“Youth is the time to go flashing from one end of the world to the other, both in mind and body; to try the manners of different nations.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson
The morning that Amity and I left Inverness, we were up in the 5 o’clock hour and had a quick breakfast before saying goodbye to Mary. She gave us a map of Edinburgh that she’d gotten when she was there a few weeks earlier, and pointed out a bunch of places that we should see. She was so sweet!
Staying at The Ghillies Lodge gave me the same sort of feeling as Connie’s sleepout in Matamata. I think we were the only guests there during our stay, so it really felt like we were just staying at Mary’s home with her. I wanted to move in and live a quiet simple life there forever!
We said goodbye and drove off into the dark (surprise). Our route to Edinburgh took us right through the middle of Cairngorms National Park. All of a sudden we were surrounded by huge snowy hills and a wintry white sky. It seemed like we were driving north, farther into the Highlands, not south! I felt like the Polar Express should chug past us at any moment. I even saw a gigantic antlered deer standing on a rocky outcrop silhouetted against the sky! Not kidding. Planet Earth moment.
Anyway, it was a beautiful part of the drive. I wish I had photos, but safety first, folks – eyes on the road. I wanted to see snow in Scotland and I did! On the downside, when the sun finally rose and made its sluggish ascent between 9-10am, it was shining blindingly in my face for the majority of the rest of the drive. To help pass the time, Amity found the Radio 1 Breakfast Show on the radio and we listened to Nick Grimshaw sing Lady Gaga covers and admit bashfully that he looks like a potato whenever he’s photographed. I do like him.
Eventually we made it to the Edinburgh airport and dropped off our car. It was sad to bid farewell to Milky Tea, but also quite relieving to not have to negotiate driving and parking and just tackle the rest of our trip on foot. I’m glad we had the car while we did, though – it’s the only way to see the Scottish Highlands!
We trekked to our B&B, the StarVilla (Star Villa? Starvilla? It really wasn’t clear.) and met the owner, Doreen. She was really cute and funny and a little zany. She showed us about twelve times how to get to the city centre, and told us all about her car troubles and how she was worried about her son driving to Glasgow in bad weather.
After decompressing for a little while, we went up into town and walked all up and down the Royal Mile. It’s basically the high street in the Old Town, and is charmingly cobbled and lined with old Scottish pubs and wool shops and kilt makers. We popped into Starbucks for a coffee and I saw my first authentic kilt-wearer: just chilling at a table, drinking his latte and typing on his laptop.
Our highlight for the afternoon was joining up with a FREE walking tour of Edinburgh with a company called Sandemans New Europe tours. I’ve heard great things about these tours in other cities, so Amity and I decided to give it a go. Our tour guide, Billy, was an authentic Scot from Dundee! He had a fantastic accent and was also very short. It made it hard to keep track of him sometimes. Luckily, he was also a bit hyperactive and had an affinity for jumping up on things, which made him easier to spot and also earned him the affectionate nickname Billy Goat.
Our tour took us all around the Edinburgh Old Town. We walked down the Royal Mile, past St. Giles’ Cathedral, and the Mercat Cross, which criminals used to be nailed to by their ears (see it behind Billy in the photo above).
Billy gave us lots of interesting tidbits about the history of Scotland and Edinburgh along the way, which I loved. He was an awesome tour guide – full of knowledge and absolutely not afraid to embarrass himself.
We walked along to a spot that gave us a great view of Edinburgh Castle (I’m sorry, I thought it was really funny to get Billy in all of my pictures because he was so goofy. I can be very juvenile sometimes.).
Then we went down the steep steps to the Grassmarket (Billy skipped).
This was where hangings used to take place (Edinburgh has a very grizzly history in parts). Billy told us the story of Maggie Dickson, the only person to survive a hanging there! She has a pub named after her now, which is cool. Maybe that should be my life goal.
We took a break and, on Billy’s advice, popped into Mary’s Milk Bar for hot chocolate. Mary was adorable and whipped us up hot mugs of her specialty hot chocolate, which she makes from real chunks of chocolate, spices, and milk.
Amity had milk chocolate, orange, & cinnamon and I had white chocolate & cardamom. Both were deeelicious. There was also a guy from our tour who didn’t know what cinnamon was… I still think that’s funnier than I should.
We joined back up with Billy Goat (he always said, “Join me!” so we thought we’d humor him) and walked up to Greyfriars Kirkyard, an old church and cemetery filled with mossy gravestones. Billy told us that it’s said to be haunted and that people have reported ghosts kicking them in the back of the knees. These are ghosts with an excellent sense of humour, in my opinion.
The sun was setting so it was tough to get a good photo of the kirkyard or scenery (more later though), but the sunset itself was lovely!
On the other side of the kirkyard we saw the grave of Greyfriars Bobby, the most famous dog in Scotland! He was the watchman’s dog, and then guarded his master’s grave for fourteen years after his master died.
We headed back uptown, crossed the Royal Mile again, and went down one of the closes (old alleyways). Billy told us the history of the Stone of Destiny (which he always said in a very dramatic voice), a sacred national symbol of the Scots. I’m trying to include links so you can look this stuff up if you want, it’s all fascinating!
(I would absolutely recommend doing a Sandemans tour if you’re in any of their cities. It’s free, but many people tip at the end, and I was happy to do so because it was so worth it! I really like to learn about the history and culture of a place when I visit, and Billy offered us so much information on this tour. Also he was funny to watch.)
Our tour ended with a fantastic view of Edinburgh’s New Town, including the Ferris wheel, Scott Monument, and Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens (which, way back in the day, used to be a cesspool of human waste because it’s a low point in the city – mm!). This photo doesn’t actually show that stuff. You will just have to trust me.
When the tour ended, Amity and I headed off on our own and went into a pub for dinner – and a few minutes later, Billy walked in! This was serendipitous. This was also cool because he got us discounts on our food. I had a really gross flat beer (we are not amused, Scotland), and haggis. HAGGIS. And I liked it! “Try the manners of different nations,” as the RLS quote at the beginning of this post says. Granted, I think it was a bit more nicely-prepared than is stereotypical, but I ate it all and I am claiming credit. Award me my haggis badge. Thank you.
Finally we said our goodbyes to Billy and decided to stroll over to the New Town to explore the Christmas market on our own. All the stalls and merchandise were exactly the same as the ones in Southbank London, which was a bit of a bummer because it made me feel like both are a lot less unique and special than I’d thought!
It was a really nice atmosphere, though, and the city was beautiful all lit up for Christmas.
Look at the moon!
For some inexplicable reason, although the Christmas market was located near the high street (at the top of the hill on the left of these photos, by the Ferris wheel and monument), the place where children could go to sit on Santa’s lap and get their picture taken was at the bottom of the valley (where all the white lights are in the center of these photos). You had to walk down a creepy dark path to get there, and it was called SANTA’S GROTTO. I did not feel that this was an inviting situation.
After we wandered back and forth through the market, and through a cool underground mall, we walked back to the StarVilla, collapsed on our comfy beds, and found a couple of episodes of QI before we turned in. Are you sensing a pattern that all good vacation days end with our favourite British telly? It’s because they do.