Beyond a Travel Review: Edinburgh

In addition to seeing 25+ shows, 30 scenes from Transmission, plus networking/marketing/last minute revisions for said show, I did manage to do A LOT of sightseeing in Edinburgh.

My solo tourist came out and couldn’t be stopped. Even when my feet hurt at the end of the day or I was tired and hungry, I found a way to go see or experience something else.

But alas, much like when I went to England for my semester abroad, I realized that I will still have to come back to Scotland. There’s so much more to see outside of Edinburgh and even still within that old, literary city.

Here are my highlights:

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Book Lover’s Tour

I was buzzing with excitement and caffeine when I ran out of the hostel for this tour–my first official tourist activity! It lived up to the hype. We walked through Old Town, around Southbridge and the University of Edinburgh mostly, because that’s where a lot of Edinburgh’s literati spent their time. Why? It has been the cheaper area where they could afford to live and work.

I loved seeing where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went to his medical lectures, the bar where he and Robert Louis Stevenson hung out, the place where RLS met his model for Long John Silver from Treasure Island, and so many more places of interest for these and the two main literary influences from Scotland: Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

Our guide also pointed out a few of the notable Harry Potter spots. I went back and found them all on my own, in a spread out, unofficial tour of my own making. I did have coffee at the Elephant Cafe one morning, but hated the over-crowded and tourist-y feel. My brunch at Spoons, the place where Rowling wrote the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, put me much more in tune with my own muse.

One night when I felt lonely, wandering the streets alone while crowds pushed past to find the next Fringe party, I did cheer myself up by finding Rowling’s handprints by City Hall.

Again, I didn’t make it to all the famous spots–like the house where RLS was born, or the Arthur Conan Doyle Society–but it’s worth going back. What other cities have monuments to authors so big and tall as the Sir Walter Scott monument? Not many.

Finally, an unofficial new spot on my writer’s tour was The Brass Monkey. Though it’s a pub, I never had a chance to grab a drink there. I did push through the crowds on my first Saturday there to inquire for a postcard my best friend had left me. The bartenders smiled and retrieved it for me. Letters are still magical.

 

Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle

The first I saw at the beginning of my trip on my own. The second, Stirling Castle, I saw with a crew of my Transmission friends at the end of our Highland tour.

Unlike the castles in Germany, these did not feel like fairy tale castles, but much more like forts where important battles were fought. Even in sacred spaces like the 13th century Margaret’s Chapel, it felt like so much history had been hard won both within and without its walls.

In Edinburgh Castle, I’m glad I fought past the crowds to see the room where Mary Queen of Scots hid to give birth to James VI of Scotland/James I of England. Though I must admit a panel beside the portrait of James I’s wife has me more interested in Anne of Denmark’s life. I did see the crown jewels of Scotland but I skipped the war memorial in favor of more time in the dungeons–less to see, but fascinating imagining the many different types of criminals and “criminals” kept there over the centuries–from the Jacobites through to WWII POWs.

Stirling Castle had even more amazing views of William Wallace’s memorial and more of the Scottish hills. Without Edinburgh surrounding it, I found it easier to imagine what it would have been like centuries before. The re-created rooms were much prettier than Edinburgh Castle, especially with the tapestries and painted ceilings.

Day Trip into the Highlands

Stirling Castle was the end of a day-long trip into the Highlands with Timberbush tours. Our day started with a fantastic story-telling introduction from our bus driver–who said I was a fairy because of my purple hair. We drove out of Edinburgh to tales of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other folklore of ancient Scotland. Our first stop included three Highland cows–the cutest farm animals I think I’ve ever seen.

The best part of the day by far was Loch Lomond. An hour long boat tour across this flat, wide, perfect lake felt like heaven on Earth. Though we did snap many pictures–including silly “Jack I’m flying” style ones–it felt less like a tourist adventure and more like balm for the soul. I can see why the Romans called this loch the prettiest one, the one with the best light. It captured my soul for sure. These pictures don’t do it justice.

On the way back, the bus driver told us all the ways that Braveheart messes up history. Thistles, by the way, are not romantic. They are Scottish because they kept the vikings from invading for many years–believe it or not. They are NOT what you’d give to your favorite lad or lass.

Nature within the city

When I say my feet hurt from walking, it wasn’t just from the cobblestones. I climbed Arthur’s Seat only once–but I walked so many other places within the city to find the best views and monuments: Calton Hill, Princes Street Gardens, the Meadows, Water of Leith, and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

On my second or third night, Cecelia, Megan and I climbed up the crags near Arthur’s Seat. I tested myself by going near the edge as close as I could get to see both the astounding views of the city’s electric lights going on for the night and down to the heather and thistles on the hillsides. It made me think of the moors from Wuthering Heights–though that of course is in Yorkshire not Scotland.

I was super proud of myself for climbing a tree to write on my first day in the Meadows. Until Cecilia climbed it higher than me. But then she pushed me to take my longest adventure day when we went ranging far into New Town to find the Water of Leith after I’d already spent a few hours wandering through the monuments (and rainbows!) at Calton Hill and climbing up the steps of the Sir Walter Scott monument.

Even though I undertook some of these walks alone, I never felt that way. So many travelers and locals frequented these paths. I could have been annoyed, but instead I felt lucky that these are not forgotten in the hubbub of city life. For instance, one day while strolling through Princes Street gardens, I heard a young man belting out operatic tunes. I couldn’t tell if he was rehearsing or busking, but it was lovely all the same. Performances welcome you into all portions of the city.

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View from Arthur’s Seat

Museums

I missed the National Portrait Gallery, Art Museum, and Real Mary King’s Close (must go back!), but I did hit the Museum of Childhood, Writer’s Museum, National Museum of Scotland.

First off: all of these were FREE. How amazing is that? It made walking through them that much more enjoyable.

The Museum of Childhood enchanted and terrified me at the same time. For those of you who have seen or read any part of Raggedy’s Kingdom might know why. The scariest part? Amazingly, not the room full of dolls but the dioramas with life-size mannequins that played sound and lit up when you walked near them. Motion sensored. Megan and I laughed to keep from crying out in fear–or at least I did, while she taped the whole thing. The history of how trains, board games, and even mechanical toys came into being was fascinating and beautiful to trace.

The Writer’s Museum I could do on my own in about an hour. I could have read more of the plaques, but it was enough just to see all of these artifacts of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and even Ian Rankin collected in a restored 18th century house. But it was worth it for a bibliophile like me.

The National Museum of Scotland is now my second favorite museum (after the Kafka Museum in Prague) of all time. And I only had time for about 3/5 of the History section–which is probably less than a THIRD of the museum as a whole. They also have three floors on technology, three floors of natural history, and more than three floors on fashion, art, and culture. Over in the Scottish history section, I learned that tartan, while important, was never officially aligned with the different clans until the 19th century. Commercialization at work as always… As a Christian, looking at the history of the church in Scotland was very interesting. Would I fight for my beliefs in the same way?

I wish I could say I’ve cleared up Scottish history timelines for myself, but I’m afraid that’s not true. It’s so interesting and intricate that even after taking a course in Scottish history at Rice, the Highlands tour, plus reading Outlander (fictional so wrong of course) I’m still fuzzy on the details. Just an excuse to keep learning!

Cemeteries

I spent time in at least two cemeteries: Greyfriars and Calton. And oddly enough, I found them to be just as relaxing as the many parks and natural wonders. Maybe I’ve spent too much time thinking through horror plays to find them creepy–but again, I think it’s more the way they are occupied in Edinburgh that made them so welcoming. In addition to the tours going through, I noticed people stopping to write down notes, have a picnic, or sketch.

Greyfriars was a convenient meeting spot, being so close to the main streets but not actually on High Street or Southbridge. I spent a lot of time passing by Greyfriar Bobby’s statue and gravesite. Even if it’s just a legend, I like the idea that a dog could be so loyal and honored–like Hachiko in Tokyo.

I may not be Scottish by blood, by I feel so because of my name. While the rest of the tours crowded around the James Potter, Tom Riddle, and other allegedly Harry Potter-related tombs, I found myself marking the many Margarets buried around me. It felt right to honor them and to imagine that my name made me connected to this place.

Especially since so many were marked as wives and mothers only, seeing their names and thinking of the innumerable unmarked graves of women around the world makes me want to make something much more of my life to honor those who were kept silent in any way, shape, or form.

Ceildh and Haggis

I did fit in two very Scottish traditions while in Edinburgh: Scottish dancing and that infamous dish, haggis.

The ceildh didn’t last long enough. Even with all the soreness from walking, I could have hopped, kicked, and spun around that room all night. The bagpipes on the street sounded great, but they never sounded better than when we were splitting the willow or dancing the Dashing White Sergeant in an Irish pub (go figure) in Edinburgh. The best part: a Scottish lad stepping up to dance with me when there weren’t enough partners for the last dance.

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Megan, Ellen, and I and our haggis.

Haggis I swore I would not try again on this trip. I’d had it back at Rice when a classmate had made it special and hated it. But as it turns out, having haggis in a traditional pub after a long day of walking, seeing shows, and sightseeing was just right. Plus the mashed potatoes and turnips it tasted like a slightly less moist version of meatloaf. The next day I even ordered it on a hamburger because I liked it so much.

Most of the time I ate from the Fringe tents, but here’s a list of a few other notable drinks and eats I had:

  • Innis and Gunn Beer Kitchen–great selection and the Scotch egg tasted as good as it looked
  • The Doric–had my first dram of whisky here, amazing service
  • 56 North–my FAVORITE bar in Edinburgh because it’s filled with so many different types of gin
  • Frankenstein pub–tourist attraction with meh food, but the animatronic Frankenstein’s lab show and kitschy decor was worth it
  • Clarinda’s Tea Room–clotted cream and the best scones in Edinburgh
  • Panda and Sons–my first speakeasy! The cocktails were fantastic, and sometimes very theatrical

 

So I’ll meet you again in Edinburgh for Real Mary King’s Close, more ceildh dancing, a Brazilian crepe by the Doctor’s pub, and way more time hiking in the Highlands and hills around Edinburgh–sound good?

Featured image: view from Stirling Castle

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About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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