Well, kids – we made it! The ~final~ post on my escapades in Scotland! Let’s jump to it!
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DAY 2: A SUNSHINY FAREWELL TO SCOTLAND
I woke up a bit later than I had hoped the next day, but alas, I had the whole day to myself in Edinburgh, as my bus back to London didn’t leave until around 11 PM. I had a nice cup of tea with Fiona (Skye was there too!) and talked about life, the beauty of Scotland, and more tips on where to go visit. As we finished our tea, I also realized that I didn’t have enough coins for the bus and asked if I could split 5 quid, but instead Fiona graciously gave me a few “free ride” bus stubs to get back into the city center. With that, I headed back to my room and packed up my belongings into my handy backpack and said my thank yous/goodbyes to Fiona. As I was returning her key, Skye began to realize the sad truth of my departure. She circled around my legs and eventually sat on my feet in a valiant attempt to keep me from leaving, but after some convincing she let me go. I once again thanked Fiona for everything and made my way to the bus stop to head into Edinburgh.
Scott Monument & Princes Street Gardens
Once I got on the bus, I decided to stay on longer until I reached Waverley Station. My plan for the day was to finish off the other half of the Royal Mile and check off other attractions that I had missed out on the day before. Luckily for me, contrary to what I had expected weather-wise, the day was temperate – with the occasional breeze – and full of sunshine. I first went to Scott Monument for a dose of step work – 287 steps up and 287 steps down to be precise. (And what fun that would be with my completely filled backpack…) But with the weather cooperating, I decided why not. Scott Monument, or the “Gothic rocket ship” as the locals sometimes call it, is just over 200 feet high and straddles Old and New Town (definitely recommend if you want nice aerial views of the city – there is also a £5 entrance fee). The monument was built in honor of Sir Walter Scott after his death. The design was selected through a competition and was completed in 1844. (Learn more here). Let it be known, however, that this is not the easiest climb for anyone with a heavy load on their back, weak legs, or fear of heights – but definitely an awesome workout if you’re up for it! The stairs spiral all the way to the top and get narrower as you reach the final viewing platform. (I actually got my backpack stuck and had to get someone to help me squeeze back through on my way down… but that’s a whole other story for later.) The coolest part about Scott Monument is that there are multiple platforms on the way up where you can walk around and admire the architecture, various statutes (one of Sir Walter Scott himself, of course), and Gothic designs all along the buttresses and structure – so definitely take your time and don’t rush, there is so much to take in and see here!
After spiraling down the rocket ship, I decided to take a short stroll in the Princes Street Gardens right across. The Gardens, just like the Monument, is set right between Old and New Town and was actually created by draining out Nor’ Loch, an old dam created at the foot of the Castle. (Learn more about the Nor’ Loch here.) It was later used as a private garden for wealthy individuals in the city then bought out for public use in the late 1800s. (Learn more here.) On a warmer day, the Gardens are a wonderful place for picnics and is often a site for open-air concerts in the city. Regardless, having a walk around both the east and west sides is a wonderful way to explore while looking at the statues and flowers planted all around.
Victoria Street & Grassmarket
My stair climbing and park strolling soon left me starving for food. The night before, I got fantastic advice from my friend Kathleen (who had spent a semester in Edinburgh) and ended up with a long list of potential places to try out. I narrowed things down to Oink (lunch) and Mary’s Milk Bar (dessert/tea). Both places would bring me back to Old Town, on streets known for the independent stores that line them.
First stop was Oink – I slowly made my way up a curved path of colorful buildings on Victoria Street. (Fun Fact: it is said that J.K. Rowling based Diagon Alley off of Victoria Street). Oink is well-known in Edinburgh for their Scottish hog roast rolls. Upon walking up to the storefront, you can even see the entire roast hog displayed by the window. If you are lucky, the line may be short, but as with most popular places you can expect to wait in line for a bit. Lucky for me, I had just queued up before a larger group followed behind me. Despite the slight crowd, the people working at the counter were beyond patient and friendly – the man taking my order even offered up advice on what to add to my roll, which I appreciated since they had run out of fresh haggis at that point. I ended up getting the “Oink” (medium sized roll) with the sage & onion and a little chili relish to compensate for the haggis and “crackling” that were already finished. All in all, this is a solid place to check out if you are low on money and want a filling meal. You could get away with a fiver here – and if you happen to be on the opposite end of the Royal Mile, you can find another shop along Cannongate as well! (Learn more about Victoria Street & Oink.)
Because there was no seating inside Oink at the time, I decided to walk towards Grassmarket and enjoy the sunshine while I scarfed down my roll. After eating, I walked around taking pictures while simultaneously trying to find Mary’s Milk Bar. In true Radhika fashion, I once again ended up walking straight past the store and ended up all the way at the foot of the Castle. Eventually, I realized I should probably turn around and finally found my way back. Just like Oink, Mary’s Milk Bar is a local favorite and is known for their excellent gelato and chocolate. Despite the chill in the air, nothing could stop me from getting some ice cream. I decided to give the Earl Grey ice cream a try, and got myself a pot of Earl Grey tea as well (why not?). Just like my hog roast roll, I scarfed down my treats. The flavors and creaminess of both worked so well and had a perfect balance of sweetness. No lie, I was so tempted to order another flavor, but I put my sweet tooth to rest. (Learn more about Grassmarket & Mary’s Milk Bar.)
Once my hunger was quenched, I decided to explore one more place before heading back on to the Royal Mile – Armstrong’s Vintage Clothing Store (W. Armstrong & Son). If I’m not mistaken, this is the biggest vintage shop in the UK, and it definitely feels that way. The place is filled with lots of cool knick-knacks and clothes from all eras to try on or simply look at. Definitely take your time if you can and just explore. If you’ve got a bit more money to spend, you can find some cool and quirky things to buy as well! (Learn more here.)
Greyfriars Kirkyard & Kirk
After resisting the urge to splurge at Armstrong’s, I made my way back on to the Royal Mile and headed over to Greyfriars Kirkyard & Kirk. Another fun fact: It is in the Kirkyard that you will find the supposed tombstone that inspired the character of Tom Riddle in the Harry Potter series. This was the predominant reason for why I decided to wander around a graveyard. It was only later that I discovered that Greyfriars Kirkyard is one of the most haunted graveyards in the world… so that may explain some of the confused circling I did around the place. (Read more about haunted stuff here.) In any case, my main goal was to check out Tom Riddell’s and Greyfriar Bobby’s (Bobby is the dog that is famous for having spent 14 years guarding his master’s grave until he passed away himself. The story also inspired the Disney movie by the same name. Here’s more on the “true” story though.) tombstones and then wrap up at the Kirk.
As a short history lesson, the Kirk (or Scots for church) is a parish church of the Church of Scotland and was finished around 1620, making it one of the oldest surviving structures in Edinburgh. The Kirkyard’s history (which no longer is in the hands of the Kirk, but rather is protected through a separate trust) on the other hand goes as far back into the 1560s and is a site where many Covenanters (Scottish folk who fought to uphold the Presbyterian religion in Scotland – learn more here) were buried. For that reason, there are a vast number of tombstones laid around on the grounds. The history behind both the Kirk and the Kirkyard are quite fascinating and long, so to spare those who don’t want anymore history follow these links to go more in depth: About the Kirk & About the Kirkyard. Nevertheless, those visiting can definitely learn a lot of cool tidbits since many free local tours come around and bring visitors to the grounds for some ~spooky~ fun. The Kirk often has church members who are happy to share more information and history with you as well.
National Museum of Scotland
Once I had finished roaming around the Kirk and Kirkyard, I made a slight detour across the street to the National Museum of Scotland (everything is free inside!!). The National Museum is run by the NMS which collectively runs 4 museums across Scotland. The National Museum – unlike the other 3 museums – has one of the more diverse collections ranging from Scottish history to natural history/science. You could easily spend a good portion of a day in this museum, but having entered around closing time, I decided to speed through certain sections. If you are with young children, this is an awesome place to bring them to. A lot to learn and a lot to see. Also don’t forget to take in the sunlight (and take pictures) in the Grand Gallery! (Learn more here.) Take a look at some of the exhibits I visited.
Scottish Parliament & Palace of Holyroodhouse
After a while in the museum, I made my way back out onto the Royal Mile to finish off the last half that I hadn’t gotten to yet. As I walked down past St. Giles, I started thinking about buying more souvenirs, and my temptation was fulfilled when I stopped by a store selling scarves. The Scottish are known for the lambswool that they produce as well as the traditional tartan patterns (learn more about tartan history), and I figured why not add more scarves to my collection? I ended up getting two scarves for under £15 – and let me tell you, they have been solid investments, my neck has never been warmer! Would recommend this if you are in search of a scarf that won’t let you down in the cold.
Anyway, after my mini shopping adventure, I continued down to the end of the Royal Mile. Right before you cross the street to Holyroodhouse, you’ll actually be right next to the Scottish Parliament (and a pretty awesome view of the crags/Arthur’s Seat in the distance). You can actually visit the Parliament building and take tours inside for free! (Book in advance to join a guided tour.) Just like the Capitol (in DC), you can also attend debates/committee meetings if they are in session (except during the summer months) – and right now while the debate for another referendum on Scottish independence is on the table, it would be quite interesting to hear what people have to say! Unfortunately, because it was around closing time, I was unable to visit inside. However, if you admire architecture, the outside of the building is quite modern and different from the surrounding buildings, yet strangely fits in and complements them. (Learn more here.)
Once I took some time to admire the Scottish Parliament building. I made my way over to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The grounds had just closed as well here, but this is another place you can visit and spend quite some time in if you have the chance. The palace is ticketed, so you’ll have to pay some money to get in – but if you are content with the standard admission, it is about £12/adult (the price goes up if you want to see other exhibitions and galleries). Even though I didn’t get a chance to walk on the palace grounds, it was still beautiful to see from outside the gates. For those of you who might not know, the Queen does not spend all her time in England – or Buckingham Palace for that matter. (Fun Fact: Her Majesty actually spends her working time at Buckingham Palace – the official residence for the royal family – especially while Parliament is in session. Generally, that is around September till June/July. From then on, she spends time in Balmoral Castle for the summer months. In between, HM spends the weekends at Windsor Castle, the winter holidays at Sandringham House, and the time of Holyrood Week at Holyroodhouse). Though she only spends a short time at Holyrood, I can understand why it is part of the Royal Collection. It’s location is a bit secluded and not as busy as the opposite end of the Royal Mile. As I mentioned before, Holyrood Park is directly next to the palace offering spectacular views of the crags. (There is also a route down from Arthur’s Seat that will bring you towards the palace). Next to the state rooms is an abbey which is also open for visitors to explore. I suppose you could easily spend a good lot of your day here as well, especially if you pay extra to look through the Queen’s Gallery. As for me, I simply enjoyed the beauty and grandeur from the outside and then made my way to my final stops. (Learn more about Holyroodhouse.)
Canongate Kirkyard & Calton Hill
My final stop of the day was Calton Hill – although I did meander a bit and ended up taking a long walk uphill through Canongate Kirkyard to get there. (So I suppose my last two stops were the Kirkyard and the Hill, then). Canongate Kirkyard is another graveyard (hmmm, I wonder if the ghosts from Greyfriars brought me there…) and quite a scenic one the higher up you climb. As you make your way up, you’ll get a phenomenal view of Holyrood Park and the crags. It’s not the easiest climb up for those with weaker legs, but the view is a good enough reason to take your time as you give your legs a workout. There was a cheeky moment where I did walk into some sort of gated mausoleum sort of thing which was open. There were 3 or 4 people by it that looked like they walked out from it, so I thought I’d peep in and see what was there. As one would expect at a graveyard, there was a tombstone/grave within the gates. Once I took a step in, I heard something rustling, so I quickly dashed out and continued up the hill. (Moral of this seemingly useless story, I am lame and don’t go snooping around in graveyards!)
As I reached the top, I continued down a road and followed signs with directions towards Calton Hill. I really wanted to get there before the sun would set, so I decided to quicken my pace. Lucky for me, there was more uphill trekking to go to reach the top of Calton Hill… my legs were not happy at the end of the day. But as with all treks in Scotland, the view from the top makes it all worth it. Calton Hill is known for the aerial views of Edinburgh. You can see out towards Holyroodhouse and Holyrood Park, New and Old Town, and even out towards Leith and the sea. The top of the hill has some of the most recognizable landmarks and monuments in Edinburgh, most notably the Dugald Stewart Monument. There you’ll also find the National Monument of Scotland (modeled after the Parthenon) and Nelson Monument (which looks like a telescope). Out of all the aerial views, perhaps this is more accessible and has a ton of room for you to roam, picnic, or simply take in the scenery. Because my bus wasn’t set to leave till late at night, I took the opportunity to relax here and just enjoy the few hours of sunlight I had left.(Learn more about Calton Hill.)
Perhaps there is something to be said about Scotland and its healing powers. In a land of such intense, looming, and vast landscapes and frequently dreich weather, there is a sort of calmness in suddenly feeling so small and inconsequential. In those moments, you forget about the troubles of life, and for a while can be at peace with the rain, with the land, and with yourself. Staring out into the sunset on Calton Hill, I teared up a little as I came to the realization that my first solo adventure was drawing to a close. And as the sun began to go down, I picked myself up and swung my backpack on, finally at peace and ready to take on the next month of revisions. Though I wished I had more time, I knew I’d come back and that Scotland would call again for me some day.
So, there you have it folks! This is the end of my Scotland series – I know it’s taken much to long, but hey, all good things get better with time, right? Alas, I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading up. Head back to the top to navigate to the older posts in this series if you want a refresher. Otherwise, hang in for more belated postings! Until then, don’t get “aff yer heid”!