Edinburgh & The Highlands, Scotland - December 2009

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December 27th 2009
Published: July 1st 2010
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We left for a week in Scotland over New Years via a train out of King’s Cross Station to Edinburgh. We had originally been going to drive up, but time was of the essence and the train a whole lot faster, so we booked tickets for the train. The train trip was very pleasant, everything looks a little bit nicer when it’s covered in snow, and England is no exception :-) We did accrue a few short delays along the way, but before long we were in Edinburgh.

The first thing we noticed as we exited the station was the festival atmosphere which takes over the city in the build up to Hogmanay, circus attractions were all over the place, streets were closed down to make way for ferris wheels, carousals, and every other thrill seeking ride that can be moved on a truck! The bright lights and cheesy music were slightly at odds with the imposing and dramatic architecture of the city… but it was still all very cool :-) We really love Edinburgh, having visited before in 2007 and very keen to get back. Our hotel was just off the Royal Mile so perfect location, and it was a cruisy afternoon wandering the streets and soaking in the Edinburgh atmosphere - there is something that really grabs you about this city. For dinner we happened upon the ‘World’s End’ pub on the Royal Mile. We really liked it, WARM inside (very important :-)), it was small and cosy with dark panelled and stone walls, with traditional friendly Scottish service and great food. Oh, and of course, history to boot! The ‘World's End’ pub derives its name from its location adjacent to the former Netherbow Port. This was a defensive gateway which once stood across the Royal Mile at this point, separating the Old Town from the Canongate. The area inside the Port gateway came to be known as the "World's End" because as far as the townspeople of Edinburgh were concerned, it was quite literally where their world ended! The base of the Port can still be seen outside the pub, marked by metal plates in the roadway. The pub's foundations also incorporate part of the Flodden Wall which was once a major part of the Town's defenses. So there’s your history lesson for the day!

The following day Mum and Dad jumped on a ‘hop on hop off’ bus trip, but as we had been to Edinburgh before and seen a lot of those sites previously, we just went for a walk around the city, experimenting with the new digital SLR camera we’d bought the day before, revisiting streets and spots of interest and warming up in Starbucks (as you do…). Probably should have been a dram of whiskey, but hey the Caramel Macchiato’s went down well ha ha. Afterwards we caught back up with Mum and Dad, had lunch in a café known for being oldest something-or-rather… and then picked up some Scottish souvenirs - hip flasks, super soft cashmere gloves, some Macgregor stuff for Martin’s Mum for Xmas. You know, the usuals :-) We wandered up to the very cute statue of ‘Greyfriars Bobby’. Bobby is the infamous little Skye Terrier who belonged to John Gray, an Edinburgh night watchman. On 15 February 1858, Gray died of tuberculosis and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard (graveyard) in the Old Town of Edinburgh. Bobby, who survived Gray by fourteen years, is said to have spent the rest of his life sitting on his master's grave. In 1867, when it was argued that a dog without an owner should be destroyed, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers, paid for a renewal of Bobby's licence, making him the responsibility of the city council. Ok, I know, enough with the history lessons - but come on, that’s a cute story! Of course, we then visited the old Graveyard… That night we decided why knock a good thing, and it was back to the ‘World’s End’ for dinner and then we did one of the infamous ‘Edinburgh Ghost Tour and History Walks’ which is always quite amusing, informative and bereft of actual ghosts…. But it was fun anyway, Edinburgh has such a dark and interesting history well suited to wandering around streets, dungeons and cellars in the pitch dark!

Following morning it was snowing pretty hard in the streets, so of course out we went for a wander in it. Picked up some more cashmere gloves, and a tartan skirt for Bunny. Martin went off to pick up our hire car from the Hertz city depot. Mmmm ... only to arrive and be told that actually that depot was closed and he had to pick up from the airport. Nice to be told in advance... Anyway, due to heavy snow, congested traffic and every street the Navman tried to direct him to on the way back being closed for Hogmanay, the journey was a little frustrating but Martin managed to find his way back to our hotel. Meanwhile, after a leisurely stroll around the city and then finding a shop called ‘Chocolate Soup’… I mean, how could we resist? We ordered and were sitting there thinking how devine this was, hot choco coming, snow falling down outside, just after 12…. Eeek what?! How did it get to be after 12? We were supposed to be checked out of our hotel by 12! Quickly asking for our hot chocolates to be made take away, it was a quick run down the street, aiming not to spill our hot chocolate while simultaneously trying not to slip over in the snow. Locked out of our rooms, we had to plead ignorance and gain re-entry to quickly assemble our luggage and head back down to the lobby and wait for Martin to find his way back... Eventually, in the late afternoon, we were in the car and on our way out of Edinburgh.

We had booked a cottage in the highlands for the next few days. This was in Pityoulish, close to the ski resort town of Aviemore on the doorstep of the Cairngorms National Park. Well, for some reason our Navman really didn’t seem to like Scotland that much and lead us on a merry dance around the countryside. A highlight of this was getting to drive through a fair number of small off-the-beaten-track villages. One such village being 'Muckhart on Pool' where we stopped for some fantastic Steak & Ale pie. Well, with all the delays to the day it got pretty late and of course very dark well before we were in reach of our cottage. It was snowing pretty heavily at times and visibility through the windscreen was pretty restricted, but we eventually made it to Aviemore and then off on the road towards our cottage. Well, the directions we had didn’t turn out to be too great so after a few calls to the property owner we eventually found our way and found our little stone cottage hidden in the snow (thankfully with radiators left on).

The next day we awoke to several feet of snow outside our cottage. Now, interesting to note perhaps at this point, is that before Mum and Dad arrived in the UK from NZ there had been the idle comment …”hope we’ll get some snow”. We were quick to respond ‘oh, maybe, probably not too likely though, it’s usually only a day or so of snow in maybe, February?’…. mmm, not only had we had snow in London on various days since they arrived but every single day we’d been out of London we’d been granted loads of snow - throughout the Lake District, Wales and now, in Scotland, we were in the most snow they’d had in 15 years. Well, proves us wrong doesn’t it! I’d even looked into a 4WD hire car several months back for this trip but was told a little Ford Focus would be fine. Mmmmmm….. We spent a wee while playing in the snow (of course :-) ) and saying hello to the horse and donkeys over the fence from our cottage. Then it was off to the car, which of course was pretty deep in snow. We managed to drive forwards, and reverse, drive forwards, and reverse, and so on… and wriggle our way out of the place we’d parked. Then we were off on our way to explore Aviemore. Aviemore is a ski resort town and has quite a nice atmosphere. There was even a brewery in town (the Cairngorn Brewery) that ran afternoon tours Martin was most excited about so off we went to tour the brewery and sample about eight different beers. Bunny giving half of each of hers to Martin so he got a few extra :-) After Martin stocked up on a few of the local beers from the brewery, and of course a t-shirt to mark the occasion, we were off into town and thought that finding snow chains or some plastic spades may be a good idea. Well, snow chains were impossible to come by - being told by the local information centre, that no one stocks them anymore because they are simply not needed - they don’t get enough snow. Of course, this winter springing upon them quite a big exception! So, after a pub afternoon and eventually finding some fluro plastic toboggans we thought could double up as spades/snow shovels, we were off back to the cottage for some time in front of the fire.

The next day there was more snow… so instead of our planned drive around the highlands and to local lochs, it was more time spent playing in the snow and wondering if we were even going to be able to leave the next day - the car was once again completely snowed in and the roads stretched away in either direction deep in snow…. And of course our cottage being on a side road wasn’t a priority for the grit trucks. In the early afternoon a few 4WD vehicles had managed to navigate our road so we thought we’d try and dig our car out. The plastic tabaggon/spades being put to good work! Eventually having dug ourselves out we were off at a snail’s pace down the road towards the main road. Reaching this, we managed to get a bit stuck in a huge drift of snow and the main road being the road up to the ski mountain was littered with cars slipping all over the place and people just laughing at the predicament we all found ourselves in. Quite the community spirit! Eventually we managed to get on to the actual road and drive our way down to Aviemore. Another pub afternoon and wander around town, plus picking up carrots for our horse and donkey friends at the cottage, and we headed back to the cottage for New Year’s Eve…. It was quite cool being up in the highlands, snowed in to our cottage for New Year’s Eve I must say! Surreal for kiwis used to a summer NYE!

The following day we were up and digging out the car again for the drive back to Edinburgh. Eventually on the road, we managed to find a route off the main highways so we could at least try and show Mum and Dad some of the outstanding lochs and wild scenery the Highlands are known for. Ok, and we wanted to find the McLaren stronghold from days of old: Balquhidder! We reached Balquhidder around lunch time and had a look around the graveyard, finding the graves of Rob Roy, his wife and children, and various MacGregors - Martin was most impressed that his ancestors had invaded the MacLaren stronghold. :-) We really wanted to find ‘Creag an Tuirc’ (Boar’s Rock - namesake of the Mclaren crest), the ancient rallying place of the McLaren/MacLaren clan. Now, we’re not sure if in summer, when there is not so much snow about, if this is more clearly signposted…. But up the hill we went and at no point had any idea how far we were away from Creag an Tuirc, several times wondering if we should turn back as we were still a while away from Edinburgh and didn’t have much longer before we had to drop the car off. Eventually however, we reached the top and it was well worth it for the most magnificent scenic view. It really was a beautiful view stretched out below us, the length of Loch Voil. I’m definitely glad we made the effort! When we reached the bottom again, (I guess the walk is about 2km each way, uphill to the rock) we were in the car and then had to stop for compulsory photos of some Highland cows, they are quite cool! (Pronounced 'heeland coo'!) We passed some lovely scenery on our way back to Edinburgh, picturesque lochs and farmland, a wintery wonderland. Suddenly we saw the sign for Hamish! - the famous Highland cow we had met in 2007 as all good tourists must! We pulled over and realising we had cellphone signal again and we were quite late for dropping off our hire car I made the call to Hertz, eventually getting through to the airport counter and launching into my heart-warming story of being lost in the snow... mmmm, nice try. The lady on the phone takes a few minutes, does a few calculations and says ‘ok, well you will be charged an extra day rate.’ (Bugger…) She does a few more calculations and then says ‘and that will cost you 1.67 pounds’. I’m like ..... errr 1.67 GBP? Go figure, ok we’ll take it! Seems the rate dropped quite a bit if you got it for 4 days! No longer in a rush, we had lunch at the tea rooms and brought carrots etc from the shop to feed the enormous Hamish :-)

Heading on our way again we stopped off at the William Wallace monument, opting to take photos from the bottom rather than make another long and expensive uphill hike. Reaching Edinburgh, Martin dropped the rest of us in the city and then took the car back to the airport before meeting us back at the train station. A leisurely train journey with loads of ‘500’ had us back in London 4.5 hours later, a little tired but with another great trip to Scotland under our belts. :-)

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