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A Year in ScotlandAuthor: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: September 2003
I took a bus trip with some international students to this tiny town on the east coast. We went in December, and boy was it a cold and windy place! (In general the west coast of Scotland is more temperate, due to the Gulf Stream.) We saw the ruins of the cathedral and castle, and also went through a teensy-tiny museum on the history of the town. We also walked on the beach for as long as we could stand the icy wind -- I believe it's the same beach where they filmed "Chariots of Fire." St. Andrews is a famous golf town (birthplace of golf? I'm no duffer, so I'm not sure), but it wasn't exactly golfing weather. We spent a lot of time ducking in and out of stores to get warm. Gorgeous town, but definitely best for a visit -- I think it would get pretty dull living there all year.
I went to Aberdeen on a Friday and stayed overnight in an HI hostel there (can't remember the name) -- the bed was incredibly comfortable, although I got lost looking for the place and nearly got myself killed by a taxi when I looked the wrong way crossing the street. I set out bright and early on Saturday morning and walked all over town, catching highlights like St. Nicholas Church, Marischal College, the University (gorgeous!), St. Machar's Cathedral, Provost Skene's house, St. Andrew's Cathedral, Mercat Cross, the Maritime Museum and the Art Gallery. Whew. Obviously these places weren't all that far apart, and most of them didn't take long to visit (or were places you couldn't go into). Aberdeen is quite gray -- gray stone buildings combined with Scotland's generally gray weather. Even the sand on the beach was grayish. It ain't the Caribbean, but the icy-looking North Sea has its own sort of beauty.
I took a bus to Perth one Saturday in February. Located on the River Tay, it actually looks a lot like Aberdeen (a bit gray, similar architecture, etc.). I saw the church where John Knox preached a fiery anti-idolatry sermon and inspired great destruction of art (ah, Calvinism), and then went to the Museum and Art Gallery, in which all the art galleries ended up being closed. Sad. But there was a really neat collection of glass -- paperweights and bowls and things -- which was worth seeing. Then I crossed the Perth bridge and took pics of the river, and on the other side found a sculpture trail with some nice gardens...would look beautiful with flowers and stuff, but that's what I get for visiting in February. Oh well. I walked for a while, took some more photos, and then crossed a railroad bridge and came out in front of the Fergussen Gallery (Fergussen was a Scottish Colourist), which was enjoyable. After that I just kind of cruised around...I did try to find this Hunting-something castle, which apparently has some neat-looking towers (according to my guidebook), but there was a big car park where I thought the road should've been. Hmm. It was a good day anyway!
Inverness is often called the "Gateway to the Highlands," and it's about four hours by bus from Glasgow. When we arrived we went straight to what turned out to be a pretty nice hostel (I think it was an HI one); I was with three friends, so we had a room to ourselves. Then we went to see the "castle," which was a bit disappointing; built in 1893, it's a pinkish government-looking building with a few small, corny turret-like things. The museum and art gallery was also a whole lot of nothing -- maybe we missed a floor? But we did enjoy a walk through St. Andrew's Cathedral, which is unique in that whoever was building it ran out of money for the spires.
The next day I set off on my own while the others went to see Culloden and Clava Cairns, both of which I'd already visited on that Haggis bus tour through the Highlands. Instead I went to explore a little more of Inverness...walked along the river, watched people walking their dogs or streaming towards the town's many churches (it was Sunday morning), enjoyed the beautiful morning sunshine, and visited the Ness Islands (in the middle of the river). I took lots of photos...it was so pretty and peaceful.
In the afternoon I took a bus ride to Elgin, where I visted the ruins of its cathedral. I can't really capture how amazing the experience was...I pretty much had the whole place to myself except for three other tourists who came in a while after I did, and the weather was perfect -- sunny, with a brilliant blue sky. The cathedral itself was in better shape than the ruins at St. Andrews, so there was much more to look at and appreciate. I climbed the two towers in the front -- saw a butterly and some birds inside, and saw a black and white cat on the grounds among the gravestones. It was the atmosphere that made the experience, I think -- the combination of the solemnity and awe I usually feel in cathedrals and churches, paired with the sunshine and bird songs and open-air setting. I was glad I was there alone.
North Berwick/Tantallon Castle/Dirleton Castle
I had to take three buses and then walk 2.25 miles to get from my dorm in Glasgow to Tantallon Castle, on the east coast of Scotland, but it was very much worth it! I got a bus from Edinburgh to North Berwick, which was a small, charming town with not much going on. Luckily it was a gorgeous day weather-wise, so my 2.25-mile walk was relaxing and enjoyable. The castle is perched on a cliff overlooking the North Sea, across from Bass Rock, an island inhabited only by gazillions of seabirds (so many that the rock appears white from a distance). It was weird to see such a dramatic cliff since the surrounding farmland (which I'd just walked through) is so completely flat. I clambered all around the castle ruins (as with Elgin, I had it mostly to myself -- one advantage of traveling in the winter, which is Scotland's off season), climbing various towers and even spending a few minutes lying in the grass and enjoying the sun.
Then I hoofed it back to North Berwick, where I caught a bus back to Edinburgh. I should comment here on the fact that nearly everyone on the Edinburgh/North Berwick bus (both directions) was age 60+ -- I never figured out why this was. On my way over that morning I'd seen a castle right along the bus route, so I stopped off on my way back to explore. It's called Dirleton, and had some formal, English-style gardens as well as a well-preserved castle ruin; there was more to see of the actual building than there was at Tantallon, but with less spectacular views. Two castles in one day -- lucky discovery!
I didn't stay long in Dundee, a small town in central Scotland, since my main goal for the day was to see Glamis Castle. I did have a little time before the bus to Glamis though, so I walked down the High Street (ie Main Street -- pretty much every Scottish town has one, it seems), and checked out the River Tay, snapped a photo of the Discovery ship that went to the North Pole (or was it South Pole? hmm). Then I caught the bus to Glamis, where I got a mandatory guided tour and got to see the inside of a castle that's still in use today...unlike a lot of the ones I've seen that are just ruins. I also realized how little I know about the British royals -- not that I care! I explored the ground a bit too, which were beautiful on such a sunny day. I took photos of some shaggy cows and of the Italian garden, as well as perhaps more photos than necessary of the castle itself. It definitely looks more modern than a lot of the other castles I've seen (but it was still built in the 16th century or so!).
My parents came to visit me for a week in May. They were eager to see the tiny island of Iona, so we set off in a rented car for Oban, from which we could catch a ferry. Our drive took us up along Loch Lomond (Scotland's largest) and Loch Awe, through some lovely glens. We saw the ruins of Kilchurn Castle from afar, and paused to snap some photos of Dunstaffnage Castle as well. We took a huge (and quite expensive) ferry from Oban to the Isle of Mull, and then drove all the way to the west end of the island. Mom and Dad were not exactly enjoying the whole driving situation; I don't know which was worse, the narrow two-lane roads (where Dad would swerve off toward the shoulder every time someone came the other way) or the single-lane roads with passing places (which just made everyone nervous). It was a pretty drive anyway, and we made good time to Fionnaphort, a tiny town on the coast from which we could see across the water to Iona.
We slept that night in a B&B called the Seaview, very small and charming, run by a married couple. I got my own room with a lovely double bed -- lots of pillows and blankets. Quite a change from the hostels I was used to!
The next day dawned bright and sunny for our trip to Iona. Our B&B was within walking distance of the ferry. Dad went to a service at the abbey on Iona (it was Sunday) while Mom and I took a walk to the north beaches, which were white and sandy and looked out over incredibly gorgeous blue water. You'd never guess how chilly it was from looking at the photos. Mom and I headed back to see the inside of the Abbey, which was nice but not breathtaking. Then we walked through a ruined nunnery, which was lovely -- which just goes to show that often ruins have more atmosphere than whole buildings.
After we ate lunch (turkey ham and brie on oatcakes -- there's a multicultural dish!) and did a bit more exploring, we headed back to Glasgow, where it was, of course, raining. But you can't come to Scotland without expecting a little (okay, a lot of) rain!
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