It was one of those places billed as a “must see”. Steeped in Scottish history and imposing its strength above the city, the Edinburgh Castle commanded a visit. But something happened on the way to the gates. We found ourselves floundering in a stream of tourists on a forced march toward the fortress. Kids were crying, parents were ranting, hipsters were posing with red-cheeked Scots in kilts, ice cream was being dumped on the sidewalk, which explains the screaming children.
This was the overbearing scene as we approached the entrance gateway of the nearly 1000-year-old castle. It was now or never. Pay the 16 quid (US$25) and continue the madness of the masses or bolt for freedom. In this Olympic summer in the UK, Usain from Jamaica would have been proud of us. We fled the Disney-esque chaos and sprinted down what is called the Royal Mile. There went the Camera Obscura tourist trap featuring a 19th century device that distorts visual reality. So too went the Scotch Whiskey Experience, a dram drinker’s den of delight. The gift shops peddling plastic bagpipes, tartan tams and woolen cardigans were also a blur. Finally, we took a sharp left down Lady Stairs Close, a narrow alleyway that opened up into a grand, tranquil courtyard. Finally we could breathe again. Gone were the kitsch and the flood of tourists. Catching out collective breaths, I look around. There it was, the Writers Museum.
We spent the next hour in a 1622 tower house devoted to three of Scotland’s literary giants. Sir Walter Scott, best known for his novel Rob Roy, is celebrated on the top floor. Descending the tower stairs, writer Robert Burns is featured as well as one of his three scull casts, made at the time of his death. Lastly, at the ground level, is my favorite—Mister Robert Lewis Stevenson. Author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I discovered that RLS was also a worldkid. In the 1800s, he and his controversial American wife traveled extensively and eventually voyaged by schooner across the Pacific Ocean. They went island hopping. The couple settled on Samoa in 1890 where he spent the rest of his days.
All of a sudden, Edinburgh was working for us. We visited the Museum on the Mound, which is all about Scottish money and counterfeiting. We spent nearly a day in the world-class National Museum of Scotland. On the east end of all of its five floors, Scotland is on display from early geological times to the present day. The tour ends at a rooftop terrace with grand views of the city and planters full of native Scottish plants.
We also got to stroll through Greyfriars Kirk, a 400-year-old churchyard full of ancient gravestones. Scull and crossbones were popular with the stone engravers of the day and the imposing, macabre icon is seen through the cemetery. Outside the gates is a fine pub called Greyfriar Bobby’s Bar. Legend has it that Bobby, a Skye terrier, maintained a vigil over his master, an Edinburgh policeman buried in Greyfriars Kirk. Apparently, Bobby was as tenacious as he was loyal. The dog stood guard from 1858-1872. Bobby was buried in the cemetery upon his death. Later, a statue was erected in honor of the loyal K-9 and appropriately placed in front of the Greyfriar Bobby’s Bar. The Nicholson’s IPA there is to die for.
But for me, unheralded places are often what make traveling exceptional. We started our National Museum of Scotland day with breakfast in a nondescript café across the way. The scrambled eggs were perfect and the cappuccino as fine as anywhere south of Loch Ness. But what I found fascinating was the restaurant’s random collection of posters promoting the August performance festivals for which Edinburgh is famous. Who knows? Perhaps the next Donovan, Sean Connery, Shirley Mason or Annie Lennox is promoted on these walls. Ah, those Scots… they have performed for centuries.