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A Scottish Excursion
by Dennis Fowler
Copyright © 2001, all rights reserved.
See Picture Gallery of the Excursion here

"When you go to Scotland, go to Oban, and see the islands," a Scottish friend urged. "You can take a ferry to Mull, and then another to Iona, and a boat to Staffa, where Fingal’s Cave is. A lot of people go to the Isle of Skye and the like, but try these, instead. Trust me."

"Oban, Mull, Iona, Staffa," I muttered, scribbling furiously in my pocket notebook.

I trusted him, and I’m glad I did. What beautiful country!

This was our second trip to Britain. Two years ago my wife, Peggy, and I spent about a month traveling around from York southward, from Dover to Wales, through places like Shrewsbury and Nottingham and Litchfield (there’s fine ale to be found there!) and the Brecon Beacons. This time we vowed we’d start with Scotland.

We also decided (well, Peggy decided) that this time we’d use public transportation, instead of renting a car. While I had thoroughly enjoyed driving the narrow back roads and whipping through the roundabouts like Jackie Stewart, she had lived in a state of terror the whole time. She refused to let me behind the wheel this time.

Not a bad decision. Public transportation in Britain has it all over what we have in the States, despite the gripes of the Brits about the supposedly sorry and costly state of British rail service. Trains run frequently, mostly on time, and buses can get you almost anywhere else. Tickets can be purchased using your credit card, and many train stations offer ticket dispensing machines that credit cards or cash. Even the London Underground has such machines, which, once you get them figured out, can be a real time saver.

Also, while the mid-way railroad stations are like railroad stations everywhere, the big terminals are generally a marvel of convenience. The trains arrive right in the waiting area in most of them, eliminating long sprints to the platform and, in Edinburgh, at least, a taxi cab can drive right down into the station to let you out. If your suitcase is on wheels you can roll right along, because there aren’t even any curbs, only some posts to guide the traffic. Be careful, though, because you can wander into the "road" and not know it!

My being freed from behind the wheel, and my wife being liberated from the road atlas and panic attacks, meant we both saw more of the countryside and the people. But, just in case, we brought along our 1999 AA Big Road Atlas, an 11 ½"x15 ½" (closed) monster that maps out Britain at a 3 miles to the inch scale. It turned out to be of unexpected value.

Before we left we made critical lodgings reservations through the Internet; "Critical" being a place to stay the evening of the day we arrived in Scotland, and the evening of the day before we left London, plus a few others where we had deadlines to be someplace. We’d learned on our first trip we could depend on the lodging services of the Tourist Information Offices that can be found in most cities and towns of more than moderate size.

[TIP: Most tourism offices offer lodgings services that are hard to beat. Walk in and give them your requirements and they will do their best to satisfy them, whether your preference is for a bed and breakfast or a full service hotel. And an office in one town can contact another town’s office for lodgings there. From Inverness we made reservations for a hotel room in Edinburgh. From Edinburgh we made our reservations in Newcastle. Usually we had a place to stay within half an hour.

Also, purely by accident, our hotel in Edinburgh was only a block and a half from Haymarket Train Station, a tremendous convenience. If you’re going to jump about by rail, include "near the railroad station" in the criteria you give the tourism office. You will also be given directions on how to find your lodgings from the station if you ask.

The tourism office does get a commission, a few pounds from you and ten percent from the hotel or B & B where you stay. It’s worth it for the convenience and security, since the Tourism Offices do check out the lodgings for quality. They also have a wealth brochures on sites to see, directions, maps, even coin operated Internet terminals in some offices so you can check your e-mail.

Our plan was to keep in touch with our daughter in California via the Internet. There are many coin operated terminals or cyber-cafes where you can do your e-mail. Based on our experience, opt for the cafes or shops that offer Internet access. Many of our messages from coin operated terminals either never made it through or were mangled. Even the ones from the coin-devouring terminal in our hotel in London didn’t make it, and it was expensive -- £1 for ten minutes or so.]

But back to our journey. Unable to book connections from New York City direct to Glasgow, we flew from JFK into Heathrow and my first stop was an ATM machine for some British money.

[TIP: We have found no reason to bother with travelers’ checks when visiting Britain. ATM machines can be found in virtually any town that has a bank, airport or train station. The fees are reasonable, the exchange rate good. Even currency exchange offices often have an ATM machine right outside their door.

If you have an ATM card from a bank affiliated with any of the major ATM services (Cirrus or PLUS for example) you can get British currency up to the limit specified by your bank agreement. In my case, the bank limits my withdrawals to $100 each day to limit my exposure to being stripped by someone who gets their hands on my card and PIN number, so I could get £50 or £60 each day. I tried to make sure we had about £50 in our pockets every day, hitting a machine every day or two, depending on expenditures.

We used our VISA or MasterCard for most meals, lodgings and other purchases, reserving the cash for things like an ice cream cone, bus or underground ticket. Credit cards are widely accepted. Only a few small shops and museums are not so equipped. Then, when the bill comes you have a marvelous record of the places you’ve been.]

After getting the cash, we sought out a shuttle flight from Heathrow to Glasgow. After a very long five minute walk to Terminal 4 we booked seats on a British Airways flight and settled in for the one hour flight. It being morning we were offered the airline version of a British breakfast. Not recommended for jet-lagged American stomachs.

From the Glasgow Airport it was a short bus ride to the Queen Street Station where we caught the train to Oban, and collapsed, weary and jet-lagged.

I confess, I dozed a bit as we made our way out of Glasgow. I awoke to find Scotland unfolding outside the window. For a time we paralleled the Clyde, its shipyard gantries towering like strange, fantastical beasts. Sadly, the ship building industry is in decline, the newspapers headlining layoffs in the yards. The world is changing. Scotland is changing, and change is uncomfortable. There will be hard times for some, but they’ll bounce back. The Scots are resilient and innovative, as we were to see.

Away from the Firth of Clyde the country opened out, and up. Lush green mountains soaring high to the right, a loch below to our left, but what loch? Out of Peggy’s tote bag came the AA Big Road Atlas! It was Gare Loch. Using the atlas we traced the route the train was following. We could give names to the places we were seeing as we swept northward to Garelochhead and beyond.

A clutch of German hikers joined the train at one point, sitting across the table from us and we were able to show them where we were. Our identifying the ruins of Kilchurn Castle, on a little spit of land, almost an island, at the end of Loch Awe, startled a Scot across the aisle from us.

To me the names were like something out of a Brigadoon-ish dream; Loch Long, Loch Lomond, Glenn Falloch, Crianlarich, then westward along Strath Fillan. to Tyndrum. Without meaning to I found my tongue rolling the "R’s", my palate rasping out the "CH’s." Perhaps the glorious scenery’s impact helped. Photos taken through a train window really don’t do it justice. Lush green hills, their tops seeming to hold up billowing gray clouds, plunge steeply to dark lochs. Streams dash and dance down those precipitous slopes, like streamers of lace decorating the rich green velvet skirts of a Scottish lass.

The Highlands. Well named, they are. They reach for the skies.

The streams! So many of them. Where did all that water come from? From the clouds sitting heavy on the mountain tops, of course.

As we passed some lochs, we saw rectangular forms floating in the limpid waters. "Salmon farms?" I speculated when Peggy asked me what they were. It turns out I was probably right, we learned, when we visited the Isle of Mull.

Oban turned out to be a small port tucked in behind an island called Kerrera in the Firth of Lorne. The train station was right at the harbor, in the center of town. Our suitcases rumbling on their wheels behind us, I wearing the back pack, my wife carrying her tote bag, with the ever valuable road atlas in it, we trudged a half mile or so to our hotel, which looked out on the Loch.

Not our room, though. We’d opted for the cheap rooms, in the back, with the bathroom "down the hall" rather than en suite. No matter, we were so tired we wouldn’t have enjoyed the view anyway, and it cost half what the front rooms did. We still had enough energy to avail ourselves of the spa and indoor pool the hotel offered, before eating dinner and crashing into our beds.

One of the true joys of Britain is that every room we have ever stayed in has an electric kettle for boiling water, and a full tea set (real china, no plastic) at hand. Decaffeinated coffee is rare, but there’s always instant regular coffee, a few tea bags, little containers of milk and packets of sugar. It makes getting up in the morning so much easier. In Oban the tea service was downstairs, but no matter, we had the entire wing to ourselves anyway.

The dining room offered a fabulous view of the harbor, Kerrera in the distance, its hills catching the sunlight when it slipped through the clouds. It was a constantly changing panorama as the light changed. A large ship, a ferry, moved past.

We signed up for a day tour of the islands we wanted to see. A Caledonian MacBrae ferry took us from Oban on a forty minutes trip to Craignure on the Isle of Mull, where we met our bus. The driver maintained a running, and informative commentary as he drove the length of Mull on a narrow road that twisted and turned as it navigated the rugged terrain. As on the mainland, the hills were mostly bare of trees, the slopes steep, and richly green with heather and grass, and ever graced with those lovely streams.

From time to time we’d pass a small, tumbled down stone building in an overgrown field. This was a grim reminder of the pain sheep had brought to Scotland. At one time these tiny huts, probably no more than fifteen feet square, had been the houses of tenant farmers, crofters. They weren’t much, but they were home. Then the landlords discovered that sheep were more valuable than farmers, for the meat and especially wool for the burgeoning English textile mills, so the landlords ruthlessly evicted the crofters, replacing them with flocks of sheep that ranged the hills and fields.

What a price, both human and ecological. What had been massive north temperate rain forest was gone forever, logged off for timber, more than a little for the British navy (Nelson’s Flagship, the Victory, built between 1759 and 1765 took 2,000 mature oak trees) and charcoal for blast furnaces and forges. Then the crofters were evicted, replaced by sheep which overgrazed the land. Those lovely streams have eroded channels as they splash down the slopes. Portions of Mull are being reforested now, but mostly with fast growing evergreens, not the slow, sturdy hardwoods that took millennia to mature and flourish on the rugged land.

But the beauty is still there. This was a land built by fire, shaped by ice. Millions of years ago, volcanoes built most of Scotland. Then came the ice age, glaciers scraping away, sheets of ice a mile thick grinding at the land. The harder parts were left, leaving behind hanging valleys and the scenic lochs. We have lochs in the States, only we call them the Finger Lakes of our own upstate New York.

There are, it turns out, two kinds of lochs, those filled with fresh water, and those that form long, narrow bays off the ocean. In the fresh water lochs the floating arrays we had seen on our train ride to Oban were salmon farms, taking advantage of Scotland’s wealth of clean, fresh water; salmon to replace the depleted, over harvested runs of wild salmon that used to spawn in the streams feeding those same lochs.

On the sea lochs are another example of Scottish adaptability, mussel farms. Drop a weighted line into a sea loch and young mussels fasten on it. In two years or so, draw that line up, and with it a ton or two of mussels, treasured particularly by countries on the Mediterranean like Spain, Italy, and France. Tons of mussel for the export trade are harvested from these farms.

In some ways, the Isle of Mull is Scotland’s Highlands in microcosm, featuring both kinds of Lochs, both kinds of farming. There are still sheep, of course, but not in the densities there used to be, giving the land a chance to recover. There are Scots Highland cattle, too; great shaggy beasts with wide spread, wicked looking horns that totally belie their mild disposition. I suppose today they are kept mainly out of sentiment, or for the tourists.

Mull is shaped a bit like a boomerang, and our tour took us to the western end of the southern leg, the port of Fionphort. Across a narrow channel from there was Iona, but first we were to visit Staffa, the home of Fingal’s Cave. From the bus we tacked into a stiff breeze, down a ramp, down to a wharf where a small launch awaited us.

Peggy and I, fortuitously, got in the small, covered cabin amidships. Others were soon to regret being accommodated in the open stern section of the boat.

When the weather is really rough, they don’t venture out to Staffa. I wonder how they define "really rough?" It was a brisk day, to put it mildly, with a strong, chill wind blowing out of the west. Once we pulled out of the shelter of Iona the launch began battling waves of four feet or more, pitching and bucking, sending spray flying. Soon the bow dug into a wave and the wind sent a sheet of spume over the covered cabin, drenching the passengers in the open stern. Only then did the deckhand distribute slickers to those poor unfortunates, who took it with remarkable good humor.

Meanwhile, some passengers were assuming an ominous pallor as the boat rocked and rolled and pitched and yawed its way to Staffa. In the cabin, two young children began to wail, obviously unsettled by the turbulent passage. Miraculously, we made it almost all the way to the island before their stomachs rebelled, the younger first, quickly followed by the older one. Fortunately, the wind swept the scent away or some of the adults might have joined the chorus. It was probably one of the longest half hours ever endured by some of those passengers.

Also, some of the tourists were rather ill dressed for the occasion, I thought – jacket and tie on the men, the ladies wearing pretty summer frocks and dressy shoes, with only a light sweater. Not the best for a blustery sea voyage!

[TIP: I don’t know that they regretted their choice, but my recommendation for any excursion like that is rugged, warm clothes, and pack rain gear along. Good athletic shoes, or better yet, hiking boots, are a must.

A few tips for day touring:

    • Layer your clothes. It can be cool in the morning, warm by noon. Wear outer layers (a windbreaker and zippered sweatshirt) that are easy to get off and tie around your waist or stick in a back pack). Beneath that, depending on how cool it is to start, perhaps a sweater and a shirt.
    • Rain gear. Always have it with you. Britain is subject to sudden showers. It should be light, something that you can roll up and stuff in your back pack or tote bag, and should consist of both a hooded jacket and pants big enough to fit over your bulkiest outfit
    • Footwear. Comfortable walking shoes are a must. You don’t need both with you, of course, but have available two pairs so you can alternate each day or so.
    • Socks If you are prone to blisters, wear a pair of knee-high nylon stockings under thick cotton or wool socks. That way the friction is between socks and stockings, not the socks and your skin.
    • Medical/first aid necessities. Carry a few adhesive bandages (BandAids®, or "plasters" as the Brits may call them). Carry aspirin or other medications in clearly marked small (1"x2") zip-lock bags. You can get them through a good office supplies store. If you take daily medication or vitamins pack each required dose in its own little baggie before you even leave home. As you travel, day by day, take the dose, toss the bag.
    • Carry a water bottle, but don’t fill it full. A pint of water weighs a pound, and by the end of the day you’ll feel every pound. If drinking fountains, etc., are likely to be encountered, a pint bottle, half full, should be enough. If you’re going on a wilderness trek, then you might want two full bottles, but be sensible as you plan for your day.
    • Hand washing. The best way to avoid getting sick is to wash your hands before eating. Carry a few moist towlettes, and use them, even before indulging in an ice cream cone.
    • A back pack is a lifesaver. It leaves your hands free, and balances the load well. Get one with a bunch of pockets, one of them large enough to take bulky items like sweaters, and organize your supplies well; one pocket for snacks, one for rain gear, one for first aid/medicines, etc. Ours even has a pocket perfect for a water bottle. Do NOT put credit cards, passport or valuables in your back pack. It is too easy for them to get lost or stolen from there.]

Peggy and I thoroughly enjoyed the voyage, like an E ticket ride at Disneyland. I seem to have outgrown my childhood tendency toward sea sickness, and I trusted the skill and judgment of the captain to keep us from diving headlong to the bottom of the icy waters. Peggy was secure in the knowledge that there were life jackets at hand and that we could both swim. I didn’t tell her that the water temperature being what it was, we might not have lasted the distance before hypothermia claimed us.

From a distance, Staffa looks a bit like a giant dropped a lopsided brownie in the water. It’s not perfectly square, but sort of sway backed. Approaching it from the southwest, you face a forbidding vertical wall of black basalt columns jammed together like pencils in your fist. Carved into that is Fingal’s Cave, and a second, smaller grotto. I wondered how we were supposed to get on to the island, but the boat cruised into the lee of the southeast side and drew up to a concrete jetty where we scrambled ashore. Then it withdrew to avoid being battered against the wharf by the surging waves.

From the jetty, a path, of sorts, curls along near the base of the cliff toward Fingal’s Cave. Handicapped access is not available here. The "tread" of the path is the flat tops of basalt columns, irregular in size, up and down like poorly set stepping stones. As a concession to safety, there is a cable strung along the cliff to hold on to. Eventually the way curls around at the end and into Fingal’s Cave itself, black basalt columns framing and walling the grotto like giant organ pipes. The surf roars into the cave, churning to a froth, rushing out to clash with waves coming in. It’s damp, and misty, and it’s easy to see how it came to be named for the mythical giant who supposedly dwells there. Awesome was the only word we could come up with for it.

After savoring the drama of Fingal’s Cave, we made our way back along the path to the jetty, then upwards on another narrow path, metal and wooden stairs to reach the grassy top of Staffa. Spatters of rain dampened us as we wandered paths to the north side of the island, then turned away and headed toward the eastern end, where puffins nested. Our time ran short, though, so we didn’t make it to the nesting ground, but had to turn back to meet the launch that was returning to the jetty. The captain took us eastward along Staffa, where we scared up a few puffins who were fishing the waters there. Then it was back westward, out of the lee of Staffa into the wind and waves, the boat rolling more, but with a following sea, not digging into the waves the way it had.

Once again the sea sick prone pursed their lips and closed their eyes, which is not a good idea. Seamen will tell you, it’s better to fix your gaze on something on the horizon (for me it was an island called Dutchman’s Hat because of its humped shape) and to let the boat roll under you as much as possible. Closing your eyes only makes the vertigo worse.

We arrived back not at Mull, but across the channel from it, on the Island of Iona, one of the most holy places in Britain. It was here Saint Columba landed in 563 AD with twelve disciples and founded a monastery. Legend has it he had been sent from Ireland to bring as many Scottish souls to Christianity as he had taken at the battle of Cooldrevny in 561. He went on to found several other monasteries, participated in another battle (this time against St. Comgall, over who owned the church of Colethem), and died on June 9, 597.

Iona was cold, and windy, and after our trip to Staffa we were hungry. After snacking at a tea shop near the dock we ventured back out into the wind and explored the 13th century abbey that replaced Columba’s original monastery. It is used as a Christian community and retreat to this day. Then it was back to the harbor to ferry back to Mull, where we boarded the bus for the return drive to Craignure and the ferry back to Oban. A hot steak pie from the ferry’s restaurant did much to warm my chilled and weary body. On the way I managed to get a picture of Duart Castle on Mull, one of the settings for the Sean Connery/Catherine Zeta Jones film "Entrapment."

The next day, from Oban we took a public bus to Inverness. Once again the map came out, the names rolled past; north to Dunbeg, Benderloch (a town, not actually a loch), past Barcaldine Castle to Fort William, along Loch Lochy, within sight of Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, its head buried in the clouds. Then it was Loch Ness (sorry, didn’t see Nessie), Castle Urquhart (pronounced URK-urt), a marvelously scenic ruin gracing it shores.

I grabbed a few hasty shots through the bus window of Castle Urquhart as we paused in the parking lot there. A new tourist facility was under construction, and restoration workers crawled over the ruins of Urquhart like blue clad ants. Here we experienced the main drawback to our public transit plan. There was no chance to get out at Castle Urquhart, to explore the shores of Loch Ness. Next time we’ll explore our ticket and routing options. You can buy a ticket that lets you get off one bus and walk around, and get back on a later one to complete the trip, but it’s expensive and can mean a two or three hour wait for the next bus.

The bus tour of Mull suffered the same problem. Next time, now that we know more, we might just take the ferry to Mull and then explore that lovely island on foot.

Through Drumnadrochit (and that name should get you rolling your Rs and rasping the CH) with its clutch of tourist facilities capitalizing on Nessie’s fame. Down the River Ness to Inverness, and if you’re sensing a trend here, you’re right. Loch Ness, River Ness, Inverness. In Scottish, "Inver" means "mouth of." So, Inverness is the Mouth of the Ness and Inverary is at the mouth of the Ary. Scotland has a lot of rivers, and as a result there are a lot of "Invers" in Scotland as well.

Our goal at Inverness was Culloden Battlefield, one of the most tragic battles in Scottish history, where the Scots were defeated, slaughtered by English forces. There, in 1746, died the last of the Jacobite rebellions, a final attempt to put a Stuart, and a Catholic, back on the throne of England. A Guide Friday bus took us out to the site, where a kilted guide took us around the battlefield, showing how Prince Charles had squandered his forces defending indefensible terrain. The field is littered with monuments to the fallen clans – the Frasers, the Stewarts of Appin, and so many more.

In a low, stone cottage of the time, an actor and actress gave a skit, portraying a doctor and nurse at the battlefield, treating the wounded, watching out the window as the English soldiers mercilessly executed the wounded Scots where they lay. It was a sad day for both England and Scotland.

That afternoon was spent at Fort George, built shortly after Culloden to guard the narrow neck of Moray Firth (gateway to Inverness) in case Charles tried to come back from France again. Taking a public bus this time, Fort George being a good six miles or more from Inverness, we arrived just in time to enjoy some historical re-enactors demonstrating medieval armor and weapons, including crossbow and longbow. Later, from the Fort George ramparts we saw dolphins sporting off Chanonry Point across the channel from the fort, and explored other exhibits, such as one showing how barracks had evolved since the 1700s. We timed our departure to catch the last scheduled bus back to Inverness.

Which brings us to one of those "bad news/good news" scenarios. The bad news was, as we waited for the bus it started to rain, and the bus was late. There we were, huddled under an umbrella on the edge of a virtually empty parking lot, wondering how we were going to get back to our hotel.

The good news was that a Scottish soldier (Fort George is still an active military establishment) saw our plight and rode to our rescue in his little English car, giving us a ride back to within a block of our hotel. In fairness, on the way in we passed the bus on its way out to Fort George – we hadn’t been abandoned, but it had been quite late. To our Glaswegian knight in shining armor – well, army greens, anyway – we offer our heartfelt thanks. He refused anything else.

Good people, these Scots.

From Inverness it was another bus ride to Edinburgh, climbing from Inverness and Moray Firth up into the green, cloud-capped Highland mountains, following the A9 to Perth. This route didn’t seem to have the ruined castles the stretch from Oban to Inverness had. It was very much a tourist area though, with towns such as Aviemore and Killecrankie seemingly devoted to them. We went over the pass of Drumochter and heard stories from the bus driver of the snows that closed the roads for two days one spring a few years ago. Even though it was July some of the mountains still had patches of snow on their shadowed north slopes. These were high lands, with only a few lochs (Loch Ericht, Loch Garry) and many streams and glens (what else but Glen Garry?).

Just before reaching Perth we re-crossed the Highland Line that we’d first crossed between Glasgow and Oban, leaving The Highlands behind. The Highlands are, officially, a place, a geographic region with its own council, even. For the most part they are "high lands," save where they dip down to the sea and islands on the east, west and north. Glasgow and Edinburgh are not in the Highlands, Oban and Inverness and the like are, and there are distinct cultural differences.

Edinburgh is a thoroughly modern city, thoroughly dominated by its medieval castle, which towers over it from the top of a crag that juts up in the center of the town like the prow of some great ship. Here the glaciers carved almost the perfect setting for a castle. On three sides a sheer rock wall drops into a valley that is, today, a lovely park. On these sides are high walls to further discourage attackers. The only access is up a narrow way, through a series of gates on the eastern side. It is easy to understand why the castle has never been captured in battle.

Every day a salute is fired from a cannon on its ramparts at precisely one o’clock by a red coated soldier who moves with the precision of clockwork in his duty.

Edinburgh Castle is worth a full day. The view over the city is magnificent. There are the chambers where Mary Queen of Scots sheltered. You can see where prisoners of war were held, and the jail cells that housed British soldiers who had broken the rules. There are Regimental Museums, one of which displays a French Imperial standard and gold eagle touched by Napoleon himself, captured at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The histories of these regiments is on display here, in uniforms, awards, paintings. There is even a beautiful little cemetery for soldier’s dogs, evidence of the well known British love of their pets.

The oldest building in the castle is actually a 12th century chapel, St. Margaret’s Chapel, my wife’s namesake. It is small, and gracious, used still for weddings.

If you’re hungry, there is a tea shop where the food was excellent, the service by a cadre of cheerful young ladies and gentlemen superb.

In Edinburgh, too, public transit was usually our way of getting around, but we also took a Guide Friday tour bus, as we had in Inverness.

I check my work on the pedal powered loom where I turn out a scrap of tartan under the supervision of a master weaver.
The author trying his hand at weaving tartan

[TIP: In some cities, such as Edinburgh, these are worth taking. A reasonably priced ticket gets you a full day’s access to them, you can get on or off where you want, and they cover most of the tourist high points. Some have "canned" tours, but most have live guides who are knowledgeable and informative. Included in the price are discounts to some of the sites, and a discount coupon for Guide Friday tours in other cities.

Also, look into buying a membership in one of the foundations that maintain so many of Britain’s historical sites. There are several – Scottish Heritage, English Heritage, British Heritage, National Trust, etc. Each has its own collection of sites, so you’ll want to study the lineup before choosing which to join. Membership gets you free access to the sites they tend.

Many sites have guided tours, and also offer audio guided tours. The best offer a portable CD player, sealed, of course. At various points there are plaques with numbers. Enter the number and you’ll hear in your headphones the story of that feature. Often, after a brief description you’re given the opportunity to learn more by pressing a button or entering another number. It’s a marvelous system that lets to you take in a site at your own pace. The cost is nominal, though they may collect a £10 deposit, which is returned when you bring the unit back. ]

Eastward, downhill, from Edinburgh Castle is what is called the Royal Mile. It stretches to Holyrood House, residence of Queen Elizabeth II when she visits Scotland. When she is not there, which is most of the time, much of it is open to the public and there are guided tours. Most royal residences offer the usual selection – rooms and rooms and more rooms. There are main halls and bed chambers and libraries and galleries, most hung with tapestries and original paintings.

But before we trudged all that way to Holyrood House, just beyond the gates of the castle we were distracted by a woolen mill where tartans are woven. We are not big shoppers, as you may have guessed by now, so we ignored the shop upstairs and headed down to the mill itself, where we could hear looms clattering madly. Taking advantage of the guided tour they offered, we were shown how tartans have been woven for decades, centuries, on noisy, clattering looms, shuttles flying to and fro, a crazy cacophony of moving parts. We even had the opportunity to weave a bit of tartan ourselves on a pedal powered loom.

Holyrood House has a couple of distinctive features worth seeing. Up a winding staircase and through some doors are the chambers where Mary Queen of Scots lived, and where she gave birth to James VI, future James I of England. When she was fearful of the machinations of Elizabeth I, or the people of Scotland were in a cranky mood, she would retreat to the more secure venue of Edinburgh Castle.

On display in another room, easy to miss amidst an incredible clutter of curios and mementos, is an actual lock of her hair. While her statue in Madame Tussaud’s in London has her in a dark red wig, this hair is more a very light red, a strawberry blond. Also in the same room, down low in a central glass case, is a cast of the skull of Robert the Bruce.

Outside Holyrood House are some formal gardens you can walk through, as well as the ruins of a chapel.

There is much, much more to Edinburgh. We didn’t even scratch the surface in our brief stay there. When next we visit we’ll allow more time. There are hiking trails up the slopes of a neighboring mount, museums and theatres. There are also pipers, of course, catering to the tourists, and hosts of kilt shops. Take the Guide Friday tour if you go there, it’s worth it.

While we were in Edinburgh we also wanted to check out Stirling Castle and Bannockburn, to the west. A train got us to Stirling, where we relied on yet another Guide Friday tour bus. It was the best way to see things like the castle, the Wallace Monument and Bannockburn. We learned at the castle in what respect Mel Gibson is held, thanks to his movie "Braveheart". Never mind the historical inaccuracy (I defy you to find a bridge in his version of the Battle of Stirling Bridge), the Scots love that film. When we told a young lady at the souvenir shop that Mr. Gibson had grown up near where we live, before he moved to Australia, she almost gave us our postcards for nothing.

The site of the Battle of Bannockburn is now a parking lot, so don’t bother with that one!

Not far from Stirling, in the direction of Edinburgh, is Grangemouth, home of Alastair McIntyre and his marvelous web site, Electric Scotland ( For information on and links to all things Scottish, as you who are already reading this on his site know, go to Electric Scotland.

I’ve known Alastair from my days as a columnist for Computer Shopper Magazine -- we’d met at several trade shows in the States. The day after our Stirling trip we managed to get together. He was a charming host, and we shared a fine meal at a nearby hotel restaurant, the Leapark, just down the street from his house. The venison in a wine sauce was superb and, as we ate, a kilted mountain of a man straight out of Braveheart, only cleaner, appeared at our table. He was, it turned out, the proprietor, and he insisted that we must try the haggis. Frankly, he was too big for me to argue with, and I’m six feet tall and weigh 200 pounds.

To understand what haggis is, you must understand that the Scots waste nothing. They use everything of the sheep but the bleat. Haggis is all those strange internal bits that don’t go into mutton or what have you – the liver, spleen, kidneys, etc. Minced up with a dash of oats and a lot of spices, the resulting mix is stuffed into the sheep’s stomach and baked. To us too fastidious Americans it is not an appetizing combination. But then, we don’t ask what goes into that hot dog we eat at the ballpark, do we?

Haggis is usually served with mashed potatoes and mashed turnips, a wise precaution; they mellow the extreme spiciness of the haggis.

I was glad I was able to set aside my American-bred qualms and sample the dish. I’m sure there is good haggis and bad haggis. This was very, very good haggis. My compliments to the chef, and my thanks to Alastair for introducing me to fine Scottish food. Don’t confuse English cooking with Scottish. They are worlds apart.

It was a fitting way to spend our last night in Scotland. The next day we headed to Newcastle and points south, but we will be back to Scotland again, of that I’m certain.

What will we do differently? Allow more time, for one thing. We had only about 10 days, which is not enough. I’d like to mix public transport with a hire car some, so we can get more off the beaten path. I’d allow more time for walking tours in that lovely countryside, that’s certain.

[TIP: Travel Safely and Securely

On our very last morning in London, on a crowded Picadilly Line train to Heathrow, I had my first ever encounter with a pickpocket. Only a combination of circumstances prevented a disaster:

    • I had my wallet in a back pocket that was buttoned shut.
    • I had my sweatshirt tied around my waist and hanging down behind me.
    • An alert passenger saw the thief try to get beneath my sweatshirt and scared him off.

A few tips for safe traveling in any country.

    • Cash
      • Don’t carry any more than necessary.
      • Don’t carry it all in one place.
      • Keep it separate from your credit cards, etc.
    • Guard your credit cards, etc., and your passport carefully.
    • Make, and keep very safe, photocopies of the front and back of all your important documents;
      • Credit/Debit cards,
      • ATM cards,
      • Identification,
      • Passport
      • Driver’s license.
    • Don’t carry any of those that you don’t absolutely need.
    • Memorize any PIN numbers. Especially, don’t have them written down on a slip of paper in the same place you have your cards.
    • Make sure you have the number to call to report the loss of a card. It’s usually on the back of the card.
    • If you have two or more credit card accounts, don’t carry cards for all of them in the same place. Lose them all and you’ll have to freeze all the accounts, leaving you with no usable card. Let your traveling companion carry the cards for his account, you carry only yours, even if you’re both authorized to use the other’s card.
    • Carry your passport, credit cards, etc., on your person. Do NOT put them in your back pack, jacket pocket, purse or tote bag. If you send your tote bag, jacket, back pack or purse through a checkpoint X-ray machine someone could be waiting on the other side to grab them before you get through metal detector. Likewise for laptop computers.
    • Don’t carry anything with your Social Security number on it. With that, your name and your date of birth an identity thief can set up accounts using your identity. And beware, your SSN can appear in some unexpected places. I discovered it on an old blood donor card I used to carry.
    • Tear up or carefully hide away any receipts for purchases made by credit card. They often have your credit card number and expiration date printed on them. With that, and your name, fraudulent charges can easily be made to your account by telephone or online.

After our experience in London, we are planning to buy "money belts" to hold vital papers close to our bodies, where they are hard for a thief to get to. We were very lucky this time. ]

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