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Published: July 23rd 2021
Yay! Greetings from Scotland! I’m afraid this doesn’t add to my country count, I’m still on 81, as I count England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as one country: the United Kingdom. But I am in Edinburgh, this is my first time in this city, and it also means I have now visited each of the UK’s four capital cities– London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, in that order.
It is wonderful to be here, and to be back on the travelling road again. Crossing over the border from England to Scotland on Tuesday afternoon was a breeze, as the train connected me directly from Doncaster, not far from Sheffield, to Edinburgh in a mere three hours, but the landscape did seem to change significantly. Pulling out of Doncaster, the train passed first through the open expanses and distant rolling hills of Yorkshire. We then passed through the urban grit of Newcastle, followed by the mist-shrouded hills, fields and coastline of mysterious Northumberland. I took some great photos from the train of places I visited on my North-East England travels last summer: the Angel of the North, Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge, Holy Island’s castle and causeway, and Berwick-upon-Tweed’s Victorian
Royal Border Bridge. Once past the Scottish border, the hills became more dramatic, forests more numerous, and the houses more Scottish – less brick-built brown, and more stone-built grey. And in the distance, a very incongruous sight indeed – a steep-sloping extinct volcano rising out of the rural Scottish countryside. This triangular-shaped volcano seemed more akin to landscapes in Chile or Japan, but here in my own country, what an interesting sight to behold. Aye, I am in Scotland now!
The train soon pulled in to Edinburgh’s Waverley station, which was an amazing introduction to the Scottish capital. It is large and sprawling, covered in a huge glass ceiling, and opens out right onto the city’s main thoroughfare, Princes Street, with the amazing Edinburgh castle perched on a dramatically sited extinct volcano overlooking a great hubbub of activity below: market stalls, beer gardens, grassed sitting areas and shops. It was a vibrant welcome to my time in Scotland, and I welcomed it all with open arms. I headed straight for the bus stop from where I would take the number 25 bus westwards, four miles out of the city centre, to the distant suburb of Broomhouse. This is a
council estate area, surrounded by industrial estates and important road, rail and tram links. For me, this is perfectly off the tourist-track, and a place where I can get to know the real Scotland. I checked in to my accommodation for my time here in Edinburgh, the lovely Broomhouse Homestay – a one-roomed attachment to a house belonging to a lovely expat Italian couple. After a short rest, I headed to a nearby Tesco superstore around a mile away, to stock up on some supplies for the next few days. I then called it a day, and enjoyed a peaceful evening, very much excited to explore the city the next day.
On Wednesday, I decided to devote my first full day on my Scotland trip to exploring Edinburgh, in the Scottish county of Midlothian. I took a bus from my accommodation in Broomhouse to the western end of Princes Street Gardens, to begin a wonderful and highly enjoyable five hours of walking around Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, and immersing myself in this really quite spectacular city.
Edinburgh was founded in the 7th
Century, and was originally called Dun Eiden, or “Fort on the Hill Slope” in Gaelic,
until the English from Northumbria changed its name to Edinburgh – adding the English “burh”, meaning fort, to the original Eiden part. The city was founded at the top of a very spectacular extinct volcano, and grew in the middle ages as a “Medieval Manhattan” – the settlement was bordered to the south and east by the city wall, to the north by a marsh, and to the west by a steep drop off slope from the volcanic peak. Thus, the only way it could expand was upwards, with tenements reaching five or six storeys as early as the 16th
centuries. The wealthy lived in the middle floors, whilst the poor lived in the basements and the attics. Mary Queen of Scots held court in the Palace of Holyroodhouse to the east of the city from 1561 to 1567, although when her son James VI of Scotland, or James I of England, became King of both England and Scotland, due to Elizabeth I having no heir to succeed her, he moved to London to hold court in 1603. The famous Act of Union of 1707 which united England and Scotland into the United Kingdom further drove the political
activities of Scotland south to London, although Edinburgh still remained a cultural and intellectual centre. The course of history changed once more in 1997, when the Scots voted for its own devolved parliament, and the new Scottish Parliament building was opened in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II just opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Edinburgh once more became the political capital of Scotland.
The city really is a magical treat to explore – it is beautiful, with grandiose buildings everywhere, and stunning natural scenery all around owing to the region’s volcanic history. The sea is also a mere two miles away to the north, at the Firth of Forth. I very much enjoyed my meanderings through Edinburgh on this day. I began by exploring the beautiful Prince Street Gardens, and having a photo taken with a bagpipe busker right underneath Edinburgh Castle itself – I am indeed a tourist here in Scotland! I then walked up to the castle, admiring its precipitous beauty perched on the edge of a volcanic, rocky bluff. From here, I walked along the Royal Mile eastwards, from Castlehill through High Street and on to Canongate. This is the main touristy thoroughfare of Edinburgh, and it
was alive with tourists, souvenir shops and activity. I imagine during normal times, there would be plenty of international tourists, from North America, Asia and elsewhere. At this time, I heard mainly Scottish and English accents – I’m probably not the only British person choosing to spend their summer holidays at home. My Royal Mile walk ended at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the Scottish Parliament building, both very interesting places to contemplate. What was really surprising to me was that directly adjacent to both of them begins an area of rural escape – another volcanic bluff, this time higher than Edinburgh Castle at 251 metres, the famous Arthur’s Seat. A walk up there would offer spectacular views over Edinburgh, but it looked mightily steep, and the weather was hotting up with the sun beginning to creep out. I instead chose to climb the nearby, and much more manageable, Calton Hill, at a mere 103 metres, passing by the Robert Burns Monument (famous Scottish poet) along the way. From here, amazing views could still be had over Edinburgh, along Princes Street below and onto Edinburgh Castle in the distance, as well as Arthur’s Seat to the south, and the Firth
of Forth to the north. I could even spot in the far distance a very vague glimmer of the famous Forth Bridge, around ten miles to the west – main destination for my travels on Friday.
From Calton Hill, I headed back down into Princes Street, and then explored a small part of the New Town to the north, the main commercial and shopping centre of Edinburgh, before catching a tram taking me back westwards, to a stop called Saughton, only half-a-mile away from my accommodation in Broomhouse.
The day was hot, unusual for Scotland even during the summer, and I was glad to get back and rest for the rest of the day, to contemplate a really amazing first day of my summer travels around Scotland.
On my second full day in Edinburgh, I really began to feel like I was travelling again. I was beginning to get into the swing of things – the planning of places to visit, bus routes and train times, the taking of photos and uploading them onto my blog, and the excitement of realising I’ll be living like this for a whole month. It felt really nice. I took a
bus in the morning to Edinburgh Waverley station, and then a train from there to a small town 30 miles to the east called Dunbar, in the Scottish county of East Lothian. My main destination for the day was the birthplace of Scottish-American naturalist John Muir, who was born in the centre of this town in 1838. I have greatly admired this man for a number of years now, he is one of the founders of the modern, international National Park movement, after pioneering the creation of the world’s first National Park, Yosemite, in California in 1890. In a time of rampant Victorian industrialisation, following the belief of man’s God-given duty to conquer and subdue his surrounding natural environment, John Muir went against the grain in his day, writing books and articles, and meeting with many important decision-makers of the time, to argue the beauty of wilderness areas, the value for humans to rejuvenate and find themselves there, and the importance of protecting and conserving them. He was also a pioneer of early ecology, stating that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”, and being a committed Christian,
he also saw God in nature and creation.
I love John Muir’s view of the world, and find his life and words have influenced me and how I view the world around me, particularly as I travel through it. So to visit his birthplace was really quite special to me. The house was turned into a museum in 2003, and I enjoyed a good hour or so wandering through its exhibits, telling John Muir’s life from his birthplace in Dunbar, to he and his family’s move to the United States in 1849 when he was just 11 years old to settle virgin land in Wisconsin, before making his final move to California in 1878. It was a humble little place, telling the beautiful life of a humble person in love with nature. A picture that struck me the most was of his encounter with the then-president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, who joined John Muir for a three-day wilderness hike through Yosemite in 1903. The President wished to get away from all things political for three days, and it is believed this encounter was highly influential in changing the way the people of the world saw nature and
wilderness areas – places to be preserved and enjoyed, rather than conquered and subdued.
Dunbar really hit the spot for me, learning about the humble origins of such an important man in the natural world. It was around the coasts, forests and mountains of the surrounding region that John Muir fell in love with all that was wild and natural. From his birthplace, I walked to the town’s beautiful harbour with a ruined castle on a spectacular promontory covered with seagulls. I spied a seal in the harbour, a wonderful sight, and my first seal spotted in the UK. I was then fortunate enough to have been invited to take a photo of one of the nearby fishing boats’ catches of the day, a basketful of freshly caught lobster. With the smell of sea salt in the air, I then followed the first mile of the John Muir Way westwards out of town and away from the harbour. The John Muir Way is a 134-mile walking path that makes its way from Dunbar on Scotland’s east coast, across the country’s midriff westwards to Helensburgh on the country’s west coast, from where the Muir family headed westwards across the Atlantic
Royal Border Bridge, from the train
Ocean to seek new adventures in the New World. Rather a long walk from start to finish, I very much enjoyed just the first mile, as it skirted the wild bays and headlands west of Dunbar.
A mile later, and after passing along the edge of a coastal golf course and the unusual “Bridge to Nowhere”, or the Belhaven Bridge, crossing the Biel Water river, which at high tide simply looks like a bridge in the middle of a bay (it was fortunately high tide when I was passing it, it looked amazing!), I ended up in the village of Belhaven. From here, I took the two-hourly 120 bus northwestwards to my next stop for the day, the cute little seaside resort town of North Berwick.
Earlier on in this blog entry I wrote about my amazement at seeing a conical volcano upon entering Scotland by train. I since learned that this was the North Berwick Law, an extinct volcano 187 metres high and dramatically overlooking the quaint little seaside resort and harbour town of North Berwick below. I spent another happy couple of hours exploring this lovely little town, apparently a favourite seaside getaway of one of
Just over the border from England to Scotland, from the train
my favourite authors, Robert Louis Stevenson, along with many Victorian counterparts of his day. I spent most of my time around the harbour area, admiring once again the beautiful Scottish coast around there, with jutting rocky peninsulas interspersed by wide sandy beaches, whilst also admiring the amazingly incongruous presence of the ancient volcano looming over the town.
From here, I took a train back to Edinburgh from North Berwick’s train station, and a bus back to my lodgings once more, contemplating what an amazing day I had had, and how wonderful it was feeling to be really on the road again. I was excited for the next, my final, day in Edinburgh.
On the Friday, I took a bus again back into town, and then another bus out again to a small town ten miles west of Edinburgh called Queensferry, historically in the county of West Lothian (although now administered within the Edinburgh council area), to complete my visit of the three Scottish “Lothian” counties. My destination for the day was the amazing Forth Bridge area, the narrowest point on the Firth of Forth, where since ancient times, ferries used to channel travellers across the estuary. Now the
Scottish Baronial Castle
My first glimpse of one, from the train
area is home to not just one spectacular estuary bridge, but three! Each of them is a spectacle in itself, and from east to west, were built one per century, from the 19th
, through the 20th
, and onto the 21st
. The highlight of them all just has to be the Forth Rail Bridge, or simply the Forth Bridge, which is to my mind one of the most, if not the most, spectacular bridge in the world, and I am sure many would agree with me. It opened in 1890, and is famed for its three huge cantilevers and its rusty red colour. It was recently assigned UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2015, and is crossed by around 200 trains every day. It has been etched on my mind as an image of Scotland since my childhood days, and it was such a pleasure to see it at last. A little further west, the Forth Road Bridge was built in 1964, carrying cars across the firth for the first time, replacing a previous car ferry. In 2018 it was designated as a public transport bridge, and thus only buses, taxis, cycles and pedestrians cross it. It is planned that this
year, 2021, the bridge will be carrying the first driverless buses across its span as a trial. Finally, even further west, is the newest and longest, the 1.7-mile long Queensferry Crossing, carrying most of the vehicle traffic across the firth.
My first stop in town was to head up to Queensferry’s viewing point of the three bridges, contemplating the awesomeness of each of the three structures, although mainly the Forth (Rail) Bridge as this one is just so famous. Any one of the bridges would stand alone as an engineering marvel, but to have all three in the same place is quite something.
After contemplating the view, I headed through the quaint, cobbled streets of Queensferry, along its high street full of old-fashioned shops and Victorian houses, and on to the Maid of the Forth ticket office, just under the Forth Bridge. Tickets for a three-hour ferry ride to the nearby island of Inchcolm and then under the three bridges were sold out online the day before, but I rang the office yesterday, and was so pleased when I managed to book a reserve-place on the ferry which was converted into a full ticket today when I arrived
The ferry headed first for Inchcolm, where some passengers including myself booked to explore for an additional hour and a half before taking the next ferry back again. The island is nicknamed the “Iona of the East”, Iona being a small island off the west coast of the Scottish island of Mull, famed and legendary for being the centre of Celtic Christianity in Great Britain, and also linked in ancient times to Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, in Northumbria. Although my travels this summer will not be including a visit to Iona, I was more than happy to visit Inchcolm instead.
The story goes that Scottish King Alexander I was marooned on the island for three days after a bad ferry crossing in 1123. He was taken in and looked after during his time there by a hermit, who kept him nourished with milk, mussels and small fish. In gratitude to this man and to God, Alexander vowed to build a monastery on this island, but sadly died soon after, before his promise was realised. The following year, Alexander’s brother David I was king, and honoured the wishes of his dead brother, founding a priory on the
island. The monastery followed the Augustinian order, and flourished until the Scottish Protestant reformation of 1560, when the abbey was dissolved.
The ruins of the abbey are very much intact today though, and are surprisingly easy to explore, through various rooms, passages and spiral staircases. The island is also home to hundreds, if not thousands, of sea birds, mainly seagulls, fulmars, kittiwakes and terns. Puffins are also known to breed on the island, although they would have been difficult to spot from the island itself apparently. And the surrounding waters are home to seals, a couple of which were spotted from the ferry over. I had in mind to explore both the east and west peninsulas of the island, but noted from the signs and stewards that the time was nesting season for the seagulls, and they are known to be aggressive and attack people who get too close to their nests. A short walk away from the abbey, I was feeling their wrath and swooping cries, and decided to abandon the plan to explore the island beyond the abbey. It was unusual to experience this, as I have often found seagulls to be wary of humans. Not on
Inchcolm, the seagulls ruled the roost here, and I have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” too many times to wish to venture off the beaten track there.
Back on the ferry, it subsequently took us under all three of the Forth Bridges, one after the other, giving some amazing views and shots of each one from its underside. After disembarking, my final plan for the day was to walk the middle bridge, the Forth Road Bridge, from south to north, a distance of 1.5 miles, and then take the train back to Edinburgh from North Queensferry station on the other side, back along the Forth Rail Bridge. The walk was exhilarating, with fresh breezes blowing on a beautifully sunny day, the Firth of Forth flowing 44 metres below, and more stunning vistas to be had of the iconic Forth Rail Bridge glowing red in the sunlight to the east. It was a wonderful walk, topped off at the end by happening upon a wedding group, and taking a few sneaky photos myself...! The train back again over the Forth Rail Bridge was equally wonderful, and such a treat to actually travel on one of the world’s most iconic
I got off the train at Edinburgh Gateway station just on the western edge of Edinburgh, where I could easily get a bus back to my accommodation again, via a walk through the nearby Gyle Shopping Centre, one of Edinburgh’s largest shopping centres.
And so ends my amazing first stop on this Scotland trip. I have thoroughly enjoyed each day, and although not as exotic as my usual travels, I have certainly felt the travel buzz I usually get during a big trip. It has been wonderful to see such iconic places in and around the beautiful Scottish capital of Edinburgh, and I have enjoyed my time here very much. Tomorrow I head north via a short stop in Dundee to Aberdeen, which I plan to also use as a base to explore some interesting places in north-east Scotland.
So until my next one, most likely from Aberdeen in a few days’ time, thanks for reading, and all the best for now 😊
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