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Scotland ho! 

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Ah, Scotland… the land of thick accents, kilts, bagpipes, red hair, and strange food. A land full of mystery and mythology everywhere you look. Of Highlands, islands, mountains, and lochs. And, of course, just a wee bit of history.

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It was a bit of a drive to get to our first Scottish destination, taking about 3 hours from the Lake District until we parked in Edinburgh. The capital of Scotland, Edinburgh itself has an incredible amount to offer, and it is only the gateway to what the rest of the country has to offer. Once we checked in to our hostel, we set out for the Royal Mile.

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Edinburgh’s incredible city center sits just north and south of this Royal Mile (it’s actually closer to 2 miles, but who’s counting), and connects Edinburgh Castle on the west end to Holyrood Palace on the east end. Just strolling along the Royal Mile with its abundance of restaurants, shops, and points of interest would be enough to make the city worth a visit. We strolled from one end to the other and stopped in St. Giles Cathedral along the way to check out Scotland’s most important church.

The (very touristy) Royal Mile

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St. Giles Cathedral

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Edinburgh sits on an extinct volcano and as such sits on several hills. We hiked up to the top of Arthur’s Seat, the name of the tallest of these hills at 250 meters that gives commanding views of the entire city in every direction. Little did we realize that this day turned out to be the hottest in Edinburgh’s recorded history at somewhere around 86 degrees Fahrenheit. I guess we’re just awesome like that!

Edinburgh from Arthur's Seat

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To round out an already full day we ended up going on a ghost tour at Ethan’s persistent request. We got to go through the labyrinthine streets of the city and heard about mysterious happenings, some Scottish mythology, and quite a bit of true stories about murder and mayhem in the city. I wouldn’t have called it a ghost tour but it was still an interesting way to see the city and learn things we otherwise would not. I’m not sure how much Ethan actually listened, but I do know he slept like a log that night.

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The next morning we set off in milder temperatures to Edinburgh Castle, which overlooks the city from another one of the volcanic hills and has existed in some form for the last 3000 years. The Scottish and English have both occupied it at various points in history due to their tumultuous past. Although no longer used by royalty, it still houses the Scottish crown jewels, is used by the military, and way more history than I could ever share in a blog (lucky you!).

Entering Edinburgh Castle

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Edinburgh Castle

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Edinburgh Castle on the hill

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After lunch we did another tour, but this one was a historical tour of the old city. As unfortunately common in Europe, the wooden old city was subject to a great fire in 1824 and was subsequently rebuilt to what we see today. Even so, I love the architecture of the city. There’s something unique about it, but I can’t quite put my finger on what. On the tour we learned a lot about the struggles of the Scots over the years and how they eventually united with England. We got to hear stories of Scottish heroes like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and a few others with just as cool names. In the evening we had a dinner consisting of a little haggis and some bangers and mash. The consensus was that haggis is good!

Haggis in all its glory

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The next day we woke up to a real Scottish welcome, rain. Nothing really to write home about (wait, aren’t I doing just that?), it’s just not Scotland without a little rain. Our first destination of the day was the Real Mary King’s Close, which dates to the 16th century. Edinburgh was not a very clean city from this time going into the 17th century, and in 1644 the plague hit – hard. One in three people died very quickly from the plague, and the city was left reeling. To combat some of the logistics issues of where to place all the corpses, and to try and prevent the spread of the plague (since they thought it was transmitted by smell), the answer was simple: just seal up the homes of anyone with the plague and leave them to rot, or so the story goes.

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Edinburgh as we know it today was built on top of these old homes, and Mary King’s Close was one of the old streets that got built over. Luckily for us it stayed well preserved under new construction for centuries, so we got to go underground to see these perfectly preserved homes and learn about what life was like over 400 years ago. We couldn’t take pictures during the tour, but we got some great stories about the people who lived there.

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After going underground, we headed to Holyrood Palace, which is the queen’s residence when she is in Scotland. It’s used by the entire Royal family at times throughout the year and dates back 500 years. Many Scottish kings and queens lived here before Scotland was unified with England. We were able to pass through all the rooms and also see the gardens and the ruins of the Abbey where the Scottish kings and queens were coronated. We weren’t able to take pictures inside the palace either, however! Finally we popped inside the modern, seemingly out of place parliament building just to have a look.

Hollywood Palace

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The strange Scottish Parliament building

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Edinburgh is a great city, but leaving it was the beginning of our real Scottish adventure. We had several stops planned as we crossed from Edinburgh to Fort William all the way on the west coast. Our first stop is the town of Stirling, where we hiked to the top of a hill to see the William Wallace monument. It was here in 1297 that William Wallace fought and won a battle against the English army in the fight for independence. It was especially neat since we believe that Catherine is a relative of him!

Wallace Monument

Leaving Stirling we drove some 20 miles to the southern shore of Britain’s largest lake, Loch Lomond. You may be familiar with Loch Lomond from the song “You take the high road…” By the way, “Loch” is simply the word in the old Scots language for Lake. From the old Scots language we also hear words like wee, nooks and crannies, aye, and auld (lang syne). We ate lunch along the Loch and then drove up the west coast, stopping along the way at some of the small villages and viewpoints for pictures. With all the bens (mountains) in the background, it was truly majestic!

Loch Lomond

After leaving Loch Lomond, we passed (and photographed) several other lochs as we drove to and through Glen Coe, a beautiful valley snaking towards the coast. With over 3000 lochs and many bens in the Highlands, we will not be starving for photos anywhere along the way! Scotland reminds me of New Zealand and although this doesn’t really make sense, everything about it just feels older.

Never get tired of this

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Amazing views

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The good life

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Glen Coe

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We ended our drive by arriving at our guest house in the town of Fort William. We had dinner at a local restaurant in town and enjoyed the views of the water and the mountains. There are no large cities up here, with the biggest in all the Highlands just missing the 50,000 population mark. Our Highlands adventure involves a lot of driving, so we turned in after dinner to prepare for an early start the next morning!

Fort William

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After a delicious and very filling breakfast at the guest house, where I went for some more haggis but passed on the black pudding, we set out in search of a steam train. It was made famous by one of the Harry Potter films, but the Jacobite Steam Train has been running the route from Fort William to Mallaig for a long time, with the highlight being its passing over the Glenfinnan Viaduct. We timed out our journey to be able to see the train at that point.I

Choo choo

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After a magical morning we headed to the port town of Mallaig to temporarily leave the Highlands and take a ferry boat to the Isle of Skye. The three of us and our car boarded the ferry and 30 minutes later we were driving on the most famous of the Western Isles. Skye is known for its mythology and mystery, and we were hoping we’d get lucky and find some of that on our own.

Mallaig Port

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Driving through the hilly countryside for an hour, and combating the onslaught of oncoming traffic down one lane, two way streets, we arrived at the Glenbrittle fairy pools. Scotland is big on fairy myths and legend has it that it is where fairies would come to play. Although we didn’t see any fairies, the stream and waterfalls still won us over.

One lane, two ways, great views

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Fairy pools

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Fairy pools

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We finally pulled into Portree (Port Righ in Gaelic) and found our B&B. With only a population of 2000, it’s still the largest town on the entire island and has a handful of restaurants, a supermarket, a cinema, and a whole lot of pride! We were able to see the pipe band perform and, since Skye is where bagpiping began, it was neat to see how proud they are of their culture.

View from our guest house

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Portree pipe band

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Our journey through Skye and the Highlands continues tomorrow, but for the sake of your sanity I’m going to split this blog in two. Stay tuned in about a week for the second half of our journey through Scotland!

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