It was Cat and I who dared to leave the rest and venture to the unknown, a place I knew almost nothing about… Scotland. We took advantage of neither of us having class on Thursday so left Wednesday night. Just a quick flight and a couple of buses later, we checked in to our dorm room at the Argyle Backpackers hostel in a dark street of Edinburgh. We scouted out an adorable Italian restaurant where the setting wasn’t much to see but the food spoke for itself. I immediately realized I loved the Scottish accent as we befriended the owners and friends. We sipped wine at a local bar and sang acapella in the streets.
Thursday we strapped on our walking boots for a long day of sightseeing ahead. The first stop was none other than Elephant Castle – the café where J.K. Rowling actually sat and wrote the Harry Potter series! Sipping coffee and munching on a cookie, we stared out the café’s floor-to-ceiling windows of the gloomy city and impressive castles and steeples dotting the sky. It was easy to imagine Rowling’s inspiration with such a view, and picture her writing the now-famous books on napkins at her squeaky wooden table. I should stop here by noting that Edinburgh is the birthplace of the Harry Potter series and J.K. Rowling herself. It is no wonder because the picture painted in Harry Potter mirrors Edinburgh exactly. The commanding dark castles, gloomy skies, winding cobblestone streets, tiny shops, dark clothing, graveyards, and overall feel of Edinburgh match what is depicted in Harry Potter perfectly. Being a huge fan of the books myself, this was truly exciting to see.
After Cat dragged me out of Elephant Castle, it was time to meet up with strangers from many countries on a free walking tour of the city which would occupy us the next 4 hours. That’s right, it’s FREE! Our quirky guide Kathy walked us through the streets, monuments, and graveyards with ease, reciting intricate details of the history of every aspect of the city each step of the way. It was the most interesting tour I have ever been on - the history of Edinburgh is rich with stories of ghosts, poltergeists, bloody torcher, death, and haunted places. Some notable sites were the Royal Mile (the main street dotted with shops and centuries-old castles), St. Giles Church (standing tall above the city with threatening Gothic black steeples) Grey Friar’s Graveyard (a cemetery which was further inspiration for Harry Potter.. there are actually gravestones there with the names McGonogall and Tom Riddle), Covenantor’s Prison (with a deep history of torcher and dictatorship), Gass Market, and William Scott’s monument. My favorite story was that of Bobby the dog who sat at his former owner’s grave for 14 years straight inside of Grey Friar’s Graveyard. He would sit, find food, and return for the night – passerbys watched this in awe as it went on for 14 years until the dog’s death, when they buried the loyal canine next to his owner. Now there is a bar dedicated to Bobby where Cat and I of course had to drink… Cheers! My favorite of all the stops was definitely Edinburgh Castle. It is a massive old castle which is built into the edge of a rocky cliff, overlooking the city like something out of an evil storybook. It is said to have been the inspiration for Hogwarts, and is definitely comparable – (though neater being it actually exists).
That night we tested out the cuisine of Scotland at a traditional restaurant in the city. I braved the menu and ordered the Scottish-born famous dish, Haggis. Haggis is basically a pig’s bladder stuffed with the heart, rib-meat, and guts – cooked to resemble a meatloaf. I had to try it being it is really only served in Scotland! It was surprisingly pretty good and I proudly ate over half of it until stopping for fear of a stomach-ache the next day. We also tasted several types of Scotch from the over-powering menu of dozens of options – sipping it with drops of water as they do, (and steering clear of the frowned-up American way of drinking it… by pounding shots). The taste is actually quite delicious when properly sipped. After finishing our scotch, we decided to explore the nightlife a bit. The second we stepped into the Gothic castle-turned bar complete with booming techno music and green strobe lights, we felt a bit out of place and under-dressed. The crowd seemed to be made up of highschoolers dressed in skimpy skirts and platform heels. We left after a drink and found a much more suitable wine bar at which to chat the night away.
Once we felt just buzzed enough, we met up with our guided Graveyard Tour we had planned earlier in the day. We would venture in complete darkness through the many graveyards and tombs of the city, re-visiting GreyFriar’s which looked completely different at night. I must say, I don’t know if it was our mindset freaking ourselves out, or the spirit of Edinburgh in general, but we were like 14-year old girls screaming and holding on to each other for dear life. At one point, we were forced into a closed cement tomb in the pitch black, basically waiting for some Poltergeist to kill us. It was quite the experience, and we were relieved when it was over.
Rise and shine! The alarm went off at 5am – and off we were! ...this time to leave the dark city and explore some nature in the Scottish Highlands. For the next 14 hours – (yes, 14) – we would drive farther and farther out into the gorgeous highlands Scotland has to offer. We boarded a mini-bus with comfy seats, (each scoring window seats), met some fellow travelers from around the globe, and strapped in for the journey with our charismatic guide leading the way. His deep accent and hilarious jokes made the ride that much more enjoyable – in between educating us on the areas we passed, we listened to traditional Scottish bagpipes song after song. As we drove on down empty roads, I marveled at the ever-changing landscape outside. I literally stared out the window the entire time, gasping at the new colors, streams, waterfalls, and mountains down the winding roads. Cat, on the other hand, (the one who was hell-bent on experiencing the Highlands), snoozed… pretty much the whole time. I wasn’t sure if she took some illegal Scottish sleeping pill, but every time I turned around in my seat to see if her jaw was dropping as much as mine because of the amazing scene we just passed, there she was – sleeping like a baby. Fail. The 14 hour ride made stops along the way for lunch, cappuccinos, and many lookout points. At one point we stopped to explore a bubbling creek and waterfall, only to be pushed back into the cozy mini-bus by a short rainstorm.
After about 8 hours of driving, we had made it to our destination – the famous town and lake of Lochness. That’s right, we were prepared to scout out “Nessie”, the underwater legend, and snap a photo to show off to friends back home. Well, after roaming the tiny town and enjoying the views of the serene lake, we failed to find the Lochness monster. Bummer.
The drive continued as we looped through new roads heading back to Edinburgh, and were rewarded with more beauty to look at. We drove on but not without a stop at a Whiskey Mill. We tasted about a dozen different kinds of whiskey, becoming quite the connoisseurs, and bought a couple of bottles. It was interesting to see a whiskey mill in comparison to a wine- tasting. I think we were both a bit drunk after our tastings.
After a final night in Edinburgh, we were sad to leave this unique place. I could not be happier with this trip. The freedom to explore, the knowledge gained, the culture-rich city, and the breath-taking highlands made this place one of my favorites. I will always remember a moment of complete serenity while driving through the fall-colored trees and snow-topped mountains of the countryside, listening to bagpipes on the speakers, feeling a tear of happiness stream down my cheek.