EuroTrip2010: Scottish Gems

Scottish Gems 
From 19 July 2010
Once outside the airport in Scotland, my first impression was, Man, the Scottish are nice.  Throughout my week-long stay in the country, this thought proved true again and again.  A bus driver even took the time to direct me to the hostel without me having to ask.  And oh what a hostel it was.  Situated just below Edinburgh Castle, Castle Rock Hostel is off the Royal Mile and Garden Market, excellent places for sightseeing.  (The market square, now full of restaurants and pubs, used to be the gallows for hanging people. Yeek.)

Partial ruins of a chapel on the way to Arthur’s Seat at the top of Edinburgh’s hills.

The hostel had an eclectic aura with each room–including the sixteen-person room I stayed in–having its own name, ranging from “Underwear” to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”  To make finding your bed easier, and perhaps more fun, even the individual beds had names.  Pleased with my hostel choice, I set out to explore the Royal Mile.

I met Heath outside a cathedral.  Turns out we both had the same thought in mind, a little sightseeing while in search of a place to eat.  Initially, I was a bit disappointed when his accent turned out to be native to Tennessee.  With a name like Heath, I was hoping for something a little more exotic.  Come on, I thought.  Where are the foreigners?  But I thought it would be nice to have some company, so we decided to look for food together.  I was tricked by the presence of the sun in the sky, thinking it was onlly 6 PM.  Lies.  It was 10 PM.  Most of the restaurants were no longer serving food, but eventually we found a place.

A view of the Edinburgh hillside that overlooks the North Sea.
I am glad I didn’t let Heath’s American citizenship deter me from forming a new friendship.  He is a really admirable, down-to-earth guy.  Our dinner conversation got serious real quick talking about matters of ethics blahblahblah.  But how often do you meet a complete stranger, decide to have dinner together, and within an hour hit the topics of religion, poverty, life ambitions and self-discovery?  Very rarely.
That got me thinking.  We’re so used to picking and choosing our group of friends.  And there’s logic to that–some people click, some people are so annoying they should be avoided.  But when you are out of your comfort zone traveling a foreign land alone, the drawing bowl isn’t big.  You give everyone a chance.  It might test your patience, but that has proven to be extremely rewarding for me thus far.  By the end of my first night in Scotland, I already had plans to hike with Heath the following day.
The hostel advertised a free walking tour of Edinburgh.  I said, “Free?”  They said, “Yes.”  I said, “Where do I meet the tour guide?”  Overly dramatic, enthusiastic Mark led the tour, but his antics made the historical facts more memorable.  I walked away from the tour feeling well-informed.  My favorite story was (of course) about a loyal dog from the late 1800s.  When Greyfriar Bobby the dog‘s owner died, the dog stayed on the grave for more than ten years.  People started bringing him food because he was not leaving the grave to search for any.  After a few years, a law passed calling for the euthanization of all stray dogs.  The people were in an uproar when they discovered this included Bobby.  However, there was one way to avoid Bobby being put to sleep.  The law wouldn’t apply to a stray dog if the dog was a citizen of the town.  So, Bobby the dog was given the keys to the city and saved from an untimely death.  He died on his master’s grave.  However, because he wasn’t Catholic, he could not be buried in the church graveyard next to his owner.  His grave is just outside the cemetery gates.

Much of this capital city is dominated by medieval stone or brick buildings instead of the modern day skyscrapers of most capital cities.
On our way to Arthur’s Seat, Heath and I stopped at the National Museum of Scotland to find Dolly the cloned sheep.  The taxidermied ewe was inside a glass case, her hooves nailed to a wooden plank with pieces of hay and fake poo glued to it.  Thank you for the realism, Scottish history museum.
The view from Arthur’s Seat was magnificent.  Scottish landscape is unbelievably beautiful.  The hill looked out over the old and new parts of Edinburgh as well as the North Sea.  I would have liked to be up there at night, but I would fear the rocky hillside descent.
A ghost tour was offered that night, and Heath and I joined it along with another girl from our hostel I met earlier in the day.  Faithful Mark turned out to be the tour guide, and he did not let us down with the energy level, making the ghost stories a bit more appealing.  The tour ended at a pub where Heath and I exchanged backpacking stories with Ali (originally from Iran, now working in North Carolina).  All three of us agreed: traveling is addicting.

Edinburgh Castle is only one of many famous attractions in Edinburgh, Scotland.
I left the following morning for Aberdeen on the northeast coast.  My friend, Kim, from Ohio Wesleyan has a homebase there.  (She is kind of a nomad, but that is where her parents live now.)  It was nice to have a temporary homebase of my own, too.  I spent five nights with Kim, her parents and her younger sister.

The pink castle of every little girl’s dreams.

We went to a castle almost every day.  All but one had been lived in until some point in the 1900s, so the rooms were furnished.  One of the castles gave me the image of every little girl’s dream castle, for its exterior was pink.  However, my favorite castle did not have antique tapestries hanging from the walls or expensive dinnerware set on a table for a party of ten that would never come.  Instead, Dunnottar Castle lay in ruins on a cliff overlooking the North Sea.

The North Sea is home to seals and Puffin birds.

Peering out over the shoreline, I spotted two black circles in the water.  I don’t know if I legitimately thought they were seals or just wanted them to be, but I jumped up excitedly shouting, “Seals!  Seals!  Seeeaaaaalllllllllsssssss!”  Kim’s sister pointed out that we could climb down the slope under the cliff for a closer look.  I ran down, slipping and sliding when the going got rough until I stood one hundred meters from four seals, 150 meters from two others.  I wanted to swim with them, to touch them, to look one in the eye, but I settled for sitting motionless on the rocks exposed by low tide.  This was their home.  Who was I to invade it?  There’s something magical about seeing zoo animals in the wild.  I sat there for thirty minutes feeling the magic.  Then, I pulled myself away so that Kim and I could view the castle ruins.

Dunnottar Castle was by far my favorite, lying in isolated ruins on a cliff overlooking the North Sea.
Highland cows are easily recognized by the long hair on their head that gives them bangs.

I was lucky enough to have Kim’s mom transporting us around.  I really really really wanted to see a Highland cow, teenage moo-moos as Kim’s family calls them.  The beginning of the actual Highlands was at least an hour drive, so it wasn’t likely I would see any around Aberdeen.  But, Kim’s mom remembered seeing some in the direction of the airport, so we drove up to the farmlands to test our luck.  And luck was on our side that day–a whole field of Highland cows!  Even two calves!

Before leaving Scotland, I got a full-out Scotland experience at the Highland Games, similar in some ways to our county fair but with sporting events going on.  Scottish “track and field” uniforms for men are kilts.  (It is true; kilts are worn underwear-free.)  The shot put equivalent (but actually quite far from the equivalent) is a log (more like a tree trunk) throw.  The Scottish officially made tug-of-war a sport.  A dance competition went on as well.  While we watched the Irish and Scottish dancing, a loud-speaker announcement called for “overseas visitors to participate in the one hundred meter run.”  I was wearing jeans and had a bum foot (a self-inflicted wound from lack of self-control, ahem).  Nevertheless, I looked at Kim.
“Should I do it?”
“You should do it.”
“I really want to do it.  I think I’m going to do it.”
Annually, the Scottish Highlands host a track and field event called The Highland Games. Of course, the sports are quite different from those at a high school track and field meet.

After a minute more of contemplation, I unbuttoned my jacket and ran to the starting line.  Soon, seven males and four females were lined up for the race.  What fun spirit!  We smiled and laughed as we ran.  When I finished, strangers congratulated me with, “Good job, Ohio!  Way to go, USA!”  I received a goodie bag prize complete with an inscribed first place trophy and a Scottish flag.

Shortly thereafter, I said goodbye to Kim’s family.  Kim is off to grad school in Australia.  Who knows?  Maybe my next contintental excursion takes me there.

All of the castles have carefully manicured gardens. This one reminded me of the scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice golfs with the Queen of Hearts.
From Aberdeen, I caught a budget airline flight to London.  (All hail ye, EasyJet.)  It was time for an AmaZOOnico reunion!  I figured if I was going to be in Europe, why not meet up with some of the people who made my experience in Ecuador so memorable?  Bummer the monkeys couldn’t come, too.  Remember Ane from Denmark?  We met in London and recounted the jungle days while creating an entirely new set of memories.  I willingly made a fool of myself in London… multiple times.  For entertainment’s sake, I’m game.  Episodes of hearty laughter make life worth living.  So I continued to embarass myself with public performances in Wales and Denmark.  But the escapades of London, Wales and Denmark await my penmanship.  I hope you eagerly await them as well.

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