“So, uh, what’s the difference between the Megabus and Megabus Gold?”
“I don’t know. The toilet maybe?”
“The toilet? What about the toilet? This bus has a toilet.”
“Yeah, but maybe it’s better on the Megabus Gold.”
“What, like a golden toilet?”
plan vague idea was to spend 5 days road tripping, car camping and generally exploring the far north of Scotland. Finally we had our chance to personally discover the classic Highlands of yore, a landscape steeped in myth, legend and tragedy, populated with more sheep and cattle than people. By all accounts (why yes, I’ve read everything) the region beyond Inverness is a hinterland of unknowns shrouded in the eternal mists of time and, uh, mist. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Jesus riding a dinosaur into battle against Viking raiders, valiantly severing the horned heads of those heathen invaders from the west and north. Really!
So of course that explains why we find ourselves on the Megabus heading south and bound for the quaint, quiet village of Edinburgh for a 3 day, 2 night cheap(ish) city break excursion. Right. Long story short, a foul combination of logistics, commitments and horrendous weather forced us to move on to
Plan B vague idea #2. Hey, it’s good to have options. Besides, I’ve been coming to Scotland since 2007, lived here since 2011, and only spent 2 measly days in the capital. I mean, WTF dude!
“Holy crap, are you seeing this?”
“Yes, but I’m trying not to.”
We’ve stopped to pick-up more passengers at the bus station in Dundee, and what Steph is trying to not look at is a group of OAP’s – that’s “old age pensioners” for you kids not hip with the British lingo – who all appear to have just come from the Botox doc (why so surprised ladies?) then taken a side trip on the way to fall face first into every make-up counter at Boots. And I mean every make-up counter at a big Boots, not one of those little convenience stores they have. And bloody hell, the smell! Is there a car wash in Dundee which has been modified to douse people in cheap perfume? There must be, and these ladies have ponied up for the full chavtastic treatment! Dare I mention the leather trousers and the (gulp) visible thong panties? Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo…………
“Is today a bank holiday or something? It’s so quiet here.”
“Steph, you know I won’t validate the corrupt scam of the “bank holiday” my acknowledging that they exist. But no, I don’t think so.”
My customarily curmudgeonly quibbling about bank holidays not withstanding, it is eerily quiet on the streets of Edinburgh, pretty much the opposite of what we (shameless self-promotion warning) experienced when we got off the bus in Prague. Or what I experience every day in Aberdeen. We’ve got a few hours to kill before checking into our hotel, and as much as I would like to bask outside in the rare glory that is a quiet city, I’m afraid other priorities are afoot. As Steph so often says, it’s time to feed the bear.
“Ooh look, the Malt Shovel Inn. That looks promising. Lets go.”
Tempted as I am, I’ll not be chasing down my bacon, eggs and toast with a whisky this morning. Just one of the thousands of little sacrifices I make daily to keep the peace with the wife. Somehow though I manage to shatter the peace when I inexplicably swat my latte glass with my hand, knocking it over and spilling coffee all over the table. Thankfully no go-go-juice gets on either of our trousers, seeing as we’re (I’m) doing our (my) usual traveling light routine and haven’t brought any spares.
Knowing that we’ve got a mile or so between here and our hotel we linger a bit and let our food properly digest before moving on. It’s nice sometimes to have nowhere specific to be and nothing specific to do, especially amidst the hustle and bustle of a city. From our booth we can look out onto Cockburn Street and watch people – most of whom, based on their wheeled luggage and propensity for taking phone pics of everything, I presume to be tourists – walk by.
Still, though, I could sure go for a whisky damn it!
Leaving the Malt Shovel (and all that whisky!) behind we randomly choose to climb up Advocate’s Close, just one of the many steep sets of stairs built throughout the city. Like all cities everywhere Edinburgh is a product of it’s unique combination of ologies; meteorology, geology, hydrology psychology and technology. We’ve only just arrived of course but so far – and I’ve found this to be the case in all my Scottish travels – the meteorology, geology and hydrology feel more raw and un-tamed here, and that rawness tends to carry over into the architecture (technology) and demeanour (psychology) of the people. Scotland is a cold, hard and wet place, and quite frankly that’s reflected in its people and the things they build. Mind you I’m not intending this as a value judgement – either good or bad – just reporting on what I’ve experienced.
Metaphysical musings aside, you better bring comfortable shoes if you plan on seeing this city, cause it’s a hilly one.
On a whim we stop and buy tickets for a tour of The Real Mary King’s Close (no knockoff Mary King’s Closes for us), likely one of the most popular tourist attractions in Edinburgh. Our tour is for later in the afternoon and to be honest I’m not expecting much. We are in town to do the tourist thing, and I’m certainly interested in learning more of the local history, but the collection of tartan tat in the gift shop (certainly not the worst I’ve seen, but still) and the fact that they promote the Close as being “haunted” all leaves me a bit cold.
Or is that a spot of cold energy bleeding through from the other side? Muahahahahahahaha!
Any cold feelings quickly dissipate on the walk between the city centre and our digs for the next couple of nights, the Hotel Ceilidh-Donia. The sun is shining nice and warm, despite a weather forecast which was calling for cloudy skies, cool temps and a fair chance of rain. I’m already beginning to regret wearing my wool coat, which is too big to fit into the one small bag we’ve taken for our clothes and toiletries. Steph, too, is sporting her wool coat, but she tends to run a fair bit cooler than me. I’m also shouldering a new small waterproof Aquapac camera bag for my Nikon D300s, and between the coat and both bags I’m a sweaty mess by the time we check-in.
After climbing the steep and twisty stairs to the top floor we kill the heat and open the window in our room and are promptly greeted with the sound of…….nothing. Despite being just one street removed from the busy Dalkeith Road (we found the traffic) the hotel is surprisingly quiet. By Edinburgh standards we’re paying for budget accommodations, but nothing about this place feels cheap. It looks and feels clean, cozy and quirky. Plus they have a dog. How cool is that, right? I know Steph will want to reserve full judgement until after breakfast in the morning (she still has nightmares featuring chocolate sprinkles after our Amsterdam trip) but so far so good. (Sorry, I forgot to warn you about the shameless self-promotion there).
We’ve decided to take full advantage of this rare March weather by lazing about on a park bench in the Princes Street Gardens before our tour. Looming large over the gardens is one of Edinburgh’s most iconic and recognisable landmarks, the Scott Monument, a super wicked looking gothic spire built to honour the author, Sir Walter Scott. Some sources claim this to be the largest monument to an author anywhere in the world, a pretty cool statistic which I think speaks volumes about the Scottish national character. A bit dour and hard, yes, but there is a strong appreciation for literature and higher learning in general here, and the contributions Scots have historically made to the world at large far outstrips the comparatively minuscule population numbers. As you’re sure to hear if you spend any amount of time here, Scotland punches above its weight.
And just like that, wine and timber merchant Stephen Boyd empties a bucket of food waste, vomit, urine and faeces into the narrow street – or rather, the close – right outside the front door. Passers by casually stroll through the filth as they shop for food and textiles. The sewage slowly makes its way down the steep confines of the close and eventually into the Nor Loch, an open air cesspool used for horrific executions, suicides, and the cities drinking water.
And you wonder why I’m not a city boy.
Of course our tour guide, playing the part of wine and timber merchant Stephen Boyd, doesn’t actually throw a bucket of filth out the door for our group of intrepid overweight asthmatics (seriously, I thought we were going to lose a couple down there) to trudge through. And even if he had it never would have reached the Nor Loch because, well, it isn’t there any more. The site was drained and has now become the Princes Street Gardens and Waverley Train Station.
I’m feeling pretty damn good about sitting on a park bench earlier rather than the grass, let me tell you.
By the end of the tour we’ve heard all about the brutal history of this place, and perhaps it’s my soft modern sensibilities shining through but I find it remarkable that a society not only survived here but eventually flourished. As for the quality of the tour itself, I’m not just pleasantly surprised but am actually impressed. I stand corrected and offer my kudos to The Real Mary King’s Close.
For the record, Steph knew it was going to be good all along.
We’re finishing our day out with dinner at The Elephant House, a funky tea room/coffee shop/eatery which Steph had scouted out prior to our trip. We both get pizzas (delicious!) and enjoy lattes (excellent!) while chilling and soaking in the relaxed ambiance of the place. In fact, I’m finding it remarkable just how chilled and laid back this place is, especially considering it’s right in the heart of the city. It’s quite a nice contrast to most of the evening meals I’ve had in Aberdeen, where the atmosphere tends to be a strange mixture of unjustified pretentiousness and aggressive laddishness – In other words, unpleasant.
Oh, and I guess I should mention that some nice lady named JK Rowling began writing a series of books about a boy wizard named Harry Potter here at The Elephant House. Steph is a fan and she assures me it’s a big deal.
It’s a short but steep (how many times am I going to use the word “steep” in this post?) ascent up Arthur’s Seat, the now extinct volcano which lords over Edinburgh like a Scottish version of Olympus. We’re making good time but we need to move faster: the daylight is coming on and I need to be in position when the sky starts its fiery show. These are going to be some epic photos!
Okay, in truth we’re actually watching sunrise from the window of our hotel room. Oh, I was up plenty early enough to have made it to the top of Arthur’s Seat for sunrise, but checking the forecast and peering out the window I decided the conditions weren’t favourable. Instead I put on some Classic FM, made myself a cup of coffee, had a shower (by the way, our room has an absolutely amazing shower) and trolled the internet for things to do in Edinburgh.
Bad choice Bob.
For a few brief moments the sky lights up like an anabolic mixture of Irn Bru, Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve, and Scottish thistles (think radioactive orange, rich amber and muted purple). Photos from atop Arthur’s Seat would have been epic. Well shit.
After scarfing the delicious hotel breakfast and packing the camera in the new bag we’re out the door and heading back to the city centre for a full day of tourist shenanigans. This time, however, we’re going to take the route through Holyrood Park rather than walking along the loud and busy Dalkeith Road. That is, if we ever manage to get across Queen’s Drive and into the park. The traffic here is mental, which pretty well describes the standard of driving as well. I’m certain most of these drivers are going too fast to even read the speed limit signs!
But once (finally) on the other side of Queen’s Drive and up the hill a bit it really is a whole other world, a surreal wilderness oasis plunked down in the middle of a capital city. Or rather, Edinburgh is a capital city rough hewn from this primordial landscape. After the chaos of cars along Dalkeith Road and Queen’s Drive, the still and quiet of Holyrood Park is both refreshing and disorienting. I wonder how many of the people of Edinburgh know how fortunate they are to have this in their city.
We come out on the other side at the foot of the Royal Mile, the road which stretches west to east from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Although the Palace is still the royal family’s official residence in Scotland, these days the more important – and controversial – building here is the Scottish Parliament. Opened in 2004 – 3 years late and £300 million over budget – the building itself received a mixed reaction from the public. To be sure it is a radical design, and I can understand why people of a certain age and/or mindset might find it garish or even offensive, but I rather like it. Sit a child down with an unlimited supply of Legos, Lincoln Logs and ERECTOR set materials and he or she might produce something similar, which I think is pretty damn cool for a building which likely houses a higher than average concentration of uptight, stuffed-shirt, humourless stiffs in dire need of reconnecting with their inner child.
(Disclaimer: The previous statement was in no way a commentary on the current Scottish Government or the merits of Scottish independence. I was merely suggesting that, as a general rule, politicians and bureaucrats tend to be uptight, stuffed-shirt, humourless stiffs in dire need of reconnecting with their inner child, regardless of party affiliation or philosophical persuasion. I would apologise for any offence caused, but I’m not British.)
After stopping for coffee and a snack (don’t judge, we just walked through a prehistoric landscape) we’ve come to a place which we expect will help us reconnect with our own inner children (yes, I have a few within me): the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood. Steph had scouted this place out and picked it as her one must-see attraction of the trip. Being a bit of a big kid myself I thought it sounded grand, so here we are.
And there we go.
We dutifully made our way up all 4 floors and past every exhibit, trying hard to connect with something, anything, in the place, but it just didn’t happen for either of us. On the plus side the museum is free, and the toilets are nice and clean, so we’ll call this a push and move on.
Our next stop is the National Museum of Scotland, and just from our first few steps in the door we can both tell that this place is going to be awesome. Like the Museum of Childhood admission is free, and the toilets are nice, but the similarities stop there. With exhibits on science, technology, history, art, nature and culture there really is something for everyone here. Okay, I suppose if you’re an active member of the Taliban then you would find this repository of knowledge and celebration of free expression woefully offensive, but for everyone else it should be cool.
We linger and wander and gaze and gawk but it’s no use; a person could easily spend a week in here trying to see it all. After a few detours we find our way up to the roof to take in the incredible views of the city. Not to brag (ahem) but coming here was my must-see attraction for the trip (I win, I win!). Specifically I wanted to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which is showing here until the 1st of June. Steph isn’t a big fan of artsy stuff but even she is impressed, inspired even, by the images on display.
To summarise, the National Museum of Scotland is a national treasure. If you are reading this from anywhere within a zillion kilometre radius of Edinburgh, stop what you are doing and go now.
It was tough to leave the National Museum of Scotland, but the pangs of hunger and further exploration beckon. We’ll definitely be back when we have more time in the city.
We grab lunch at Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar (say that fast 3 times), make a (thankfully) quick lap through a sweltering Jenners (the giant department store across from the Scott Monument along Princes Street) and eventually meander our way up Calton Hill to take in the views and chillax. Again, the city is much calmer and quieter than I expected, especially considering we’re sticking strictly to what should be the tourist hot spots. The lack of people milling about atop Calton Hill is actually a bit eerie, though I’m certainly not complaining. The views are predictably awesome but we’re disappointed to find that the Nelson Monument isn’t open, even though information on the website and signage on-site all indicates that it should be. We must have missed the invisible ink memo.
“What happened Bob?”
“Look, the buckle attachment for the strap just pulled off of the bag. What the hell!?”
Because of my inherent paranoia about the ever present possibility of breaking buckles and/or thieves I tend to carry shoulder bags like a running back carries a (American) football, with my arm under the bag and held tight against my side. Thanks to that the bag – with my camera in it – didn’t go crashing to the ground when the buckle failed. I manage to MacGyver the strap back onto the bag using the roll-top closure and a zip-tie (I always keep a few zip-ties in any bag I carry for just such an occasion) but it’s a cumbersome fix and makes accessing the camera a real hassle. Not cool.
We buy some fudge and nosh a few pieces in front of the Scottish Parliament building before walking back to the hotel, this time taking the path which parallels the still busy Queen’s Road. After a quick freshen-up we’re back out for a fine dinner at the Salisbury Arms, then back to the hotel for drinks at the bar before calling it a night. Tomorrow, dear friends, we solve the mystery of the Megabus Gold.
We’ve intentionally booked our return bus for early afternoon, giving us a few hours after the required check-out time to explore some more. With no specific plans in place, no more must-see attractions on the list, we leave the hotel and just wander back towards the city centre. After our requisite coffee and light snack (giant slice of cake) we head up to the top of the Royal Mile and have a peek at Edinburgh Castle. We’ve already ‘done’ the castle, on our previous visit to the city, so we’ll not be plunking down any cash to tour the inside again today. It’s just fun to watch the enthusiasm and joy of other people who are seeing such things for the first time. We do nip briefly into the Scotch Whisky Experience – which was closed the last time we were here – and have a look in the shop. I’d like to do the tour some time but I’ll certainly not subject Steph to it. She’s taken me to more than a few distilleries during my time in Scotland and never hassles me (much) over my expensive whisky hobby. In fact, she even offers – almost begs – to buy me a bottle while we’re here, but I’m trying to be more reasonable with the finances at the moment and (reluctantly) decline.
Diagonally across the street from the Scotch Whisky Experience is the biggest, gaudiest tartan-tat shop I think I’ve ever seen. So of course we go in for a browse. We’ve seen dozens of similar shops dotted around the city, with their racks of clan crest key rings and shelves full of wool this and cashmere that. Look, I get it that this is just what tourism means in the developed western world, and some of the stuff in the shops really is hand-made by artists and craftsmen and of a good quality, but still most of these places really grinds my gears. You wanna know what really pisses me off, besides the cheap plastic trinkets and cultural stereotyping all designed for obscene profiteering? The music! Every one of these places I’ve ever been in, without fail, has had shitty pop music, shitty dance music or shitty dubstep blasting through the isles of tat. You want to sell the Highland stereotype but you can’t even be bothered to put on some Runrig, Red Hot Chilli Pipers or Dougie-fuckin’-MacLean! Hell, even putting together a mix of (good) Scottish pop music – The Proclaimers, KT Tunstall, Travis, Annie Lennox, whatever – would show you had put some effort, some thought, into things.
Perhaps because of my foul mood over the tat shops – or maybe because she just wants rid of me in general – Steph suggests we split up to do some individual exploration. Sounds great to me and I take the opportunity to visit the Scottish National Gallery, one of those artsy places she wouldn’t particularly enjoy anyway. It turns out to be a good choice and I’m extremely impressed with the quantity, quality and diversity of the collection here. I lose myself for who knows how long just sitting on a bench, watching people and soaking in the refined ambiance. Ridiculous as it sounds I really could do this all day.
Except that I can’t. Steph and I meet up in the Princes Street Gardens and make the short walk to the bus station. It’s time to solve the mystery of the Megabus Gold.
“Uh, is that it? The old one, with the hand written “Aberdeen” sign taped on the front windscreen?”
“Must be, this is the terminal.”
We overhear the bus driver telling some of the other passengers that the bus we should be on has broken down, hence the old back-up model being rolled into service. Turns out we get a flight attendant who serves drinks and snacks on the “Gold” service, but no golden toilet seat. Bummer.
It’s been a flying visit to Edinburgh, and though we managed to see a few sights there is plenty more waiting for us on future visits. Getting out of Aberdeen for a few days and playing tourist in my adopted home country felt great. It’s far too easy to take for granted all the cool things which are easily available to us and only look for adventures in exotic – and expensive – trips abroad. Steph and I both plan to take full advantage of all that Scotland has to offer, for the rest of this year and however long we end up staying here.
Thanks for reading. Here’s a few more pics from the trip.