Scotland

Scotland Mop-up Post

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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!

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An Eerie Afternoon in Edinburgh

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Being stuck in the UK this year (normally not a problem, but I do miss fall), where Halloween-type events don’t tend to happen until on Halloween (or at least the week of), means I haven’t been able to do the run-up of creepy destinations that I featured last year.  However, I couldn’t let the holiday pass completely unremarked upon, so I can offer reviews of a ghost tour and an art exhibition that featured a few drawings of Death.  But no pictures of either, sorry.

My boyfriend and I took a train to and from Edinburgh for a long weekend, and then rented a car to drive up to the Highlands (more on that in future posts), which means we didn’t spend a lot of time in the city, but we arranged to drop our rental car off a few hours before our train left for London so we would at least have an afternoon in Edinburgh.  We went there for our anniversary two years ago, so we’d already seen a fair bit of the city; therefore, this time I wanted to explore some of “hidden” Edinburgh.

I’d wanted to go to Mary King’s Close on our first visit, but by the time we rocked up they were already booked up for the day, so I looked into booking advance tickets this time.  However, once I realised how much it cost, I decided to look up some reviews to see if it was really worth it, and the general consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t (a lot of the reviews mentioned how most of the experience was just watching videos projected on the walls, which made it sound very similar to the Dover Castle Tunnel experience that I didn’t really enjoy, so I was put off going).  I thought we could at least go on some sort of ghost tour, even though we were slightly limited in our choices by not being there in the evening.  I picked Auld Reekie’s Original Underground tour solely because theirs was the only one early enough to allow us adequate time to catch our train home.

It turned out we were the only people taking the 2 o’clock tour that day, which on one hand is a scenario I dread because we are not very talkative people and we never ask any questions at the end, but on the other hand, it was kind of nice to not have to listen to other people’s stupid questions.  After awkwardly hanging around the front of Tron Kirk for a while as our guide tried in vain to attract more customers, we set off, heading for the famous South Bridge Vaults.  Basically, there’s a bridge with multiple levels of vaults under it that were built in the late 1700s to serve as storage space for the businesses above.  However, because they were so unpleasant and damp, they were soon abandoned and inhabited instead by the homeless of Edinburgh; even they couldn’t take the grimness for long, and eventually the vaults were filled with rubble to make them inaccessible..that is, until modern tour companies got their hands on them.  Nowadays, it seems like access to the vaults is divided between the city’s tour companies, meaning you pretty much have to pay to see them.  Most of the companies charge between £8-£12 for 45 minutes-an hour and a half tour

Because we were the only people on the tour, our guide gave us the option of the underground tour we had initially booked, the ghost tour, or a bit of both, so we of course went for a bit of both.  This consisted of a mix of rather basic history, and the usual sorts of ghost stories, but I was certainly entertained.  The vaults are pitch-black inside, the only illumination coming from a few candles and our guide’s flashlight, and there is constant moisture dripping from the limestone ceiling, so they don’t need much embellishment to make them scary, though some of the ghost stories didn’t hurt.  I was very interested in the history of the people who actually lived down there: they were crammed fifty-deep into smallish rooms, huddled together for warmth and safety, and it’s rumoured that Burke and Hare chose some of their victims from the wretchedly poor inhabitants of the vaults.

There’s a local Wiccan coven that has been given permission to use one of the vaults, which is rather swankily decorated with pentagram regalia (I used to dabble in Wicca as a teen, so I can identify witchy paraphernalia).  According to the guide, they had initially been allowed to use one of the other vaults, but quickly asked to change to further down the tunnel, as there was some bad mojo in the first vault.  Of course, we were taken inside that room, where there’s a stone circle in the centre that apparently trapped a malevolent spirit.  We were invited to step inside the circle, and though, as I’ve said, I only believe in ghosts sometimes, I wasn’t taking any chances and stayed on the edge of the room.  I’m sure it was just the atmosphere and anticipation, but I did have a distinctly creepy feeling inside the room, as though maybe something was watching me.  There’s also a poltergeist room, wherein the guide tells you a story about the scary things that have happened there (people feeling a ghostly touch, being dragged towards the walls, etc) and then abruptly flicks off her flashlight…my boyfriend admitted to being a little creeped out in there.

Since we were fairly quiet throughout and didn’t have any questions, our tour ended early, so our guide offered to show us the medieval torture room to make up for it.  It was the usual collection of nag’s bridles, thumbscrews, and various other implements that either weren’t actually used at all, or certainly not as often or in the ways that people think they were, but it’s to be expected really (at least there wasn’t an Iron Maiden).  Our guide also mentioned witches being burnt at the stake, which I was skeptical about since I know witches in England and America were hanged, not burned, but I’ve looked it up since and apparently they were occasionally burned at the stake in Scotland, though more commonly killed first by strangling, and then their bodies were burnt.  Either way, it’s still a horrible and senseless way to die, and is depressing to think about.

Emerging at last into the weak Scottish sunlight, we were definitely in need of some warming sustenance, so we headed over to the Baked Potato Shop, an all vegetarian establishment.  They had an array of intriguing toppings (ok, some of them were straight up gross, but I’m pretty sure a hummus potato would be delicious, since I love dipping chips in hummus), we were boring and just got cheddar on ours, but we had a couple of vegetarian haggis samosas on the side (they were just like normal samosas with a few oats in though, and way too spicy for me).  The tatties were massive and filling though, and much appreciated on the chilly day.  We still had an hour and a half before our train left, so we had a wander through the park, and ended up next to the Scottish National Gallery.

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Normally, I’m not much for art, but they had a free exhibit advertised outside that featured a neat drawing of a skull, so I was persuaded to check it out.  The Scottish National Gallery is nothing like the size of its English counterpart, though they did have very fancy albeit narrow bathrooms, and there were still some lovely and hilarious paintings, like the Sir Henry Raeburn picture of a man ice skating that they seem to use as one of their logos.  The special exhibit I was keen to see was in the basement, and featured the prints and drawings of William Strang, who I’d never heard of, but now I’m a bit of a fan.  A lot of them were fairly normal portraits of his friends, but there were a few featuring Death (as in the Grim Reaper), including one that I think was just called War, that I really liked.  It was definitely a worthwhile stop before heading back to the train station via the Edinburgh branch of Ben’s Cookies (I go up to the High Street Ken location every couple weeks…I think I have a problem).

I had a very pleasant afternoon in Edinburgh; it seems like the city has plenty of dark history to offer, and I always find something new to discover.  I think a ghost tour is a good way to go and I thought the Auld Reekie one was pretty decent; though I’ve no other Edinburgh tours to compare it to, I can’t imagine it makes all that much difference what company you pick.  I would also recommend the National Museum of Scotland, which we saw on our earlier trip; it is huge and amazing, and I also highly recommend the Surgeon’s Hall Museum, though I think it’s currently closed for repairs.

Anyway, I hope everyone has a happy Halloween!  I’m planning on just spending the evening at home, though I am still going to throw together a costume; eating Halloween funfetti cupcakes from the mix I smuggled back from America, and maybe watching my old favourites Hocus Pocus, Braindead (Dead/Alive), and of course some classic Simpsons Treehouses of Horror; but I’m going on another ghost tour over the weekend, so you can expect a write up of that in the near future. In the meantime, here’s a pumpkin version of me that my boyfriend carved!

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