Glasgow: The Riverside Museum

One of our good friends moved to Glasgow in September, so Marcus and I went up to visit him in late November, which is usually when we’d go somewhere for a long weekend for our anniversary. Since this is the same friend that has basically invited himself along on our honeymoon road trip (should we ever get to take one), it seemed fitting to just visit him in lieu of a more romantic holiday (I’ve known him as long as I’ve known Marcus since I met them both when they were advertising for a new housemate and I ended up being the top contender due to our shared love of Bruce Campbell. He’s more like a brother than a friend at this point). Said friend’s priorities tend to be more aimed towards drinking than culture, but since you can only start drinking so early, he’s amenable to visiting museums in the hours before pubs open. Marcus and I had managed to visit quite a few museums on our trip to Glasgow a few years ago, but one of the places we hadn’t been was the Riverside Museum, and since our friend is a bit of a train spotter, this seemed a solid pick for all of us.


The building is famously designed by Zaha Hadid, so you’d think we would have gotten a photo of it, but nope. I guess we were so cold we just rushed inside without thinking (it didn’t really get properly cold down south until the week after we got home, so Glasgow was a bit of a shock to the system). The museum is free to enter, and I’m guessing pretty popular with families, but we were there fairly early in the morning, so didn’t encounter many people until mid-way through our visit.


I was drawn to the carnival themed area and the creepy fellatio-ready clown I had spotted from outside, so we headed there first. We spotted the dinosaur immediately after, and from reading his sign, we learned that there were ten dinosaurs hidden in the museum that we had to spot. This first dinosaur was man-sized, so we stupidly assumed they would all be that big and totally forgot to look for them until we had walked through most of the museum, which meant we ended up doing some backtracking, but we also started looking at things really intensely once we realised that most of the dinosaurs were action figure-sized, which was probably the point of the activity.


I loved the street of yesteryear, though I feel it was perhaps a bit less interactive than it could have been both due to Covid (Scotland was still much stricter than England at the time of our visit with Covid restrictions, which is fair enough. Don’t know why we got rid of the mask mandate for a few months!) and to people hogging the inside of the antique subway car so we couldn’t go in (which also meant we missed the second dinosaur until we circled back around at the end of our visit). I was also slightly disappointed there weren’t authentic smells, though it is possible I could have just missed them through my mask.


After leaving ye olde Glasgow (or a very quaint, sanitised version thereof), we entered the large open transport section that makes up most of the museum, which had a series of smaller rooms on one side devoted to different subjects, such as children’s clothing, model trains, the cinema, and many more. I will never be a car person, so the main part of the transport gallery didn’t do much for me apart from the enjoyment I got from climbing aboard old buses and trains, because who doesn’t like that?! No one, I’m guessing, which is why we usually had to wait our turn despite the museum being fairly empty.


The museum is also home to the Tall Ship Glenlee, which is moored just outside the back entrance. We did go out and have a look at it, but it looked like you had to pay to enter, and it was also insanely freezing out, so we ended up hurrying back inside the warmth of the museum and skipping the ship time, which means I can’t tell you anything more about it.


Riverside Museum has an upstairs gallery as well, much of which taken up by a busy cafe, but there were also a few interesting displays, including one on the American Civil War because blockade runners used to run their ships full of cotton through to Glasgow (the city was pretty much built on slavery, so it wasn’t a huge surprise to learn that many residents supported the Confederacy); what may have been the world’s oldest bicycle (this is disputed, but it is at least the world’s oldest surviving bicycle); and a moving display of model ships, which is where we found another dinosaur (who wasn’t technically a dinosaur, as the two geologists I was with made sure to point out, but the museum clearly intended for us to count it as one, so we let it slide).


I ended up enjoying this museum more than I thought I would, largely because of the fun of the dinosaur finding game, but I also liked the street of yesteryear and the carnival display, and definitely appreciated being able to walk around a warm place for an hour or so before venturing back into the cold for our next destination. Transport nerds would love this place, as would children, or adults like us who enjoy games intended for children. 3/5.


This ended up being the only museum we saw in Glasgow on this trip (apart from a brief stop in the Hunterian to meet up with our friend after his morning lecture the next day), but we did a lot of walking around, visited way too many pubs, had mulled Buckfast at the Christmas Market, got a photo in front of the Tunnocks Factory (the tearoom was sadly closed, but we did buy some of the Tunnocks products that are hard to find in England (hello elusive but delicious Caramel Logs and Wafer Creams) in the bakery, which was staffed by some scarily surly ladies), visited a tearoom with very cute china in the Hidden Lane to make up for the lack of tea at Tunnocks (and at our friend’s house, because he doesn’t drink tea. We knew this, but had forgotten to bring our own teabags, possibly because we still can’t comprehend the idea of an Englishman that doesn’t like tea), and most excitingly, ate a family-sized five foot dosa between the three of us, which is something I have always wanted to do (#lifegoals), so it was a good trip despite the cold and more drinking than I find ideal. My friend just had his contract renewed, so I imagine I’ll be back to Glasgow again at some point next year to visit any museums I’ve missed on my previous two trips!

Glasgow Mop-Up Post

As you all have probably come to know by now (and hopefully look forward to, but maybe dread, who knows?), any kind of holiday I take usually leads to a mop-up post so I can fit everything else in that I didn’t quite have enough to jabber on about for its own post. This is Glasgow’s.
First of all, I finally got to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter (and her husband John) in person, after following each other’s blogs for a number of years. They kindly treated us to lunch at the cafe in the Lighthouse, Scotland’s centre for design and architecture, and we looked around the galleries a bit afterwards. We even climbed the Mackintosh tower, which gave lovely (albeit chilly!) views of the city, though I don’t think any of us quite got Louise Harris’s installation “Visaurihelix” which was in the tower at the time of our visit (loved the man playing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” on the piano in the viewing deck though). Afterwards, Anabel and John took us to the Billy Connolly murals we hadn’t seen yet (we’d stumbled on one en route to the People’s Palace, but there were still two more to see), and for a quick drink before we had to dash off to the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre. Anabel is the first blogger I’ve met in person, and based on the lovely experience I had, I would definitely be open to meeting more bloggers in real life in the future (I’ve held off until now because I’m always scared people will hate me in person, since I’m kind of the worst)!
Secondly, inspired by Kev’s post on Walking Talking, another Glasgow blog, we went to the Necropolis, which is a fabulous old cemetery on a hill that overlooks the city (and is opposite the Tennant’s brewery, though we didn’t have time to visit that (fortunately)). I have to admit that I wasn’t super enthusiastic about the climb (massive understatement), but I’m glad I persevered, because it really is very cool up there, as you can probably see.
After the Necropolis, we got a train straight out to the Kelvingrove (well, the nearest train station to it, which really wasn’t all that close). By rights, we should have spent much more time here (as they say on their website, “If you only have one day in Glasgow, Kelvingrove is a must see!”), but we just didn’t really have time to fit it in on any other day, and I certainly wouldn’t have missed the Hunterian for it. It is a sort of everything museum – art, natural history, archaeology, etc, but it feels rather more elegant and modern than the Hunterian (which is definitely not a dig at the Hunterian. I love old-fashioned museums). Since I’m not the biggest art fan, we skipped most of that and just looked around the Glasgow-centric galleries, like the one on Mackintosh and the small social history gallery.
Because I only spent about an hour there, and thus only had time to visit the ground floor galleries, I’m just sticking the Kelvingrove in here rather than giving it a full post of its own, as it would otherwise deserve. I do want to show you the stuffed haggis though, as it was one of the funniest things we saw in Glasgow.
Our final stop on our last day there (other than swinging by the Christmas market so I could buy an enormous variation on the empire biscuit. I was intrigued since we don’t have empire biscuits down south, and they are really good but one of the sweetest things I’ve ever eaten, particularly when topped with caramel AND icing, as this one was) was Pollok Country Park, solely so I could see the Highland Coos (cows). I felt cheated that I never saw any when we were actually in the Highlands, so I definitely wanted to make sure I saw some on this trip. Pollok Park, which also had a stately home in the middle of it, has a herd, so we literally tramped through the mud to get to their enclosure, spent a nice chunk of time gazing at the cows, and walked straight back out of the park to the train back to central Glasgow so we could catch our train home. I think you’ll agree that it was worth the detour!
There are still plenty of things I’d like to see in Glasgow (like the Police Museum, the Anatomical and Zoological Hunterians, and the Tunnock’s factory (we were staying in a pretty fancy hotel since it was our anniversary, and everything in the minibar was free, so I got hooked on Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, which are unfortunately not so easily available outside of Scotland, unlike the more common Caramel Wafers, which I don’t like nearly as much), and I’d like to be able to spend more time at the Kelvingrove and the Lighthouse), so I’m sure I’ll be back someday, but I think we managed to cram quite a lot into our long weekend. I probably ate my own body weight in sugar (of course I had to have a deep fried Mars bar too!) for which I only have myself to blame (Glasgow has many lovely restaurants – I just really like sweets!). I always enjoy getting to travel up to Scotland (well, not so much the train journey the last time we went to Edinburgh, but there were no issues this time), and Glasgow was no exception.

Glasgow: Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Display containing the Bell Ringers, the Hunchback, the Tower of Medieval Science, the Tower of Babel, the Castle, and the Clock of Life. These are meant to tell the story of Stalin’s purges.

Now, this is an interesting one. Not that most of the places I visit don’t have something interesting about them, but this one is really a bit out there. Knowing what a fan I am of animatronics, and well, just weird shit, basically, Marcus booked us tickets to see the “adult” version of the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, which took place at 5pm on a Sunday (check their website for all available dates and times) and lasted for about an hour. It cost £10.

La Strada (On the Road) “Who pulls the strings? Who is being pulled?”

We arrived just in the nick of time (we got a bit lost on the way there, because Sharmanka doesn’t have its own dedicated building, but is housed inside an arts centre (Trongate 103), which took us much longer to figure out than it should have), and it was a good thing too, because the doors are locked for the duration of the show (I wish they would do this at the theatre too, because I hate jerks walking in halfway through the first act, which is what happened when I recently saw Hadestown at the National Theatre (which was otherwise great). They always are inevitably seated right in the middle of the row too – what’s up with that? Do only jerks pick those seats?). I should emphasise that you could get out, just that nobody could get in. It wasn’t a fire hazard or anything.

Detail from the Orient Express. “An image of Death riding a railcar over the vast Steppes of Russia.”

So, what the hell is Sharmanka(?), you may be asking yourself at this point, and rightly so. Well, to quote their information sheet, “Sharmanka is the Russian word for barrel organ.”…which really does not explain what the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre is. More to the point, it is a show wherein metal sculptures light up and move to music. “This set of Kinetic Sculptures was made by Eduard Bersudsky in his only living space, an 18-square-metre room in a communal flat in Leningrad in the 1970s and ’80s.” Bersudsky was not permitted to exhibit these sculptures under communism, so for a while it was just an eccentric hobby. However, he did start showing them from 1989 onwards, but due to a lack of money to support the arts in Russia (or at least his version of the arts), he decided to move his collection to Scotland in the mid 1990s. They have been on display in their current location since 2009.

Victoria. “The figure of a crucified man in a yarmulke comes to life in the centre of moving chains, swords, and saws.”

The show begins whilst you are seated on benches around a large display of these kinetic figures. They light up one by one, music comes on, and the action kicks in. These particular figures were probably the most family-friendly, simply being of towers and things with little men doing acrobatics and ringing bells. After about fifteen minutes of watching this, you are asked to move to the back of the theatre, and that’s where things get a bit lewd. Well, more than a bit.

NIckodym. “Co-operation of genders.”

I believe the family friendly show simply progresses to another large display of figures opposite the er, randy ones, since those never lit up whilst we were there, and they must use them for something. The adult show has you moving around the room to follow the figures lined up around the perimeter as they light up, and since they don’t go in order, it’s kind of fun trying to guess which one will light up next (I watched the room like a hawk, and was enormously pleased when I managed to detect movement before everyone else, ensuring myself a prime spot in front of the next figure). Like the main display of figures, these all move as well, though these had the added benefit of pretty much all having some sort of penis, one of which was almost poking me right in the eye during one of the displays (so actually, maybe don’t sit right in front of them!). One guy had a literal bell-end with a miniature bell dangling from his tip.

Willy-the-Belfry. “Willy was a Shetland pony who patiently watched Eduard work in the first few years of our time in Scotland.”

Well, I suppose it wasn’t all phallocentric, since some of the figures had breasts instead, like the figure of Death a few paragraphs up, since Death is viewed as female in Russian culture. But lest you worry, there was no actual robot sex happening in front of us, just a lot of awfully bouncy penises, one of which was even operating a treadle that clashed a cymbal. I think you can probably tell I’m fairly lost for words as to how best to describe this show (though I certainly snickered a lot as I was watching it) – I think it’s just one of those things you’d have to see for yourself.

This guy didn’t move, but I think he’s meant to be St. Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow.

The robots are mainly made from old junk, so they’re not the most attractive things, but they are quite creative, especially the troll with boogers bouncing up and down in his nose. The music is specifically chosen to match up with each robot and its action, but I didn’t always see an obvious connection between the music and the theme of each piece (most of the songs are just instrumentals, and I’m not familiar enough with classical music to have known what they were). I think the general message here is meant to be one about the dangers of communism, but if you hadn’t read the descriptions about each figure, I don’t know if you would have necessarily gotten that from just watching them (though I suppose the rats contained within the pieces to represent the worker cogs in the machine were a clue. They reminded me of that piss-take of a Soviet cartoon they show in Krusty Gets Cancelled, with Worker and Parasite).

Self Portrait with Monkey. This is the booger troll.

It was indeed a very unusual experience, and certainly at least in theory the sort of thing I enjoy, though not quite on the same level as animatronic presidents. I do think some of the pieces did their things for longer than they needed to, as there’s only so long you can watch a robot wiggle his willy (surprisingly, I know, as I would have thought I could watch that sort of thing for hours), but I think I would have regretted not seeing it once I’d heard about it, so I’m glad we went, even though I don’t think I really got the message it was trying to send. 3/5.

Selection of figures including Shaman (middle).

Glasgow: The People’s Palace

Merry belated Christmas everybody! I don’t have anything particularly Christmassy to post about this year, so I’ll just carry on with Glasgow. Looking back on it, we probably should have devoted a good few hours to the Kelvingrove, and slipped in the People’s Palace if and when we had time. But Marcus wanted to see Billy Connolly’s banana boots, and since the museum doesn’t have its own website, we didn’t have any idea what other treasures might be hiding away in there, so the People’s Palace became a priority. It is located in Glasgow Green, about a mile walk away from where we were staying in the centre of Glasgow, and it was very cold that day, so I was definitely not enjoying the walk.


I did, however, enjoy the sight of the Doulton Fountain, which we spotted from quite a distance away. This fabulous piece is apparently the largest terracotta fountain in the world, and was built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and the International Exposition held in Glasgow. It celebrates the British Empire and contains figures representing Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India (I particularly enjoyed the Canadian moose, and what I think was a marmot). I’m no fan of empire, but I am definitely a fan of this fountain.


From there, we progressed inside the museum, which like every museum we visited in Glasgow, had these great wooden revolving doors at the entrance (and a giant ornate radiator right by the entry, which I needed to warm my legs after the walk there). The People’s Palace is free (with a name like People’s Palace, it would have been a little disappointing if it wasn’t), and since there was no front desk and we were a little unsure where the museum began, we went directly up the steps in front of us. It turns out we missed an introductory gallery on the ground floor, which we saw at the end instead (yes, the big welcome sign should have been a clue, but I swear we couldn’t see it from the entrance), but it was a very basic overview of Glasgow’s history and the exploits of the Scottish boxer Benny Lynch, who died at the age of 33 in 1946 from alcoholism.


So it didn’t really matter that we started with the first floor, and in fact, it meant that we saw Billy’s banana boots first thing (I mostly know Billy Connolly from that Columbo where he’s the murderer (not really a spoiler since the whole point of Columbo is that you see who did it at the beginning), but I don’t think I’ve ever sat there and watched one of his comedy routines, so the banana boots were a bit lost on me. That said, there was a video with Billy Connolly doing that very routine right next to the boots, so I definitely could have watched it then and there had I been so inclined). There was also Rab C. Nesbitt’s string vest, which Marcus was also excited to see.


The rest of the floor was given over to moments from Glasgow’s social history, so there was a section on crime and punishment (which I of course enjoyed, though it wasn’t very grisly). The gallows were located not far from the museum building, so there was a sign on the window telling us that this view was more or less the last thing condemned criminals would see. I was rather shocked by the sort-of game where you had to decide whether or not someone should receive the death penalty for various crimes, and then lift the flaps to see what other people answered (although most of the flaps were broken, so I could see their responses from the start) because most of the respondents were very very pro-death penalty, and since Britain abolished the death penalty in 1965, I didn’t realise so many people still felt this way. Yikes. Then again, it wasn’t clear who was surveyed or when the survey was done – the board kind of looked old enough to have been there since the ’60s!


There was also a small area on a famous dance hall in Glasgow, a few bits about visiting the seaside, and a section in the back about going to the “Steamie,” which was the Glaswegian term for the public washhouses (and not, as I thought, a bizarre sexual act along the lines of a Cleveland Steamer), and was where woman would meet to do their laundry and, most importantly, gossip. There was also a little bit of information about the World Wars (I liked the display that followed the story of a Glasgow couple who lived through the First World War, as their letters to each other were rather sweet, and the husband’s life was saved by a drill book he took from a German soldier as a souvenir, which was on display here), and a re-creation of an old dairy, although you couldn’t actually touch anything inside, and there were no authentic smells or anything, so it wasn’t really that exciting.


The appearance of this floor was very child-friendly, which was initially a bit off-putting, as I wasn’t sure whether we had accidentally wandered into the children’s section. The whole museum was like this though, so I’m pretty sure it was meant to be open to everyone. Aside from this, things did look a little bit run-down and in need of an update – some of the interactive bits had flaps broken off, as I mentioned earlier, and the signage looked a little grubby in places.


The second floor was similarly a little bit tired looking, though some of the displays appeared to be done more recently than the ones downstairs. One of the galleries was completely empty, but another contained information about political life in Glasgow, including labour movements and the like, and a handful of artefacts. The other gallery was about everyday life for Glaswegians, with small re-creations of a bathroom and teeny flat (which actually looked quite cosy if you had it to yourself, rather than sharing it with like ten people like most people had to (there was a report about 15 people living in a 6 metre square room in Victorian times). I mean, the bed was in a little nook, and you had your chamber pot right there, so you didn’t even have to get up if you didn’t want to). Glasgow had the highest population density of any city in Victorian Britain (worse than London’s even), and many people were forced to live in slums and appalling conditions.


On a cheerier note, there was also information about things people did for fun, like clothes, magazines, and music, and there was even an example of a best-selling product from Ann Summers in the 1990s – an alligator “pouch” for men. I also really enjoyed the little dollhouse showing the ways buildings were divided up into flats throughout the 20th century, though I wish it wasn’t quite so difficult to see inside.


Once we headed back downstairs, we had to wander over to the Winter Gardens, which we had already had a lovely view of from various places inside the museum. It is a large glasshouse tacked onto the side of the museum where people can presumably sit in the winter and enjoy loads of lovely plants. There is a cafe in there, but we had earlier purchased some doughnuts from Tantrum Doughnuts that we sat down on a bench to eat (a bit too bready for my tastes, but most British doughnuts are), and it was warm and fairly peaceful (or it would have been if not for all the children running through). I also loved the Shakespeare tiles lining the bathrooms!


The People’s Palace has a lot of potential, I think, but most of the displays just felt tired, and I think a social history museum needs more in it, as it only covered very specific aspects of Glasgow history, rather than presenting an overview of the city’s history and its people, which, as someone who had never been to Glasgow before, I would have preferred. However, I have learned in the course of researching this post that the Winter Gardens are set to close indefinitely at the end of this year for major renovations, and potentially the People’s Palace with them, unless they can find a way to make structural repairs independently to each structure. So I’ll give it 2.5/5 in its current state, but changes are clearly afoot, hopefully for the better, but knowing how these things work, I won’t get my hopes up (and do check first if you want to visit from January 2019 onward, since it appears they may not even be open!). Even though I didn’t love this museum, I do hope it is able to remain a museum in the future, because museums are so vital to the culture of a city, and it would be a shame to lose this one entirely.

This building opposite the museum used to be a carpet factory, but now houses a German brewery, as I found out later when I had one of their beers at a pub.

Glasgow: The Hunterian Museum

Having finished with the excellent “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” we headed over to the original Hunterian Museum (well, not its first incarnation in London, or the first one at the University of Glasgow, which opened in 1807, but original in the sense of being the first of the Hunterian museums to exist, before the Art Gallery et al were a thing. It’s been in its current location since 1870), located on the other side of the University of Glasgow campus. It is on the fourth floor of a big old magnificent building (the Gilbert Scott Building, named after its designer), and the architecture of the museum itself is pretty great too. It reminded me of a Tudor banqueting hall.
If you come in from the side entrance, as we did, there is no front desk (all the Hunterian museums have free entry), but there is an introductory gallery with some information about Hunter’s life and the original museum before it jumps right on in to a mishmash of everything, so at least we knew we were in the right place. The first gallery of the museum proper was dominated by an exhibition about old Roman road markers that I paid approximately 0.5% of my attention to, because right next to it was a case full of medical specimens in jars, and next to that was a case of interesting zoological specimens. There were a lot of people gathered around this area, presumably because it was awesome, but it was worth the wait (for people to move out of the way for Marcus could take photos) or, more accurately where I was concerned, worth elbowing my way in (because screw waiting).
There was also Hunter’s chest of drawers from his first museum on Great Windmill Street that originally housed his insect collection, and whilst I sure as shit don’t want an insect collection, it would be a lovely home for something not gross, like maybe a collection of old Georgian cartoons, if I was lucky enough to own such a thing (I mean, Hunter totally could have, since he was alive then, but obviously we don’t have the same priorities. Well, some of the same priorities). And hidden in one corner was the chair that students used to have to sit on during their oral exams at the university (it was very Mr. Burns “I have a chair at Springfield University”-esque), which apparently they still use for a couple of degree qualifications (I can’t remember exactly which ones, but I don’t think they sounded very interesting, otherwise I probably would have tried to enrol on the spot).
The lower level main gallery feels pretty much like the Horniman, with a mix of taxidermy, fossils (not a fan of that giant millipede thing, as you can probably tell), musical instruments, and delightfully Scottish-accented pottery (see below). This was all great, but for me, the upper level outshone it by far. This is where the collections of Lord Kelvin and Joseph Lister, both of whom taught at the university, were kept.
Kelvin’s stuff was interesting enough, but for a medical history nerd like me, Lister’s side was where it was at. They had a flask of his actual urine for god’s sake! (It was disturbingly dark in colour, but he did boil it before sealing it, so one hopes that was the result of the boiling process (or the 150+ years it has spent in that flask) and not something horribly wrong with Lister’s kidneys. He lived to the age of 84, so he must have been in fairly good shape!) And of course there was his pioneering carbolic acid steam apparatus that he used in some of the first antiseptic operations. And there were a number of other medical instruments and specimens thrown in, in case you didn’t get enough downstairs (I certainly didn’t).
How hilarious/creepy is that obstetrical training doll?! I also loved the plaque dedicated to a former “keeper” of the collection embedded in one of the walls. I wonder if I can talk them into doing that for me at the museum where I work…(though I certainly don’t want to work there for another 35 years to earn one, like John Young did!)
I had noticed another set of doors in the first gallery when we passed through, and I was hoping that meant there was another gallery, but sadly, the doors just led to the fabulous main staircase that we had missed on the way in, due to initially entering at the ground floor (the stairs let you out on the second or third floor, but that’s cool too, because we got to walk through a pillared courtyard covered in lights (I assume for Christmas, but who knows, maybe they’re up all year) and also finally stumbled on some much needed public toilets, which was great, because there aren’t any in the museum itself). Whilst the Hunterian wasn’t quite as big as I was hoping, it certainly was an enjoyable museum. I really love old fashioned museums that have a little bit of everything in them, and this fit the bill (it was much more varied than the photos I’ve chosen show, since I’ve mostly focused on medical history to the detriment of everything else there), with the added benefit of the collections of Lister and William Hunter. 3.5/5.

Glasgow: “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum” @ Hunterian Art Gallery

In honour of our 10th anniversary, which was in late November, and in keeping with our tradition with heading up north for anniversaries (mainly because I’m not keen on staying in the countryside (too much walking!) and there isn’t much else south of London besides the coast, which is definitely not a good idea in the winter), Marcus and I decided to spend a long weekend in Glasgow, as neither of us had ever been. This not only gave me an opportunity to meet Anabel from the Glasgow Gallivanter in person (photos in a future post) and eat deep fried Mars bars and a stupid amount of Tunnock’s Caramel Logs, it also finally allowed me to visit the Glasgow Hunterian, something I’ve been wanting to do for years.


The London Hunterian, named after John Hunter, is one of my favourite museums, so I had high hopes for the Glasgow Hunterian, which was founded by John’s brother, William. Both brothers were in the medical field (John was a surgeon, William was a physician and obstetrician), both were raised and trained in Scotland, and both had anatomy schools in London. And of course, they both founded museums, though I have to say that William’s was far more ambitious in scope than John’s. Whereas John’s museum was primarily a receptacle for his collection of anatomical specimens, human and zoological (not that there’s anything wrong with that), William’s museum had a little bit of everything, more in the vein of the Ashmolean or the Smithsonian. Originally housed on Great Windmill Street in London, after his death the collection was moved to Glasgow, and is the oldest museum in Scotland.
Today, the Glasgow Hunterian is a collection of four separate museums, all located around the campus of the University of Glasgow: an Art Gallery, Anatomical Museum, Zoological Museum, and the general Hunterian, which is probably the closest in terms of the scope of its collections to the original museum. The Anatomical Museum is open by appointment only, and the Zoological Museum isn’t open on weekends, so we were only able to see the Art Gallery and Hunterian. Because there’s quite a lot to say about each, this post will focus exclusively on the Art Gallery, which is free to visit, even the special exhibition!
Given its name, it’s a safe bet that the Art Gallery normally houses art, but at the time of my visit, it was what would have been William Hunter’s 300th birthday, so the museum was featuring a special exhibition called “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum,” (which runs until 6 January 2019) about Hunter’s life and work, with an accompanying exhibit called “Strange Foreign Bodies” upstairs. The very nice woman at the front desk actually almost apologised to us that there wasn’t art in the main gallery, and I wanted to say, “but you don’t understand, I like medical history SOOOOO much better than art,” but I didn’t want to scare her off, so I left it.
But yeah, this was probably the ideal time for me to visit, as this exhibition was the best possible thing I could imagine being here. It was broken up into ten rooms roughly chronologically tracing Hunter’s life, not counting the introductory gallery, which provided a timeline of personal and historical events during Hunter’s lifespan (1718-1783).
The exhibition still got off to a fairly arty start with paintings of some of Hunter’s friends and contemporaries, along with some of his correspondence and book collection. Hunter attended the University of Glasgow and befriended a number of prominent Scots, including David Hume and William Cullen. In 1740, Hunter moved to London and studied obstetrics with the hilariously named William Smellie (despite his name, or perhaps because of it, he is pretty famous though. I remember hearing about him when I was doing my Master’s). The room on this portion of Hunter’s life contained a number of medical textbooks, including Smellie’s, and some great anatomical drawings, including one by my personal favourite anatomist Frederik Ruysch. But obviously the best thing here was the wax model of the flayed man shown at the start of the post, made by Hunter and based off of the body of an executed criminal. So amazing!
Since Hunter was into both anatomy and obstetrics, it was only natural that he would want to make some anatomical models of pregnant women, and fortunately for him (not so much for the women), 13 of the women under his care died in various stages of pregnancy (not all at once, since that presumably wouldn’t really be something he would want to commemorate and brag about, though I have read an article that did some statistics on maternal death rates and determined that it would have been unlikely he could have gotten so many perfect specimens of each stage of pregnancy, so there might have been some shady stuff going on. I’m not sure if I agree with that, since he did his studies over a twenty year period and maternal death rates weren’t exactly low back then, but he was undoubtedly involved with grave robbers in some capacity, as pretty much all anatomists back then had to be), allowing him to make gorgeous wax models of their wombs. As you have probably noticed, this was the rare medical exhibition that allowed photography, so I can show you all of these wonderful things (albeit with not so wonderful lighting).
He also loved making wet preparations, a technique only pioneered the century before by the previously mentioned Frederik Ruysch (there’s a reason he’s my favourite), so there were plenty of those in here too, and some of them were downright beautiful, especially the inflated portions of intestine that had been injected with wax to show off the veins. Actually, due to his brother John’s prowess in making anatomical specimens, this was one of the few projects they collaborated on, before opening separate (and competing) medical schools. I do wish there had been a bit more in here on William’s relationship with John, but if they didn’t work that much together, I guess there was only a limited amount they could say.
Hunter was also close with George Stubbs, famous for painting a kangaroo based on the skins and descriptions given to him by dishy Joseph Banks after Cook’s first voyage (all of the artists on the expedition having died en route, though Sydney Parkinson did produce a sketch of a kangaroo before he died), and they worked together to produce Stubbs’s Anatomy of a Horse, amongst other anatomical paintings.
On the subject of Cook, there were a number of objects here from Cook’s voyages that were given to Hunter’s museum, as well as a whole room full of gross insects (I didn’t spend a lot of time in there). The last few galleries covered the establishment of the museum in London, which, William Hunter having never married nor produced heirs, he wished to leave to the University of Glasgow after he died (he didn’t come up to Scotland much after moving to London, but apparently he retained some emotional ties, even if he didn’t actually want to live there. Kind of like me and Cleveland). The last couple of rooms were mostly art, but there were a few neat things, including the certificate given to those who had completed a course of training at Hunter’s medical school (god, I would love one of those certificates), Hunter’s death mask, and a pretty cool chart showing all the branches of “science” by 18th century standards (apparently you can be a scientist of black magic. I guess I’m a scientist then? (Just kidding, sort of)).
Having finished with this rather fabulous exhibition, we headed upstairs to see “Strange Foreign Bodies.”  I was immediately weirded out upon opening the exhibition guide and seeing a number of quotes from my MA dissertation advisor on one of the artworks (she scared me, and I haven’t really thought of her in years, so wasn’t expecting it), but was also weirded out by the art, which mostly seemed only vaguely connected to medicine and also not necessarily connected to the descriptions of it in the guide. I did however like the collection of painted skulls entitled “Family Conversation Piece,” and there was a video of a breathing robot one of the artists had created of herself, which was cool, but pretty creepy (below right).
“William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum” had a great punny title, a fantastic collection of specimens in jars and anatomical models, a very detailed exhibition guide, and enough other stuff to appeal to those who aren’t huge fans of medical bits like I am. I definitely recommend seeing this if you can, and I’m pretty sure I enjoyed this about 1000x more than I would have the art normally here (not knocking art, but I obviously really prefer medical history). 4.5/5.
“Strange Foreign Bodes” was OK, but it wasn’t very big, and it’s definitely not a must see like the main exhibition. 1.5/5.

This cartoon made me laugh for about ten minutes. I have a weird sense of humour (which is not news to anyone who makes it through one of my posts).

Scotland Mop-up Post


As always at the end of a trip, there’s a few things I saw in Scotland that don’t fit neatly into any of my other posts.  Usually, I’d just throw the excess pictures up on Facebook or Google and be done with it, but the scenery in Scotland was pretty amazing, and my boyfriend has taken some nice photos, so just consider this a mop-up/photography post.  The photo above, and the ones below are from our drive between Inverness and Loch Lomond, maybe around Glencoe?  The weather was extremely terrible that day, so we didn’t much fancy walking around, but we did get out of the car and freeze our asses off long enough to snap a few pictures.

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Speaking of Inverness, although I wasn’t too impressed with some of the inhabitants of the city (I was scared to leave the hotel because there was a gang of thuggish youths congregated out the front), there is a lovely used bookshop called Leakey’s that I only had time to briefly visit because we arrived late in the afternoon and they were closed the next day.  The travel section was particularly enticing, but I didn’t have enough time to make a decision, so I left empty-handed (am I the only one who gets stressed out in bookshops if I don’t have a good hour or two to browse?).  There was also a rather attractive churchyard that we cut through on our way back to the hotel, as immortalised in photographic form below.  I spent the rest of the evening back in my hotel room eating an Indian takeaway (they did a much better dosa than my local Indian), so I can’t comment too much more on Inverness.


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We spent a night at Loch Lomond, in what was by far the swankiest hotel of the trip (which isn’t saying much, since we stayed in some run-down, smelly places, but this was actually a pretty nice hotel, bar the shower and sink being located at the back of the bedroom, out in the open, and the overwhelming smell of feet from the sauna), and strolled down to the village of Luss in a futile attempt to find a shop open past 5 o’clock on a Sunday.  Quaint little village, despite the proliferation of “Yes” banners, and the loch wasn’t half bad either.

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Finally, on the drive back to Edinburgh, we stopped in Falkirk to see the Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel (I wanted to see the William Wallace monument in Stirling, but thanks to our train arriving late the first day, we never had time).  Kelpies are some kind of mythological Scottish horse-beast, and someone made giant horse head sculptures rising out of a pool to commemorate this; there was a sign outside a hut saying there was an admission charge, but I’m not sure what it was for, as anyone can walk over and see them for free.  Maybe to go inside?

The Falkirk Wheel is some kind of crazy rotating boat lift, and acts as a link between two canals.  They have a small visitor’s centre, but it was literally one of the most crowded places I’ve been in my life, so I only had a quick look around.  They seem to do a roaring trade in boat tours, but we just grabbed a few pics of the Wheel and headed off.  That’s it for the Scottish trip; although the weather wasn’t great, I think we still managed to have a pretty decent time.  I’d go back!

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Loch Ness, Scotland: Urquhart Castle

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Let’s face it: the only reason most people are going to Urquhart Castle is for the views of Loch Ness.  After all, ruined castles are a dime a dozen in the UK (or maybe I should say 10p a dozen?  Or about 6p if you convert it), and the main thing Urquhart has going for it is its deeply picturesque surroundings.  And being that most of the road around Loch Ness runs worryingly close to the edge of the loch (I was terrified of swerving off the road and drowning in the icy water), there aren’t that many places to get out and photograph it without risking death.  Which is probably why people are willing to pay £7.90 a pop to see some mouldering old stones (half price admission to Historic Scotland properties with English Heritage membership, woot woot, although the mean woman working the admissions desk clearly resented us for it).

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Actually, as far as things go, £7.90 isn’t all that bad, considering we paid the same to go to the “Loch Ness Experience,” which I need to take some time to warn you away from.  I knew it would be a tourist trap, but I often like tourist traps, as long as they make a bit of an effort to give the people what they want (hint, usually plenty of photo ops or weird stuff to look at, so in the case of the Loch Ness Experience, you’d expect a Nessie to pose with, right?  Wrong).  This place was so awful though, it still pisses me off.  It advertised itself as having all these different exhibits, but was actually just six different small rooms where they showed different bits of the same old-ass documentary.  It was seriously just one of those shows that they used to play on the History Channel along with all the alien abduction programmes (my dad used to watch those for hours for some reason, so I’ve definitely seen the Nessie one before) before it became the all Pawn Stars all the time channel.  I didn’t even watch the videos; they were so boring, and I was in a hurry to get to what I thought were the exhibits, only to find myself going direct from the videos into the gift shop, filled with every kind of Nessie tat available.  I actually asked one of the people working there if I’d somehow missed the museum, because I could not believe how shit it was.  And yes, there was not even a fake Nessie statue, we had to pull into some random hotel parking lot for a photograph with one of those.  Avoid the Loch Ness Experience like the plague, it is one of the worst places I’ve ever been!

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Anyway, back to Urquhart Castle, which at least delivers on what it promises.  Spectacular views of the loch, and some castle ruins.  There are a lot of steps involved, and the weather will probably be terrible, so prepare yourself for these things.  They did at least install metal steps in one of the towers, so you’re not having to climb those scary old stone staircases, but the other tower is still old-school, and passing people going the opposite direction on the stairs is really difficult.

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They did have signs in each former room of the castle, but they didn’t get that much into the history of it (or maybe they did, just not to the extent that I can remember it), it was more what each room was used for, that sort of thing.  It was, as I’ve said, very dramatic scenery, but I was kind of glad we only paid half price to see it.

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There was also a gift shop/cafe with a very small exhibit inside, basically just a wall of posters which got more into the timeline of the castle, and a few artefacts.  The gift shop was trying to hawk CDs of Scottish music, which meant that the soundtrack as I was looking at the timeline was frankly hilarious; some kind of Caribbean remix of “Amazing Grace,” featuring bagpipes and steel drums.  A video presentation was available to watch, but we didn’t hang around to see it, as we still had a lengthy drive down to Loch Ness, and I was starving (the cafe was less than thrilling, so we stopped off for cheesy chips in Fort William).  So, Urquhart Castle: Come for the scenery, not for the detailed history, basically. (If you zoom in, you may be able to spot Nessie in the right hand picture immediately below.  Please ignore the incredibly stupid face I’m making.)  2.5/5

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Newtonmore, Scotland: Highland Folk Museum

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Though the winds increased in intensity as we drove up through the Highlands on the second day of our Scotland trip, and there appeared to be a promise of rain in the not-so-distant future, I could nonetheless see that the Highland Folk Museum, was still a pleasant place to be, set as it was on acres of picturesque countryside and sloping heather-lined hills.

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The museum was reminiscent of a less elaborate, pastoral version of the Black Country Museum, only happily, it was free (quite a bonus, as most living history museums charge upwards of 20 quid for admission). The property is quite extensive, and it’s probably a good half an hour walk from one side of the site to the other, which was a nice chance for us to stretch our legs after the car ride up from Pitlochry.  Because it’s based outdoors and in unheated buildings, it’s only open from April until the end of October (meaning I’ve left it a bit late for this year, but hopefully someone can use this post for future reference).

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We headed first to the extreme left side of the grounds, which turned out to be fortunate as we discovered a small old timey sweet shop selling a range of peculiar Scottish boiled sweets I’d never heard of before.  We opted for soor plooms (Scottish for sour plums, invented, according to Wikipedia, after a battle where the English were easily defeated because they were busy stuffing their faces with unripe plums (though I rather suspect the real reason for the defeat may have been the ensuing diarrhea from eating unripe fruit)), which turned out to be an excellent choice, but means that my boyfriend was hard pressed to get a picture of me from that point on where I don’t have a sweet stuffed in my cheek.  We passed a number of small cottages  and workshops we could poke our heads into and investigate – I think this part of the museum was representing the first half of the twentieth century.

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As we travelled the opposite way on the path, we seemed to be moving back in time, as the properties became grimmer and more Victorian in appearance (to be honest, even the more “modern” buildings looked draughty and dark).  I love old Staffordshire figurines (I am inordinately proud of one I own of Daniel Lambert, Georgian Britain’s fattest man), so I was delighted to find one of that Scots hero Robbie Burns adorning a mantle, even if the cottage itself wasn’t particularly appealing.

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Accessing the 18th century village meant a trek through the woods on a very muddy trail (mud and wind were common themes of the Scottish countryside, so I definitely advise bringing wellies and a good warm jacket.  And seriously, my hair was probably the knottiest it’s ever been after a day getting whipped around by the wind, but it was too cold to put it up, so I’m not sure what to suggest there), but it was also a chance to see some red squirrels, which my boyfriend was thrilled by for some reason.  I don’t know, to me a squirrel is a squirrel, and we have all different coloured ones in America, but apparently red squirrels are special somehow.

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Anyway, we eventually made it to the village, which had a couple costumed interpreters in it to explain just how brutal life was for Highlanders (in case the tiny cottages don’t make that clear enough.  You can see that my 5’4″ frame looks giant compared to one in the picture at the start of the post). People back then slept in box beds in an attempt to keep out the cold, which if you’ve never seen one is this horrible claustrophobic looking enclosed wooden frame with a mattress thrown inside.  It gets worse; because of the smoke, they couldn’t even lay down without risking respiratory problems, so they slept sitting up in these contraptions, often 5 people to a bed.  It’s pretty obvious why despite the beauty of the land, many of them chose to immigrate to America.

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There was a grouping of about five of these stone-walled, thatched roof huts in the village, and two more further up the trail; because the only light came in through the door (windows would have meant letting more heat out), they were virtually pitch-black inside, and we couldn’t even see what was lurking in the corners of the rooms.  I think in some of these living history museums, there is a danger of romanticising the past, with twee rows of cute shops and quaint trades, but the Highland Life Museum fully conveyed the harsh reality of 18th century life for the average country-dweller, particularly in this section of the museum.

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Of course, it wasn’t all unrelenting bleakness, at least for modern day museum visitors.  In addition to the aforementioned sweet shop, there was also a farm building with animals; random cat statues, and the digger pictured above (there were no children in sight, so I had a go).  One odd thing about this trip in general was that although pictures of Highland cattle are available on postcards, calenders, in stuffed toy form, and pretty much every other form of tat you could imagine, I didn’t see an actual Highland cow on the entire trip.  Plenty of regular cattle, but no Highland ones.  Where are they hiding them all?! (although I wouldn’t want to run into one in the wild…sometimes there are big cows wandering free around the North Downs when we go walking there, and they freak me out)

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I don’t really want to get into politics here, but I have to admit I was initially apprehensive as we approached Newtonmore and I saw all the “Yes” flags lining their high street a good month after the referendum, since folk museums can sometimes verge on being creepily nationalistic at the best of times, and I wasn’t sure if my boyfriend’s English accent might mean we’d receive a frosty reception.  But although all the signage was in Gaelic in addition to English, I didn’t get that impression here, and I didn’t feel at all unwelcome. In fact, it was a very agreeable outing, and I’d definitely recommend checking this museum out if you’re in the area.  Though they seemed a bit short on staff, and weren’t able to do the many craft type demonstrations that a lot of these kinds of museums feature, to be honest I preferred this, as I always find interacting with the actors really awkward, and this felt like a more honest, less contrived experience.  The website suggests a visit will take 3-5 hours; it only took us about an hour and a half, but we don’t have children slowing us down and we’re fast walkers and readers, so I’d probably allot at least two hours for this so you have time to see everything.  I’m impressed that a museum of this size is completely free, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  3.5/5.



Pitlochry, Scotland: The Enchanted Forest and a Fish Ladder

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My boyfriend and I recently spent a long weekend in Scotland, at least in part to try to see some autumn colour, which tends to be lacking in Southeast England, so it made sense to check out the “Enchanted Forest,” a whole forest experience set in Faskally Wood, near Pitlochry.  Our day started off rather horribly as our train to Edinburgh only made it as far as Newcastle, meaning we had to cram onto another, already full train for the remaining two hour journey, forced to stand in the vestibule, essentially packed in like cattle.  When we finally made it to Edinburgh and picked up our rental car, we then got stuck in traffic for another couple of hours, so we barely had time to drop our stuff off at our hotel before we had to leave again for the Enchanted Forest shuttle bus.  This meant we were both tired and cranky, and didn’t much feel like strolling around in the rain, but we’d already spent over 40 quid on non-refundable tickets for both of us, so we were damn well going to see this thing.

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It seemed like the shuttle bus pretty much just drove us around the corner, but it was long enough for us to listen to a humorous health and safety tape narrated by a mother and her son, Finlay, where Finlay advised us that if we didn’t wear proper clothes, we might get so cold that our legs would fall off (bit late telling us this when we were already on the bus, fortunately I was dressed sensibly for once with wellies and my very own waterproof coat (bought specially for the trip, and the first one I’ve owned in six years of living in Britain).  This turned out to be sensible advice, as it drizzled intermittently throughout the evening, and it was extremely muddy.

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I’m tempted to compare the experience in some ways to the Great Jack o’ Lantern Blaze we visited last year, but obviously pumpkins and American foodstuffs like cider doughnuts and mulled cider win out over lights and vegetarian stovies (and Crabbie’s mulled wine, surely they could have at least made their own?).  However, although the Enchanted Forest was also sold out, it seemed much more efficiently organised, and the area was large enough that the crowds weren’t really a problem.  The theme for this year’s event was “Elemental,” which was manifested through the use of fire and water elements.  Basically, you walk in a loop around the forest (you can go around as many times as you like, though it took us about an hour to circle once) and stop at various points to watch sound and light shows.

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The trees are also lit up in various attractive ways, with a myriad of colours, though the lighting effects did make it difficult to see any natural leaf colouring.  There was a storytelling tent for children, and they seemed to be doing a roaring trade in balloons with a glowstick inside, much to my dismay (I have an aversion towards balloons because I hate sudden loud noises.  Sure, they’re fun when they’re inflated, but they’re inevitably going to pop at some point, and every time I’m near balloons, I can’t help cringing in anticipation of the explosion.  Yes, I am weird.).  The whole lake was transformed with fountains spewing coloured water, and there was a fire show further up along the lake accompanied by loud music, as well as some flashing strobe lights.

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The freakiest thing was probably the aerial acrobats, who had to wear weird outfits and scary-ass masks for some reason.  Though I didn’t mind the shows, I probably just enjoyed walking through the lighted forest the most, especially the strange pipe garden that shot out smoke, and the hillside with tube lights snaking down it.  It wasn’t a terrible time, but I feel like children might have enjoyed it much more than I did (though for once, we weren’t the only childless people there by a long shot – there were plenty of other couples, both older and younger), and it was too expensive for what it was.  I think a tenner would have been a reasonable amount to pay, but the fact that we stuck around, being as tired as we were, meant it can’t have been that bad.

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After an awful night’s sleep on a lumpy mattress with a pillow that destroyed my neck, I wasn’t exactly raring to explore Pitlochry, but we were already there, and the fish ladder beckoned.  The town itself was very touristy, full of sweet and cake shops and the ubiquitous Scottish woolens, but the scenery as we headed down to the dam was quite pretty, and the leaves made me feel as though I was temporarily back in America.  And we got to cross some weird bridge that was extremely bouncy, so that I felt a bit ill walking across it, but in a fun way.

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You can see for yourself that the scenery was fairly spectacular, and this was the one non-rainy day of our trip, so we had to make the most of it.  The fish ladder itself is just a set of stepped pools, that I guess salmon somehow climb up (not sure exactly how it works, there was a sign that claimed there was an exhibition room about it in the dam, but nothing was open when we were there, even though it was supposed to be open til the end of October).

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I can’t pretend that Pitlochry is the most amazing place to visit, and the fish ladder is less than thrilling, but it was undeniably a gorgeous setting, and I was glad of the chance to finally see some leaves in a colour other than brown!  Never fear though, the Scotland adventures continue throughout the next few posts, and there’ll be lots more stunning scenery and attractions of varying quality to take in!