Edinburgh is fantastic, such a dramatic city, in terms of both landscape and history. Oh the craggy hills and deep gorges, the castles and dungeons and rivers and bridges and gardens and narrow streets and cobblestones. And the wars and murders and reivers and Romans and clans and enlightenment. Amazing.
I’ve been here 4 days now, staying in a lovely spacious flat, not particularly close to the old or new town, but I often walk and the bus system is excellent.
I’ve done three guided tours and can confirm that the quality of any given tour depends on the tour guide. My first night here I went on a walking ‘ghosts and ghouls’ tour. Sounded great, but in fact was pretty lame. The guide was a Frenchwoman (what’s with that? In the south of France I stay with Scottish people, in Edinburgh…). Her delivery was melodramatic in the wrong kind of way – and she conveyed very little concrete info. So it was neither scary nor funny, and consisted largely of her telling us, as we stumbled through very dark but otherwise nondescript underground rooms, that sometimes people on the tours saw things or felt things while on the tours. I did glean interesting info about body snatchers, but overall the experience lacked substance – felt like she was struggling to fill the two hours.
On Saturday I went on a 10 ½ hour coach tour to Rosslyn Chapel, the Border Lands and Hadrian’s Wall. Ten and half hours is a lot of time to fill (and to stay awake!) But this tour guide (and driver) – Angela – was brilliant. It was a small coach tour (maximum 16 people, we were 8, I think). She had tales to tell us about everywhere we went – both fact and myth. She had also prepared a playlist of songs and comedy bits, all of which related to the places we were going. Who knew there were so many songs about building Hadrian’s Wall? Or living north of the border? Or about the reivers (gangs of thieves who terrorized the Border Lands for centuries.) We passed battlefields and learned about William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and the endless wars between Scotland and England. She told us stories about a man who claimed to have been stolen by faeries and kept imprisoned for 7 years, and Michael Scott, the Border Wizard who accurately predicted his own death (by pebble to head), an ancestor of Sir Walter Scott’s.
Rosslyn Chapel (alas, most renowned as location for the Da Vinci code) is gorgeous and full of really unusual carvings. The border between Scotland and England is marked by a large stone which says “Scotland” on one side and “England” on the other. Notably there is a welcome to Scotland sign in English and Gaelic, but no such welcome to England…
And Hadrian’s Wall is remarkable – not because it is high (the remains only stand about 3’ or 4’ high), but because it stretches clear across England (something like 80 miles) in absolutely desolate countryside. All the stone quarried very close to the building – and many Romans and others spent years building it, far from home and family. You can walk along the top of it (about 3’ wide), in silence and wind, and feel you’ve gone back a couple of thousand years in time.
So – that was a great tour. The next day I went to the Highlands with the same company, and Paul as tour guide. It was a very different experience. I got the distinct impression that he’d been at the job for too long. His commentary was perfunctory, he left us for far too long at Blair Castle, which is an interesting building and has impressive gardens, but no real history of note, and then played rather loud music that related to nothing the rest of the time (okay when it was Beatles for an hour, but some of the rest…)
However, when we got off the bus to walk in the wilds of the Highlands or through sleepy little Scottish villages, it was lovely. A sunny day (not warm, but sunny!) and again very isolated and quiet with stunning vistas of gorges and rivers and mountains and sheep and heather and bracken.
We had a stop at Queen’s View, a spot overlooking Loch Tummel which Queen Isabella, first wife of Robert the Bruce, apparently favoured. It was a bit unclear to me, given the nature of the guide’s description, whether she went there while escaping the English who were forever hunting her husband and family, or whether she just liked the view – and I even wonder if it was his seond wife, not firsts since Isabella never actually got crowned queen (thank you, Wikipedia). Apparently Queen Victoria liked it too, so it is worthy of its name.
Another stop, at the Hermitage, a National Park on the banks of the River Braan in Craigvinean Forest, was equally magical. We walked some distance through ancient forests to a rushing waterfall. Stunning.
So despite the disappointing tour guide, we got a taste of the highlands. One pet peeve: it seems as though many places in Scotland are now more renowned because they’ve been used as film locations (Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, Downtown Abbey) than for their actual history. I don’t really care about the films – I can watch them. I want to know the history, which is , generally speaking, very colourful here!