Monday, April 5, 2010

They can take our skirts, but they'll never take our makeup! - SCOTLAND!!!!!

My name is Calvin Olsen and I approve this country. It’s gorgeous. Home of the greatest accent on Earth. Home of my ancestors (some of them). Home of beautiful women (a very pleasant surprise). Home of the Loch Ness monster. Home of men that wear skirts and are still manly. You get the point.

FRIDAY. From Liverpool Cam, Katie, Alyssa, and I ditched the drive home and got on a train to Edinburgh, Scotland. I was absolutely stoked. We had a very large group of drunk men in our train car with us. They sang Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” for almost all of the three hour train ride. It was a bit annoying (thank goodness for iPods) but I knew it would be hilarious in a few days, and now it is. We pulled into Waverly Station, headed up the stairs (there were no customs), and stepped out into Edinburgh.

I had no idea Edinburgh was gorgeous. It was dark and things were lit up, so it was quite the show. I would say it is neck and neck with Athens for the most beautiful city I have ever been to. The main part of the city is the Royal Mile which runs from Edinburgh Castle (set at the highest point in sight) to another palace about a mile down (aptly named, eh?). Then there are a few other major streets parallel to the Royal Mile. Waverly Station is down in a little valley, and so we came out looking up the steep sides of the hill to the tall buildings of Edinburgh. People aren’t allowed to change things (i.e. all the windows are single-paned and uniform) and so it looks pretty much like it has for centuries. I fell in love with Edinburgh at first sight.

First Edinburgh building I ever saw.

We made our way past the Sir Walter Scott memorial and hiked up to the Royal Mile. I took too many pictures (as usual) and we just kind of enjoyed the place and looked for a place to eat. We found a restaurant called the Royal McGregor and I already knew what I was going to order: Haggis. Haggis is sheep heart, lung, kidney, and liver chopped up into little bits and cooked inside of a sealed sheep stomach. I got my haggis with Neeps and Tatties (turnips and mashed potatoes) and after a good chunk of time it came. I loved it. I went in with no expectations and took a fork full of haggis and shoved it in my mouth. It was SO good and I wanted more, but it was gone and I was happy.

Finished our night taking a few more looks around and then grabbing a taxi to our hostel. It was called NB’s and was more of a guest house than a hostel. The rooms were good sized, the beds were comfortable, the bathroom was pristine, and I only saw one or two people besides us the entire time. If you ever go to Edinburgh, look up NB’s guest house. Great place.

SATURDAY. All day Scotland tour. Got up early in the morning and caught a taxi up to Edinburgh Castle where we found four big buses owned by Timberbush Tours. We had all ordered our tickets separately, so Katie was on a different bus than the rest of us. That would not have been cool, so I got on our bus and asked a girl if she was traveling alone. Thinking about it now, I may have creeped her out, but she said yes and I asked if I could beg her to switch buses so Katie could come with us. She had no problem with it and so I talked to both bus drivers and the director guy and after a little work we were good to go. Her name was Courtney Ibstein and she was from Australia (great accent). She works as a nanny in London and was just away for Easter weekend (like us). She was very nice and I’m so happy that there are good people in the world.

Our tour guide’s name was Allistair, but he went by Allie. He was the man. I’m actually convinced that he’s a Mormon (like me). He said that he doesn’t drink at all (crazy for Scotland). He mentioned that he has seven kids (crazy for anyone). He edited one of the songs that came over the radio (crazy since there were no kids onboard and very few fluent English speakers). There were a few other clues that I won’t share, but I’d bet a lot of money that he is. Anyhew, he’s usually a driver but he had logged too many hours for the week, so he was our guide and Stevie (an old bald guy with sweet tattoos) was our driver. They decided that since the whole world does tours in most of the same places it would be a good idea to go backwards so that we could have places all to ourselves. Best idea ever.

First we drove through the Kingdom of Fife and then past Forth Rood bridge, which was freaking sweet. There’s also a railway bridge next to it whose name I didn’t catch that was SO cool. We took pics from the bus and kept on keeping on. We stopped for a quick break in a place called Pitlochry and then got back on the bus. We drove past Killiecrankie, which is where the Highland charge of the Jacobite Rebellion happened. The Scots beat the crap out of the English in the battle of Killiecrankie, which included the charge. Allie put it like this: “The English came out of that glen over there trying to be sneaky, but they gave up the high ground. Never give up high ground to the Highlanders. Imagine a guy my size, running down a mountain, swingin’ a sword. You’re not going to stop me, guys.”

After Killiecrankie we traveled from the Lowlands to the Highlands. It’s not hard to tell when you’ve arrived at the border. The Highlands have massive hills and mountains, and it’s a much more rugged, unforgiving landscape. There’s not much there but heather, and Allie said that although it’s brown in the winter it turns purple, pink, and white in the summer. So I guess I’ll have to come back. As we drove he explained about the clan systems and how families were adopted into clans and their politics and war and how they ate haggis and searched for peat and such Scottish things. He knew a lot and the whole tour was full of information like that. After some time we drove past Culloden battlefield and then through Inverness (nice town) and near the North Sea. Finally we arrived at the place I had come to see: Loch Ness.

Loch Ness is everything I wanted it to be and more. The sky was overcast a bit and it rained on and off the entire time. The lake is 24 miles long and one mile wide. The water is black and amazing. At the shore it looks like Coca-cola for about two yards and then it’s just black. Since we were going backward our bus had a boat pretty much all to ourselves and Allie knows the owner so we got a few pounds discount. You can think what you want, but I honestly believe that Nessie (the Loch Ness monster) exists. Allie told us a few of the theories (my favorite = Nessie is a type of dinosaur that didn’t go extinct) and the stories go as far back as the 7th century. There’s a guy that owns a bed and breakfast on the Loch that was on record for years saying that it was a hoax and that he didn’t believe it whatsoever. He saw it a few years ago and has changed his mind. I didn’t see anything, but I buy the myths. Either way, get on Wikipedia and look up Nessie, there is a great write-up of her.

It's not hard to find the Loch Ness monster. I just used cheese.

We got one-way boat tickets so we got dropped off at Urquhart Castle, which is right on the Loch. It was one of Scotland’s largest Medieval strongholds and the ruins are great. We spent about an hour going through them and taking pictures. We also went down to the shore so that I could touch the water and skip rocks. Alyssa went out on a few rocks for a picture. The second to the last rock was unstable and so Alyssa got to wade with Nessie. She wasn’t in too far, and only her feet and lower calves got wet, but the water was freezing. Her feet dried pretty quickly on the bus, so she was ok, but that’s one thing she’ll never get to live down.

Loch Ness

On the bus and moving down the road, we drove through Fort Augustus. It’s just a small town, but Allie explained the inter-loch canal system that goes through this part of the country. The canals are man-made (or man-improved) and run from loch to loch. There are bridges for boats to go under (we had to stop for a raised bridge and got to see a big fishing boat go through) and there are also a series of gates that open and close for boats to go from one water level to the next. Most of the system runs along a natural fault line, so it‘s pretty sweet.

We got out at Loch Lochy to take some pictures. We also drove past Ben Nevis (the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom) but it was covered in clouds so we could only see a little bit of it and Allie didn’t stop for pictures. After Loch Lochy our next stop was a whisky stop at a shop that gives out free whisky samples (not so cool for us or Allie, but there was a café). An hour or so later we got out of the coach at Glen Coe. Glen Coe is where the massacre of the MacDonald clan happened. Thirty-eight MacDonalds were killed by the guests (Scottish soldiers, some of whom were related to the clan) who had accepted their hospitality, on the grounds that the MacDonalds had not been prompt in pledging allegiance to the new monarchs, Mary II and William III. Another forty women and children died of exposure after their homes were burned. It’s a very sad story and the Scottish government wants to keep the place as it was, so there is absolutely nothing commercial allowed at Glen Coe. There were some wild deer in the valley and the snow-covered mountains were majestic and cloud covered (once again). It was a beautiful spot.

Glen Coe was our last stop, but we did drive by two awesome sites. The first was the setting for the Bridge of Death in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (greatest movie ever). I was on the wrong side of the bus, so the pictures sucked, but I’ve seen the film way more than enough to know when I saw the spot. I did a lot of quoting after that. Blue. No! Yellow! Aaaaaagh! It got dark before we drove between Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument. If you don’t know who William Wallace is, you’re a terrible person. I’m related to him, and there was a sweet movie about him, so now you have two more reasons to love him. We didn’t get too close to the monument, but it’s huge and all lit up so I got to see it. Gotta love having awesome ancestors.

We got back to Edinburgh a little late, said goodbye to Allie and Stevie, and found some dinner at an Italian place with amazing food. Back to NB’s for a little sleep.

SUNDAY. I woke up in Edinburgh, Scotland for Easter 2010. That’s so cool.

We didn’t have all day to kick around, but we hit up Edinburgh Castle and the National Gallery of Scotland. Edinburgh Castle was sweet. We decided to walk there from our hostel, so we got to see a lot of Edinburgh. When we finally made it to the top of the city we jumped in a very slow-moving line for tickets to get into the castle. They didn’t cost an arm or a leg, but they did cost a few fingers, but it was almost completely worth it. We saw the One o’Clock Gun (shot off on special occasions at 1pm) but apparently Easter isn’t special enough for them to shoot off the cannon. We went through the on-site National War Museum (some sweet kilts up in there) and then saw Mons Meg (the biggest cannon I’ve seen in a long time…shoots two miles) St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh), the Royal Palace, the castle’s military prisons (nicest old school prisons I‘ve seen…prisoners slept in hammocks and drew American flags on the doors), and the Honours of Scotland (aka the crown jewels of Scotland). England’s crowns and scepters are more impressive, but the Sword of State of Scotland was wicked cool. It’s four and a half feet long and the hilt is made out of silver. It has Saints Peter and Paul on it, not to mention some acorns. It may be the coolest sword I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something because swords are sweet. Sadly we couldn’t take pictures, but take my word for it, it’s a rad weapon.

I told you this cannon is huge.
Edinburgh Castle

After a few hours in Edinburgh Castle we went to the National Gallery of Scotland. It’s not hard to believe that it’s nothing compared with the National Gallery here in London (nothing is, really) but there were some big names there. My favorites were Rembrandt’s self portrait at age 51, Van Gogh’s “Olive Trees,” Gustave Courbet’s “The Wave,” Thomas More’s painting of Vesuvius erupting (the dude actually saw it erupt, live and in living color), Da Vinci’s “Madonna of the Yarnwinder” (great name for a painting), and Raphael’s “Bridgewater Madonna.” The building was nice and not too big so I enjoyed it quite a bit.

After the National Gallery we got some lunch and then had to say goodbye to Edinburgh. As usual, I wish I had more time in Scotland, but it was a fantastic whirlwind trip and I loved every second of it. Our train ride back to London was non-stop and we got in half an hour early, with no drunk guys singing “Ring of Fire.” And now I’m home in London. Home in London…I love that.


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