Thanksgiving in Edinburgh

Well, sort of. We weren’t really there to celebrate Thanksgiving, just to drop off visa applications for an up-coming trip. With our business done quickly on a beautiful sunny morning, we took time to walk up the Royal Mile and see the view before hopping on ScotRail back to Glasgow.

Isle of Skye

After fort William and the Jacobite steam train, we spent two nights on the Isle of Skye. If you ever want to know how to get from Mallaig on the coast to Portree on the island, Google transit directions have you covered. It did take a while, though: any given bus route on Skye runs maybe three or four times a day.

Portree was our base to explore the island. It reminded me of Mahone Bay, or another waterfront Nova Scotia town that sees a fair bit of tourism. The harbour is beautiful, surrounded by highland hills. We ate plenty of good seafood while we were in town.

We hired a local taxi driver to take us around the island (see my comment about above the "frequency" of island busses), and she was an able tour guide, taking us to places we knew we wanted to see, like the Fairy Pools, and place we didn't even know about, like The Old Inn, which, according to a t-shirt dad bought, is "probably" the best pub in Carbost.

We'd talked about renting a car instead, but in the end I'm not sure I would have wanted to drive on Skye's single-track roads with their scattered passing-places and occasional sheer droops from the shoulder. "Keep your distance from the tourists driving", said our guide. "Treat them like sheep on the road."

Castle Update

We visited three castles on our trip. The first was Old Innerlochy Castle, in Fort William. This particular castle is unusual in that its configuration hasn't changed much since it was built in the 13th century. When we visited it was a stronghold for midges, the particular swarming black-fly-like insects of the highlands. Apparently, Queen Victoria didn't much care for this castle, but I rather liked it.

Urquhart Castle, on Loch Ness, was also visited by Queen Victoria, who found the ruin quite picturesque. This castle had a fractious history and is now largely in pieces. Some of the destruction was intentional: the gate-house was blown up by its last garrison of troops when they abandoned it during the Jacobite uprising so that the castle couldn't be used by the enemy; the rest is a combination of decay and the local people scavenging building materials.

The third castle on our itinerary was Inverness Castle, which, unlike the others, we didn't explore. It's a working court-house today, so, short of breaking the law, you can't really get inside.

Under Ben Nevis

Mom and Dad came for a two-week visit in June and early July. They spent some time exploring Glasgow and Edinburgh, and then the four of us set out for a week-long trip through the highlands. Our first stop was the town of Fort William, on Loch Linnhe, which is a tidal salt-water loch and part of the Great Glen fault line that runs through the Highlands up to Inverness. 

Fort William is below Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the British Isles. Apparently, the mountain's summit is hidden in clouds for all but 24 days a year on average, so we were lucky to get a glimpse of it.

We took a beautiful walk along Glen Nevis through the woods along the Nevis Gorge and then out into a meadow below the dramatic Steall Falls. For me this was a highlight of the trip.

The photo of the Fort William waterfront at the top of this post was one I took from a boat: we cruised the Loch on a tour, learning about the history and geography and wildlife of the Great Glen, and seeing herons and fish farms and more highland scenery The mountain Ben Nevis loomed over everything.

From Fort William we rode the Jacobite steam train up to Mallaig on the coast. The Jacobite, incidentally, is as close as you're going to get to riding the Hogwarts Express (Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is in Scotland, don't you know), and the train crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which, besides being in used spectacularly in the Harry Potter movies, is on (one of) the £10 notes around here. 

As you can see in the last photo, riding on a steam train means getting covered in soot. I was shaking particles of it out of my hair for days. For all their romance, we're probably better off without steam engines as our main method of transport nowadays.

The Internet Gods

I seem to have done something to offend them. Once they are appeased I'll have some photos to share. To hold you over until then, here's the harbour at Portree on the Isle of Skye. I laid my head down to sleep for two nights about twenty feet from the spot where I took that photo, in a quirky labyrinthine hotel by the water. 

Blue Sky Day


Today, for the first time in ages, the sky was blue from horizon to horizon, and the sun did nothing but shine. We went out for breakfast and then to the botanical gardens to absorb as much of it as we could.


Edinburgh Castle

We spent a few days between Christmas and New Year's (er, Hogmanay) in Scotland's capital city.

It's a beautiful city, and we were lucky to have three days of mostly sunny weather to explore it. It does have more of a tourist feel than Glasgow, dotted as it is with whisky shops and stores selling tartan everything. I guess every culture has its aspects that can be distilled down to tourist kitsch, but the Scottish version involves an endless loop of bagpipe music which--and I'm speaking as someone who likes bagpipes--would probably drive you a little crazy if you worked in a shop like Pride of Scotland, or Prestige Scotland, or Thistle Do Nicely, etc. etc. Which is not to say that Edinburgh is a giant tourist trap: it's emphatically not. It's a great mix of history and modernity dotted with good restaurants and amazing views.

Edinburgh Castle, on a rocky hill at the heart of the city, is one of those places that provides these views. It's also an active military base, the Scottish national war memorial, the home of the Scottish crown jewels (which we saw, but weren't allowed to take pictures of), and the launching site of Edinburgh's Hogmanay fireworks display, which they were setting up for, several days in advance (last photo).

If you were wondering how I took the photo at the beginning of this post of Edinburgh Castle from above, here's your answer. There's another, bigger hill in Holyrood park called Arthur's seat (the mound on the left in the first photo of this set), and we intrepidly walked to the top of it. The view was incredible. 

Edinburgh Zoo

This post comes with a content warning for a somewhat graphic photo of a tiger having lunch.

I've been to China a couple of times, but, of course, I didn't got to see a giant panda up close until I saw two of them in Scotland. Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine) are on loan from China to the Edinburgh Zoo, and they're the zoo's leading attraction these days. Pandas sleep a lot, I gather, but while we saw them they were fairly active: eating some bamboo, walking around, and, of course, napping.

One of the guides told us that every available square inch of zoo grounds is planted with bamboo now. "It grows pretty well, it likes the rain," she said. Mostly they import panda food from the Netherlands, and will do so until their own crop becomes more established.

Bothwell Castle

Bothwell Castle was built in the 13th and 14th centuries, and was once controlled by a guy named Archibald 'the Grim'. It's located at what was once a strategic crossing point of the River Clyde, and changed hands several times during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Nowadays the castle grounds are a quiet place for locals to walk their dogs.


Should Scotland be an independent country? That's the questions the Scottish will decide when they vote tomorrow. It's too close to call right now.

I decided I ought to see some history in the making, so after work tonight I went down to George Square to take in the night-before-the-vote rally for the Yes side. The atmosphere was surprisingly laid back, all things considered. My favorite part was the five-person bagpipe tricycle that was slowly orbiting the square.