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A Year in Scotland

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: September 2003

I spent my junior year of college abroad in Glasgow, and got to travel all over the country one weekend at a time. Scotland is an amazing place — full of ancient castles and stone circles, beautiful and barren landscapes, and of course people with some of the coolest accents in the world. Here are a few highlights of my year there…

I had initially wanted to study in Aberdeen or St. Andrews, but I’m so glad I wound up in Glasgow. This mid-sized city may not have all the historic charm of Edinburgh (more on that later!), but it’s a really good place to live — lots of arts and cultural stuff going on, fewer tourists, some lovely Victorian architecture, and lots of local pride. Public transportation is pretty good if you take the buses — they go just about everywhere and run fairly frequently. Glasgow has an Underground, but I only used it a couple of times since it basically just does a big loop and didn’t really go to the places I wanted to go on a regular basis. I usually ended up buying an unlimited bus pass every week and getting around that way.

One of Glasgow’s best museums is the Burrell Collection, a bit outside the city proper (we took a public bus to get there). There’s a little of everything there: stained glass, ancient Greek pottery, Chinese plates, medieval armor, paintings, tapestries…etc.

Glasgow’s cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in the city, huge and dark and ornate. I spent a bit of time wandering around its sprawling graveyard, called the Necropolis, and then went to the adjacent St. Mungo Museum of Life and Art. The museum is small but has a lot of fascinating displays, including exhibits on different religions and cultural practices around the world.

One of my favorite places in Scotland was the Botanic Gardens on Byres Road in the West End; admission is free, so I must’ve gone there about three or four times at different parts of the year. They were gorgeous in the fall and spring, of course, but there are several greenhouses you can visit even during the winter when everything outside is dead.

The main building at the University of Glasgow, also in the West End, is a huge Gothic structure with an enormous bell tower and two quadrangles on its upper level. The rest of campus is more modern (ie uglier), with a tall concrete library (about 14 stories, I think), a sort of bizarre round building that houses the computer lab, and two student unions. The University also houses the Hunterian Museum, which I never visited but I think has scientific stuff in it, and the Hunterian Art Gallery; the latter includes the reconstructed house of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an architect who designed a lot of neat Art Nouveau buildings throughout the city.

Most of the good shopping (if you’re into that, which I’m not really) can be found in the City Centre — there are several pedestrian-only streets lined with stores, and a lot of folks say Glasgow’s shopping is second in the U.K. only to London. As I say, I’m not a shopper, but there you go.

This was my first sightseeing trip outside Glasgow; a bunch of us new international students went by bus to Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument. Of course it poured rain the whole entire time until the ride home, but oh well, it gave things an authentic Scottish feel! Our tour was good, but we didn’t have quite enough time at the castle. The Wallace Monument was a decent climb, and the view would’ve beeen awesome if there hadn’t been so much mist and fog and cloud. The wind and rain really whipped through the open tower at the top, so we didn’t spend all that long up there. Brrr. The castle was really cool, with pretty good (if gray) views from the top of that too. Apparently it’s on what’s called a crag (didn’t know what to call it at first — a hill? a cliff?). There’s a pretty litle courtyard with a garden, and a neat exhibit down where the kitchens would’ve been. We also walked through the royal chambers. It’s weird to think of a married couple each having their own set of rooms, but I guess the royals back then didn’t exactly marry for love.

Skye and the Highlands
I went on a three-day “Haggis” bus tour through the Highlands in order to make the most of my time. Scotland’s public bus service is pretty good, but I figured this would be the most efficient way to sightsee for a weekend without having to rent a car. Another American and I got up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a bus to Edinburgh where we would pick up our tour. Edinburgh’s famous castle was all lit up in the early morning darkness — looked gorgeous, but no time to visit. We joined a number of other bleary-eyed backpackers, boarded a jolly yellow bus and took off for the north. Our first stop was the Hermitage, where we walked down a path to a big frothy waterfall. We also stopped to see the ruins of the Dunkeld Cathedral and a place called Clava Cairns — one of those mysterious piles of stones whose origins no one knows. They were surrounded by trees in golds and reds, so gorgeous…I was really glad we decided to make our trip in autumn.

Our route took us up past Loch Ness; we stayed overnight in a nearby hostel called Morag’s Lodge — clean and comfortable and unmemorable, which frankly is a good quality in a hostel!

Our second day began with a quick photo op at Loch Ness — it was lovely with just a little bit of mist rising off the water. (No monster sightings!) This was our best day of the trip; it didn’t rain once, and the sun was out almost all day. We made our way to the isle of Skye, one of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides islands, passing some dramatic scenery along the way. Scotland is beautiful in a barren sort of way (the legacy of deforesting in the past; most of the hills and mountains have very few trees), with sheep and even its famous “hairy coos” all over the place once you get up into the Highlands.

Skye carried the dramatic scenery to a greater extreme. For a while it looked a lot like what we’d already seen on the mainland (mountains, glens, sheep), but at some point I started to get a different feeling from it. The high point (literally) was the Quiraing — basically we climbed this little mountain (I’m in lousy shape! I didn’t think I was going to make it to the top for a minute there) and got an absolutely amazing view. The late afternoon sun was out, and we could see for miles, over the craggy green landscape of Skye and across the deep blue water to mainland Scotland. I can’t even begin to describe it.

After that we took a quick stop to see Kilt Rock (it’s a pleated-looking cliff/rock formation right on the coast — pretty, though I don’t know that it actually looks like a kilt!). We spent the night in a hostel in Kyleakin.

Day three was probably the least exciting…I was a little tired, and it rained a little bit. We saw more lochs, plus Glen Nevis (hurray! got an up-close photo of “hairy coos”) and Glen Coe, site of a very famous massacre. I’d heard that Glen Coe was absolutely stunning, and…well, it was pretty, but not as thrilling as a lot of other stuff we’d seen by then. We also visited Rob Roy’s grave and Bannockburn (the latter the site of a famous battle between the English and the Scottish). Then it was back to Edinburgh…whew!

I visited Edinburgh several times over the course of the year. It has a much different feel to it than Glasgow — statelier, more elegant, with a gorgeous medieval Old City. The castle is a lot like Stirling Castle — up on a crag, with kind of similar architecture. Edinburgh Castle overlooks the whole city, located at one end of the Royal Mile. At the opposite end is Holyrood Palace. In between is a wide cobblestone street (the Royal Mile) with lots of little twisting alleys and side streets. One afternoon I stumbled upon a poetry library right off the Royal Mile where I spent several fascinating hours…definitely worth looking for if that’s your thing! Another related attraction is the Writers’ Museum, which is dedicated to the lives of Scotland’s three most famous authors: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh’s National Gallery is also nearby, and is a great museum — interesting art, particularly from Scotland, and just the right size so that you can see everything without being overwhelmed or feeling like you didn’t get your money’s worth.

Most visitors head straight to the Old Town part of Edinburgh, as they should…but if you have some extra time it’s definitely worth poking around the New Town as well, where there are broader streets and crescents and some fairly opulent houses. The New Town is where Edinburgh’s elite went when the Old Town got too crowded.

One other thing you can do in Edinburgh is climb Arthur’s Seat, which is a volcanic hill within walking distance of the Old Town. There are a bunch of different routes you can take up; I started climbing not far from Holyrood Palace. I wish I could tell you what a marvelous view there is from the top, but unfortunately I never made it — the day I tried, it was absolutely pouring rain, the wind was whipping all around, and it was freezing. I am ashamed to say I retired in defeat after about 20 minutes of climbing and shivering (I was not the only one — ended up chatting with this other American who’d given up even sooner than I had, and we wandered around town together for a while). Oh well.

I went with a few friends to Callander, where we’d heard there were some nice hiking trails. We took a bus from Glasgow to Stirling, and then another bus to Callander from there. The town itself is very small, with not much there, but we were able to find some pretty easy trails that headed right from town into the surrounding countryside. It was very muddy, but gorgeous, especially when we reached a big waterfall. After our hike we grabbed some tea/coffee in town and then took a quick walk through the Rob Roy exhibit at the visitor center — we got in free because the multimedia display wasn’t working, woohoo!

St. Andrews
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!

Dundee/Glamis Castle
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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