Leaving the hostel early enough to not only make our 9am bus tour, but to find breakfast and the place to meet our bus tour wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Not that leaving was hard, nor getting up in time (I don’t sleep late anyway, thank you, Laika) but just figuring out what to do for food and where the bus stop was accounted for a slight bit of frustration. In the end, we opted for jumping in to a local supermarket (Sainsbury, for those playing UK Location Bingo) and grabbing some eat on the go stuff and then figuring out that our tour pick-up point was actually quite near Calton Hill… and we were a little early so we decided to eat up on the hill with the view of the nearby body of water which is called the “Firth of Forth” (try saying that three times fast!). Firth means estuary and Forth is the bay which leads out to the ocean so that’s what we were looking at before heading back down and joining our group.
We have two different tours booked on the Heart of Scotland Tours (The Wee Red Bus) to take us in two different directions and discover two very different areas of the country. Originally, we were going to do a two day tour but there were issues so we rebooked the two one day jaunts. So far, this has actually turned out to be a fortuitous event. I’m sure, had the two day tour happened, we would have had just as brilliant a time, but this is the way it’s working out and it’s working out great!
Getting to our “Wee Red Bus” we met James (our ginger-bearded guide/driver) and Iain (with two “i”s who was doing a ride-along) and took our seats near the back of the 16-seater. We headed out and our first stop was at the Rosslyn Chapel, made famous because it was used by Dan Brown in his highly over-rated The Da Vinci Code. In the book, this is the place where he discovers the “Holy Grail” he’s been searching for all along. In reality, what makes the Chapel so cool is the intricate carvings throughout. It’s got a seriously cool history and there is supposed to be magic involved, lay-lines
and the like. Then there’s the crypt, which we know is there. We know it’s there and we can make an educated guess as to what it contains…but we can’t say for sure. This, of course, has lead to speculation on there being everything from the aforementioned holy grail to Elvis and alien creatures. In any case, it’s a fascinating place to visit.
Of course, that’s not even counting the nearby castle (which is available for rental for holiday parties and such) which you get to through these beautiful woods. On the path, there’s even a tree which looks like a face.
Our next stop was in Melrose (not Place and not Barry), which contained a ruined abbey and the heart of Robert the Bruce, a former king of Scotland. Seemed he really wanted to go on a crusade/pilgrimage (these 13th century dudes were SO religious!) but he was too busy defending the realm and uniting clans to actually get around to it, so instead, on his death bed, he asked his right hand man to get his heart, put it in a couple of sealed boxes (lead and then gold) then take it to Jerusalem. Being a good leader, he inspired his men, even in death, so his wishes were carried out…to a point. The men never actually got the heart to the Holy City, they were routed. They even had to fight a group of attackers, all of them dying in the process. Later, when the attackers met another group of Robert’s people they explained how impressed they were with the people they had killed and then they returned the box, with the heart, as a token of honor. The heart and box was returned to the Melrose Abbey where it resides. It has been analyzed and it does contain some sort of human remains, but no one is sure exactly what — so the story just might be true.
Also in the lovely and picturesque town (village?) of Melrose was a wonderful used bookstore which, as you’ve probably already guessed by my mentioning it, we had to make a stop in. I didn’t get anything, although I was sorely tempted, but Jennifer did get a beautiful boxed set of John Buchan (The 39 Steps).
Our next stop on the way was actually when we were leaving the wonderful country of Scotland and heading into the horrible country of England (at least according to James our guide). The division between the English and the Scottish is not as serious as some would have you believe, but then again, I don’t think it’s not as playful as others make it out to be. It’s not the same as our North/South divide, because Scotland has been (and after next year will probably be again) it’s
own country. But there is a certain animosity between the two (to be fair, it seems to come more from the Scots, but then, we didn’t go on any tours or talk to too many people in the UK about it). So we stopped at the border, a place called “Carter Bar” (I know not why), where two massive rocks were placed on either side of the roadway with the names of their respective countries painted on the appropriate sides. Aside from the rocks, however, there was absolutely nothing there. Not a thing. Okay, that’s not exactly true. There was a coffee stand on the opposite side of the highway (England into Scotland — to show the Scottish were more hospitable) and a bagpiping busker on that side as well. Of course, As soon as our tour bus pulled in, he packed up and got into his car and drove to our side in hopes of garnering tips and selling CDs. I must take this moment to say a word or two about bagpipes and the image we all have of Scotland.
According to every tour guide we talked to, the classic image of Scotland, the lone bagpiper in the kilt, standing on the green hill, sun setting behind him, playing the mournful tune of “Amazing Grace,” is an almost complete fabrication made up by Sir Walter Scott. Yes, various elements are true but in general, Scott created the romanticized Scotland we all know and want to see. This is why, when you walk around Edinburgh, you will see (and more importantly, hear) kilt clad bagpipers playing ditties you can neither dance to nor hum along with, but still get stuck in your head anyway, like an ever present advertisement for the “Visit Scotland” tourist board. The other thing we need to talk about is haggis, but that will happen later.
Once past the border, our next stop, and the furthest south we were headed, was Housestead’s Fort, built close to 2000 years ago, and which the back part was actually built into Hadrian’s Wall. This wall was, next to the great wall of China and some rather large public works projects outside of Cairo, one of the most impressive engineering feats of the early part of civilized history. Basically, a roman leader named Hadrian decided he needed a good defensive structure to separate his area of Umbria (modern day England) from Caledonia (Scotland) where the vicious Picts lived (that’s what they called the strange guys who would paint themselves blue, dye their hair shocking red and rush to meet the enemy stark naked — in other words, Man United Fans). And they did. They built it right the way across the whole island of Britain (about 55 miles or so at this point). And this particular fort is one of the best preserved examples still around, although the wall, which you can actually walk on today, isn’t nearly as impressive at a little over a meter in height as it would have been back when it was built, when it stood about 3 meters high and was an unbroken line.
The National Trust, which runs the site, has done a great job of not only preserving what’s left, but of curating it so that as you walk around, you can actually get a feel for what was where and what purpose it all served. This is part of the deal with ruins, though. You need to make sure the tourists understand what they’re looking at and why it’s important (which, really, is the case with most things). If the punters don’t get it, then they won’t care about it and in the next election, money will be diverted to things which other people have explained to them is important. At the end of the day, history is important. We need to know where we came from in order to move forward to where we’re going. The same is also true for art and literature. It’s important and needs to be taught and why it matters needs to be stressed.
On the way back into Scotland, and yes, there was a collective sigh (which, really, may have just been James and Iain (two “i”s) releasing their collectively held breaths) when we crossed the border, we stopped in Jedburgh, which houses another ruined Abbey as well as a home of Mary, Queens of Scots. Here’s the deal with that one, though. She never really lived there. She stayed there for several weeks while recuperating from an illness sustained while riding the 30 miles or so down from Edinburgh to visit a man with whom she was rather besotted, but live there… not so much. The Brits, however, they love their royals so any claim which can be made (a plaque which reads “King Whatshisname the third once puked as his carriage was passing this very spot” is not an uncommon site) is glorified and marketed. I don’t think this is a bad thing, really, but it is strange for an American (even an Ex-pat like me) to wrap my head around. Ultimately, I guess, it’s the same celebrity culture we have now, only it’s been going on for a thousand years or so. And it works as a cultural and business draw too well to even think about changing it. If you can make mention that the ruling monarch visited your place of business once, you can trade on that for generations to come. And if you’re visited more than once, or the monarch really likes what you do, you might even get a Royal Warrant, which means you get to put “Official Potato Chip Maker to the Queen” on your advertising (of course, I made this one up, because everyone knows that in England, they’re called crisps).
When we got back to town, we were feeling a bit peckish so we decided to head off for dinner. Problem was we didn’t quite know what we wanted to eat but we did know we didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg for it. For me, though, this was a bit of an issue. Not that what we were looking at, menu-wise, was expensive — it wasn’t, not by local standards. But doing the conversion to litas in my head, things got very pricey indeed. Lithuania has plenty of things going for it, but one of the nicest is the relatively inexpensive cost of living when it came to food. In Edinburgh, I was looking at paying about four times (or more) what I would be paying back home so there was certainly a bit of sticker shock. At the same time, I didn’t want to starve and hey, I was on vacation, right? So we looked to try and find something reasonable and looked good.
What we found that night was the Black Rose, a heavy metal/goth bar with a special of burger, fries and drink for 5 pounds. Perfect! The food was delicious, the atmosphere was fun, the music was great and the staff was incredibly friendly! So a nice meal and we headed back to the hostel for another night.