Tuesday, September 25, 2007

4 July: Glencoe to Edinburgh Via Stirling

This morning I was somewhat depressed about saying farewell to the Highlands after such a brief taste of this magnificent region. And to think that I had at one point considered cutting Scotland out of our itinerary altogether, because I was worried that it would be too far to drive! I was, however, really looking forward to my first visit to Edinburgh, the city where I had once hoped to take a semester abroad (my parents decided – wisely, in retrospect - that I should go to Montpellier and study French instead). Before we leave Glen Coe behind I should point out that while we were not all that impressed with the Clachaig Inn (that mattress was truly awful!), if you want to hike in Glen Coe, it's hard to imagine a better-situated base of operations. There is another place called the Kings House Hotel a bit east of the Altnafeadh trailhead that might also be worth a look.

I failed to mention that we had our one and only left-hand driving “scare” while we were in the Highlands. John had pulled onto the right side of the road somewhere in Rannoch Moor to oblige one of my numerous requests for a photo-op. Of course the right side is, in effect the “wrong” side of the road to pull off onto in the U.K., but there was no place to stop on the left side. When John got back on the road, he automatically pulled into the right, or near, lane, which of course is what one would normally do when driving on the right side of the road. I looked ahead and saw a car coming straight at us in our lane, fortunately still several hundred yards away. I frantically gestured to the left, shouting, “Get over! Get over!” It took John a moment to realize exactly what I was making a fuss about, then he moved safely into the left lane. Fortunately this only happened once!

After checking out of the Clachaig, we retraced our steps through the Gorge of Glen Coe, stopping to take pictures of the cascading waterfall (photo, right), and back across Rannoch Moor, where I made a final attempt to capture the essence of that awesome, brooding landscape. We stopped at an overlook on the other side of the moor to watch a couple of red deer, up close and personal (they were being fed by a woman selling souvenirs out of her RV).

We headed southeast back towards the Trossachs and decided to make a pit stop in Callander, gateway to the Highlands and home of the Rob Roy and Trossachs Visitor Center, which documents the life of the highly romanticized Rob Roy MacGregor (despite Liam Neeson’s honorable portrayal, the man was apparently a common cattle thief and embezzler). Unfortunately you had to pay an entry fee to see the exhibit, so after taking a look around the gift shop and a quick stroll down Callender’s rather dreary main street, we decided to continue on our way.

Our next stop was Doune Castle, a very well-preserved medieval castle situated on the River Teith near Stirling, best known for its multiple appearances in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (photo, right). The castle was constructed near the end of the 1300s for Robert Stewart, the first Duke of Albany. He was the third son of King Robert II and younger brother of King Robert III, and became the ruler of Scotland himself (as regent for his ill brother) from 1388 until his death in 1420. Doune Castle later became a royal retreat and hunting lodge, then passed into the hands of the Earls of Moray towards the end of the 16th century. During the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the castle served as a prison for English supporters captured by the Jacobites. In 1984, the 20th Earl of Moray turned the castle over for public use and it is now maintained by Historic Scotland.

We approached the castle from the north, parking in the small gravel lot outside the main entrance. The sun was out for once, so we laid out a blanket and had a little picnic in the grass before touring the castle. The castle is laid out in a square, with a traditional L-shaped tower house. We entered the courtyard (photo, right) through a long, vaulted passage, paid the entrance fee, and proceeded on a self-guided tour of the castle’s fascinating labyrinth of chambers, stairways, and passages. The Lord’s Hall, Great Hall, and upper hall are all impressive; only the Lord’s Hall has been refurbished while the rest of the rooms are stark, stone-walled, and suitably gloomy. The kitchen features an enormous fireplace that takes up the full length of one wall. From the wallwalk we enjoyed terrific views down the River Teith and back towards the rolling green hills of the Trossachs.

Back in the courtyard, we were flagged down by a Historic Scotland volunteer who asked us if we would mind taking a ten-minute survey about our visit. We obliged, and had a nice chat with her as she filled out our responses on a handy little computer gadget. When we were done, she told us that we were so nice, she didn’t want to talk to anyone else! On our way out of Doune I asked John to stop at the bridge over the River Tieth so I could get the obligatory castle-on-the-river photo. A gray horse stuck his head over a stone wall nearby and watched me curiously. While John was turning the car around to pick me up, he scraped a curb, which put him in a foul mood for a while.

Our next stop was just a few miles down the road: the lively town of Stirling and its famous castle. Stirling was one of the most pleasant towns we passed through on our entire trip and I wouldn’t mind returning there to spend a little more time. It has been referred to as a “little Edinburgh,” with its castle perched high on a rocky volcanic outcropping (photo, right), surrounded by a bustling downtown shopping district and green parklands. Stirling Castle sits at a highly strategic position on the River Forth; it was the most important prize in the Scottish wars for independence and was used extensively by the Stewart monarchs – all factors supporting the argument made by some that Stirling, rather than Edinburgh, should be the capital of Scotland.

Our aim on this visit was first and foremost to see the castle, one of the largest and historically significant castles in Great Britain, so we followed the signs around the base of the outcropping, through the streets of the old city lined with stately townhouses and shops, and up a narrow road to a large parking area near the castle gates. From the outer ramparts we had magnificent views across the plain towards the Firth of Forth and back towards the Trossachs. An imposing statue of Robert the Bruce stands in front of the main gate; from the ramparts you can see Stirling Bridge, the site of William Wallace’s victory over the English in 1297, and Bannockburn, where Robert the Bruce defeated the English in 1314, securing Scottish independence for the next four centuries. Marjory, daughter of Robert the Bruce, married Walter Fitzallan, the high steward of Scotland, and their descendants produced the Stewart dynasty, including Mary, Queen of Scots, who was crowned as an infant in Stirling’s Chapel Royal in 1543.

We proceeded through the main gate in the 17th-century outer defenses into the Guardhouse Square, where we purchased a multi-day Historic Scotland pass, which would get us into Edinburgh Castle as well (we really should have bought this at Doune Castle, which would have saved us a little money). We also opted for the audio tour, which provided an entertaining and informative overview of the castle’s major features and historic highlights. We then passed through the mighty twin-towered Forework gate (photo, above) into the castle proper. Most of the castle’s main buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries, including the splendid stone Palace block, which combines Renaissance and gothic details. From the ramparts we learned about the various sieges on the castle (there were at least sixteen), the mighty cannons used to defend it, and looked down on the remains of the formal palace gardens, whose outlines can still be seen in a series of tiered lawns (photo, right). We descended into the stone foundations to see the remains of the Prince’s Tower and learn about the earlier defensive constructions, then proceeded into the inner close to tour the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal, and the King’s Old Building.

The soaring Great Hall (photo, right), believed to date from the early 16th century and the reign of James IV, was recently restored to its original appearance after being used as a military barracks for years. It is the largest hall in Scotland (far larger than the hall at Edinburgh Castle), with an impressive hammerbeam ceiling. The exterior is limewashed an unusual pale yellow, which is presumed to be a close approximation to the color used in medieval times.

We took a quick peek into the beautifully restored Chapel Royal, which stands on the foundations of the original 12th-century chapel, but there was a concert going on so we didn’t linger long. The chapel seen today was completed in 1594, in time for the christening of Prince Henry, son of James VI of Scotland, who was later to inherit the unified crowns of Scotland and England. Lest you think that all my talk about sunshine and those bits of blue sky in my photos mean that we finally enjoyed a day without rain, let me point out that during our visit we had to take shelter from a sudden rain squall, which allowed me to take a nice photograph of the inner close (below) with hardly any people in it.

Finally, we toured the King’s Old Building, which sits at the highest point on the castle’s rocky promontory (on the left in the photo, with the Chapel Royal on the right). It was built for James IV around 1496, but probably rests on the foundations of several older structures. Originally containing the royal apartments, it housed officers for the military garrison stationed here from the late 17th century onwards. Today it houses the regimental museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which we toured quickly. The entire structure has been altered repeatedly over time, so its restoration has posed a challenge. Most of the rooms are in an unfinished or “stripped” state, as archaeological work continues, but you can see some interesting artifacts, including an ancient stone hearth bearing original carvings of the royal thistle (the official symbol of Scotland) and a beautifully restored casement window. The structure surrounds a central courtyard known as the “Lion’s Den,” where a Scottish monarch purportedly kept a lion at one point.

Next we toured the kitchens, where an exceptional life-size diorama illustrates the hectic flurry of servants preparing a medieval feast for their royal masters. Finally, we passed through the North Gate, perhaps the castle's oldest standing structure (dating to 1380), and proceeded to the buildings of the Nether Bailey and the North Curtain Wall. From here we had a good view looking back up at the Great Hall and out across the plain to the Trossachs. Several blast-proof powder magazines were built here in the 19th century, and you can tour a small guardhouse that was converted into a punishment cell for wayward soldiers. Nearby, a new building houses the tapestry studio, where a team of artists is carefully recreating tapestries to hang in the restored Palace (unfortunately we arrived after the studio had closed for the evening).

It was now past 5:00 and we had to press on to Edinburgh, arriving right at rush hour, of course, so it took us a bit longer than planned to make it to the Elmview, our home for the next two nights. The Elmview is a luxurious B&B located within walking distance of Edinburgh’s Old Town, in a lovely rowhouse alongside a broad expanse of green lawn called The Meadows (popular for golf practice). We were greeted warmly by our hosts, Robin and Nici Hill, who hail from Salisbury and took over the Elmview from Robin’s brother in 2004. Robin showed us around our spacious room (photo, right), with a king-sized bed, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to a lovely private garden, thoughtful furnishings (including a crystal carafe of cream sherry on the writing desk), and a lovely tile bathroom with all the comforts of home.

Before we went to dinner, we needed to park our car in the Elmview's private car park. As in most any thriving European city, parking is in extremely high demand in Edinburgh, and one of the reasons I had chosen the Elmview was that it offered free, private parking. Well...this is all true, but the parking consists of three tiny spaces in a small enclosure a few blocks from the house. Robin handed us a key and a much-abused sheet of paper with instructions on how to get to the car park. Because of the one-way streets in the neighborhood, you have to make a huge loop in order to drive to the location, even though it is only a few hundred feet away. We safely navigated our way to the gate, which I unlocked, and swung the doors open as wide as they would go. Fortunately we were the first guests to arrive with a car tonight, so John had only to back the E-Class carefully into the far left corner, reorienting the car about twenty times in the process. How we were going to get the car out again - particularly if anyone else was parked next to us - was anyone's guess. But the car was staying put for the next two nights, so we would just have to cross that bridge when we came to it.

Robin recommended dinner at The Apartment, right down the street. We took his advice and by calling ahead were able to secure a reservation at 8:30, as long as we were willing to share a table, because they have picnic-table style seating. We found The Apartment to be an eclectic, modern place with a slight attitude (probably stemming from its obvious popularity among the trendy crowd) and somewhat unpredictable service, but we enjoyed our meal. We were seated at a long table shared with one other couple, so it wasn’t tight at all, but I could have done without the wooden cubes that passed for seating – a chair with a back would have been nice after a long day in the car. We had to wait a long time for our bottle of wine and then were not asked if we wanted to taste it. The innovative menu is divided into four categories: CHL (Chunky Healthy Lines, which are skewers featuring various combinations of meat, vegetables, and interesting marinades), Fish Things, Other Things, and Salad. John had a salmon dish and I had an Asian-inspired sea bass papillote cooked with lemon grass. We both had the chocolate pecan brownie with raspberry shortcake ice cream for dessert, which was excellent!

Before we turned in for the night, I took a picture of the view across the Meadows at 10:30 pm (right), demonstrating how light it is on a midsummer's night in Scotland!

No comments: