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A Year in Scotland

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: September 2003

I spent my junior year of college abroad in Glasgow, and got to travel all over the country one weekend at a time. Scotland is an amazing place -- full of ancient castles and stone circles, beautiful and barren landscapes, and of course people with some of the coolest accents in the world. Here are a few highlights of my year there...

I had initially wanted to study in Aberdeen or St. Andrews, but I'm so glad I wound up in Glasgow. This mid-sized city may not have all the historic charm of Edinburgh (more on that later!), but it's a really good place to live -- lots of arts and cultural stuff going on, fewer tourists, some lovely Victorian architecture, and lots of local pride. Public transportation is pretty good if you take the buses -- they go just about everywhere and run fairly frequently. Glasgow has an Underground, but I only used it a couple of times since it basically just does a big loop and didn't really go to the places I wanted to go on a regular basis. I usually ended up buying an unlimited bus pass every week and getting around that way.

One of Glasgow's best museums is the Burrell Collection, a bit outside the city proper (we took a public bus to get there). There's a little of everything there: stained glass, ancient Greek pottery, Chinese plates, medieval armor, paintings, tapestries...etc.

Glasgow's cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in the city, huge and dark and ornate. I spent a bit of time wandering around its sprawling graveyard, called the Necropolis, and then went to the adjacent St. Mungo Museum of Life and Art. The museum is small but has a lot of fascinating displays, including exhibits on different religions and cultural practices around the world.

One of my favorite places in Scotland was the Botanic Gardens on Byres Road in the West End; admission is free, so I must've gone there about three or four times at different parts of the year. They were gorgeous in the fall and spring, of course, but there are several greenhouses you can visit even during the winter when everything outside is dead.

The main building at the University of Glasgow, also in the West End, is a huge Gothic structure with an enormous bell tower and two quadrangles on its upper level. The rest of campus is more modern (ie uglier), with a tall concrete library (about 14 stories, I think), a sort of bizarre round building that houses the computer lab, and two student unions. The University also houses the Hunterian Museum, which I never visited but I think has scientific stuff in it, and the Hunterian Art Gallery; the latter includes the reconstructed house of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an architect who designed a lot of neat Art Nouveau buildings throughout the city.

Most of the good shopping (if you're into that, which I'm not really) can be found in the City Centre -- there are several pedestrian-only streets lined with stores, and a lot of folks say Glasgow's shopping is second in the U.K. only to London. As I say, I'm not a shopper, but there you go.

This was my first sightseeing trip outside Glasgow; a bunch of us new international students went by bus to Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument. Of course it poured rain the whole entire time until the ride home, but oh well, it gave things an authentic Scottish feel! Our tour was good, but we didn't have quite enough time at the castle. The Wallace Monument was a decent climb, and the view would've beeen awesome if there hadn't been so much mist and fog and cloud. The wind and rain really whipped through the open tower at the top, so we didn't spend all that long up there. Brrr. The castle was really cool, with pretty good (if gray) views from the top of that too. Apparently it's on what's called a crag (didn't know what to call it at first -- a hill? a cliff?). There's a pretty litle courtyard with a garden, and a neat exhibit down where the kitchens would've been. We also walked through the royal chambers. It's weird to think of a married couple each having their own set of rooms, but I guess the royals back then didn't exactly marry for love.

Skye and the Highlands
I went on a three-day "Haggis" bus tour through the Highlands in order to make the most of my time. Scotland's public bus service is pretty good, but I figured this would be the most efficient way to sightsee for a weekend without having to rent a car. Another American and I got up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a bus to Edinburgh where we would pick up our tour. Edinburgh's famous castle was all lit up in the early morning darkness -- looked gorgeous, but no time to visit. We joined a number of other bleary-eyed backpackers, boarded a jolly yellow bus and took off for the north. Our first stop was the Hermitage, where we walked down a path to a big frothy waterfall. We also stopped to see the ruins of the Dunkeld Cathedral and a place called Clava Cairns -- one of those mysterious piles of stones whose origins no one knows. They were surrounded by trees in golds and reds, so gorgeous...I was really glad we decided to make our trip in autumn.

Our route took us up past Loch Ness; we stayed overnight in a nearby hostel called Morag's Lodge -- clean and comfortable and unmemorable, which frankly is a good quality in a hostel!

Our second day began with a quick photo op at Loch Ness -- it was lovely with just a little bit of mist rising off the water. (No monster sightings!) This was our best day of the trip; it didn't rain once, and the sun was out almost all day. We made our way to the isle of Skye, one of Scotland's Inner Hebrides islands, passing some dramatic scenery along the way. Scotland is beautiful in a barren sort of way (the legacy of deforesting in the past; most of the hills and mountains have very few trees), with sheep and even its famous "hairy coos" all over the place once you get up into the Highlands.

Skye carried the dramatic scenery to a greater extreme. For a while it looked a lot like what we'd already seen on the mainland (mountains, glens, sheep), but at some point I started to get a different feeling from it. The high point (literally) was the Quiraing -- basically we climbed this little mountain (I'm in lousy shape! I didn't think I was going to make it to the top for a minute there) and got an absolutely amazing view. The late afternoon sun was out, and we could see for miles, over the craggy green landscape of Skye and across the deep blue water to mainland Scotland. I can't even begin to describe it.

After that we took a quick stop to see Kilt Rock (it's a pleated-looking cliff/rock formation right on the coast -- pretty, though I don't know that it actually looks like a kilt!). We spent the night in a hostel in Kyleakin.

Day three was probably the least exciting...I was a little tired, and it rained a little bit. We saw more lochs, plus Glen Nevis (hurray! got an up-close photo of "hairy coos") and Glen Coe, site of a very famous massacre. I'd heard that Glen Coe was absolutely stunning, and...well, it was pretty, but not as thrilling as a lot of other stuff we'd seen by then. We also visited Rob Roy's grave and Bannockburn (the latter the site of a famous battle between the English and the Scottish). Then it was back to Edinburgh...whew!

I visited Edinburgh several times over the course of the year. It has a much different feel to it than Glasgow -- statelier, more elegant, with a gorgeous medieval Old City. The castle is a lot like Stirling Castle -- up on a crag, with kind of similar architecture. Edinburgh Castle overlooks the whole city, located at one end of the Royal Mile. At the opposite end is Holyrood Palace. In between is a wide cobblestone street (the Royal Mile) with lots of little twisting alleys and side streets. One afternoon I stumbled upon a poetry library right off the Royal Mile where I spent several fascinating hours...definitely worth looking for if that's your thing! Another related attraction is the Writers' Museum, which is dedicated to the lives of Scotland's three most famous authors: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh's National Gallery is also nearby, and is a great museum -- interesting art, particularly from Scotland, and just the right size so that you can see everything without being overwhelmed or feeling like you didn't get your money's worth.

Most visitors head straight to the Old Town part of Edinburgh, as they should...but if you have some extra time it's definitely worth poking around the New Town as well, where there are broader streets and crescents and some fairly opulent houses. The New Town is where Edinburgh's elite went when the Old Town got too crowded.

One other thing you can do in Edinburgh is climb Arthur's Seat, which is a volcanic hill within walking distance of the Old Town. There are a bunch of different routes you can take up; I started climbing not far from Holyrood Palace. I wish I could tell you what a marvelous view there is from the top, but unfortunately I never made it -- the day I tried, it was absolutely pouring rain, the wind was whipping all around, and it was freezing. I am ashamed to say I retired in defeat after about 20 minutes of climbing and shivering (I was not the only one -- ended up chatting with this other American who'd given up even sooner than I had, and we wandered around town together for a while). Oh well.

I went with a few friends to Callander, where we'd heard there were some nice hiking trails. We took a bus from Glasgow to Stirling, and then another bus to Callander from there. The town itself is very small, with not much there, but we were able to find some pretty easy trails that headed right from town into the surrounding countryside. It was very muddy, but gorgeous, especially when we reached a big waterfall. After our hike we grabbed some tea/coffee in town and then took a quick walk through the Rob Roy exhibit at the visitor center -- we got in free because the multimedia display wasn't working, woohoo!

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