From Birnam we drove south east again along back roads towards Stirling and Edinburgh. We soon left the relative remoteness of the mountains and valleys behind as we entered the country’s “city” environments.
Stirling has occupied a key position in Scotland’s struggle for independence. Seven battlefields can be seen from the castle. The Wallace monument at Abbey Craig recalls William Wallace’s (Braveheart) defeat of the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297, foreshadowing Robert the Bruce’s victory in 1314 at Bannockburn.
Stirling is dominated by its castle which is, historically, one of Scotland’s most important fortresses. Legend says that King Arthur took the original castle from the Saxons but there is no evidence of a castle before 1124. The present castle dates from the 15th and 16th centuries and is a fine example of Renaissance architecture.
The castle is a popular tourist attraction but we were early enough to snare a parking place in the forecourt. We wandered through the Palace, the Great Hall and the Chapel Royal as well as along the battlements. There is a lot of restoration work going on here and there is no doubt from what we saw it will be quite a showplace when finished.
There is so much detail to the castle that any cursory description here would do it an injustice so again I revert to a web site for those interested:
Next stop was Edinburgh. We had rented an apartment here which was a nice break from a B&B. It was ‘downstairs’ in a Georgian Terrace within walking distance of the main street, Princes Street. It had huge rooms (except the kitchen) with everything you needed and a nice outlook over a back garden. The area had lots of pubs, restaurants and shops including a very nice Italian deli, Valvona & Crolla, within walking distance. Finally we were able to cook our own meals.
Princes Street divides the old town from the new. The Old Town is the site of the ancient city which grew along the route of the Royal Mile from the Castle Rock in the west to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in the east from the 11th century. Building of the New Town began at the end of the 18th century. Castle Rock has, however, been occupied since around 1000 BC.
Next morning we took a cab to the entrance of Edinburgh Castle (well, it was pouring rain and it’s an uphill climb) and armed with our audio guides toured the expanse of this huge complex. The castle has been a fortress, royal palace, military garrison and state prison during its long life. The original fortress was built by 6th century Northumbrian king, Edwin, from whom the city takes its name. We walked the battlements that looked over the ‘new’ city below, wandered through the Palace (with the Stone of Destiny and Scottish Crown Jewels on display), the Great Hall, St. Margaret’s Chapel and the Scottish War Memorial. Outside the chapel stands Mons Meg, a huge siege gun that had been used in many a conflict until exploding during a royal salute to the Duke of York in 1682 when it was retired to the Tower of London. It returned to Edinburgh in 1829.
More details of the castle are available at:
The Royal Mile is a stretch of four ancient streets which formed the main thoroughfare of medieval Edinburgh, linking the castle to Holyrood Palace. Confined by the city wall, the Old Town grew upwards with some tenements climbing to 20 floors. It’s still possible among the 66 alleys and closes off the main street to sense something of Edinburgh’s medieval past. We did this at Mary Kings Close.
This area consists of a number of closes that were originally narrow streets with houses on either side stretching up to seven floors high. In 1753, the Burgh council decided to develop a new building on the site, The Royal Exchange. The houses at the top of the close were knocked down and the remnants below used as foundations for the new building. These have now been excavated and you are able with the help of a guide walk through these houses and along a medieval street far below current street level. These were once centres of domestic life and industry. Without proper water supply or sanitation, ventilation or daylight, these places were ripe for epidemics. Cholera, typhoid typhus and smallpox were common. Most of its inhabitants were killed by the plague around 1645. A wall in one of the houses was made of a plaster of ground up human bones (every corpse was burnt during the plague) and horsehair.
We walked most of the Royal Mile with its many interesting buildings eg. John Knox’s house, St Giles Cathedral, the City Chambers, among them.
In Edinburgh, there are a large number of shops selling tartan goods especially ties and scarves and I think they do a roaring trade. The Royal Mile is full of them. This trip, I often wore my clan scarf that I bought there last time. There is also a temptation to buy a kilt. So far I have resisted. When would you ever wear one in Australia? Some have been known to don one on special birthdays or maybe weddings but they are certainly rentable at home. I was somewhat surprised to learn from a guide in the castle that all the tartans in use today are not that old and most certainly aren’t ancient. The Disarming Act of 1746, following Culloden, saw to that. For those interested in the history of the tartan check out:
We had our “big night out” at The Witchery. Their web site states:
Originally built for an Edinburgh merchant in 1595, this historic building on the Royal Mile now includes the jewel-like Witchery dining room …………….
A unique location, stunning interiors and superlative food, wine and service create memorable and magical dining experiences for locals, visitors and celebrities alike. Ewan MacGregor, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta Jones, Jack Nicholson and Clarissa Dickson Wright have all succumbed to its charms, with Andrew Lloyd Webber calling it the prettiest restaurant ever!
It is nice to experience restaurants of international reputation occasionally just to find out what all the hype is about. Certainly here, the room, service, wine list and food were outstanding. However we didn’t think the food was anything really exciting. My partner had seared scallops followed by a very large Angus beef fillet. I had pigeon pie followed by what might be called anywhere else, a veal chop. We did have a very nice bottle of premier cru burgundy as well as a totally indulgent chocolate desert.
Prices? We won’t even go there!
Next morning we were back to the Royal Mile, walking this time, for a little last minute shopping and a coffee, then walked down onto Princes street for a look through some department stores, particularly Jenners, and a traditional Scottish pub lunch. We were obviously winding down after three hectic weeks on the road.
Edinburgh is a city with much to see and do. It is a major tourist centre and has wonderful museums and galleries and a widely renowned nightlife. It is also famous for the International Arts Festival and Military Tattoo. But we are not city tourists so leave it you to fill in any gaps you find at:
Up early next morning we headed out of town towards Manchester on our pre determined route. The road signage was terrible and we were soon very lost. Instead of the A7 we were on the A1! The UK is so ‘small’ that this doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things and experience has shown if you just keep driving you will eventually find signs that tell you where you are and how to get to where you want to be. So we were soon able to cut across country on narrow lanes and B roads through some beautiful landscape until we reached our first intended destination, Melrose and its historic abbey.
This rose pink ruin is supposed to be one of the more beautiful Border Abbeys. Built by David I in 1136 for the Cistercian monks, replacing a 7th century monastery, it was repeatedly ransacked by English armies. The final blow came in 1545 when Henry VIII, as part of his “rough wooing” policy (where the Scots failed to ratify a marriage between his son and the infant Mary Queen of Scots), destroyed the abbey and, with it, the order.
We explored the ruins for some hours in what was a freezing but sunny day and finally retired to the strangely named (for Scotland) “Pappa Jacks” coffee shop for what turned out to be the best cappos of the trip.
After consulting our maps and time frame we decided we had plenty of time to visit the town, Corbridge, where my daughter had lived for some time last year and then follow Hadrian’s Wall to Carlisle and the M6. So we crossed the border into England and had lunch at one of seven pubs in this old Saxon/Roman town. Then we headed for Hadrian’s Wall.
At the time of Julius Caesar's first small invasion of the south coast of Britain in 55 BC, the British Isles, like much of mainland Europe was inhabited by many Celtic tribes loosely united by a similar language and culture but nevertheless each distinct. He returned the next year and encountered the 4000 war chariots of the Catevellauni in a land "protected by forests and marshes, and filled with a great number of men and cattle." He defeated the Catevellauni and then withdrew, though not before establishing treaties and alliances. Thus began the Roman occupation of Britain.
Nearly 100 years later, in 43 AD, the Emperor Claudius sent Aulus Plautius and about 24,000 soldiers to Britain, this time to establish control under a military presence. Although subjugation of southern Britain proceeded fairly smoothly by a combination of military might and clever diplomacy, and by 79 AD what is now England and Wales were firmly under control, the far North remained a problem. However, the Emperor Vespasian decided that what is now Scotland should also be incorporated into the Roman Empire. Under his instructions the governor of Britain, Julius Agricola, subdued the Southern Scottish tribal clans, the Selgovae, Novantae and Votadini by 81 AD. Further to the North lived loose associations of clans known collectively as the Caledonians. Agricola tried to provoke them into battle by marching an army into the Highlands eventually forcing a battle with the Caledonian leader Calgacus in present day Aberdeenshire at a place called Mons Graupius. 30,000 Caledonians were killed, but the Roman victory was a hollow one, for the next day the surviving clansmen melted away into the hills, and were to remain fiercely resistant and independent.
By the time Hadrian became Emperor in 117 AD the Roman Empire had ceased to expand. Hadrian was concerned to consolidate his boundaries. He visited Britain in 122 AD, and ordered a wall to be built between the Solway Firth in the West and the River Tyne in the east "to separate Romans from Barbarians".
The Roman army numbered amongst its ranks highly skilled architects, mason builders, surveyors and carpenters as well as soldiers for whom the wall was an opportunity to express their talents and also be part of what they felt was the greatest civilising force in the west at that time.
The majority of the wall was built of stone. At first 10 Roman Feet wide, and later 8, it began in the east and reached the river Irthing near present day Carlisle, from there it continues west to the Solway Firth but is built of 18" x 12" x 6" regulation turf blocks.
It’s amazing that some of the 73 mile long wall still exists today.
So our adventure was nearly over. We drove down the M6 in wet, cold and windy weather towards our Manchester Airport hotel to ready ourselves for the trip home the next day. It had been a wonderful trip full of surprises, friendly welcoming people and some amazing sights, both natural and man made. Would we do it all over again?