Friday, February 12, 2016

Adventures in Scotland: Hello, Edinburgh!

Freideg, 12 Februar.

I have to say: one of the perks of being a teacher -- or, to be more specific, of being an assistant teacher on a yearlong Fulbright grant -- is the holidays. When your students are out of school, so are you!

When the stars aligned and my high school went on break just as the university semester finally ended, I took advantage of my week of vacation to visit my friend -- and Kappa Delta little-little -- Rachel in Scotland, where she is studying for a semester at the University of St. Andrews. We spent a week bouncing around Scotland, based first in the capital city of Edinburgh and then in the picturesque town of St. Andrews.

I stayed for a total of three days in Edinburgh, one of which was spent on a bus trip through the Scottish Highlands. (More on *that* incredible experience later.) What an amazing place! And although Rachel and I spent most of our time traipsing through the city with that unflagging enthusiasm that only American tourists seem to possess, I feel as if we might not have even come close to scratching the surface of what this beautiful city has to offer.

Edinburgh is dominated by its castle, which looms over the city from its perch on the top of an extinct volcano. (As if being a castle weren't cool enough!) Edinburgh Castle was a royal residence beginning in the twelfth century, but its importance declined after the 1603 Union of the Crowns united England, Ireland, and Scotland under the rule of King James I of England.

The castle is believed to have been besieged twenty-six times over its thousand-year history, making it one of the most attacked buildings in Europe! As a result, despite the ancient age of the site, most of the existing buildings are relatively recent in construction.


Today, Edinburgh Castle is a popular tourist destination. It houses the National War Museum of Scotland and is home to the oldest building in Edinburgh, the twelfth-century St. Margaret's Chapel. It still contains a military garrison and the One O'Clock Gun is fired daily from the castle. Despite its rich history, we had been warned by our AirBNB host that visitors to Edinburgh are often disappointed in the current state of the city's famous castle, so we opted not to go all the way in. But we had fun taking pictures in the courtyard!

And I got to fake a phone call in a real British telephone booth.


Edinburgh Castle is located at one end of the Royal Mile, a mile-long street that stretches through the heart of the historic Auld Toun, or Old Town, of Edinburgh. This section of the city dates back to medieval times ... and it shows. In stark contrast to the neoclassical 'New Town' (which was built in the 18th and 19th centuries and features stately homes and wide streets), Old Town Edinburgh is a maze of narrow alleyways and tall, narrow buildings.

Built in the 14th century, St. Giles' Cathedral represents the seat of the Church of Scotland.


Having opted out of a tour of Edinburgh Castle, Rachel and I chose instead to visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Located at the opposite end of the Royal Mile, this palace was once the home of Mary, Queen of Scots. (You can visit her apartments, where she lived after returning from France in 1561.) Today, the palace is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth while she is in Scotland.

Although we were not allowed to take photos inside the palace, you can learn more and see pictures of the interior on the official Holyrood Palace website.

One of the coolest aspects of Hollyrood Palace was actually located just outside of it, in the ruins of Hollyrood Abbey. This abbey was first built in the twelfth century and later became the site of a royal residence (now Holyrood Palace).

According to legend, the abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I, who had a vision of a crucifix after being thrown from his horse during a hunt. The abbey was the home to an Augustinian order and, eventually, became known as a royal residence. However, the church was damaged during the War of the Rough Wooing (... yep, that's the real name of a real military conflict) and then almost entirely destroyed by an angry mob during the Scottish Reformation. After being carefully restored and remodeled in the late sixteenth century, it was later attacked yet again and fell into ruin.


One of the most popular symbols of Edinburgh is Greyfriars Bobby. According to legend, Bobby was a terrier who is known for having loyally guarded the grave of his owner for fourteen years. He became famous and so popular that the Lord Provost of Edinburgh even paid for his license and collar! A year after Bobby's death, an English visitor to the city became so entranced with his story that she had a fountain erected with a statue of the famous dog.

Today, visitors often rub his nose for luck (but apparently that's total nonsense and also it was a little too high up for me). Still, we made sure to say hello on our last day in Edinburgh.

The dog and its master are buried in the nearby Greyfriars Kirkyard, but they are not the cemetery's only famous residents. In a corner of the cemetery, you can find the epitaph of a rather familiar-sounding fellow: Thomas Riddell, Esquire. Could this be where a certain Edinburgh resident found inspiration for the character of Lord Voldemort?!

After visiting Greyfriars Kirk and saying hello to little Bobby, Rachel and I decided to check out the nearby National Museum of Scotland.

The museum, which combines the former Museum of Scotland and the Royal Museum, contains information and artifacts relating to the past several millennia. We traipsed through six stories of Scottish history, from the geological origins of the British Isles to the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the recent referendum, in which Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. After having toured through the Highlands and gone sightseeing in Edinburgh, it was great to learn a little bit more about the history and culture of this unique place!

And, speaking of culture, how could I forget about the food?

I steered clear of haggis during my brief stay in Scotland. (I know, I know ... cultural immersion, the priceless experience, blah, blah, blah -- at the end of the day, you're still eating a sheep's stomach and that is disgusting no matter how you look at it.) However, I did take advantage of being in Edinburgh to stuff myself full of tea, coffee, and scones. In fact, when Rachel got off the bus and came to find me, I was sitting in a coffee shop, drinking coffee and eating toast.

Although teatime never disappointed, Rachel's and my favorite and most unexpected discovery wound up being The Piemaker, a small takeaway shop on Edinburgh's South Bridge that specializes in small, single-serve sweet and savory pies. In other words, it was heaven.

After gorging on savory pies, we took our apple turnovers on the road!

One of our last -- and coolest -- food stops in Edinburgh was The Elephant House. Located just around the corner from Greyfriars, this "gourmet tea and coffee house" is known worldwide as the "Birthplace of Harry Potter." That's right: it was in this small cafe that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.

(A hilarious fun fact: J.K. Rowling is so famous in Edinburgh that some coffee shops have taken to putting up signs reading: "J.K. Rowling never wrote anything here.")


It was in the back room of the Elephant House that Rowling penned the first Harry Potter book, in this quiet room overlooking Edinburgh Castle.

Despite its famous connections, the cafe seems to make an effort to avoid explicit Harry Potter references. Rather, as its name suggests, the whole place is elephant-themed. (Check out the Babar books in the cabinet behind Rachel!) That is, until you go into the bathroom...

The walls, ceiling, floor, and even pipes are covered with graffiti and well wishes from visiting Harry Potter fans, including some rather hilarious 'Chamber of Secrets'-themed jokes. Although the overall effect was a *little* bit overwhelming and perhaps not a style I'll be likely to adopt in my own bathroom, there was something incredible about seeing this very tangible proof of the enduring impact of Rowling's work.

Oh, and the scones were delish.

Although we jam-packed our time in Edinburgh with as much sightseeing and scone-eating as humanly possible, there are still lots of things that I would love to do if I were to get the chance to visit Edinburgh again. I would have loved to have taken a themed tour of the city, like the famous ghost tour in the Real Mary King's Close, or to have spent some more time exploring the city's museums. Most importantly, I would love to return to climb Arthur's Seat, the famous cliff that overlooks the city. (You can see it in some of my photos above!) Although the weather did not cooperate with us on this trip, the walk up to the summit of Arthur's Seat is definitely a must-do in the future.

Because there is no possible way to describe my week in one blog post, I've divided up the trip into a handful of posts -- all coming soon. Stay tuned for more about our day in the Scottish Highlands and our adventures around the picturesque Kingdom of Fife!

Tired of hearing my voice? (Figuratively, that is.) Check out Rachel's account of our week of adventures on her blog, A Reeb Abroad.