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Edinburgh Rocks

Despite my protestations that Glasgow is a better city than Edinburgh, I do love a good visit to the Capital city. With friends in the past and present living there, I’ve had ample opportunities to visit, as well as attending theatre shows and exhibitions with my family throughout the years. From summer festivals to the winter markets and Hogmanay, there is something on all year round. So there was no doubt in my mind that Edinburgh would be a part of my trip home.

On a Saturday in the middle of June, I boarded the bus into Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station and managed a quick turnaround there to get on the Citylink bus to Edinburgh, and settled in for the journey looking out at the grey skies that persisted the whole way. I had a good bit of outdoor sightseeing planned, so was a little disappointed at the forecast that had been issued. Undeterred, I was looking forward to catching up with a couple of friends, and was met by one of them on getting off the bus. Not yet festival time, there was still a buzz in the air as we left St Andrew’s Bus Station, and I was reminded immediately why tourists love this place.

Arriving mid-morning, our priority was brunch, and we set off in search a cafe that my friend recommended. Amongst the grand buildings of George Street, we worked our way to Frederick Street where Urban Angel was, and after filling our stomachs, it was time to burn it all back off again. There are a few spots in Edinburgh to get the classic views, and Calton Hill is one of them. At the eastern end of Princes Street, one of a collection of paths leads up steps to the top of the hill where a collection of monuments and an observatory are scattered across its summit.


By now several weeks into my holiday over-indulgence, I was beginning to feel immensely unfit, a thought which raised some concerns for the multi-day hike that was coming up in just a couple of weeks. Pushing those thoughts aside, there is much to see from here, with views north over Leith and beyond to the Firth of Forth, and over the city centre to the south-west. Edinburgh Castle stands tall on its rocky promontory across the city and the distinctive peaks of the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat lie almost directly opposite.


The clouds were considering breaking up a little and small patches of blue pock-marked the sky above us. Edinburgh’s Old Town has a distinctive look about it, with many buildings of grandeure and turrets and towers aplenty. From here I could spy my next target, one of Edinburgh’s many famous landmarks, the Scott Monument. For all my previous visits, I had never realised that you could climb up it, so this would be something new for me. By the time we’d retraced our steps down the hill and along Princes Street to its base, the sun had come out with gusto and the warmth was welcomed.


Built to commemorate Sir Walter Scott, construction began in 1840, a few years after his death. Standing at over 60metres high, a series of spiral staircases lead up a total of 287 steps to multiple viewing platforms at different elevations. Overlooking the Princes Street gardens and Princes Street itself, it quickly became one of my favourite viewpoints of the city. With every level gained, the view grew more expansive, and even the tower itself was something to admire, with statues and detail adorning it at every level. With the clouds all but gone, we could see for miles in every direction. The only downside was that the higher we climbed, the narrower both the staircase and the viewing platforms got, making it quite awkward to negotiate the large numbers of people that were up the tower with us. Especially at the top, there was a queue to circumnavigate the platform, followed by a queue to get back down again. It was the height of the tourist season, a weekend, and a sunny day, so it was hardly surprising.


We took a quick look at the stained glass windows on the lower level as we made our way back down, and back out in the sunshine, my friend headed off for the afternoon and I wandered around some tourist shops waiting for the arrival of another friend. I found some Edinburgh Rock, a rather sweet and sugary candy that I hadn’t had since I was a kid, and parked myself up on the sunny roof space of the Princes Mall until my friend arrived. We made a beeline for the Royal Mile which was packed with locals, tourists and buskers. In direct line with Edinburgh Castle at its western end, the High Street section is a broad pedestrian thoroughfare, lined with bars, restaurants and tourist shops, and the outdoor seating that sprawled outside was packed at every venue.


We watched a busker swallow a sword before heading off down hill to the lower Royal Mile which is open to traffic, and at its end, Holyrood Palace and the relatively recent addition of the architecturally unique, Scottish Parliament building. Last time I’d visited, my friend and I had gone inside the Parliament building for a tour, and at certain days and times, this is a regularly offered possibility depending on sittings. But our target on this occasion was the ice cream van parked up at the bottom of Salisbury Crags. By now it was very warm, and I was not dressed for a hike. I had been keen to get up Arthur’s Seat, a climb I’d only done once before, but on such a warm day, and having already found Calton Hill to get me in a puff, I was suddenly in two minds.


My friend suggested we head only as far as the St Anthony chapel ruins just a little up the hillside, and that seemed more than fine by me. Munching on our ice creams, we took our time and enjoyed the view over St Margaret’s Loch below us. After a respite, and watching the other walkers push on upwards, we opted to go up to the top of the Crags and see how we felt. It was a busy place to be with friends and families, walkers and joggers making a steady line both up and down the hillside. Once again, after having a rest on a lower plateau, we decided we’d gone all that way up, we might as well keep going, and so we summited Arthur’s Seat which was absolutely packed. The last time we’d come up here, we had taken an alternate route up, so it was nice to have done it differently. Once again, the view is phenomenal, looking out over the city to the west and the Firth of Forth to the north.


We had plans to meet back up with my other friend that night, but there was still plenty of time ahead of us. Returning to the Royal Mile which is littered with closes (alleys), we went to Mary King’s Close, one of many parts of Edinburgh that is haunted. Unfortunately they were booked out for a few hours, so instead we headed up the hill to Camera Obscura, a place that I hadn’t been to before. Dating from the mid-19th century, it has become an interactive world of illusion with the Camera Obscura itself still occupying the top floor. The roof has an outdoor space providing yet another view point of the city and as the demonstrations of the camera are timed, we had a little time to enjoy the vista before heading indoors.


After the camera’s demonstration, we worked our way down the six floors filled with optical illusions, negotiating the maze of mirrors and a vortex tunnel. Even as an adult, this was fun, so although the entrance fee is rather pricey, there was plenty to look at and explore, and worth doing once if you have a lot of time in the city. We took silly photos in the various interactive sections and wandered round the large gift shop at the bottom before heading off in search of dinner.


We chanced our luck at a rooftop Thai restaurant on Castle Street and were rewarded with a table on the balcony. Presumably named after the large river that runs through Bangkok, Chaophraya was fantastic. We sipped on glorious cocktails in the evening sun, and enjoyed delicious food before it was time to head back to the Royal Mile. The restaurant was upstairs off Castle Street, and walking down this street, we were overlooked by the greatness of Edinburgh Castle. There was still hours of daylight ahead, being only a few days away from the longest day of the year, but the lowering evening sun cast a different light on the old buildings as we headed up the hill to the Royal Mile.


Catching up with my other friend again, the three of us joined the crowd at the meeting place for our City of the Dead tour. Edinburgh, like many old cities, is rife with ghost stories, and there are plenty of opportunities to go ghost hunting. Another activity I’d not done here, I’d managed to convince my friends to join me on the hunt for the Mackenzie Poltergeist, supposedly one of the World’s most documented poltergeists. As a regular solo traveller, I will do almost anything on my own quite happily, including gallivanting across the world and volunteering in countries where English is not the first language. But doing a ghost tour is not one of the things I would do on my own, so convincing people to join me had been the first step.

From the very beginning, I knew it was going to be good. Our tour guide was an absolute Character with a capital C. He really made that tour, and was amazing at building up the hype and buzz around the haunted graveyard. Our destination was Greyfriars Kirkyard, perhaps more famous because of the fable of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a little dog that wouldn’t leave the side of his master’s grave, resulting in him getting his own statue on the street outside. But amongst the ‘true’ story of the ‘wee dug’, was tales of death and crime and Harry Potter. Indeed, for those who read the books of J K Rowling, who wrote them nearby, there are a lot of familiar sounding names related to this graveyard.


The culmination of the tour is entering the locked section of the graveyard, the Covenanters Prison, where the poltergeist activity is said to be at its highest. With regular reports of people being physically injured, our guide had us in the palm of his hands by this point, having expertly weaved his tale of the history of the site. The tension amongst the group was palpable as we crowded into a vault near the entrance. To find out what happens next, I cannot recommend this tour enough. For us though, afterwards we made our way back to Waverley Station to see off one friend, then St Andrew’s Bus Station where I left my other friend behind to take the bus back to Glasgow, more than satisfied with my day in the Capital.

Exploring Myths and Memories

Out of the dark and cold waters of a Scottish loch, illuminated by the midnight moon, there comes the beautiful form of a horse. Broad muscles and mane dripping with water, he finds a poor soul to whom he laments a tale of loneliness, tugging at their heart strings before leading them back to the water’s edge. Enveloping them in his spell, he leads them out into the darkness and drowns them. The mythical Kelpie, or water horse, is a long-standing feature of Scottish folklore, although the stories vary depending on their source. It is said that many lochs in Scotland have their own Kelpie, and mariners of old used to relate tales of Kelpies coming out of the sea during storms to sink their ships. In some stories, the Kelpies take the form of a woman on land, to seduce some unsuspecting man before leading them to water and drowning them.

Before I moved to New Zealand in 2012, I must have seen or read about a public art piece that was planned for Falkirk in Scotland, so when finally they were constructed and opened to the public, I knew I would have to visit them on my next trip home. The Kelpies are two 30m high steel structures shaped as horse heads beside a section of the Forth and Clyde canal. Representing both the heavy horses previously used in Scottish industry and agriculture as well as the transformational change of Scotland’s waterways, they have become an iconic structure in Scotland’s Central Belt.

After a nice lie-in in Glasgow following my road trip round the north coast and the previous day’s hike up Ben Nevis, I set off with my parents on a very cloudy day to go visit the steel behemoths. The sculptures have proven to be a popular place to visit, and even though there was an occasional drizzle, there was plenty of people about. Like so many things, they have their critics but I personally love them. I think they are stunning. It is possible to walk round them and view them from different angles, and nearby the canal played home to some swans with their cygnets. My parents had been here before, but they were more than happy to come again.


It was only a relatively short drive from there to the Falkirk Wheel, a boat lift opened in 2002 to connect the Forth and Clyde canal with the Union Canal, and the only one of its kind in the world. Built to help regenerate the canal network and to link Glasgow with Edinburgh via the waterway, it is an impressive feat of engineering even if some people do think it’s ugly. Granted, it has weathered quite a lot, and doesn’t look as grand as it does in pictures from when it opened, but it was still worthy of a look. There is a large visitor centre next to it, and my parents and I enjoyed a wander round the large gift shop and a meal in the cafe whilst we waited for our boat trip. Two canal boats alternate at taking passengers onto the wheel and up to the top, passing through a tunnel and out the other side before making a return trip. Unfortunately, the heavens opened whilst we were on this trip, so we didn’t get to experience much in the way of views at the top. But it was a pleasant and relaxing hour, as well as time well spent with my parents who I only get to see every few years.


That night I met my best friends for a night out in Glasgow. In April, I enjoyed going to see The Proclaimers, a Scottish duo, on their New Zealand tour in Christchurch. So when I found out that Ladyhawke, a musician from New Zealand, was touring the UK, I thought it only fitting to see her in Glasgow. One of Glasgow’s best known music venues is King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, which has a bar downstairs, and an intimate music venue upstairs. It had been many years since I’d last been there, and these days, thanks to a back injury in 2013, I prefer to enjoy gigs in a seated arena where I don’t get jostled or spend hours on my feet. The support acts as well as Ladyhawke herself were fantastic, but I felt old amongst the younger music lovers, feeling sore from being on my feet throughout the whole gig. Aside from having to stand, King Tut’s has seen some major names play there, and it is worth checking their gig guide for any stay in the city.

It was obvious the following day that my run of good weather had well and truly ended. Having lived in Aberdeen in the north-east for 5.5years, I had friends that I wanted to catch up with, and setting off on the 3hr drive north from Glasgow, it wasn’t long till I hit torrential rain that refused to give up. It’s never a good sign when your car’s wiper blades struggle to keep up with the force of horizontal rain that is lashing at your windscreen, and this went on for the majority of the second half of the drive. The Granite City that sparkles in the sunshine, looked dour and grey on such a miserable day. I flitted from friend to friend, unfortunately short of time to spend as much time with most as I would have liked to. I got a beautiful surprise from some dear friends in Aberdeenshire who had put a lot of effort into a surprise den for me, and after many hours catching up, I went to bed under the stars.

The rain continued in Aberdeenshire the following morning, and although lighter, went on into the afternoon. I managed to get lost on some back roads trying to take a short cut to the coast, ending up much further north than I’d planned, and nearly an hour late for meeting some more friends. I was in Scotland in the run up to the ‘Brexit’ referendum and it was an interesting time to be back in the country, with lots of opinions and discussion abound. I was intrigued and curious listening to my friends put forth their varied opinions on the matter, amongst catching up with everyone on the movement of their lives since I had left.

Despite the thick clouds and showers, my friend had dogs needing a walk, and I have a favourite spot north of Aberdeen to go seal watching, so we drove to Newburgh beach to face the elements. Luckily we managed a dry spell to walk along the south bank of the river Ythan to the North Sea, where curious seals swam close by, eyeing us up as the river’s current moved them along. There are always seals hauled up on the north bank of the river mouth, an area that is a nature reserve where people and dogs can’t go. But on this occasion, the numbers of seals were incredible. In all my visits when I used to live there, I had never seen this many and we watched them for a while before the return of the rain.


I couldn’t leave Aberdeen behind without a drive down the promenade, a place where I spent many an evening walking its length listening to the crashing waves on the shore. At the southern end near the harbour is Footdee, a historic fishing village which I had a quick wander around before setting off on the long journey south. I took a detour to Kirkcaldy in the Kingdom of Fife to visit another friend before following the Firth of Forth west and then onwards to Glasgow.


With my hire car due back at lunchtime, I set off early the next morning to head south to visit a place that I hadn’t been to since I was a school kid. Nestled amongst bush on the Ayrshire coast on the west of Scotland, Culzean Castle and Country Gardens is a popular addition to the National Trust of Scotland. Built in the 18th century, the castle sits on a clifftop and is one of Scotland’s most photographed castles. It even features on one of the Scottish bank notes. I took a wander around the gardens first which open to the public ahead of the castle. It was threatening to be a scorching day so it was actually a nice reprieve to step inside out of the sun and take a look around.


Inside the castle, there are resemblances to a stately home, and it was built for the Marquess of Ailsa, clan chief of the Kennedy Clan. Reputed to be haunted, I wandered around unawares enjoying the views out to the sea through the large windows. Back outside, a path lead down to a stony beach near where the entrance to some sea caves at the base of the castle lay. Near a gas house, another beach gave a prospect back towards the castle as it perched on the cliff.


I had unfortunately picked a day where several bus loads of school kids had come on an end-of-year visit, and every inch of grass around the old stables was covered in children noisily chasing each other. I left them to it and looped back through the old archway and across the bridge to the gardens below the castle where the sun now illuminated the scene. Here it was more peaceful and deserted but before long it was time to make the drive north back to Glasgow, returning my rental car ahead of the next adventure.

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