Edinburgh, Scotland: History, highlands and Scotch
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
When we arrived in Edinburgh it was exactly as we imagined...gray skies, old stone buildings, and quaint pubs around every corner. We couldn't wait to begin exploring, even if that meant bundling up, dodging puddles, and venturing out into the mist.
But first, we checked into our hotel, The Glasshouse. Now a boutique hotel, The Glasshouse was once a 170-year old church (Lady Glenorchy), which makes for a striking contrast between the ultra-modern interior and the historical exterior. The hotel has a two-acre rooftop garden, and our room had a massive outdoor patio running the entire length of one side, but...did we mention the weather?
Not exactly ideal for sitting outside, even if the expansive wall of windows did provide an amazing view of the historic city center. But that was okay by us because there were plenty of places offering a warm pub lunch and cold beers. We went to find one.
Once our stomachs were full and our thirsts quenched, we walked toward the city center where we were greeted by something unexpected...the Edinburgh Christmas market had just begun!
If you read our blog, you know that we love a Christmas market, and this one was gorgeous, taking place along Princes Street Gardens, the two public parks in the center of the city and in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. There were stalls selling holiday wares and locally made goods, carnival rides, and one of the greatest discoveries ever - hot chocolate with Bailey's. How could I have never known such an other-worldly drink existed? Thank goodness Joe suggested that I might like it. Now, in my mind, Edinburgh is forever linked with hot chocolate and Bailey's. That's a nice memory to savor.
But it wasn't all holly jolly because situated right beside the rides was a stunning monument to Sir Walter Scott. Although its stone was seriously darkened from city life, it was still an imposing memorial to the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright and historian. It is one of the largest monuments to a writer anywhere in the world, and one of Edinburgh's most iconic landmarks. During Christmas market, however, the poor writer had to share the skyline with a Ferris wheel, the Star Flyer, and all the other blinking, swirling, Christmas-music-playing attractions. Strolling through the market with the city and sounds of the holidays around us was a great way to begin our Scottish adventure.
The next day we walked up the hill to Edinburgh Castle, which stands like a protector over the rest of the city. The castle, which is perched on a rock, has served as a military fortress, royal residence, and prison of war. It also happens to be the most besieged place in Britain, and has survived capture and attacks that include the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century and the Jacobite rising of 1745. After serving as a royal residence it was eventually used primarily as military barracks with a large garrison. But it's not all just stone and military history (although it pretty much is) because Edinburgh Castle is also home to the Stone of Scone, the Stewart Jewels, and the Lorne Jewels, which were bequeathed to Scotland by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll in 1939. Very pretty!
Fast forward to modern times, and we decided to explore the Edinburgh that served as an inspiration for JK Rowling when she was writing Harry Potter. Apparently she spent many days at The Elephant House cafe in the shadows of the castle creating the world of Harry and Hogwarts. We stopped in for a hot chocolate and then headed to the curve of Victoria Street and The West Bow, where the shops and brightly painted buildings are rumored to be the inspiration for Daigon Alley - unfortunately we didn't find anything to help with our Quidditch skills: No Quaffles, Bludgers, or broomsticks in sight.
For dinner, though, we found exactly what we were looking for: Haggis. I am not the food adventurer, but Joe is always willing to try something once and he loves ordering the most local of local dishes. Haggis fit the bill, although once we realized what was in it I wondered if he still had the stomach to eat it. He did.
Lo and behold, the restaurant we chose created a very modern and appealing version of haggis. While it looked very chic and not all that much like traditional haggis, it was still...haggis, a pudding made of sheep liver, heart, and lungs (or other animal), minced and mixed with beef or mutton suet and oatmeal. As if that isn't enough to scare off the weary, it's then seasoned with onion, cayenne pepper, and other spices. And to top it off, that entire mixture is then packed into a sheep's stomach and boiled. Joe's verdict: unexpectedly tasty. Better him than me! It looks kind of like a dessert in this photo, let me be clear, this is nothing like dessert!
The following day we ventured out to the country on a castle and Scotch tour. Our first stop: Stirling Castle. But along the way there was a quick sidetrip to see The Kelpies, a huge 98-foot-high sculptures of horse heads.
What's a Kelpie? They are shape-shifting water spirits, of course! This sculpture by Andy Scott is located at the entrance to the Forth and Clyde canal and symbolizes Scotland's horse-powered heritage. They are quite imposing when you're standing next to them!
One thing I've learned from our castle adventures is that castles aren't the lovely fancy things of Disney movies (those would be palaces).
No, castles are battle-hardened fortresses designed to protect, and in the case of Stirling Castle that means sitting atop Castle Hill with steep cliffs on three sides. This is one of the largest and most important castles in Scotland and dates from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with a few structures going back as far as the fourteenth century.
Stirling Castle was also one of the most used Scottish royal residences, and had several Scottish kings and queens crowned here - including Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542.
The scenery around the castle is gorgeous, with a view across the fields to the landmark that commemorates where William Wallace led his troops to victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. It was all very Braveheart and it was hard to stifle a cry of I am William Wallace in my best Mel Gibson impersonation.
The castle was so worth the ride to Stirling, as was the view along the way. Sheep grazing in fields and lots of green rolling hills to gaze at, and on our way from the castle to our next stop it was easy to get lost in the scenery.
When we arrived at Glengoyne Distillery, housed in large white barns nestled at the foot of a gorgeous emerald hillside, we knew we were in for some serious Scotch.
We toured the distillery and got a lesson on the history of Scotch and the process to create one of Joe's favorite evening drinks. While I wouldn't put it in the same category as haggis, I sort of feel the same way about Scotch - I can appreciate the local tradition but I don't really care to imbibe.
But that was fine, Joe was more than willing to finish my wee drams. From his reaction to each of the drams filled with various whiskeys, Glengoyne has some pretty great Scotch! On this wall you can see how the Scotch gets darker the longer it is aged in the barrels. Quite the colorful wall!
We purchased a bottle to bring home with us and continued on our way to a tiny town beside Loch Lomond. I was very happy to trade Scotch for a hot chocolate in the most adorable little cafe overlooking the serene water. We even took a walk along the path around the loch - no monsters in this small lake. It was quiet and peaceful. A nice way to end our countryside excursion before heading back to Edinburgh.
Back in the city, we began exploring the museums. We started with the Scottish National Gallery, a classic art museum that mixes masterpieces by well-known artists (Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, and more) with a huge collection of Scottish works of art.
Then I convinced Joe to go see the Royal yacht Britannia. The ship is harbored far from the city center, so we decided to experience the local bus system. I was so excited to visit the former royal yacht that served Queen Elizabeth from 1954-1997 (Prince Charles and Princess Diana even honeymooned on the yacht after their wedding). It was basically the former floating residence for the royal family, but in 1996 it was determined that it would cost around £17 million to retrofit the ship to prolong its life another five years and the Labour government was like: We think not.
So, bye bye, Britannia! Now it's on permanent display at Ocean Terminal in Edinburgh and welcomes visitors to see what it's like to live life royally. Well, I wish I could say that we got to see this stunning ship but our bus took longer than expected and we arrived about 5 minutes before the museum/ship closed. Such a bummer. Next time! Back on the bus we went for a ride back to the city center! (There is a lesson here: check the bus schedule and duration of your trip before hopping on - and make sure your museum doesn't close upon your arrival!)
Fortunately, when we got back, we happened to walk past the Scottish National Portrait Gallery For some reason, Joe and I love portraits. They are our favorite works of art in every museum we visit, so we bought our tickets and went in. It was amazing!!! We totally lucked out finding this gem. We still rank this museum as one of the top five we've ever visited.Definitely check it out if you're in Edinburgh.
As we prepared to leave this place filled with so much history and beauty we knew that we would be returning. There is a lot more to see, art to appreciate, and a rich past to learn about (not to mention a royal yacht to board!). While I don't think there is haggis in my future any time soon, we do know that Scotland has not seen the last of us. We will be back in there in January for a month during our non-Schengen area Quattro 90 adventure, and we can't wait to toast the city with some Bailey's and hot chocolate and local Scotch once again.
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