Our Princess Cruise ship docked at South Queensferry and it was pouring rain. The tender boat ride was rough and my jeans were wet before we reached the tour bus. I had planned to walk all over Edinburgh that day and the weather was making me worried. This might not work out the way I hoped.
The windows on the tour bus were fogged. I saw glimpses of Holyrood Palace, peaked at the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling supposedly started penning Harry, and got blurry views of the Royal Mile. When we finally reached Edinburgh Castle, I gave myself a pep talk – this will still be an amazing day. Period.
In front of the castle, there were bleachers set up for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Now this is not something you get on your lower back and regret later. This is an annual event that celebrates the “Year of Natural Scotland”. The event includes bagpipe performers from around the world, both civilian and military. The Tattoo runs during the month of August every year. We missed it by one day. Again, this will still be an amazing day. Period.
Edinburgh Castle is a must-see. The thick stone walls, the winding staircases, and the museums are definitely worth exploring. Remember that castles were built to be their own city within a city. So these fortresses had a little bit of everything. From St. Margaret’s Chapel for prayer to the Royal Palace for living, the castle functions as a sanctuary from the rough outside world. The royal crown jewels are stored near the living quarters and it is said that they are the oldest in Britain.
One of the most famous royals who lived in Edinburgh Castle is Mary Queen of Scots. Her son was even born in the castle during the mid-1500s. The dedicated Catholic and cousin to England’s famed Queen Elizabeth, had a rather interesting life. You already know how the story ended – Queen Elizabeth ordered her execution for plotting against the English monarch. Yet, there is so much more about Mary that you should know. She became queen at only 6 months old and she spent most of her childhood in France. She was married three times and two of those husbands died. The first was the king of France and following his death, she returned to her homeland. Her second husband (her first cousin!) was mysteriously murdered and the man thought to be involved became Mary’s third and final husband. The Scots did not agree with this arrangement and the unrest forced Mary to flee the country. She spent her later years in confinement in England. This 6 ft. tall natural redhead was never destined for a simple life.
Within the castle, there are several scenes you’ll encounter depicting Mary’s life. It was nice to see recreations of the way the rooms might have looked and how Mary herself may have functioned within the space. Towards the end of the self-guided walking tour, an actress dressed as Mary was floating about sharing stories. You can ask her questions about her life and get a little more insight into her world. Many tourists participated in the charade. I was not one of them.
After winding around the castle for a couple of hours, we stepped outside. The rain had not only stopped, it was now very warm and sunny. So warm, that we peeled off our jackets, stowed our umbrellas, and my jeans dried off by lunch. It really was turning out to be an amazing day. Time to walk the Royal Mile.
The Royal Mile was a bit of a festival. Well, it was The Fringe to be exact. This is an art festival held every August for several days. There were people randomly in costume, there were street-performers, and there were a variety of artists displaying their work. It was exciting and the energy was high. The downside being that it was very crowded. Edinburgh, in general, draws in many tourists and thanks to the Tattoo and Fringe, there were many more. An added layer to this – the university is nearby, which means students from all over the world are working in the shops/restaurants/bars. Between the crowds and the multi-cultural atmosphere, it was tough to decipher what a regular day would be like in Edinburgh. If you are looking to talk to a genuine Scot about their daily life, this is probably not the place to do it. This is, however, the place to buy kilts (we did), grab some lunch at a pub (we did), and dare each other to eat the haggis (and that too). Haggis is a sheep’s stomach filled with such lovely parts as the heart, liver, and lungs. Not one person at our table took the challenge.
One thing we did not see, but found quite intriguing, is Mary King’s Close. There is an underground 17th century network of streets and rooms in Edinburgh. It is my understanding that a “close” is an alleyway and Mary King was a well-known business woman in this particular alleyway. This close is considered a true representation of life in the 1600s to the 1900s. Keep in mind that this area was not underground when inhabited – the ground naturally sloped downward. Buildings were later constructed over this area. Mary King’s Close, along with others, are open for viewing. Like most historical locations, this close is dipped in folklore. Stories of plague victims, murders, and ghosts color this tourist attraction. The tour guides are in costume and I suspect they play up all the ghost stories. We did not have the time to take the one-hour tour and I am not a fan of scary theatrics.
I thoroughly enjoyed our day in Edinburgh, weather and all. But a day without the crowds was in order. Hence, our trip to Tain, Ross-shire in the Scottish Highlands. There, we toured the Glenmorangie Distillery. The name is pronounced glen-mor-anjee, heavy on the ‘mor’. Also important to know, whisky spelled without the “e” is Scottish. Spelled with it is an American or Irish brand. The Scots are quite clear that an “e” name is not theirs. Glenmorangie reportedly has the tallest stills at 26 ft. in height and the water used for the brew is pulled from the Tarlogie Springs. There was a time when it looked like the land around the springs was going to be developed. In a smart move, the distillery purchased a great deal of it to preserve their special water source. The grains are likewise from the Highlands. So the ingredients are homegrown, if you will. Aside from the components, it is thought that the barns in which the alcohol ferments adds to the flavor, with the one closest to the sea having its own special notes. I like my whisky with a side of whimsy.
The room with the tall stills was pretty cool. Phones could not be used in this space because of the heavy alcohol content in the air. There was the potential for sparks. Yes, if you stayed long enough, you’d get drunk just from breathing. I could definitely smell the alcohol and there was a slight sting in my nose.
The tasting itself was nice and much to the dismay of the manager, our tour guide let us keep the small glasses. Glenmorangie whisky is smooth and light. Adding a few drops of water actually helps open up the flavor more. I love the aromas that float upward after a good swirl of the glass. If you are a whisky person, I suggest giving this brand a go.
The grounds were beautiful. The purple heather was in bloom, the sky was clear, and the view of the Highlands was amazing. This is the Scotland with which people fall in love. After our tour and tastes, we drove to the Sutherland town of Dornoch. It was quiet there. You could hear yourself think, soak up the architecture, and just feel the vibe of a regular day. It was refreshing. Someone told us that Madonna’s son was baptized at Dornoch Cathedral. I don’t think every travel spot has to have a celebrity story. In fact, it’s nice when it doesn’t. It was an amazing day. Period.