Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Scotland in 15

In 2014, I went to Scotland (specifically, Glasgow & Edinburgh) for the first time, with my friend Monica. It was one stop on my "UK" tour, which included Ireland and England.  
The trip started in Glasgow, which I'll admit was a bit of an unimpressive start for me. It was a rainy, cold 24 hours (which apparently is the norm) and I spent the first half of it by myself, so this may be an unfair assessment. 

We weren’t there long enough to enjoy everything. Here are some things I will make time for next time:  
  • Ghost Tour
  • Mary King’s Close
  • Literary Tour/Pub Crawl

Glasgow

Sauchiehall St / Argyle St / Buchanan St 
As you may know, I like to shop. If you do as I do, this has to be one of your stops. There are pretty streets and photo-worthy architecture to also sight as you make your way around. 



University of Strathclyde 
If you're a sucker for pretty building rich in history, this campus is worth exploring. Founded in 1796, is the second-oldest, and third-largest by number. We did not do a guided tour, so I cannot speak to the actual history, just the beauty of the campus. We just roamed around, if nothing else, it was a great walk. 

The Willow Tea Rooms 
When in the UK, you have to have tea. We visited the world famous Willow Tea Rooms, built in 1904 and designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a post impressionist architect. The Willow name comes from Sauchiehall, the street it is on, which in Scottish Gaelic means alley of the willows. The highlight, more than the theme of willows, was the tea and scones (which you know... is all about the strawberry jam & clotted cream).  

Riding the Trains: Glasgow to Edinburgh
We took the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. We did not have to pre-book our tickets, and took less than an hour, costing less than £20. There are trains quarterly too, so a highly recommended mode of travel between the two cities.

Edinburgh

We fell in love with Edinburgh from the moment we arrived at the train station. We had four days there, and could have easily spent more.

The Royal Mile
Our most walked-on street, where you feel like you’re stepping into history with the cobble-stoned alleys. There are a ton of pubs and it literally led to most of the places we had on our list to hit up including Holyrood and Edinburgh Castle.

Holyrood Park
This was one of our first touristy activities in Scotland, and one of my favourites as well. This royal park was created in 1541, with hills, lochs and glens. It has an unbelievable view of the city, and within an hour, you can hike up to Arthurs’ Seat (the main peak of the group of hills). I’m not a runner, but if any trail would inspire me to start, this would be it. There are several paths to explore, and we met so many people along the way.

Edinburgh Castle
The castle is a historic fortress that overlooks the city from Castle Rock. Royals used to live in the castle back in the 12th century (under the reign of David I). We decided against paying for entry and the tour, but walked around the part of the grounds we did have access to – it was packed full of people, but offered great views.

The Scotch Whiskey Experience
A must when you’re in Scotland. We would have had to leave the city for an authentic tour, so we opted for a barrel ride through a replica distillery within central Edinburgh. The tour was a little under an hour for the basic package (souvenir glass included) and was a great intro to the art of crafting scotch whiskey, taking on a journey through the four regions and the aromas and flavours for each.

The Elephant House
Opened in 1995, the cafe is considered on the best tea and coffee houses in the city. But it’s claim to game (for someone like me who has no appreciation for hot beverages) is that JK Rowling wrote some of her earlier works (ahem – just a little unknown manuscript now called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) in the back room. The cafe has a huge display of elephant figurines and drawings, but my favourite was the grungy-graffiti filled bathroom.

New Town
By the mid seventeenth century, the city of Edinburgh had to expand to fit the growing population. It began with the development of George Street, a part of “New Town” – now home to bars, nightclubs, shops and art. We ended up exploring this part on our last night, and wished we had stumbled upon it earlier, and packed fancier dresses for a proper night out. My favourite was the poetry and artwork on Rose Street.

While we did go on a ghost tour, we hadn’t done our research to pick the best company. Usually ranging from £10 - £14, these tours are led by entertainers who can tell a good story. They aim to provide some historical background as well as provide a little scare with stories about the city’s seedy past and usually end in a vault (part of Edinburg’s legendary Underground City). We were later recommended the tour by City of the Dead.

Edinburgh has many closes and one popular one is “The Real Mary King’s Close” which has now become a tourist attraction displaying a "historically accurate" example of life in Edinburgh between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. This would be an alternative to doing a ghost tour, but still (from what I've gathered) a really engaging way to learn tales of ghosts, murders and myths. 

I had really wanted to get to know more about Edinburgh’s literary history, however we just did not have enough time. This could have also provided a better opportunity to explore parts of New Town which we also did not get to do well enough.


The Highlands

We had initially wanted to do our own tour of highlands but alas time and money prevented us from doing this right. So we opted for a bus tour version, just to get a sample of The Highlands, one of the most historic regions of Scotland. We were not disappointed, although it is a 12 hour bus trip, it covers a lot of ground and the particular tour we went on had historical stories on audio for us to listen to in between our stops. The longest stop was at Loch Ness, where we took an hour long cruise. While it was tiring, it was an excellent introduction to the region and we actually learned a lot. There were about 5 stops in all, and there were some incredible photo taking opportunities.