Did you read Part 1 of our Scotland Adventures? It recaps our first couple of travel days in the western Highlands, where everything was about the landscape and fresh air and sharing single-track roads with sheep. Our last few days we were moving back south-east toward Edinburgh, back into the more populated central areas of the country.
We took the A82 back through Glen Coe (because I loved it so much the first time) then the A85 across toward Perth. We passed through the northern section of Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park as our last “wildlands,” and had planned a stop at Drummond Castle Gardens. However, while the gardens were “open” that day, they didn’t open until 1 pm and we weren’t waiting around for several hours. So we turned south on some crazy public-roads-that-looked-like-driveways toward Stirling and Falkirk.
This central area of Scotland had a much more managed feel to it. There were tractors out plowing. The pastures were more uniform, the fences more neat, and the sheep were staying put in their fields. There were more houses, and more yards that had been mowed, fenced, and landscaped. Mulched flower beds and landscaping along the roadside, rich farm fields behind low stone walls. As we got closer and closer to Stirling, it reminded me of the outter western fringes of Northern Virginia, like Loudoun County.
Except that the roads were still very narrow, and pheasants would randomly run across like wild turkeys back home.
Sterling Castle was amazing!
I was second guessing a lot of the entrance fees while researching before we traveled. They can definitely stack up on you! If you’re going to visit more than 3 places, you should definitely check out the Explorer Pass. We were free-wheeling our travel plans, and had a looser budget since we were sans-kiddos, but looking back I would have gotten the passes. And I would have stopped in the parking lot of each location and ordered our tickets online with my cell phone before we walked up to the entrance. It would have saved us a lot of waiting in line–especially at Edinburgh Castle!
But I digress. Stirling Castle was amazing and I’m very glad that Mr. Fix-It wanted to go.
For me, there’s no such thing as too many castles, chuches, or piles of ruined rock to visit, and I would stop at every. single. one. For him, the fun parts of history have more rust, wire, and wheels. The fact that he enjoyed it as much as I did makes me sure that it’s a great attraction for anyone–not just history junkies like me.
We had a nice late lunch at Darnley Coffee House and then walked around town.
We visited the Church of the Holy Rude–which was magnificent! I learned that “Holy Rude” means “Holy Cross” and that the term “kirk” generally means a local parish church. Other than Westminster Abbey, it’s the only church in Britian that was used for a cornotation and is still in active use today. King James VI was crowned here in 1567. It’s usually not open until May, and was only open when we were in town due to it being Good Friday. If our travel plans hadn’t gotten all messed up at the airport, we would have missed getting to see it!
And then we walked back up the hill to the car (still parked at Stirling Castle–they have a 4 hour parking limit) and drove to the National Wallace Monument. We got there just in time to get into the tower before they closed for the day at 5 pm. After walking all over Stirling (so. many. hills.) and it being so close to closing time, we took the shuttle up to the Monument. I’m glad we did because there were still 246 spiral stairs in the Monument tower to get to the top! Whew! By that point my legs were like jelly!
To be completely honest, if I was going to skip something this would have been it. Especially for the hefty entrance fee. It was mostly about the view from the top, and having just been at the top of Stirling Castle, I wasn’t blown away. I enjoyed seeing the Wallace sword and getting a little factual backstory on the whole Braveheart storyline. But if I had to budget, I would go with Stirling Castle, hands down. You can also enjoy just seeing the Wallace Monument from the outside and walking their interpreted trails for free.
Then we headed south-east to Edinburgh. We decided to do a “drive thru” of the city to get the lay of the land before checking into our hotel. We had originally planned 2 days in the city with a hotel within walking distance of the Royal Mile. All our flight fiascos jumbled that up and we ended up with only one full day in the city and a hotel out by the airport. I’m glad we scoped things out the night before so we understood parking and didn’t waste time on our one day!
We checked into our hotel, the MacDonald Houstoun House late in the evening. We had gotten a great deal on our room rates, so I was a little concerned what the quality of our accommodations would be. It was LOVELY! Yet another amazing historic property, full of character. And the staff was unbelievably friendly and helpful. They slipped us into dinner at the on-site restaurant, very close to closing and without a reservation, and completely under-dressed. The food was delicious! And beautiful. Definitely one of the best meals we had.
There was a mixup with our desserts and we had a fun conversation with the restaurant manager when he came out to apologize. Mr. Fix-It and I got a bit of a chuckle out of the huffy couple that got our desserts by mistake and complained. Loudly. A mix-up with a lemon tart was hardly even noteworthy to us at this point in our travel adventures. We were just glad to be getting real food after 9:15 pm!
All week, every time something “bad” happened, it seemed to open the door to a remarkable relationship moment with complete strangers. It became a chance for us to get off the tourist track and dig into the ebb and flow of local life.
Saturday morning we headed into Edinburgh toward our pre-picked parking area and unexpectedly ran into the Grassmarket Farmers Market–yet another thing we were going to miss with our original travel plans. We were supposed to be on a flight home by then!
Since we were there early to hit Edinburgh Castle before the crowds, we got a great parking space right at the edge of the market.
And fresh coffee and sausage rolls.
And homemade chocolate and peanut butter macaroons.
And we were right next to a short-cut to the Castle. Which involved about 10,000 stairs cutting straight up the hill, but was probably shorter than walking 6 blocks down, then 6 blocks back up the Royal Mile.
We did not, however, miss the crowds at the Castle this way.
Edinburgh Castle was…huge. And busy. If you read any reviews of the place everyone recommends going early or late, and missing the crowds smack in the middle of the day. Well, we hit it smack in the middle of the day. Not an ideal plan, but for someone that grew up visiting Washington DC attractions, it wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. It was only April, and not the height of the tourist season yet.
We would have saved both time AND money, though, if I had taken a few minutes to order tickets online before we walked up there. There’s drawbacks to unplanning your travel. It allows greater flexibility, but requires extra contingency budgeting.
However, we didn’t do a group walking tour, and we didn’t pay extra for an audio tour. We just wandered around reading the signs and trying to move opposite the general flow of the crowd so we could actually see things. This made exploring the castle fun, but the overall history a bit hard to grasp. The Castle website offers recommended itineraries based on your visit timeline that would have been helpful, but honestly, if a spot was too crowded to see anything we were moving on regardless.
My favorite parts were definitely the Great Hall and St. Margaret’s Chapel. The Royal Scots Regimental Museum, tracing more modern military history from 1800 forward, was also unexpectedly interesting. Our family is well versed in more modern history from 1800 forward, so seeing more familiar world events from a non-American perspective in solider letters was intriguing. More than any other locations we visited, Edinburgh Castle links history with modern Scottish times.
We left the castle, reparked the car (everywhere has these 4 hour parking limits!), and grabbed some lunch. Then we walked the Royal Mile for a while, visited St. Gile’s Cathedral, and grabbed an ice cream cone at Mackey’s of Scotland. We finished off the afternoon by visiting the National Museum of Scotland for an hour or two. We saw some interesting displays of Scottish science and technology there. I didn’t know that the Dunlop behind Dunlop tires was a Scottish veterinarian named John Dunlop. He patented the first pneumatic tire that was practical for wide-spread usage in 1888.
Bicycles, telephones, toasters, and penicillin were all invented by Scots. If I learned this back in my school days, I had forgotten, and it was very interesting.
We picked up some falafel and lamb kebobs from a tiny street-front shop on our way back to the car for dinner. Delicious! Then we repacked at the hotel and walked around the beautiful grounds until dark. Our flights home went smoothly, although after customs and re-screening at security, we were running through JFK to make our connection.
Being home, our trip seems like a bit of a whirlwind. We’ve already talked about going back because we loved and there’s still so much to see and do. But that would probably be true anywhere. Is Scotland on your bucket list?