long lake, the other bank occupied by the largest hill we had yet seen.

One of the reasons this day was so special to me is my love of mountains. For the most part I have only ever seen mountains when I have been to Colorado. We used to visit Colorado Springs in my youth because extended family lived there, and the city is just a few miles away from the base of the Rockies. Danielle and I had become intimately familiar with them a few years past when we stayed in a Bed and Breakfast 10,000 feet in the air. The sheer size of them enthralls me, spires of unbreakable material dominating the sky. Just thinking about the natural forces that create them takes my breath away, and should help to remind us that even on a terrestrial scale how truly small we are. In a world without life, mountains would be the kings.

As we turned a bend towards Glencoe, a familiar, welcome feeling passed over me. One that I hope to feel many more times before I die, and I only hope each time would be as satisfying as the last. Before us laid giant knuckles of green rock overcast with clouds, and the sunlit road we were on gradually transitioned into a matching darkened state. I’ve written before that good weather seemed to follow us wherever we went, but besides the fact that I love the rain, this weather would reveal itself to be a good thing, and if anything added to the effect of the day.

My jaw stayed open and my phone camera stayed on as Danielle drove us deeper into the valley, a thin stripe of grayish-tan road whipped its way through mounds of green topped with black rocks. The rain waxed and waned in severity, but most of the time it was pretty light. The rain perhaps reached its lightest when we eventually pulled over at a visitor center of some sort, and for a while we hiked through some well-established trails leading partway up one of the mountains.

I really had not paid much attention at all to the reason this trail and visitor center were where they were, but it became pretty obvious once we saw what were clearly foundations of hundreds-year-old dwellings, now overtaken by mosses and overgrowth. There was a plaque nearby that chronicled the events of hundreds of years ago, when the clan that used to live in these dwellings was invaded and murdered by a rival clan, leaving the area abandoned and the houses to fall into disrepair.

I assume that an English couple that walked by us was familiar with the story, because as I sat on one of the foundation stones eating an egg salad sandwich, they gave me the dirtiest look. In my defense, this was the briefest few minutes while we were in the Highlands that the sun poked through the sky, so the site of a brutal murder aside, it was a fantastic time for some lunch.

That brief moment of sunlight revealed why it was a good thing that it was overcast and raining all day. If we had done this much hiking in the sunlight this time of year, we would have been miserably hot. It was slightly damp under our clothes, but I would prefer that be from rainwater than sweat any day. Additionally, any minute that there was no rain, tiny bugs called midges, which are pretty much an aggressive mix of gnats and mosquitoes, would come out of the ground and swarm you. I learned later that this was common for the Highlands, and when I learned that after this day trip I was eminently grateful that we did not need to deal with that. Take note of that if you ever visit the Highlands on a sunny day.

After another good bit of walking we headed back to the parking lot, and although our walk was beautiful and gave us a great broad view of some of the grassy and rocky hills, I didn’t feel like I had become personally familiar with any of the mountains, and I wanted a somehow closer look at everything.

We drove back the way we came on the road, looking for the perfect spot to pull off and walk some more, and we absolutely found it.

This trail at the base of these two steep hills was everything I have ever wanted to see. The cost and hassle of the entire trip was worth the hour or two we were here. Danielle was getting a bit too tired and wet, but she gave me her blessing to stay out there longer as she returned to the car. My Merrills were soaked, my rain jacket was far from the best in the world, and I was getting hungry again, but I could have stayed out there for hours longer. I went well off of the path to trek to a small rapids about a third of the way up the mountain. The bluffs look deceptively easy to climb, but it became apparent at a certain point that you needed professional equipment and training to veer any farther off the beaten path, especially with the rocks as slippery as they were in this weather.

Eventually we began our drive back to Edinburgh, and I was a contradictory yet satisfying mix of exhausted and thrilled. I am frankly still on a high from that day trip, and it will be a happy place in my mind I can retreat into until the day I die.

It may have been just out of view on our way into the Highlands, but on our way back we spotted a farm right on the side of the road with perhaps a dozen hairy cows, none of them seeming to have a care in the world. Danielle could not resist, and pulled the car over to run up to the fence to spend some time with one of them. I like to think that if any of the farmers saw her do that, they would not even care, and be happy that they were bringing someone so much joy.

It was a bit of a struggle to find a good place to park our car overnight. We eventually found a ramp in a much more modern part of the city. It was not available to re-enter until 7am the next day and was a bit of a walk back to the hostel, but we couldn’t be too choosy.

We were famished, fatigued, and wet. Danielle found a blink-and-you-miss-it hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a major road, and I swear to you that it was the best fish and chips I have ever had. Perhaps it objectively was not, perhaps my positive state of mind and my ravenous hunger skewed my judgement, perhaps because the slab of fried fish was the size of an entire plate, but that was probably my favorite meal the entire trip.

This was quite probably the greatest day of my life.

Leg 3, Day 3: Gartur Stitch Farm & Doune Castle
June 21th, 2019

This was just another gorgeous, perfect day in Scotland.

The first part of the day was uneventful, we stopped at our now-favorite rest area just outside of Stirling for breakfast and continued onto our main event for the day. We were on our way to a private farm called Gartur Stitch, a subsistence and community-sourced farm that made some of its money giving tours. Finding the farm was a bit of a struggle, as some of the directions were a bit unclear and there was some unforeseen roadwork. We eventually randomly caught a local checking her mail and asked her for directions. She was the nicest person you could ever meet in a random situation and told us exactly where to go.

The farm was also a bit awkwardly unclear in where to park and where to go, but eventually it all sorted itself out and before we knew it, we were sat in a rustic dining table with farm-made bread and butter, introducing ourselves to the Californian couple that would be touring with us that day.

We talked small for a while with two of the farmers, and they outlined for us what we would be seeing that day. One of them actually worked in Eden Prairie here in Minnesota for a time, which was a serendipitous connection to us. Besides these two, there were a number of others who contributed to the farmstead and the vast majority of their food and produce was supplied right there on the farm, with nothing going to waste. Some of them contributed by having jobs in the city to pay the bills, so everyone did their part.

Suddenly, a basketful of kittens were brought to us, one for each of us. Anyone who knows me knows my love for cats, and can probably imagine the sounds that squeaked their way out of my mouth. I forget the name of my kitten, it was Cherry, or Ruby, something to do with the color red. He just wanted to sleep all the time, it didn’t matter where. So he slept on me.

On the far side of their property was a grassy plateau where you could see for miles, all the way to the Highlands to the north. They have so many lambs and birds, and one cow. Lambs are basically just slightly fuzzier dogs, and a duck eating seed out of your hand is surprisingly therapeutic. The peacock’s name was Major Tom, and he spent most of his time hanging out with the most easygoing pig you will ever meet.

Similar to our tour of Edinburgh, it would take pages to retell everything about this tour here, so I will take this opportunity to plug Gartur Stitch farm tours, look them up if you ever visit Scotland and subsistence farming interests you, or if you just really love farm animals.

We gave one last cuddle to the kittens and said our grateful goodbyes to everyone before we left. It was only shortly after lunchtime so there were still plenty of hours in the day, so the farm recommended Doune Castle, less than thirty minutes from the farm. It seemed to be as good of an idea as any other, so off we went.

Doune castle was interesting enough on the outside. It was paid tours to go inside, but we were not very curious about that, it seemed a little bit small. It was used for exterior shots for Winterfell in the first season of Game of Thrones, and that was as much investment that was needed for us to be interested. Much nicer than the castle in my opinion was the walking path on the other side of it that eventually led us to a relaxing, flowing river that we walked along for a while. This entire trail proved itself to be yet another amazing cutout section of Scotland, and if the hike yesterday was the most satisfying and cathartic hike I have ever been on, the walk along this river was the most calming and peaceful.

Hours out there went by in an instant, and eventually it was time to return to Edinburgh. We managed to find a parking spot much closer to our hostel, which was quite fortuitous considering how early we needed to check out the next morning.

Our time in Scotland was easily my favorite part of our trip. Scotland had naturescapes I could never forget, lovely people, plenty of history to enamor yourself in, and in all other respects a little bit of something for everybody.

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