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Scotland Memoir

AUTHOR’S NOTE

This is my very long thank you note to my mother and hers for helping me travel Scotland. My mother and I both visited the country in the late spring of 2016. The excursion allowed us to visit my sister who was studying to attain her Masters degree in Archeology at the University of Edinburgh. We tried witnessing as much of the country as possible during our quick trip. The only way I knew how to repay such fortunes was by writing about my experiences and sharing them.

While flying back home over the ocean I scribbled a quick recollection of our journey into a small journal. A few weeks later and I started a handwritten draft in the same journal but quickly realized a hand written memoir might be nice but completely impractical for the project. I wanted to provide pictures and videos I took during our travels. So, that’s when I drafted a word document. This process took longer than I planned and my recollection of the trip went under many edits. Eventually I found the formatting of adding pictures too cumbersome for the program so I decided to try a familiar blog site to host my memoir. Dysfunctional formatting again forced me to opt for other avenues. I finally decided to build an entire site dedicated to our journey.

This is my thank you to the very strong and influential women in my life that provided me with the privilege of journeying overseas for the first time. For that experience I am eternally grateful.

DAY 1 – LOUISVILLE TO GLASGOW

The first day of any expedition is fraught with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. A truth for my first international excursion. Most of my anxieties concerned the unlikely event of the plane dropping from the sky into the ocean. There was also separation anxiety about leaving my girlfriend Jasmine. It was my first time away from her since she had moved in a few months prior. With the only car and license between the two of us I was Jasmine’s main source of transportation in those months. We made multiple attempts to obtain her license before I left but remained unsuccessful. Our last attempt fell on the day prior to leaving. This raised our joint concerns about my absence. Fortunately my father; Glendon, kind heartedly offered to help Jasmine with the commutes while I was away.

Graced by the company of friends at a cook out the same night also helped ease some tension. We celebrated into the late evening with food and drink. Jasmine and I tried to remain awake until my parents arrived to pick me up before dawn. I was attempting to reduce jet lag by avoiding sleep until arriving in Edinburgh. However, we slept for about an hour and awoke at three-thirty to my parents knocking on the kitchen door. Jasmine and I quickly grabbed my bags and dashed to the car. Our party arrived at the airport five minutes later, departing with hugs and kisses before walking into the building to begin our day of air travel.

No trip is without a bit of tribulation, we encountered some within minutes. Our flights routed through New York City, then Toronto, followed by a fuel stop in Halifax before finally crossing the Atlantic to Glasgow. The flight was through an affiliate of a major airline and we had trouble finding the correct ticket gate. Mom stood in line waiting for what she thought was the proper airline to open at four. I decided to check the giant television screens displaying itineraries. There was only one flight to JFK leaving at our specified time through Delta. Their line already growing at their open ticket counter downstairs and across the airport from where my mother waited. By the time I got back upstairs, there was only a few minutes before the employees where scheduled to arrive. She wanted to wait before abandoning the line, so we did. Arriving directly at four they opened services once they were comfortably settled. Impatience arose from anxiety and continued Festering when the agent couldn’t confirm our reservations in their system. They suggested we try Delta, all the way to the left of the building, in the basement, with the growing line.

We gathered our luggage, walking quickly towards Delta. There we stood in line patiently. Scanned our tickets and passports but remained lost in the system. The gentleman suggested we try upstairs at United, the line we just left. Upon returning to the desk we told the employee Delta sent us back. Still unable to confirm our reservations still they suggested American Airlines, a few queues to the left. We waited in line until greeted with the same baffled results by their agents. They suggested we try Delta since they were the only flight leaving the airport to New York. Downstairs, Delta confirmed they were the only flight that would match our itinerary but our reservations remained nonexistent.

The agent rallied to our cause, calling some internal company number to hopefully amend the situation. With ease he remained on the line while assisting a large military group check into their flight to Thailand. All the while, we stood to the side wondering if our trip would actually take place. After the military group efficiently filed into order, our agent told us he still couldn’t confirm our reservations. Making matters worse we probably wouldn’t make it through customs in time even if our names miraculously appeared in the system. His final suggestion was to call whatever company we booked the flights through. Hopefully they could fix the mess.

My mother would call the company while I discussed the situation with my father. Both conversations went smoothly. The company redirected our flights to Atlanta, then Orlando and finally to Glasgow. A stop less with an estimated arrival ten minutes earlier than our original flight. Crisis averted.

We gathered our luggage, walking quickly towards Delta. There we stood in line patiently. Scanned our tickets and passports but remained lost in the system. The gentleman suggested we try upstairs at United, the line we just left. Upon returning to the desk we told the employee Delta sent us back. Still unable to confirm our reservations still they suggested American Airlines, a few queues to the left. We waited in line until greeted with the same baffled results by their agents. They suggested we try Delta since they were the only flight leaving the airport to New York. Downstairs, Delta confirmed they were the only flight that would match our itinerary but our reservations remained nonexistent.

The agent rallied to our cause, calling some internal company number to hopefully amend the situation. With ease he remained on the line while assisting a large military group check into their flight to Thailand. All the while, we stood to the side wondering if our trip would actually take place. After the military group efficiently filed into order, our agent told us he still couldn’t confirm our reservations. Making matters worse we probably wouldn’t make it through customs in time even if our names miraculously appeared in the system. His final suggestion was to call whatever company we booked the flights through. Hopefully they could fix the mess.

My mother would call the company while I discussed the situation with my father. Both conversations went smoothly. The company redirected our flights to Atlanta, then Orlando and finally to Glasgow. A stop less with an estimated arrival ten minutes earlier than our original flight. Crisis averted.

We gathered our luggage, walking quickly towards Delta. There we stood in line patiently. Scanned our tickets and passports but remained lost in the system. The gentleman suggested we try upstairs at United, the line we just left. Upon returning to the desk we told the employee Delta sent us back. Still unable to confirm our reservations still they suggested American Airlines, a few queues to the left. We waited in line until greeted with the same baffled results by their agents. They suggested we try Delta since they were the only flight leaving the airport to New York. Downstairs, Delta confirmed they were the only flight that would match our itinerary but our reservations remained nonexistent.

The agent rallied to our cause, calling some internal company number to hopefully amend the situation. With ease he remained on the line while assisting a large military group check into their flight to Thailand. All the while, we stood to the side wondering if our trip would actually take place. After the military group efficiently filed into order, our agent told us he still couldn’t confirm our reservations. Making matters worse we probably wouldn’t make it through customs in time even if our names miraculously appeared in the system. His final suggestion was to call whatever company we booked the flights through. Hopefully they could fix the mess.

My mother would call the company while I discussed the situation with my father. Both conversations went smoothly. The company redirected our flights to Atlanta, then Orlando and finally to Glasgow. A stop less with an estimated arrival ten minutes earlier than our original flight. Crisis averted.

The first flight was free of malfunctions despite my jumpy nerves at every minor bout of turbulence. We landed at Atlanta’s massive airport. Navigating the entangled corridors and levels, we took an interior rail system to our next gate. Then ate lunch while waiting to board our flight to Orlando.

Another quick flight before arriving to an airport with some sense of familiarity. Memories of a previous trip to Orlando arose as we walked past gates. It was obvious Disney was a high priority trip for Scottish and American families alike. Everyone at the gate was returning home while we awaited the proper start to our vacation.

Our earlier tribulation further transformed into benevolence. Instead of the original single rowed plane, the privilege of a double decker, Virgin Atlantic flight was ours. This came with complimentary meal, movies and goody bag. If not actual first class passengers we certainly felt like it, especially with an unused seat between us for extra space on our longest flight. Our musky flight attendant took our order for dinner and returned shortly after to present the food. Mom fell asleep watching a western I suggested. I tried to do the same with little success. Turbulence affected the larger aircraft less but travel anxiety left me restless. I would close my eyes, awaken, check the GPS location of the flight, look out the window, reposition myself and close my eyes once more. This cycle repeated for hours. Out the window the sun began rising over the ocean below. Shortly after the captain announced our descent into Glasgow. The land below welcomed us with fog hanging heavy above the green earth.

Edinburgh, Royal Mile Piper
Bagpiper on the Royal Mile

DAY 2 – EDINBURGH

Finally on the ground again I was happy to use my legs and breathe real atmosphere instead of an airplane cabin’s manufactured oxygen. We found our bags on the carousel before making pleasantries with customs agents. They greeted us warmly into the country after asking their list of questions. We made our way to the lobby of the airport where I enjoyed my first cup of coffee. It helped as we tried to figure out the proper train tickets for Edinburgh. Travel weariness and unfamiliar technologies match poorly. A customer service agent told us to catch a bus from the airport to the train station. Guided outside after buying train tickets we found the bus stop directly past the exit. The next bus arrived and my mother asked the driver if it would take us to the proper train station. Helpful, he told her how many stops exactly. She paid for our bus fare and found a seat. I secured our bags on the luggage rack, then found my mother near the back. We counted stops while taking note of landmarks for our return to Glasgow at the end of our trip.

Our stop quickly arrived and I encountered my first international faux pas. Pulling the bags from the rack I managed to spill the remaining coffee from my cup all over the shoulder of another passenger’s jacket. Luckily, the gentleman was well prepared for Scottish weather and the coffee dripped off the water resistant material. I felt lucky he brusquely accepted my panicked apologies. The awkwardness of the situation prolonged as we both exited the bus and began walking the same direction. City blocks passed in uncomfortable silence. The train station finally arrived and I imparted another desperate apology before we bustled beneath the streets. The next train to Edinburgh arrived fifteen minutes later.

Easing into my seat I watched the city quickly disappear as the train sped into the countryside. I looked through the window at rolling hills of green with vast swathes of yellow bushes, dotted intermittently with a farm house or herd of sheep. The train stopped at stations in countryside towns, exchanged passengers, then returned to the route. Towns disappeared, replaced by more hills. Many topped with spinning, white, wind turbines.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

Eventually, the countryside gave way to suburban sprawl followed shortly after by the city proper. Nearing Waverly Station the architecture revealed the age of Edinburgh. Traveling back in time the closer we got to Old Town. The cliffside jutted upwards to the right of the rails. Imposing castle walls mortared ages ago extended the cliffs further into the sky.

As I marveled at this new perspective of history the train came to a stop in Waverly Station. I gathered our bags without incident before exiting to the platform. Our next goal was rendezvousing with my sister, Emily. She waited at the main gates of the station near a storefront. Managing to take a lesser used exit, we ended up on the opposite side of the building. Again, feeling like lost reservations we rounded the building only to sneak up on my sister. We greeted with hugs before taking a picture to provide evidence for my father of our safe arrival to Edinburgh.

Emily guided us up the steep hill of cobblestone streets towards the castle and surrounding buildings, equally archaic. Maneuvering through black cabs and our first five way intersection brought us through stone archways leading to a steep, stone stair case. At the top was the courtyard of my sisters flat. Her dorm only a few more flights of stairs to drag our bags before we could stow them away and finally unwind from our flights. The flat my sister shared with two other girls formed a long corridor with two bathrooms, one at either end and a shared kitchen directly across from the front door. All the rooms extended from the same side of the corridor and placed every window facing one of The Royal Mile’s busiest intersections. Bagpipers were heard most hours of the day as black cabs and double decker busses speed between the large mass of tourists below.

We began unpacking and settling into the small dorm room. Large enough for a desk, armoire, and small bed frame. Fortunately, enough floor space for a queen sized air mattress, used for the duration of our stay. My priority after finding a corner to claim for my bags was finding a bathroom. My sister directed me to either end of the hallway.

I went to the furthest bathroom away. This incurred my next faux pas. After washing up I returned to the corridor but in my jet lagged state I didn’t count the correct amount of doors. Instead of returning to my sister’s room I entered the first door I came to. The room was occupied by my sister’s sick flat mate; watching television, huddled beneath blankets on her bed. Once again baffled and embarrassed I stuttered an apology, backed out of the room and continued to my sister’s. The rest of my trip I did my best to go unseen and unheard despite the flatmate’s little concern for the incident.

After finally settling, Emily insisted we head out to take in some sights. This would preoccupy us from our exhaustion. If we fell asleep before nine that evening adjusting to the drastic difference in timezones would become more difficult. Besides, my mom needed a new rain coat. She figured Scotland was the perfect place to find the right jacket.

We exited the building directly onto the main thoroughfare of the Royal Mile, just a short distance beneath the castle gates. Food was the priority before shopping. So, Emily guided us across the old streets, through back closes until we reached another main thoroughfare. She will claim saving my life from multiple death inducing crossing infractions, but she underestimates my experience dodging oncoming traffic.

We decided something traditionally Scottish appropriate for our first lunch; haggis. MUM’S was the restaurant of choice and the staff kindly greeted us upon entry. Happy to to introduce us to their version of the dish. Enlightening us to the various methods of consumption. With brown sauce or no brown sauce.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

Our server noted our American accents and questioned us about our vacation. He offered advice on dealing with sea sickness when he learned our travels would take us North across the Atlantic to the Orkney Isles. Then he left us to our haggis. I made it through most of the plate heaped up with mashed potatoes and turnip, topped with the ground, spicy meat. The ingestion of cultural heritage left my travel weary stomach overly satiated. So, the rest of the afternoon was spent with haggis kicking around my insides.

Even with my upset gut and the intermittent showers I reveled in the the sights of an old city, all new to me. Dodging other tourists equally distracted by the sights we made our way back to Emily’s flat so she could change shoes. My mother and I waited on the street below her window.

After she returned we took the Royal Mile past the crowds of tourists flocking in and out of souvenir shops and pubs. We took North Bridge to Princess Street in hopes of finding a rain coat among the malls and clothing shops. I mostly just tried to keep pace and not take too many obtrusive, touristy photographs. The amount of buskers and street performers was astounding. Giving up on the coat search for the day we passed a Piper and Drum duo I found the most intriguing.

Busking Duo
Scotland National Monument
Scotland National Monument
Nelson Monument
Nelson Monument
Sir Walter Scott Monument
Sir Walter Scott Monument

Moving on from shopping, Emily took us to Calton Hill. The wind whipped around us as we hiked around towering monuments. With the Nelson Monument to our right and the massive columns of the National Monument of Scotland behind us we gazed out across the city. The Royal Mile descended to the Queen’s Palace of Holyroodhouse, into Holyrood Park where the highest hill jutted above the buildings, Arthur’s Seat. The massive, volcanic creation beckoned. Emily informed us the hike could take quite a while so we decided to climb Arthur’s Seat the following day.

We left Calton Hill making our way back to the Princess Street Gardens. Blossoming foliage appeared all the more vibrant beside the Victorian Gothic monument to Sir Walter Scott and the jagged cliff face beneath the castle. Beauty was only mitigated by my exhaustion. I fought off sleep walking the pathways around the park. Resting with every opportunity granted, on benches or beside castle ruins. Emily tried motivating us through our exhaustion but finally relented, allowing us to return to her flat. Through the gardens back up the same steep hill and staircase from earlier in the day.

Back in her room we video chatted with my father back in the states. My mother and I began sinking into ourselves afterwards. To avoid succumbing to fatigue my sister decided another outing was necessary. Coffee might help us through the remaining hours of the evening. Wanting to see where Rowling worked on her famous novels, our group decided to brave the crowd and get a drink from The Elephant Cafe.

With coffee in hand we visited Greyfriars Kirkyard just down the street. Supposedly one of the most haunted cemeteries in the world and a landmark on my list. I attempted a paranormal investigation between sips of my beverage. Nothing supernatural occurred. However, I gleaned a bit of history from a passing tour group and whatever knowledge my sister offered about the changing burial rituals of the culture. Details of both wavered as I distractedly took snapshots of interesting grave markers, hoping for the appearance of some ghostly remnant. With our rounds through the kirkyard completed, we made our way back to the bustling streets.

Geryfriar's Kirkyard
Greyfriars Kirkyard
Greyfriar's Kirkyard
Greyfriars Kirkyard Headstone

Nobody else wanted dinner after our heavy lunch but I wanted falafel from a Che Guevara inspired takeaway restaurant. Delicious and easy to eat while walking back to Emily’s flat. It preoccupied me from my weary muscles and sleep deprived eyes. Managing not to run into any other pedestrians as the shadows of the evening quickly lengthened into night.

Edinburgh Castle from Greyfriar's Kirkyard
Edinburgh Castle from Greyfriars Kirkyard

Back upstairs in Emily’s dorm we checked in with my father and Jasmine before making our way to bed. I found a comfortable location between the springs of the twin mattress and closed my eyes. Little time seemed to pass when the sun warmed my face the next morning. Sounds of bagpipes below the open window announced the beginning of a new day.

DAY 3 – ARTHUR’S SEAT

Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill
Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill

Coffee is a morning ritual for me but not for my sister. She didn’t have anything besides instant grounds in the flat. So, instead of my usual two cups and some sort of toast for breakfast, I ended up with a lonely “English” Muffin; just muffin or crumpet there. As it crunched between my teeth, the butter and red currant jam dripped from the corners of my mouth, I stood staring out the large windows of my sisters kitchen. The street below was already bustling with tourists and shop keepers opening their doors. A coffee shop across the street held my interest, I stared down with a longing for caffeine. As my sister and mother finished preparing for the day out I left the flat in search of a fix. I would meet them on the street below the flat after returning with real coffee.

The small coffee shop across the street was the scene for my next international faux pas. Again, I managed to cross the cobblestones without incurring an incident with oncoming traffic, yet managed to walk past the proper door for the shop. Instead, I tried opening a locked door, perhaps leading to the flats above the business. I looked over to the people enjoying their beverages outside on the patio with an embarrassed smirk. I noticed the large, wooden door painted pink beside the couple’s table. Making my way past the patio dwellers I mumbled something about doors as I entered. For the sake of ease I just ordered a large coffee with room for cream. The barista rebuked my word choice, revealing they only offered milk. The subtlety of cultural difference was easily shaken off until she rang up the order and told me what I owed. I reached in my pocket and pulled out coins to pay. Struggling to make sense of the pounds and pence pieces in my palm the culture shock was palpable. A quick glance back up to the barista with my confused, befuddled grin and bleary eyes then back to my hand to make sense of which coins to use. A few more awkward moments before I finally handed over the proper amount and she handed over my coffee with some aggravation towards my touristy nature. I left the shop quickly after tipping, hurrying back over to the close where my sister and mother waited for me. I hoped the caffeine would help my brain function so I could avoid any further “Idiot-American-Abroad Moments”. Telling them of my incident my sister told me sometimes tips offend since the service industry workers are better paid than their American counter parts. I gulped down my coffee as I took note and followed her and my mother down the busy streets.

My sister need to tend to her laundry, some school work while fighting an allergy attack. So, she would split off from the Arthur’s Seat adventure. She also already made the hike a few months earlier with visiting friends. The long, mostly uphill hike just wasn’t appealing to her. So, she provided us with directions, head straight down the Royal Mile past the Palace of Holyroodhouse and then start climbing upwards when you come to giant hillside at the bottom of the mile. We planned to find a rain coat and eat brunch before splitting the party for the day. However, before we could decide where to eat the familiar sound of bagpipes and drums filled the air and beckoned us to follow. A kirkyard close by was railed off by police officers in fluorescent vests, some directed traffic while others watched the gathering crowd. Inside the barricade stood a regiment of boys and men in full kilt regalia. A band regiment at one end, stood with their drums and bagpipes.

A police officer explained the occasion to us after we inquired. The Lord High Commissioner was filling in the for the Queen’s inspection of the Boys Brigade. The Boys Brigade shares similarities to the Boy Scouts, the subtle differences are lost on me. Then with a call over the radio the officer began preparing people for the Lord High Commissioner’s cavalcade to arrive. Officers split the crowd and opened the barricade as the band quickly tuned and began playing. Bagpipes and drums welcomed the string of black limos and official looking vehicles through the crowd into the kirkyard.

The Lord High Commissioner exited a vehicle with an entourage of pomp and circumstance. He made his rounds of inspection before the band played his entourage into the church. Striking into another song the band then lead the regiment marching up the Royal Mile towards the castle. It was all such a strange, unplanned occurrence but quite the serendipitous fortune as mother was ruminating about missing the parade of pipers and drummers at the Highland Games. After the surprise parade we headed back down to Princess Street to decide on a coat for my mother since the sky was ever threatening rain.

Princess Street was bustling with pedestrians and shoppers. We dodged people as we made our way between different department stores and tourist shops. I didn’t do much bargain hunting, I let my mother and sister search for deals while I stayed out of the way. Usually, standing at the open door or beneath the awning of whatever shop we were in, watching the people pass amidst intermittent showers.

Finally a coat was decided on and we searched the streets for a place to eat. Brunch would give the early afternoon showers a chance to subside. We chose a pastry shop nearby. With stomachs filled with breakfast crescents we were prepared to hike the largest range of the Edinburgh hills.

The three of us made our way back to Emily’s flat where she departed our company to attend to her laundry and recuperate from an allergy attack. My mother and I began our trek down the Royal Mile. Walking revealed many of the shops and closes along this main thoroughfare. We navigated between buskers and tourists. Past the parliament building and finally into Holyrood Park. The volcanic and glacial geographic formations jutted into the sky, reconstructing the horizon.

Ever looming with grey precipitation the clouds migrated about a bright, blue sky. This brightness matched the hillside adorned in the late May colors of green grass and yellow gorse flowers. The ascending hike past the Salisbury Crags inspired rock climbing aspirations. Prohibited without a permit however, I only saw one person daring the climb. The trek up was enough of an endeavor anyway.

Salisbury Crags
Salisbury Crags
Salisbury Crags Path
Salisbury Crags Path
Arthur's Seat
Path up to Arthur's Seat

Past the crags a valley led us to another steep ascent towards Arthur’s Seat. The rain spared us but the wind increased with the altitude. A small rolling hill of green greeted us before the final ascent up the narrow paths to the rocky peak. The path up only allowed enough space for one traveler at a time to pass. Patience was necessary with the hillside bustling with hikers. Eventually we arrived at the peak. Looking out for miles over the entire city, from the harbor at Leith to the surrounding neighborhoods and hills. All the while the wind tried tossing us from the crag into the distant landscape.

At the peak I had a brief conversation with a fellow from the Orkneys. We started conversing about another tourist taking the same picture of herself at the top of the hill. It turned out we shared common tastes in music and discussed different performing acts witnessed over the years. He gave me some hints to hunting LP’s in Scotland before we parted ways.

Edinburgh From Arthur's Seat
A view from Arthur's Seat
Crow
My friend The Crow

My mother and I decided to descend the opposite side of the hill, towards Leith and the Firth of Forth. The ruins of an abbey overlooking a loch were our next destination. We split up for the first descent. I took the steeper path while my mother took an easier route. After a few steps downward I noticed a crow perched on a rock inspecting a single black feather. The bird and I watched one another briefly before it picked up the feather and flew off from the rock.

Crows represents change, balance and opportunity within Pagan beliefs. At the time I wasn’t sure what to make of this encounter, but it did not seem a harbinger of ill fate. Jasmine and her mother also share this bird as a spirit animal. So I smiled and followed the bird down towards the path to meet my mother. Reconnecting, we trekked down the steep hill towards the ruins of a small abbey. We rested upon arrival, looked out over the loch to the Firth of Fourth beyond.

St. Anthony's Chapel Ruins
Saint Anthony's Chapel from Arthur's Seat
St. Anthony's Chapel Ruins Close Up
Saint Anthony's Chapel

Heading around the bottom bend we arrived at the entrance of Holyrood Park where we began our hike. Stopping at the gates of Holyrood Palace we watched the guards change position only to freeze again at their next post. Hungry and worn out we didn’t stay long enough to watch another changing of the gaurd. Instead we headed back up the Royal Mile to my sister’s flat. This gave us time to recuperate from the hike, check in back home and change for our next outing, dinner.

Our group eventually agreed on my vote of Indian cuisine. We made note of Namaste Cafe the day before while walking to Greyfriars Kirkyard and made it our destination for the evening. A short walk later and the host seated us at a table. The first to arrive for dinner hours, we had the entire restaurant to ourselves.

After the naan and saag we strolled a few doors down for a drink at Sandy Bell’s. A traditional folk band sat at a table in the back room, plucking their strings as the crowded pub hummed around them. Finishing our drinks quickly we left for more open spaces, through the University of Edinburgh’s campus.

Lavendar
Lavendar

Emily showed us the outside of the bone lab building where she spent most of her time. She pointed out the slender and barred windows, referring to the building as the Bone Dungeon. Campus ended at a large grassy field, The Meadows. We walked along the pathways with overhanging limbs from freshly blossoming Elms. Along the edge of the park the campus buildings alternated between modern and archaic architecture. We took the short route through the park back to the streets. Continuing beneath the castle on the side opposite to Princess Street Gardens. Walking towards the gate where the Royal Mile begins we noticed the large hedge of lilacs blooming just on the other side of the street’s retaining wall. The smell of the fresh, purple blooms juxtaposed the smell of the wet, stone-workings of the old city. As the sun began its descent towards the horizon we crested the street’s and noticed a rainbow arching across our path through the sky. Another good omen for our travels.

Finally returning to Emily’s flat after such a long day of walking was a relief. My leg muscles ached, unaccustomed to the steep terrains. Still, there was no rest for the weary. The next day we left early on a train to Aberdeen. This east coast city was the next step in our tour across Scotland. So, we packed our bag,s leaving any unessentials in the dorm. We connected with my father at home before laying down to sleep.

DAY 4 – ABERDEEN

The next day I awoke in a fashion similar to the previous morning. Bleary eyed, deprived of immediate coffee with bag pipes announcing another day’s beginning. We quickly ate breakfast and gathered our bags before heading down the many steps from Emily’s flat to Waverly Station. I got my caffeine fix at a small cart in the station. Anxious to catch our proper train we arrived early. We patiently waited, drinking our morning beverages at the platform.

When our train arrived I arranged our luggage on the rack as my mother and sister searched for our seats. The cars lurched forward as we found the tickets reserving our spots. Leaving town the towering cliff side quickly disappeared from view as the train sped out of the city, across the Firth of Forth and into the surrounding country. The tracks ran with the coast. Sheer cliff faces and sandy beaches met the vast ocean waves.

Eventually the coastal landscape and small townships transitioned back into a metropolitan modernity. Stopping in the main station of Aberdeen we departed the train. After a quick consultation with a map we made our way through the granite city towards our arranged accommodations. The Roselea Guest House was a short walk from the station. Settling in, we threw our bags into respective corners. Then made an unsuccessful attempt to check in back at home. So, we decided to try again after discovering what Aberdeen had to offer. Frances, our host suggested we walk a few blocks up where we could take Union Street all the way to the beach.

With a provided map of the city’s layout we left the back door of the guest house and headed towards Union Street hoping to find lunch. The pub, Ma Cameron’s was suggested by my mother’s friend; Moira, a previous resident of Aberdeen. Since it was a coastal town we decided fish ‘n’ chips an appropriate meal.

The sun shone brightly providing us uncommon warmth in the late Scottish May. We enjoyed the abnormal weather with the outdoor seating on the second floor of the pub. Despite already knowing our desired lunch we still looked over the menu. Quickly deciding before Emily ran in our orders downstairs at the bar. She returned shortly with pints to enjoy while we waited for our fried Haddock. I watched the seagulls fly between the granite buildings, landing on the grey shingles or perching amidst the chimneys with the bright blue sky above. The grey of the town made all colors more vibrant. Utilizing this characteristic the citizens tended verdant gardens to juxtapose the ordinance to build all buildings from granite.

Green Door
Green door near Roselea Guest Hosue

Lunch arrived during my color study. Each piece of fried fish hung well over either side of the plate with sides of fries and peas equally generous. We marveled at the proportions before devouring the food. Although struggling by the end, I managed to clean my plate. Following the meal up with the rest of my pint so the fish could swim, I sat back in my chair basking in the sun. Finishing before my mother and sister I decided to pay my share and head back down the street to skulk around a record store.

Dwelling in a small basement room there was only the owner and his wall to wall collection. The only remaining cleared space was a rectangular path around tables stacked with assorted vinyl. I flipped through the albums quickly but didn’t find any on my list. Once my mother and sister met me in the cramped basement room we headed back to the streets above.

Continuing towards the ocean we took Jasmine Street which directed us towards the boardwalk. It directed us past a large recreation center. Complete with a huge outdoor obstacle course, a BMX course, indoor climbing walls, gym, dojo and skatepark. Awed by its existence I looked back every few paces as we neared the boardwalk amusement park and beachfront.

Aberdeen Beach
Aberdeen Coast
Aberdeen Beach
Aberdeen Beach

The skies grew cloudy as we took in the sights the coast offered. Freighter ships slowly trolled through the cold waters. On the beach two young boys disregarded the chill and ran into the surf wearing only their skivvies. To our right was the lighthouse standing against the incoming haar. Behind us the amusement park’s ferris wheel remained motionless. A ghostly boardwalk awaiting prime tourist season.

Aberdeen Ferris Wheel
Codona's Ferris Wheel

Leaving the beach we made our way back towards the recreation center. The skatepark inside sang a siren song, begging me to retire from skateboarding retirement. We entered for a better look and enquiry about equipment rentals. They offered hour long sessions with rentals for a reasonable enough price. Knowing I wouldn’t have another opportunity to skate their park the will to ride won out.

There was forty minutes before the next session so we visited the free park behind the building. It was a community free space made up of paths through grassy dunes. My mother and sister decided to continue their walk among the dunes while I headed back for the skate session. After I signed the appropriate waivers and paid my fee they fitted me with a board and helmet. The park was well built. Mellow enough for beginners with more difficult obstacles for experienced skaters to enjoy as well. After an eleven year hiatus, I took my time in reacquainting myself with the sport. I was impressed I was able to at least ollie and grind a few ledges without detriment to my body. My endurance wasn’t even up for the full hour however and when I noticed my mother and sister sitting in the balcony over the park taking pictures I decided to finish the session early.

TX Skatepark
TX Skatepark

We exited the huge building as a martial arts class started their practice. Heading back towards our guest house we passed through Merecat Crossing with a pagoda at the center. A pedestrian took our picture for my sister before leaving the interestinglandmark. Making our way back down Union Street I noticed the resemblance in aesthetics to Bardstown Road back home. Businesses lined the street and surrounding avenues, I searched around trying to find different venues hoping for a chance punk show that evening. I discovered an open mic hosted at a pub off a side street. We searched for the pub and another venue but had difficulty finding either.

Returning to Union Street we continued to the guest house, dinner wasn’t necessary with lunch still filling our digestive tracts. Once back to Roselea House we touched base with home. I did a bit more research online and mapped the open mic pub we failedto locate earlier. My mother and sister called it a night but I was enchanted with Aberdeen’s coastal charm and wanted to experience more. I followed the streets back to Union and then found the proper side street for Musa. I opened the door to the pub with the sounds of a guitar already twanging. I ordered a drink and found an empty table.

A multitude of performers were present. Guitar players, poets, even a traditional flute player. When the host announced a short intermission I asked if any spots were still available. He allowed me a slot and I returned to my seat. A gentleman arrivedin the bar shortly after carrying a strange dark case I assumed held a musical instrument, potentially another flute. He walked over to the bar, ordered a drink and then looked around the pub with a look of wonder, searching for an open table but none remained. I sat close to the bar with three empty seats around, so I offered him the one beside me. He graciously accepted and asked about the event. I explained I knew very little since I wasn’t from the neighborhood. He chuckled noticing my foreign accent.

His name was Chris. A pleasant fellow with a good sense of conversation. I asked if he was performing with a gesture towards the black case in his hand. He laughed and explained the case held his snooker cue. This was followed with an attempt to enlighten me to the subtle differences between billiards and snooker (they remain unclear). The host eventually announced my name, greeting me to the stage. I was nervous, attemping stand up comedy for the first time as an adult, in a foreign country. Needless to say they didn’t laugh very much at my “jokes”, but that’s what I get for going up unprepared. Chris told me I wasn’t so bad after I returned to the table.

Musa Bar
Musa Bar

Ricky, the host was just as cordial and struck up a conversation with Chris and I. Another local, Britney joined and the three ended up closing the open mic with a rendition of The Gorillaz song, “Clint Eastwood”. After closing the event we tipped our bar tender and the locals invited me to another pub favored by the locals. I followed them down the dark streets. Conversing about our lives, making new friends. This continued over another drink.

As the hours grew late we all decided it was time to depart. I said my goodbyes and thanked everyone for their generous hospitality. Ricky and I walked up Union Street until the proper cross road appeared to take me back to the guest house. I snuck back into Roselea House and upstairs to the room where my sister and mother slept. Turning off the light my mother left on, I crawled into bed and fell asleep.

DAY 5 – INVERNESS

I awoke a bit later than my mom or sister. Already showered and dressed they told me breakfast was offered downstairs. This got me out of bed quickly, I dressed to enjoy the homemade Scottish breakfast Frances prepared. Eggs, choice of meat, baked beans, mushrooms and scone. Thanking Frances before returning upstairs for a quick shower. Afterwards we gathered our bags, bid farewell to our gracious host and left for the train station. I arrived in Aberdeen without expectations and departed with a sense of belonging.

Francis Vomit Sticker
Sticker by Francis Vomit

We bought caffeinated beverages at the train station. Finding our departing platform didn’t take long and the train arrived before we could finish our drinks. I carted our luggage onto the racks as my traveling companions found our seats like the previous morning. Despite my longing to stay in Aberdeen my excitement was greater for our next stop, Inverness. It was my requested destination while planning our tour of the country. Since childhood I’ve found the legends surrounding Loch Ness fascinating. I contemplated the dark waters I’d only read about as the hills outside the train window reached up towards a brooding sky, threatening rain. Dense clouds intensified the shadows amidst the evergreen thickets growing beside the railroad tracks and up across the ever-taller crags. Mom spotted a fox and Emily discussed the difference in North American and European deer species. I completely missed the wildlife, distracted by the landscape’s appeal to new perceptions of magnitude.

Countryside views from the train
View from the train

The heights passed, conjuring scenery from folk lore. The small towns and corresponding stops increased until we reached the Inverness station. Gathering the bags we hurried out the station into the city proper. The map indicated our guest house was over the River Ness, directly across from the city council chambers. After checking in we unloaded our bags into the room hosting us the next two nights. We left directly after to explore the city.

We made our way back across the River Ness on the main bridge. I watched the dark waters rush beneath us from the loch to the ocean, amazed by the shallow depth through the city. Directly across the bridge we stopped at the visitors center. We booked reservations for a loch tour the following day. Searching for souvenirs or tartans relating to the Shanks name was a fruitless endeavor. We hoped one of the other tartan shops might provide a souvenir with our clan name. Other sites took priority over our clan research.

Hootananny was first on the list. A pub offering traditional live music every night on the bottom floor and a larger venue for contemporary acts above. Nobody had interest in pub fare but we knew where to return for folk music. A few blocks further and we discovered Nourish, a vegan cafe within a health and wellness center. After our heavy meals of haggis and haddock we decided to try something lighter.

We were warmly greeted by the owner and head chef behind the counter when we entered. The menu offered nutritious soups and sandwiches. Everyone quickly found an appetizing order which was promptly prepared and served. We each tried a bite of the other’s dish and found everything appetizing. Complimenting the chef mom recognized her German accent. They reminisced to one another about their times spent in the country. We finished and paid then left to further explore.

With assorted shops on every street we window shopped and made note of enticing restaurants. A twinge in my left knee slowly grew into the ache of an enflamed ligament as we traversed the blocks back to the hotel. By the time we crossed back over the river I was limping. I wasn’t well accustomed to the long hikes like my mother and sister, returning from skateboarding retirement the day before probably didn’t help.

Inverness Architecture
Inverness architecture

The concierge brought me ice and I rested briefly in the hotel room while we used the internet to connect with the states. Ice eased the pain and we rested long enough for most of the cubes to melt. Then decided to head back to Hootananny for the music. Exiting the guest house as the sun started to ease behind the horizon, we walked with the river back towards Ness Bridge and crossed again.

Back at Hootananny we found the kitchen closed and no sign of a traditional folk band. Rather than wait for the music we decided to return the next night. We left for the streets to debate menus posted on the exterior walls of restaurants. After walking blocks we finally agreed on a chain Italian restaurant offering Gluten free options for my sister. The food was filling and the waiter offered authenticity as a native Italian speaker.

Taking pedestrian bridge back across the flowing water, it swayed at the force of our feet. The bridge brought us a few blocks away from the guest house but we detoured to admire the blossoming trees outside St. Andrews Cathedral. Even with a bad knee and resulting limp I enjoyed Inverness immensely. Arriving back to the room our hotel beds welcomed us with comfort. I hoped enough rest would resolve the knee pain by the time we started our search for the Loch Ness Monster the following day.

Tree Blossoms
Cherry blossoms

DAY 6 – LOCH NESS

Loch Ness
Loch Ness

We awoke early the next morning to eat in the guest house cafeteria. The continental breakfast didn’t quite compare with France’s homemade cooking, but the buffet offered larger proportions to fuel the excursion on the loch. Filled, we gathered our company and found our way to the bus station. Inside I bought another coffee which led to the my first encounter with paying for the privilege of a bathroom. Instead of blundering my way through this experience I actually helped other tourists figure out the correct coins for the turnstiles.

After managing to avoid another international faux pas I sat in the plastic, blue seats of the bus station eagerly waiting to board. When finally allowed to enter the bus we were some of the first in line. The driver took our tickets and we found seats near the front. As the driver took more tickets she asked entering passengers where they were visiting from. A poll she continued over the intercom after we were all boarded and seated. She kept a well trained foot on the gas pedal as she navigated our large tour bus across the Ness Bridge and out of town.

The bus zipped around roads with the loch to the left. The driver provided information about surrounding landmarks from an intercom system. She pointed out a castle across the loch available for short stays for a hefty sum and other details of the country side. We soon arrived to the main aspect of the tour, a ferry across the Loch to the iconic Urquhart Castle ruins.

Unloading at the side of the road, the passengers followed the only path past a large statue of Nessie. We continued beneath the road where the path ran along a mountain stream. At the end of the path our group gathered on a large, wooden dock over the cold loch. The ferry to approached with bagpipes blaring over the speakers. Everyone boarded the vessel. Many took shelter from the cold inside the heated lower deck. Tightening my scarf around my neck, I headed for the top deck. There, I looked over the railing at the frigid, inky waters below. Wondering if a reclusive monster enjoyed the sounds of bagpipes and tourists loudly bustling above. Massive hillsides towered above the loch. The glacial valley sloped downward, beneath the waves forming the loch’s extreme depths. The boat’s wake spread across the dark waters, we continued towards the ruins in the foggy distance.

Passengers atop the upper deck braved chill winds whipped off the loch. Photographers trying to capture the mystical beauty of the landscape while others hoped in delusion to glimpse Nessie, I belonged to both categories. Approaching land, the fog slowly dispersed revealing Urquhart Castle ruins along the bank. The ruins presented a long awaited sight. A scene I only knew from investigative documentary footage or pictures in books discussing the loch’s legendary inhabitant. After docking we were free to explore the ruins at our leisure for an hour.

Urquhart ruins from the boat
Urquhart Ruins

Our large tour group dispersed. Emily and my mother took their own pace around old stone towers and ramparts. . My knee remained contentious, so I avoided crowds while exploring the ruins. Gathering historical information between long glances at the loch out of stone framed windows. Hoping to catch a fleeting moment proving Nessie’s existence.

I limped up the steep staircase of the main tower. Pausing for any descending tourists to pass me on the narrow stoneworks. Eventually reaching the top of the tower I watched over the dark waters below. No shapes resembling a plesiosaur or serpent broke the surface. The crowds increased atop the small platform so I descended, limping back down the crowded staircase. My sister was at the bottom. Neither of us knew where our mother had wandered to explore so we decided to stick together. We followed the paths to the yet unexplored side of the grounds where the crowd lessened.

Urquhart ruins wall
Urquhart Ruins
Urquhart Ruins
Urquhart Ruins

Years prior to conceiving our trip to Scotland I decided to honor my strange, childhood obsession of Nessie with a tattoo. The famously hoaxed “surgeon’s photograph” is permanently inked beneath my belly button. I joke Nessie growls anytime I’m hungry… and admit to a disposition of questionable tastes. Still, the opportunity to utilize my moronic sense of wit arose and I had to seize the moment. Striking a pose beside some ruined walls I raised my shirt and jacket to expose my tattoo, hoping to use forced perspective so the tattoo resembled the monster surfacing in the real loch behind me. Emily was kind enough to snap a few shots before we returned to exploring the grounds and searching for our mother.

Checking the clock we realized the bus departed shortly from our predetermined rendezvous point, the parking lot. My sister walked along with a concerned eye to my limp along the path to the gift shop. Inside we finally found our mother. She was about to watch an educational film on the ruins. The theatre was already full despite her attempt to save us seats. The next showing was after our bus departed. We shopped for souvenirs while waiting for my mother to exit the theatre. Mom wanted a few souvenirs as well, especially the fox scarf she found in the gift shop. Anxious about keeping the bus waiting I decided to go to the parking lot. Avoiding the stairs I took the elevator to the exit. My mother and sister following in their own time.

The bus driver asked entering passengers if they saw Nessie. I laughed, telling her I managed to snap a picture of the monster. Surprised, she of course wanted to see the evidence. I grabbed my camera and opened the picture of me revealing my tattoo. Taking a close look the driver chuckled. I took my seat and waited for the rest of the tourists to arrive. When all the passengers reloaded the driver repeated the question over the speaker. I raised my hand with a few others. She retorted with, “Now we know who’s had too much whiskey today.”

Me and Nessie
Me and Nessie
Nessie close up
Nessie close up

The crowd laughed. A couple of elderly women sitting across the aisle from me asked if I really witnessed the monster. I smirked and provided them with my evidence. They both laughed upon realizing the joke. We rounded sharp corners, speeding past the farmlands of the loch towards the next tour location, The Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition in Drumnadrochit.

A small town nestled into the hills beside the loch. The bus parked at the centre and unloaded. Inside we received the full historical overview of the loch and its potential to host a legendary beast. Rooms decorated to resemble the loch bed created a perfect ambience for the discussion. The exhibition provided a new, profound appreciation for the scientific endeavor of exploring Loch Ness’ ecosystem.

Loch Ness Centre: Plesiosaurus Display
Plesiosaurus Display
Loch Ness Centre: Submersive Research Display
Submersive Research Display

Our group returned to the bus, the loch expedition coming to an end. The bus sped past fields of Highland Cows (pronounced Heelin Coo). With tongue in cheek our driver revealed proper methods for catching Haggis. She noted the site of a former Pictish settlement then discussed her knowledge of the culture and history of the site. Returning to Inverness we took a bridge over the river towards the station. The driver made note of a few more attractions telling everyone about Hootananny.

After exiting the bus and leaving the station we took our time returning to the guest house. We contacted home, relating to my father all that facts learned on the tour. Breakfast was long gone and we needed lunch. Coming to a decision as a group proved difficult again. Most restaurants were closed for dinner prep. The remaining choices were franchises or tourists traps. Taking the pedestrian bridge back across the river we almost risked a buffet. As I opened the door two patrons leaving told us not to bother, the food wasn’t worth the cost. Only a few blocks away form Nourish and running low on options we decided to visit the vegan friendly cafe again. We made it just before she closed. She graciously served up another round of delicious food which we quickly ate. Hurrying out we thanked her again for her terrific hospitality.

Leaving the cafe I decided it was time for rest. My knee ached drastically. Stopping at the grocery store near our guest house I bought a bag of ice. Returning to our room I filled a smaller bag with cubes to hopefully reduce the swelling and pain. While laid up I searched for potential massage therapists to visit. Mom and Emily, both better prepared for the long walks took a hike through a riverside park. The pictures they returned with showed beautifully tranquil pathways. Budding tree limbs arching over the path towards the river. Far more idyllic than the mundane walls of the guest house.

With a bit of rest I found some minor relief. Enough to at least limp back to Hootananny after my traveling companions returned from their river walk. Since we missed the musical performance the previous night we decided to head back to the venue. With better intel from the bus driver we got there early enough to order a drink, grab a seat and wait for the band to arrive. A large wooden table sat in the middle of the room reserved for the musicians. Arriving one at a time, the band tuned their instruments before choosing a song at whim. The energy of the room grew with the music. Large groups of people began pouring in and finding a spot to sit and listen or dance and drink. I tried getting video footage of the band so my father could later enjoy the music.

An hour or so passed and we decided to leave for our room. I was hungry and stopped to get some late night grub. At a kabab shop I ordered a veggie pizza. Piping hot, I crammed portions into my mouth as we walked back to the guesthouse. Over the the main bridge again with its green and red lights glowing above the dark water. The hotel mattresses welcomed our return and we welcomed sleep.

DAY 7 – THURSO

Dragging our bags back to the train station we passed over the River Ness a final time. I limped my way up the street to a mall beside the station. We hoped to find a pharmacy to purchase a knee brace. With only a short time before the train arrived we decided to leave empty handed. Returning to the station we boarded with familiarity.

Four hours of rails took us through the highlands, past farmlands with hillsides of ever increasing heights. Pastures hosting sheep, deer and cows. Lochs expanding towards mountainous geography. Small town stations gradually shrank to single platforms near country roads the further north we traveled. Fences kept animals away from the tracks, herding them towards steeply inclined pastures.

Train to Thurso
Views from the train

The hours to Thurso allowed my knee time to heal. Limping a little less on the way to our next hotel. Fortunately Pentland Hotel was only blocks away from the train station. Another old, stone building with a quiet flower garden at one side. A park across the street spanned a city block. Branches from a tree in the neighboring churchyard reached across our window. A flock of crows nested among the limbs, vocalizing their presence intermittently. More kindred spirits from Jasmine and her mother. We dropped our bags and left to explore Thurso.

Pentland Hotel Garden
Pentland Hotel Flower Garden

Compared to the streets in the larger cities Thurso almost appeared uninhabited. Just a small, sleepy, seaside town. Arriving between lunch and dinner shifts left us short of food options. We managed to find a pub with an open kitchen and looked over the menu. I wanted to try a Scottish venison burger. It came topped with fried haggis and onion rings. My stomach disagreed with my choice.

We left the pub and found our way to the beach. The Atlantic met coastline in the shape of a half moon. To the left were alcoves carved into the cliffside by the surf, the ruins of Thurso Castle on the opposite shore. Far off in the horizon an image of the Orkney Isle’s wavering in the mist rose above the waves. Anticipating our voyage the next day I stepped closer to the ocean allowing the waves to reach my boots.

Thurso Beach
Thurso Beach

Waves crashed playfully along an alcove at one end of the beach. Kelp floated rhythmically in sync among rocky tide pools . Climbing atop the rocks I could see the small port town of Scrabster in the distance. There we would catch our ferry across to Orkney the following morning. Walking back through the park above the seaside cliffs brought us to one of Thurso’s main streets. Heading back to the hotel enjoying the architecture of the town with the ocean backdrop. My mother and sister opted to visit a grocery store while I returned to our room to rest my knee.

The grocery team returned to the room with ice for my knee and light snacks for the evening. We ate grapes and cheese while I iced my aching ligaments. Spotty internet connection kept our conversation with our loved ones back home brief. Wanting extra rest anyway we headed to bed. My sister and mother took the two beds in the main room while I had the connected children’s room to myself. Complete with crib or bunk bed for sleeping options. I chose bottom bunk fearing my weight might cause a top-heavy frame to land me in the crib. We all needed our rest, the next day demanded travel endurance.

DAY 8 – ORKNEY

Orkney from Thurso Beach
Orkney

Pentland Hotel offered a Scottish breakfast on the first floor and sack lunches for Orkney tourists. A front desk concierge handed us our lunches then we bounded out to catch our taxi to Scrabster. The cabbie took a single left turn to take us from Thurso to Scrabster. On the way we discussed our heritage with the driver. He recognized the Shanks name from the Armitage Shanks brand of bathroom fixtures. Yet, still didn’t recognize it as Scottish and guessed it of English or Irish descent. We laughed as everyone else we asked on the trip said something similar. The Scottish said we were English, the English said we were Irish and the Irish pointed back toward Scotland. Still a mystery what heinous action justified the expulsion of Shanks from history. We paid our driver, thanked him for the ancestry lesson then ran to catch the ferry.

The NorthLink ferry was huge and offered excess amenities for the ninety minute ride across the Atlantic. Emily took some medicine to avoid motion sickness and slept the majority of the voyage. I bought a coffee from the bar and met my mom out on the rear deck. We watched the waves crash against the hull as mainland Scotland slowly sank away into the mists. Brisk winds pushed the exhaust from the engine over the back deck. We returned to the interior to avoid the chill, noxious fumes and wait for the boat to pass The Old Man of Hoy.

After walking around the upper deck for the next hour I felt victorious in conquering my proneness to motion sickness. An announcement came over the intercom informing passengers of the quickly approaching landmark. My mother and I pulled up our hoods before stepping back out into the cold. Fog thickly wrapped itself around the crags, up high rolling hills of green. The Old Man of Hoy stood away from the island cliffs, a tower of rock rising alone from the cold ocean waves. The first person to climb the sea stack of basalt and red sandstone celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the event by repeating the feat at the age of eighty. A scout apparently climbed the tower at the age of nine…or maybe it was ten. The age didn’t matter much to me, impressed anyone would attempt the climb.

Fifteen minutes past The Old Man of Hoy we made land in Stromness Harbor. Our tour guide; Clive, arrived shortly after and our small group loaded into his fifteen seater van. An older Australian couple on holiday were the only other guests. They sat in the middle bench seat while my sister sat up front with the guide to avoid motion sickness and ask plenty of historical questions. Confident the voyage hadn’t bothered my inner ear I sat in the back with my mother. Within the first five minutes of driving off into the sprawling land of Orkney I quickly realized I wasn’t cured of motion sickness.

“If you look to the left you’ll see this particular landmark… If you look to your right you’ll see this particular landmark…”

Roses
The Weeping Window by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper

Acquiring details became challenging as nausea and disorientation took over. Thankfully, I was able to make it to our first stop without regurgitating breakfast, St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Ceramic, red poppies adorned the cathedral’s main entrance. A traveling art installation honoring fallen soldiers from the first world war. Walking beneath the vaulted ceilings I was grateful for firm ground beneath my feet.

However, respite was short-lived, we quickly returned to Clive’s van. Retrieving the banana from my sack lunch I gulped down the fruit in hopes of settling my stomach. To avoid further discomfort on the road I moved to the middle bench seat with the older, Australian couple on holiday. Unfortunately this helped little. The van rolled along the bumpy city streets as the guide rounded sharp corners. I pressed against pressure points in my wrists to alleviate the nausea. Crackling over the radio, Clive’s voice continued explaining surrounding landmarks. Tranced, the minutes and miles passed with closed eyes. Trying my best not to vomit all over the interior of Clive’s van and the nice couple beside me. Eventually the rolling hills gave way to our next stop. Crossing a submarine barrier from the second world war brought us to the site of The Italian Chapel.

Saint George and the Dragon Statue
Saint George and The Dragon

Italian prisoners of war built the chapel. Their work was ornate despite the sparse materials provided to them. Most impressive were the masterful paintings of the interior. Details remain fuzzy as I continued trying to regain balance amidst the murals. Returning outside the group briefly viewed the statue of Saint George atop a horse, charging a dragon with his spear. Again, the fresh air helped but respite was short. Back into the van, onto the winding, hilly roads that challenged my resistance to regurgitate. Our next stop was the neolithic settlement Skara Brae. It was a fair distance from the chapel, I believe I rested beside the Australians briefly during this trip.

Awakening from my trance as the van pulled to a stop and unloaded. Again, I followed the group around the site in a dazed, nauseated state. Happy to stretch my legs outside the van. Skara Brae sits on the coast of the Atlantic. It remained undiscovered until a violent storm ripped up the dunes revealing the neolithic stone village below the sands. Erosion constantly threatens the site. We walked around the small stone huts, my sister persisted with adept historical questions prompting Clive explain minute, historical details. I tried reasoning that my disorientation was caused by this ancient history merging with our present dimension… Delusional episodes were a symptom I had yet to encounter in my many experiences with motion sickness.

Skara Brae Prehistoric Village
Skara Brae Prehistoric Village
Skara Brae Prehistoric Village
Skara Brae Prehistoric Village
Skara Brae Prehistoric Village

The Skaill House hosted a museum exhibiting artifacts from previous owners. We carefully made our way through old possessions, safely sealed behind glass or roped off beyond the grasp of patrons. After making our way through the house it was time for lunch.

Mom, Emily and I chose a picnic table outside. We quickly ate our sandwiches and chips, washing lunch down with Irn Bru soda. Mom stepped inside the gift shop to find souvenirs for friends while Emily and I hurried back to the van. Waiting outside the van for the rest of our group Clive answered Emily’s questions while I continued digesting and deeply inhaling the ocean breeze.

Skaill House
Skaill House
Skara Brae Beach
Skara Brae Beach

I sat up front with my sister and Clive on our way to the Yesnaby Cliffs. A full stomach mitigated nausea, but the countryside roads persisted. Fortunately the cliffs were a short distance from Skara Brae and the other sites remaining on the tour.

Yesnaby jutted over crashing waves far below. Our mother made us promise not to near the edge. Clive reinforced the advice noting the cliffs as un-sturdy overhangs with a long drop into the Atlantic. Endemic Scottish Primrose bloomed later in the year, instead of searching for the small, purple flower in the surrounding fields we returned to the van. With the history lesson for the cliffs finished we headed for the next two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Sterness.

Rings of Brodgar
Rings of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar: Mother Stone
Mother Stone

Both rings of standing stones are older than Stone Henge. The Ring of Brodgar hosted many unique stones including the Mother Stone, famed for a purple aura, easily spotted by those with the proper sight. Our small group processioned along the ring of stones as the tour busses began to pull up and unload. As we exited the path the large bus groups started making their way past us towards the stones. Clive encouraged staying ahead of the busses.

As we pulled into park at the Stones of Sterness Clive pointed out some seals sunbathing in the loch across from the site. Sterness hosted fewer stones than Brodgar but their immense size towered above any in Brodgar. They stood in the middle of a field, still used by the current farmer for corralling sheep. Clive told us more stones used to stand in the field but a previous owner was disgruntled by the growing masses of tourists scaring his livestock. His solution was using dynamite,. He targeted the stone known as The Healing Stone. It had a hole large enough to pass an infant through. Believers passed an afflicted body part through the hole to alleviate ailments. The disgruntled farmer utilized this weak point, filling the hole with explosives. Perturbed by their neighbors demolition the locals placed the farmers head through the hole of a noose… perhaps he was sent adrift… then again the locals might have just run him out of town, Clive wasn’t very clear on the matter or I remained dazed by nausea.

Stones of Sterness
Stones of Sterness

With these final two sites visited the tour concluded. Clive zipped along the roads back towards Stromness Harbor. His voice still coming through the radio from his headset. He pointed out new and previously seen landmarks nearing Scrabster. Back at the docks we unloaded, tipped Clive and boarded the huge NorthLink vessel. Upstairs we found a large enough bench for my lanky body to sprawl across. The server at Mum’s told us to lay on our back if we felt sea sick. I did just that for the entire ride back to the Scrabster.

Awakening from a nap I felt at my worst as NorthLink docked. Exiting the bobbing vessel onto solid ground again I realized my significant imbalances. The solid concrete mimicked the ocean’s movement. Fearing I might concede my intestinal contents I wobbled to the nearest bathroom. Resisting the urge to vomit I tried regaining my balance in a stall. There was little I could do to help. Eventually stumbling out of the bathroom, I managed to limp to our awaiting taxi outside. In the front seat I held my head in my hands begging relief from the nausea. Returning to the hotel seemed to take longer than leaving it this morning. Mother finished paying for the taxi as I grabbed the room key and limped up the flights of stairs to our room. Opening the door I rushed to the bathroom. Fighting regurgitation, I sat in the tub, hot water showered the crown of my head and ran down my spine. This method remedied my condition best. When the hot water ran out I dried and dressed. My mother and sister brought ginger ale to the room. It eased my stomach allowing me to eat some cheese and grapes.

After checking in with Dad back in the states I was finally feel well enough to head back into the world. Despite my unstable stomach I decided we should enjoy seafood at The Pavillion. A small, charming, beachfront restaurant. A plate of shrimp with a side of chips was all I was able to digest. Leaving The Pavilion the beach welcomed us with a setting sun. Lighting the sky with multicolored hues. Thurso’s old, stone buildings superimposed over the technicolor backdrop of ocean and sky.

Thurso Beach Sunset
Thurso Beach Sunset

Sleeping in the cramped bottom bunk the night before resulted in agitated neck muscles, which likely worsened my motion sickness. So, I ripped the bedding from the two mattresses and made sleeping arrangements on the floor. Saying goodnight, I turned off the lights and curled up on the floor-bound comforters. Staring up at the small, wall mounted television, I scanned through channels until settling for a terrible super hero movie. I nestled further into sleep, hoping what remained of my imbalance to dissipate overnight.

DAY 9 – BACK TO EDINBURGH

Highlands
Views from the train

Pulling myself from the blankets on the floor I slowly dressed and lumbered down stairs meeting my mother and sister for breakfast. Scottish staples again offered by the hotel. Eggs, baked beans, breakfast meat of choice along with fruits, yogurt or oatmeal. After filling ourselves we returned to the room to pack bags before checking out. We wheeled them down the flight of stairs, to the front desk then out the rotating doors to the street. A few blocks of dragging our cases before we arrived back at the empty train station. This trip was our longest on the tour. A six hour ride, stopping in Aviemore to stretch our legs and eat lunch near the Cairngorms.

Highlands Statue
Duke of Sutherland Statue
(Not a nice person)

The rails returned to Inverness through the expansive highlands. Massive landscapes dwarfed the unattended, intermittent stations. Nearing Inverness the stops frequency increased until returning the the familiar Inverness. Turnstiles and trains bustled with people, a drastic difference to the tempo of Northern Scotland. There was a window between trains so we found coffee and seating for people watching. Our next train to Aviemore arrived with the three of us patiently waiting on the platform. We performed the routine of racking luggage and finding seats with ease.

Scottish hillsides passed outside the train window, increasing in altitude and forming the Cairngorms. Aviemore is nestled away near the National Park. Modern buildings mixed with wood cabin aesthetics. Tourist trap attractions for the kids and shops catering to popular outdoor sports. Beautifully snowcapped mountains rose above the tall pines inviting the adventurous spirit to challenge their slopes. We were content with just finding lunch.

Researching gluten-free friendly restaurants near the station brought us to Mountain Cafe. The lower level hosts a sporting goods shop with the restaurant above. The man behind the register noticed our luggage and offered to store it beneath the staircase behind a clothes rack. Thanking him we stood in line on the stairs waiting for an available table.

A line is a sign of good food. Fortunately the wait was short. A server brought us to corner table with a view of the surrounding mountains. We ordered quickly, not wanting to tempt the time constraints of train routes. Our food arrived and I eagerly ate the entirety my sandwich then waited for my mother and sister to finish.

After paying we returned to the first floor to retrieve our bags from beneath the stairs and thank the attendant behind the counter. Back on the streets we walked towards the train station staring at the mountains forming the horizon. The stroll inspired a hopeful return trip to the Cairngorms to better enjoy the national park and test my skills on the slopes.

Waiting for the train to arrive we noticed an older gentleman who bore a striking resemblance to my mother’s father. Balding with a white beard, wearing a red flannel shirt. We smiled at his memory. He initialized the interest in our Scottish heritage but never sought to travel to Scotland. Figuring his ancestors tried so hard to get out, why should he go back. The train finally arrived at the station and we boarded with our luggage once more.

Cairngorms from train Aviemore station
View from Aviemore Station

On the train I watched the landscape slide into different sceneries of green. More fields and mountains sparsely covered in evergreens or yellow Gorse. A final transition between trains took place at a small, underground station. There wasn’t much time between departures so we rushed along with our luggage amidst other travelers trying to make the same switch. Fortunately no traveler was left behind. We entered a train car, loaded our luggage and found seats as the train lurched away from the station. The greens of the country side eventually gave way to the more metropolitan expanse of Edinburgh’s familiar landmarks. Crossing the Forth Bridge we reentered the old city. Upon its high seat, Edinburgh Castle greeted us as we slowed to a stop in Waverly Station.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

Tired, we slowly dragged our rolling luggage behind us up the steep streets and staircase to Emily’s flat. Her small dorm offered a semblance of home which we gladly accepted after our long trip across Scotland.

Contacting the states we notified my father of our safe return to Edinburgh. Dinner was the next priority on our agenda. My vote for Indian cuisine won again and we made our way to Mother India’s Cafe. The tapas style restaurant provided plenty of options for our table to share. Again, I was filled with delight over the saag, naan and other delights. Exhausted and satiated we made our way back to Emily’s flat. The long day of travel was over and we were ready for sleep.

DAY 10 – BLACKFORD HILL

Bagpipes acted as our alarm clock again, the sounds a surprise after a week’s absence. That morning we planned to explore more of Edinburgh. Our trek included the National Museum of Scotland and Blackford Hill. The museum hosted an exhibit about Celtic culture. Afterwards Emily wanted to introduce Blackford Hill, a park favored by the locals with an easier hike than Arthur’s Seat.

Before that excursion we stopped at The Piemaker for coffee and pasties. Then made our way to the National Museum of Scotland nearby. Hosting a massive collection of artifacts, an entire day could easily pass while exploring a single floor. Still too early and travel weary to investigate all the details I was happy to simply marvel at the collection on the way to the Celtic exhibit. A glass elevator carried us up, past reconstructed dinosaur skeletons, animal models and cultural artifacts from around the world. The elevator doors opened to a walkway over looking The Millennium Clock installation and the visitors bustling below. We made our way across the floor to the Celtic exhibit.

National Museum of Scotland: Eastern Statues
Eastern statue

My mother handed a worker our tickets and he allowed us entry. Behind the doors were artifacts providing a new perspectives on the ancient Celtic culture. Dispersed across Europe from the United Kingdom to Rome. A culture widely shared by the isles of Scotland, England and Ireland spreading south past Germany. Their art and tools utilized an adept mathematical understanding and connection with nature. Their jewelry and armor usually adorned with symmetrical representations of plants and animals.

My favorite artifact was the beastly carnyx. A wind instrument with a long body and a horn shaped to resemble animal heads like serpents or bores. Used primarily to rouse troops to battle. A video display revealed proper playing technique. It extols a single note with a deep, brassy timber.

Ornately carved golden bowls depicted different scenes of people interacting with their gods and nature. Many centuries old books remained behind protective glass under low light. One opened to a page with John White’s depiction of a Pictish warrior, covered in blue tattoos. Beastly faces adorned his shoulders stomach and knees, an owl on his sternum and geometrical shapes flowing between the pieces. White’s warrior boasts a round shield in one hand and a severed head trophy in the other. On his belt a curved sword, most likely the tool that procured his trophy. Considering my own Scottish inspired tattoo I hoped for some percentage of Pictish descent.

Exiting the depths of Celtic history I leaned on the handrail for the balcony overlooking the Millennium Clock. It was a strangely beautiful piece commemorating human suffering through the twentieth century. Carved wooden figures rode cyclical cogs in their destitute poses. I was completely engrossed by the installation. My trance only broken by my mother and sister arriving from the gift shop. We briefly explored some other exhibits on the way back to Edinburgh’s streets.

National Museum of Scotland: Millenium Clock - Sinners
Millenium Clock: Sinners
National Museum of Scotland: Millenium Clock - Rasputin
Millenium Clock: Rasputin
National Museum of Scotland: Millenium Clock
The Millenium Clock

Ready again for sustenance we decided to visit The Piemaker again. Close by, cheap and offering gluten free options made it the perfect option. Afterwards we searched for a record shop and skateboard shop on my request. There was a record shop down the street from The Piemaker but none of the LP’s interested my specific tastes. The skateboard shop we walked to was closed so we decided to move onward with our itinerary that day. We made our way through The Meadows again. The fields of green were covered with people sunbathing and enjoying the warm summer weather we brought from Kentucky.

A long walk through residential neighborhoods brought us down to Blackford Hill’s boundary. We followed a forested path until it split left. A black and white cat rested among some rocks at the split. As we neared the cat quickly left the outcroppings of rocks and followed the divergent path. We tried to follow but it snuck into the undergrowth and out of sight.

Continuing along the path brought us to a large pond. Ducks and swans flocked the waters or nested on shady islands. An egg shaped man with thick lenses in his glasses stood near the water with a loaf of bread. He threw entire pieces of bread into the water and waited for the birds to swarm. Then he reach back into the bag and throw another entire piece or two. His face remained expressionless. There was no acknowledgement of the other pedestrians enjoying the park. It was just him, the bread and the birds. I smiled and continued around the pond.

Blackford Hill Kitty
Blackford Hill Kitty
Blackford Hill Swans
Blackford Hill Swan

Making our way along the water’s perimeter took us up a steep path through a wooded area toward the Blackford Hill Observatory. Past the observatory the path continued further upward along sunny patches of gorse. Finally reaching the apex of Blackford Hill we were rewarded with a new expansive view of the city. Looking across Edinburgh’s neighborhoods back to the castle district where the day started caused the twinge in my knee to conveniently transition from a dull ache to a sharp pain. The distance promised an arduous return hike. Instead we all opted to ride a bus back.

Blackford Hill view of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle from Blackford Hill
Blackford Hill view of Arthur's Seat
Arthur's Seat from Blackford Hill

Emily guided us back down Blackford Hill through the sloped neighborhoods reminding me of San Francisco. We arrived at the bus stop and waited for the double decker to arrive. The bus sped off as soon as our coins were deposited, leaving us to grasp at hand rails as we found a seat on the empty first floor. Zipping along the roads, through campus towards the Royal Mile. It gave us time to discuss our plans for the evening. Fatigued, Emily decided to stay in with a simple dinner of cheese toast. Mom and I would go back out to find something a little more filling but just as convenient. After dinner I planned to meet up with my friend Chris from Aberdeen who came to Edinburgh for a quick visit. We found a different open mic just a short ways from my sister’s flat.

Edinburgh from Blackford Hill
Edinburgh from Blackford Hill

Another mediocre Italian franchise received our patronage that evening. Two plates of lack luster ravioli were eaten before we headed back to Emily’s flat. My mother retired for the evening, the long trip and day hike finally exhausting her.

I quickly prepped to meet Chris and his Edinburgh friend. A short walk down Johnston Terrace brought me to pub where we planned to meet. We enjoyed a few drinks between us and watched some performers play their songs in a small back room. Chris is the type of person who makes friends with anyone willing to talk to him. He struck up a conversation with a group of students traveling abroad. The group was made up of Italians, Germans and Spanish students. Their host was Estonian, she tried teaching me the correct pronunciation of her for five minutes before giving up in exasperation. After the show ended and the bar closed we all stood outside on the corner. I imitated varied dialects of the American people to entertain our group. My performance had them laughing as they headed off down the opposite street to catch their red eye flight back to their prospective homes.

Chris, his friend and myself walked a few doors down to order late night kababs. We had to part ways as the orders came out so we bid farewell as we walked our respective paths. The haar had set in thickly before we left the pub. Walking up Johnston Terrace I stared at the dense fog wrapping around the castle, distorting any notions of modernity. If not for the gyros I shoved into my mouth I might have conceived of walking into the past.

Rounding the castle I made my way up through the usually packed streets, eerily empty except for myself and the haar. Through the close entrance to the courtyard of Emily’s building then up the stairs to her quiet flat and into her darkened dorm. I was asleep shortly after my head hit the pillow.

DAY 11 – STIRLING CASTLE

William Wallace Monument in the Fog
William Wallace Monument

We attended to our usual rituals the next morning after the bagpipes started. A quick breakfast before heading out the door for a coffee in the train station. Rotating our way through the turnstiles to another platform and boarding a train towards Stirling. This was a simple day trip without luggage to store, we just found seats and continued sipping our caffeinated beverages. We raced past the green and yellow hillsides dotted with the small townships, some of the sights seemingly familiar. Arriving in Stirling a short hour later we stepped off the train and found our way to the streets. We followed signs up toward Stirling Castle.

The William Wallace Monument towered out of the fog off in the distant hillsides. Buildings aged centuries nearing the castle at the top of the incline. The walls around the perimeter spread out to the three cliff faces forming a semi-oval with the main gate facing the downward slope. Other groups of tourist arrived in growing numbers as we approached the main gate. I waited near a wall as I continued waking up and mom bought tickets for the tour.

Our group of three gathered at the ramparts where I stood. Attendants scanned our tickets then we met our group and guide at the gate. The grounds of the Stirling Castle are massive and the amount of historical context is enormous. Surviving multiple sieges throughout the centuries while hosting Scottish Kings and Queens. This included Mary Queen of Scots which triggered my imitation of a Monty Python sketch the remainder of the day.

“Are you Mary Queen of Scots?”

“I am!”

Our guide brought us from one site of the grounds to the next providing details about the architecture and which lord was responsible for a particular installation. After taking us through the throne room and chapel the guided aspect of the tour was finished. We were free to explore the grounds to our liking.

Stirling Castle: Royal Palace and Great Hall
Royal Palace and Great Hall
Stirling Castle: King's Old Building
King's Old Building
Stirling Castle: Great Hall
Great Hall
Stirling Castle: Great Hall Thrones
Great Hall Thrones
Stirling Castle: Wooden Heads
Wooden Heads Display
Stirling Castle: The Birdman
The Birdman

Exiting the church we made our way across the courtyard to explore the heads and tapestry galleries. The heads are ornately carved wooden busts decorating the ceiling. They depict many historical and mythical figures. Including the royalties of Scotland and Hercules; the mythic founder of Scotland. Historical actors provided further information through performance, creating a greater reality to the experience. From the heads we passed through to the tapestry gallery. Inside hung hand made recreations of “The Hunt of the Unicorn”. A historical actor provided an art history lesson revealing the story of the tapestries and it’s creation. After the lesson we exited onto the battlements.

Looking over the edge of the tall castle walls to sheer cliff face forced me to gulp down vertigo. Making some comment about the awful heights I immediately noticed a nearby display depicting a man jumping from the wall dressed in a poorly conceived flying suit. The Bird Man of Stirling or Father John Damian crafted a suit to enable him to fly from Stirling’s battlements to France. He landed on Scottish soil below the castle. Still, he survived with only a broken femur. He blamed the failed flight on his feather of choice. Engineering a suit of chicken feathers instead of eagle feathers. As a fellow village idiot I felt a kinship with the bird man.

Stirling Castle: Wall Walk
Wall Walk

Exploring the rest of the grounds we took extra care along the slender battlements with long falls to either side. Wide enough for a single passerby. Views stretching miles provided prime defensive positioning for the castle. The battlements brought us to a grassy, hilled courtyard with a small building near a patch of Gorse. Inside a gallery explained the process of recreating the unicorn tapestries. Witnessing the tedious work initiated our appetites so we decided to follow the instinct.

William Wallace from Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle Canon
Stirling Castle: Robert the Bruce Statue
Robert the Bruce Statue

We ate lunch at the cafe on the grounds before we making our away to any attractions yet unseen. A few quick stops at gift shops for souvenirs to gift upon our return to the states. Content with our tour we decided to return to Edinburgh. Passing through the parking lot and back along the cobblestone sidewalks we passed another historical landmark, Argyle’s Lodging. An impressive, centuries old town-house just down the hill from the castle. Used as a retreat for artists and the upper echelon of society mostly. It was another walk into history that presented details of life before modern comforts.

Argyle's Lodging
Argyle's Lodging

Leaving Argyle’s Lodging we followed the hill down towards the train station. We stood at our platform and waited until the train arrived. On the rails heading back to Edinburgh my mom and sister discussed The Kelpies sculptures located in Falkirk, about halfway between Stirling and Edinburgh. Falkirk station was a block away from a bus stop that would take us where the statues stood thirty meters high. However, the next bus running The Kelpies route wouldn’t arrive until after closing hours. With this realization we walked the block back to the train station and boarded another train heading to Edinburgh. The train started along the rails and I sat with my back to the engine car while my sister and mother sat across from me facing forward looking slightly defeated. As the train sped through the brick buildings of Falkirk into the surrounding hillsides my mother mentioned her disappointment in not having seen The Kelpies. Looking from my mothers disappointed face out the train window behind her I noticed the shapes of massive horse heads appear on the horizon. They towered over Falkirk’s buildings. I pointed at the sculptures, telling the other two in my party to turn around if they still wanted a chance to see The Kelpies.

My mother and sister both turned their heads as a grove of trees near the track blocked the view. The blur of green cleared from the train window and the gigantic, metal horse heads came back into view. We watched until the monument faded into the horizon.

The train came to a stop in Waverly Station once again. Making the steep hike back to Emily’s flat to rest. We checked in on dad and Jasmine back in the states. Knee still aching from taut, over-hiked muscles, I hoped a massage might remedy my pain. So, I started researching Edinburgh’s massage therapy business. Ling Ling Massage offered an unfamiliar modality by the same namesake. A few quick emails confirmed an appointment with the owner the following morning. We decided to dine near the spa for dinner so I would know where to go. Down the hill past Princess Street Gardens and further past Rose Street until we found the correct building. With landmarks and directions noted we set off to find dinner. Turning back towards Princess Street we walked yet unexplored streets but remained indecisive about a restaurant.

Rose Street welcomed us as a pedestrian friendly row of businesses. Our brunch at Pattisserie Vallerie was enjoyable so we set out to find another Rose Street restaurant. The Black Rose had dive bar aesthetics with records and horror decorations adorning the walls. Fake skulls and real liquor bottles on the shelves behind the bar. A band set up their equipment in the corner for a gig later that evening. I felt right at home. The menu catered to all of our likes and needs. I opted for vegetarian bangers and mash. There’s great satisfaction from such staple dishes, I even enjoyed an Irn Bru and Jäeger which matched the meal surprisingly well. Filled, we returned to Rose Street.

Night was quickly approaching but we found a clothing store still open. Detouring inside my mother hoped to find a scarf to bring home as a gift. She matched her prices but decided to sleep on it, she could return the next day, our last one in Edinburgh.

Making our way outside as the last fleeting colors of twilight melted into night sky we walked back up the hill to Emily’s flat. Exhausted and close to the end of our travels we all collapsed into bed and fell asleep early.

William Wallace Monument
William Wallace Monument

DAY 12 – LAST DAY IN EDINBURGH

Political Martyr's Monument and Governors House
Political Martyr's Monument & Governors House

The next morning I awoke accustomed to the sound of bagpipers and bustling tourists below the window. I dressed quickly, finished the last of my English muffins and left the flat to head to Ling Ling massage. I allowed for extra time to grab coffee and limp my way back down the hill to New Town. I chose a small breakfast shop near Princess Street. It sat on a corner with large windows around the dining area.

With an entrance at either side of the restaurant I entered closer to the kitchen. Assuming I had incurred yet another international blunder by entering the backdoor, I asked if I had come in the wrong way. The manager brusquely told me it was fine and to find a seat. I was hoping to quickly order a coffee and continue to my appointment, but this was a breakfast restaurant not a coffee house. No baristas worked behind an espresso machine, slinging hot beverages across the counter. Here, patrons were expected to sit, and slowly enjoy their morning meal. There were family’s enjoying their meals, an older couple sat across from me with their food, the husband reading a newspaper.

The assumed owner seemed rushed and upset with her help staff. This made it all the more uncomfortable for me when I only ordered a mocha. Mildly exacerbated the owner took my short order. She brought the beverage in a glass mug flourished with whipped cream and a spoon. I should have ordered to go. Drinking the hot beverage as quickly as possible, I then paid and left the store through the main entrance. Stepping back onto the sidewalk, looking across the street, I saw the coffee shop franchise we had frequented the most during our trip. I sighed over my poor observance and limped the remaining blocks to Ling Ling massage.

It was a single room spa inside a multi use office building. My therapist met me in the lobby and took me up the elevators to the room. I asked a few different questions about industry standards and licensing in Scotland. Mostly I just tried to relax and allow the soreness of travel to leave my body. An hour passed by quickly but getting up off the table I felt loose and ready to walk the hills of Edinburgh with less of a limp.

Using the building’s wifi I figured out where to meet my sister and mom on Princess Street. I walked back through the streets full of tourists and shops. I found my mother and sister amidst one of the many bustling businesses. Kilts kept catching my eye. I didn’t know which tartan I could claim and I knew I couldn’t afford a proper kilt. So, I settled to find a party kilt in Royal Stewart or the Spirit of Scotland; two tartans anyone of any clan is welcome to wear. Within the many shops on Princess Street and the Royal Mile we managed to find one single kilt that fit. It seemed a fortuitous purchase since it was the only Royal Stewart kilt in the city my size.

Edinburgh College
Edinburgh College

Hungry, we decided to run a few errands near campus for Emily and get lunch at Mosque Kitchen. It saddened me to have found it on our last full day in Edinburgh. It would have otherwise been a daily request. We made a few other stops in the neighborhood before heading back to the flat to start packing up our belongings.

Once packed we checked in with the states to let loved ones know of our imminent departure to Glasgow. Then we grabbed our bags making a last check around Emily’s room for any unpacked items. We took her old building's stone staircase down for the last time. Then out into the courtyard, down the next long stair case. Our suitcase wheels bumping along the cobblestones as we dragged them behind us. This was our last pass by these old buildings, black taxi cabs and tourists. We took the side of the road nearest the Princess Street Gardens and followed the lay of the hill down into Waverly Station.

Edinburgh Waverly Station
Waverly Station

Joining my sister and mother in our seats after attending our luggage, the train lurched away from the station, quickly increasing in speed. Edinburgh zipped by our window, the old buildings gave way to more modern architectures before we were back out of city into the country hills and townships.

The crowded train unexpectedly slowed to a stop at a station halfway to Glasgow. A voice came over the intercom informing the passengers that a line was down over the tracks up ahead, we couldn’t move forward until maintenance completed repairs. Many passengers grumbled as they started calling corresponding parties to tell them of the predicament. Others tried rallying groups together to share a cab the remaining distance. Others opened the windows on the quickly warming train car. A breeze flowed through the cabin, easing the unseasonal heat. The doors opened to allow passengers off onto the platform. I was one of them, waiting in line to use the restroom since the train’s remained unusable when stopped.

The single bathroom on the platform used an automatic door. Pressing a large button opened the door. Tapping another button inside the bathroom closed and locked the door. A simple enough function but lacking a manual override. I discovered this upon trying to leave the bathroom. I pressed the open door button with no result. I scratched my head after a few moments passed. Patiently tried the button once more and waited a few more moments. A dread the train might resume course without me mixed with claustrophobia formed panic in my gut. I started repeatedly tapping the open button as well as the emergency button. None of which resulted with success. I stood back from the door taking a well planted step before kicking at it in abject failure. As I was preparing for another kick the door suddenly opened with the sound of a vacuum seal releasing. Fresh air and bright light flooded into my urinal scented, florescent tomb. I exited holding a hand in front of my eyes like a recently emerged vault dweller. My sister and an attendant stood outside. I stuttered something about the door malfunctioning while wandering back to the train car to take my seat.

I believe the attendant showed my sister and any other passengers to a bathroom inside the station. She returned to her seat inside the train shortly after and with another fifteen minutes the voice from the speakers above returned. It informed us of the completed maintenance, the train would soon leave the station. The remaining passengers entered the cars and took their seats once more. My eye twitched as the train doors closed with the same vacuum seal sound the bathroom door made. Lurching forward the train quickly picked up speed and we raced along the rails to Glasgow once more.

The train arrived in Glasgow Central. We bustled off the car with other passengers, through the turnstiles into the station proper. Emily utilized her phone service to GPS a route to our hotel near the airport. With coordinates to a bus sation we stepped outside into the Glasgow evening. Maneuvering our bags along the sidewalk between pedestrians, across down town streets until reaching the bus stop. Taking charge of the luggage I once again placed it on the racks inside the bus. Lurching forward the bus began its route through the busy city streets until it reached the airport stop where my mother and I began our adventure in Scotland almost two weeks prior.

Upon exiting I avoided spilling any coffee on other passengers while retrieving our bags. We walked along intermittent sidewalks and parking garages until arriving at the hotel. Quickly checking in we placed our bags in the room then returned to the lobby to order dinner. The front desk agents took orders behind the lobby bar then handed us a number to display on a table of our choosing. The kitchen staff brought out our dinners. We quickly and quietly ate before returning to our room.

The hotel offered thirty minutes of free internet and we utilized it to contact home. I took a quick shower before finding a comfortable spot on the roll-a-way mattress. It was early to bed and early to rise for the next a day filled with air travel.

Edinburgh from Calton Hill
Edinburgh

DAY 13 - HEADING HOME

Mom in Princess Street Gardens, Edinburgh
Mom in Princess Street Gardens, Edinburgh

I hardly slept, anxious about missing boarding times or engineering malfunctions mid-flight. Groggily we gathered our bags with a digital alarm sounding. Then hurriedly checked out of the hotel skipping the complimentary breakfast. Walking back to the airport through the parking lots with the early light of morning dispersing fog banks. Arriving where the bus dropped us off last night, we entered the airport and quickly checked in for our flight. This time without any problems. Just a quick scan of our passports and we were ready. An escalator brought us up a floor where we departed from my sister to pass through security and customs. We hugged her goodbye before she took a picture of our tired faces. She left to catch a train back to Edinburgh while we walked the queues of the duty free shop to our first gate. We got coffee on the way and waited for boarding.

Our flight back wasn’t quite as exquisite as our flight over in the Virgin Atlantic airship. No second deck or complimentary meal, just a single aisle with two rows of seats on either side. A longer trip on a smaller plane allowed for the turbulence to increase as we traveled against the trade winds and time zones. I tried ignoring the bumps while writing down a first draft of this account. The flight attendants brought customs paperwork to the passengers, necessary upon arrival to Halifax. Passengers continuing to Toronto would only have a brief window to clear customs and return while the plane refueled. It was a short forty-five minutes which caused anxiety of missing the flight to arise. Acutely experienced, my anxiety heightened as I felt the plane drop altitude as the descent into Halifax began. I inhaled sharply and tightly gripped the arm rests with every drop of fifty feet or so until the tires finally met runway tarmac.

The Idiot Tourist in Princess Street Gardens, Edinburgh
The Idiot Tourist in Princess Street Gardens, Edinburgh
Mom hiking up Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
Mom hiking up Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh

As the plane pulled to a stop at the gate passengers began grabbing their bags from overhead compartments and rushing off the plane. Lining up to claim bags and show customs our paperwork. Each agent read over their prompt of questions, looking over the papers each passenger handed over. Confusing some aspect of my paperwork on the flight, the customs agent took a permanent marker drawing a circle in a fat black line around a mistake. She then directed me to the next part of the process with a thumb. I met my mother in the next line as the next agent looked over our papers and directed each passenger left or right. My mom got left. When I handed the agent my paperwork with the large, black circle she pointed me right. My mother, still waiting for me just beyond the agent’s kiosk looked at me with concern. I sighed as we parted ways, hoping to see her on the other side.

I stood in line behind another couple from my flight. An agent let them through the black queue ribbon to a station where their bags were checked by another agent. I sighed again, listening to the customs agent rifle through co-passengers luggage.

He confiscated Haggis from the couple before quickly re-zipping their luggage and sending them on their way. Admitted through the black ribboned queue, I was lead to the table where the agent checked bags. Recognizing a band logo tattooed on the agent’s arm I asked him if I was correct in guessing the band. His demeanor lightened a bit. He started talking about meeting the lead singer while working. He asked me a few more questions about my travels then zipped my bag. Happy to have made it through the search I rushed down a hallway to find my mother.

Emmy on beach, Aberdeen
Emmy on beach through binoculors, Aberdeen
Emily on the beach, Aberdeen
Emmy at Merecat Cross, Aberdeen
Emily crossing Merecat Cross, Aberdeen

On the way out of customs into the airport I was supposed to recheck my bag for the flight. The attendant re-checking bags near a conveyor belt waved to me jovially, telling me to enjoy my day as I ran past him into the main lobby of the airport with my unchecked bag. My mother stood on the other side of the doors in the main lobby of the Halifax airport. She wondered why my bag wasn’t on the conveyor belt heading back to the plane. Befuddled I turned back to look at the door, two attendants stood guarding it from entry. They told me to recheck the bag at the check in terminal. With a rushed anxiety we quickly made our way across the lobby to the corresponding ticket counter at the opposite end. Fortunately they were able to retag my luggage and place it on the conveyor belt. I hoped to see my clothes in Louisville as it passed through rubber flaps out of sight.

With this dilemma solved we briskly walked through the airport to wait in a slow moving security queue. Slowly corralled by canvas ribbons and metal posts until passing through the body scanners. We picked up the pace to make up for lost time, almost in an all out sprint as we reached our gate. We presented our boarding passes and made it back to our seats with two minutes to spare. The flight attendant went through the safety procedures as the captain prepared for take off. We buckled in taking a deep breath as we leaned back into our seats.

The Idiot Tourist flower shower, Inverness
The Idiot Tourist takes a flower shower, Inverness
Mom and Emily outside of Ardross Glenn Guest House, Inverness
Mom and Emily outside Ardross Glenn Guest House, Inverness

The flight to Toronto was short. Too distracted by the beautiful view of the metropolitan sprawl below the sensation of my stomach dropping lessened as the plane descended. On the ground, passengers rushed to collect bags and queued up again for customs. Already grumpy from my first experience I was expecting another random search in Toronto. However, the process was simple and we made it through easily. We explored the massive airport searching for our connecting gate to New York City.

Making our way through long hallways past areas under major renovations until we found a main lobby. We scanned our passports at one of the many check in kiosks before making our way through another round of security. On our way to our gate we passed our options for dinner. We opted for an overpriced deli sandwich instead of the overpriced poutine. At our gate we ate, waiting for the flight to start boarding.

Emily at Urquhart Ruins
Emily at Urquhart Ruins

When the gate attendant called our group for boarding we felt like seasoned travelers handing over our boarding passes. Weary but exited to return home. The plane took flight over Lake Ontario and I settled into my seat trying to find a something to watch on the small television screen mounted in the headrest of the seat in front of me. I don’t think I even made it through a full episode of anything before we found ourselves descending into the lights of New York City. I’ve visited the Big Apple many times before but this was my first flight into the city and a new way to experience its massive skyline.

Mom on beach, Thurso
Mom at Thurso beach
Emily at Yesnaby Cliffs, Orkney
Emily at the Yesnaby Cliffs, Orkney

With the aircraft on the ground we made our way through another massive airport expecting to encounter the hassle of customs again. Exhausted and baffled we finally asked someone at a help desk who told us we were all set to board the next flight to Louisville. The attendant then directed us to our proper gate just around the corner from his desk.

Relieved we found an open seat at a table to rest and charged our phones. We turned our service back on for the first time in weeks to let Jasmine and my father know our whereabouts. It was a further relief when we entered the small but sparsely occupied cabin. The flight attendant provided snacks and beverages as we found comfort in the seats and awaited our arrival back home.

Mom and Emily at Blackford Hill, Edinburgh
Mom and Emily at Blackford Hill, Edinburgh

After a few hours of flying over sparsely lit Appalachian Mountains our descent into Louisville began. The landmarks of the city greeted me with familiarity as we neared the runway. Before we could even pull into our terminal I was letting Jasmine know we’d made it home safely. Exiting the plane we walked through the empty terminals of the airport where we’d started our journey thirteen days earlier. We stood at the conveyor belt waiting for our luggage. A voice over the intercom announced our luggage was available at another pick up point. Wheeling our luggage outside we waited on the sidewalk for my father to arrive with Jasmine.

We gratefully accepted our welcome home hugs when they pulled up. I quickly loaded our bags in the trunk and we left. It only took minutes to arrive back home since Jasmine and I live a few miles away from the airport. I unloaded my bag before hugging my mother goodbye, looking for proper words to thank her for such a wonderful trip. She accepted my simple words of thanks before returning to the car so my father could race them home a county over. I relived my travels to Jasmine, showing her pictures while fighting sleep. When my phone alerted me to my parents safe arrival home I could finally allow exhaustion to overtake me. Jasmine all but carried me to bed where I closed my eyes and allowed my journey to end.

The Idiot Tourist at Arthur's Seat, Edinurgh
The Idiot Tourist on Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh