I know, Scotland is kind of a thing these days with the popularity of a certain series about a time traveling English nurse. I think that Scotland’s charm and pull stands alone and I’ve always been interested in Scottish history and lore and it probably started with my childhood.
The title of this article is pretty lofty, but bear with me. When my grandmother was a child in the 1940’s she had an old-school pen-pal. They wrote (Yes! Hand-written letters!) for over 40 years until in the 1980’s my mom was able to take my grandma to Edinburgh to meet her pen-pal face to face. They went again in the 1990’s and eventually in 2013 I was able to go along with my grandma, my mom and my godmother to visit this place of legends and fairies.
Scotland had always been on my radar and that was due in part to my grandmother’s pen-pal. Another feather in my tam o’shanter (the sweet little cap that Scottish men wear) is the Outlander series… but it’s not what you think. I always call myself the original Outlander fan because when I was in middle school I would sneak to the Barnes & Noble at the mall during the summers (sorry, Mom) to read books and buy them if I still had allowance. I liked Outlander because one of the characters shared my name. I also enjoyed (and still do) reading smutty romance novels and, let’s face it, the best ones are about barbaric Scottish Highlanders and their quivering members.
Besides all of that, the myths and lore about Scotland, paired with its unique and interesting history has held my attention my entire life. So when I was given an opportunity to travel there myself, I was all in. And Scotland, my friends, did not disappoint.
But let’s start at the beginning. I was embarking on a trip with four extremely headstrong, but quite different, women and we all had an idea of what we wanted to do on a trip to Scotland. My mom, genius that she is, had an inspired idea and had us all come up with our top five Scottish destinations and created an itinerary based on that. I’m grateful that this was her method because I saw a couple of places that I wouldn’t have ever cared to visit had I traveled on my own, as is my normal mode of travel. It was decided that since I had driven on the left side of the road in Japan, I would squire our gaggle of gals about Scotland. So plans were made, tickets were purchased, and off we went!
Our first stop, and home base, was Edinburgh. We obviously saw Edinburgh Castle, which is formidable on top of its massive rock formation. Other than that it’s really like any other castle, except that on the castle grounds is Saint Margaret’s Chapel which was built in the 12th century making it the oldest standing building in Edinburgh. David I had it built for his mother, Queen Margaret, who was known for her charitable and pious nature. She was later canonized by the Pope. Quite the Mother’s Day gift, eh?
We also saw Dolly the cloned sheep and a Mary, Queen of Scots exhibit at the National Gallery and then Holyrood House and Abbey. These were very cool but nothing to get terribly excited about.
Then we went to the Queen’s Gallery and saw a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit called, “The Mechanics of Man”. Anyone who knows me knows that I have love anything Leonardo da Vinci so I about fainted while I walked through this exhibit. If you ever have an opportunity to see drawings or paintings by him, I highly encourage you to see them. We also saw Rosslyn Chapel of The DaVinci Code fame and let me tell you by itself it’s a beautiful, remarkably detailed chapel. The legend goes that an apprentice was buried in one of the pillars. So if gruesome history is your thing, I say go to Rosslyn Chapel.
Just know that it’s pretty much nothing like in the movie. There’s no secret rooms in the basement (I checked) and it’s not on a serene country hilltop. What I really remember about Edinburgh is being on the bus into the city center and four twenty-something women behind me talking about their evening and dropping f-bombs like punctuation. Something I definitely relate to.
When we left Edinburgh to go to the Isle of Skye we stopped at Stirling Castle and the Falkirk Wheel on the way. You’ll know Stirling Castle from the historically inaccurate movie, Braveheart. It played a significant role in the Scottish struggle against the English during the life of William Wallace (Mel Gibson).
The bridge to get there helped to contain and bottleneck the English army and Scots had a decisive victory. Other than its historical significance, it’s pretty much a standard Scottish castle, though still worth a visit if only for the adventure of driving through the impossibly tiny, narrow and very uphill streets to get there and the lion and unicorn statues on the roof of the Great Hall.
The Falkirk Wheel was something that I wasn’t very interested in but ended up loving and now recommend to everyone who tells me they are going to Scotland. It’s a lock (not to be confused with a loch) and it connects two canals that come together at two different elevations. There are two boxes that are counterbalanced and when a boat comes through it goes into the box which fills with water, then the gate closes the boat in, the wheel turns and then the gate opens on the other end and boat goes on its way. Engineering, eh?
We stayed just south of Fort William overnight before catching the ferry in Maillag to the Isle of Skye. Maillag was an absolutely adorable little port village AND I was able to buy my first ever pair of wellie’s there. I still have them and they still rock my socks right off. On the ferry we were joined by some porpoises and it was a lot of fun to watch them jumping through the gray water on our little journey.
When we got to Skye, after a brief encounter with a random peacock, we stayed at the Driftwood Bed & Breakfast whose proprietor was from Nottingham (cue dumb American joke about Robin Hood). She was lovely and pointed us in the direction of great food. Our first foray into food was the Red Skye Restaurant which was in a converted schoolhouse. It was really nice inside and I was able to try a traditional Scottish dish, blood pudding. Let me tell you about blood pudding…first, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Second, it’s delicious if you can get the first bite down, but then you remember what it is. I commended myself on giving it a go.
We also had an opportunity to visit the Talisker scotch distillery and came away with a lovely sample of excellent scotch. When we left Skye for Inverness we stopped at Eilean Donan and Urquhart Castles. Eilean Donan is the picturesque castle that is kind of the hallmark of Scottish castles. For mood music, a young bagpiper sat out at the land side of bridge.
While in Inverness we went to Culloden Moor and walked through the battlefield featured in the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 made famous by Diana Gabaldon in her Outlander series. At any rate, the walk-through museum is complete genius. On one side there are the series of events in the British camp leading up to the big battle on Culloden Moor and on the other is the corresponding Scottish series of events. They all ultimately lead up to the Battle of Culloden Moor and the end of Scottish life as they knew it.
When you walk out into the field, now that you know the history, it’s a very somber experience. The large cairn juts out of the flat field as a marker of the many, many clansmen who died there on that day. There are small stone markers where members of clans were buried but my favorite part of the whole thing is the field that is covered in grass and weeds, completely uncared for, with a simple marker stating, “Field of the English. They were buried here”. If you have any interest in Scottish history at all I highly recommend Culloden. There’s no other place in Scotland with that much historical and social significance, in my opinion.
In a nutshell, that was our trip, with highlights of the things we saw and what we thought about them. It’s pretty straight-forward, right? The reason for the title of this article is this: Even though I had lived abroad, I had never traveled for the sake of traveling or for the sake of having an experience. I didn’t know what I cared about seeing or what I wanted to experience when I went somewhere.
On top of that, I learned how to deal with four very pig-headed, very jet-lagged women as I drove us on the left side of the road through the Scottish Highlands and through four or five lane roundabouts with stop lights in the middle of them. This trip was formative for me because I learned how I wanted to travel (most of the time, by myself) and things that mattered to me on my trip (history, booze and food).
Meeting my grandma’s pen-pal was outstanding and her husband had a great memory for history and let me look through his library of books that were published hundreds of years ago and there really is nothing like holding history in your hand. The only thing better is a glass of wine or scotch in the other hand.
What I really came away with on this trip was a solid sense of the value of “the old ways”. My grandmother has had a friend across an entire ocean for longer than she knew my grandfather. That relationship was maintained through the most old-fashioned form of social communication…writing letters! I think that is so beautiful and, in this age of technology, it sunk in on this trip that sometimes the old way is the best way. So pick up your pens and paper, fellow travelers, and go find an adventure!
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Check out the Jetset Bunny Guide to the United Kingdom including the basics, things to do, eat, stay and plan: United Kingdom Travel Tips