If you took elements of Bath, Oxford and Dublin, you would have quintessential Edinburgh. We realized in the almost two years we’ve been living in London that we have not yet explored Scotland. It would be silly to be so close and not visit. While we didn’t spend much time in the Scottish moors, what we accomplished left us with astounding stories of history, highlands, and haggis.
The first thing we did in Edinburgh, was the same thing everyone does on their first day: Edinburgh Castle. We had pre-bought our tickets (as we have advocated time and time again) and hiked the half mile long hill to the top entrance. The castle is propped high on a hill with a perfect view of the ocean and of the surrounding land. It is just good common sense to have such a strategic vantage point since you could see easily for miles and miles.
Built more as a fortress than a castle, the buildings are mostly military in purpose. The only mention of royalty is for the crown jewels, which are on display in one of the stone buildings. We did not see them since the line was so long that it wrapped around the courtyard, but otherwise, the space is dedicated to the stories of Wallace and Bruce and the rich Scottish military history.
There is evidence of a structure being on the rock as early as the 2nd century, but parts of the “castle” have been there as early as the 12th century with King David I. It became military barracks in the 17th century when the Union of the Crowns occurred in 1603 demolishing a separate Scottish monarch. It is now the number one attraction in all of Scotland for tourists to come and see. With similar feelings to Windsor Castle as far as layout, Edinburgh Castle was a bit of a let down. There just wasn’t much to see.
There was, at least, the One O’Clock Gun on full display. I do love this story: established in 1861, the one o’clock gun is a time signal for ships out at sea to know the time of day despite constant cloud cover. What I find amusing is the fact that it’s at one and not a more traditional noon. Well, it’s because they can’t afford to shoot out 12 canon balls a day, so they instead fire one.
After we explored the military museum, the small war pet cemetery, and the reconstructed prisons, we found lunch at an adorable rock-a-billy diner aptly called “Mum’s.” Gluten-free was a bit of a challenge in Edinburgh, but this place had gluten-free sausages that came in all kinds of flavors like red chili with pork and mint with lamb. But they also had custom “mash.” The horseradish choice was divine. Jeff had a lovely burger with “chips,” so we felt duly prepared for our whisky tasting at The Whiski Rooms.
We had booked a tasting after some quick online searching. The big, tourist attraction for whisky as The Scotch Whisky Experience. But several reviews on TripAdvisor described it like a theme park complete with a train ride. So, we opted for a more educational and formal tasting.
We tasted four whiskys from all over the country: Glengoyne, Glen Moray, Highland Park, and Ardbeg. There are 115 distilleries for whisky in Scotland, and the number grows by about 3 per year. The whiskys are typically distilled twice (unlike the triple distilled Jameson in Dublin), but what I thought was interesting was Scotland gets their aging barrels from the U.S. Apparently, there is a law that states that whisky distillers in the U.S. can only use a barrel once, so Scotland rehabs them and uses them continuously for about 40 years.
The Glengoyne was a nice, almost default whisky to taste. With very little flavor other than vanilla, we both agreed it was a decent choice. The Glen Moray caught our attention because it is aged in Port barrels from Portugal. We have recently become fans of Port wine and will be traveling to the region later this year. But I think I wanted to like that one better than I actually did.
But I would gladly imbibe those two choices for the rest of my life before having Highland Park or, god forbid, Ardbeg again. Those are the peaty whiskys with a savory, cooked meat taste due to the peat smoke that penetrates the grains of the whisky. It was horrid. But what I later learned as we overlooked Loch Ness was that I am not a sipping whisky fan. I prefer a blended whisky with a mixer, or Drambuie. What an invention that is! A blended whisky with herbs and spices, Drambuie is best served on the rocks.
Fortified with whisky, we took in a quick museum before closing: The National Scottish Museum. Much like the London Museum, it was on the lame side with items designed for school field trips. We didn’t stay long as they were closing, but the only thing that really caught my eye was a fantastic grandfather clock: the Millennium Clock Tower. Every hour, this statue goes off with dozens of figurines dancing to the tunes. Characters of Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin are there to symbolize the worst aspects of the 20th century. And at the top, there are 12 figures each representing a calendar month, among other things. “The precision of the clock counteracts the chaos seen elsewhere in the tower.”
We ended our day with some more views of the city up on Calton Hill by way of a gorgeous and haunting cemetery. The cemetery had some really breathtaking imagery and grave stones. But I would not want to find myself there after dark. Not because of the ghosts that roam, but of the homeless that have set up camp in the mausoleums.
Calton Hill is a UNESCO Heritage Site that has several buildings on top including an observatory and a modern art gallery. The National Monument is what is most eye-catching since it resembles old Roman ruins. Actually build as a Parthenon for Scottish soldiers who perished in the Napoleonic Wars, it is incomplete. Due to lack of funds, building stopped in 1829 naming the structure “Scotland’s Disgrace.” Today, it is accepted just as it is.
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Next week, I will write about The Highlands tour we took since it deserves its own page. But our last day in Edinburgh was nothing short of lovely. We began the day with haggis. Typically described as a monster that roams around the moors, haggis is actually a savory pudding with vegetables and spices cooked inside an animal’s stomach. Yes, it doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it really was! The spices were lovely and mingled well with the savory texture. Sheep’s stomach aside, I will try to make it at home and gluten-free. I’m pretty sure what we were served was not 100% gluten-fee.
Fortified with haggis and coffee, we climbed Arthur’s Seat, one of the highest points in Edinburgh at 251 meters. It took us a little less than an hour to make the climb, but I was really struggling thanks to shoes that were too small. Not to be defeated, I limped up and was rewarded with breathtaking views of the city and the North Sea. We braced ourselves against the wind and marveled at the amazing strategic port. I can’t imagine better real estate against enemies or invading troops.
We ended the day in Edinburgh by way of rubbing Greyfriar Bobby’s nose (the famous pup who loyally stayed at the grave of his owner for fourteen years) with a visit to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery; both free museums. The National Gallery was not very spectacular, especially in comparison to its London cousin, but the Portrait Gallery was a space not to be missed.
On the north side of the city, the National Portrait Gallery is a gorgeous building with spectacular lighting and displays. Most of the faces were unfamiliar to us, but the WWI exhibit was really beautiful as were the modern art sculptures on display. It was a perfect way to end our trip.
Next week, tune in as I go into the history and beauty of the Scottish Highlands.