Day One: 16/11/16
I’d lusted after Edinburgh from afar for absolutely ages, but it was only last week– after years of increasingly desperate planning– that I finally got the chance to visit the city of my dreams.
Getting off the Megabus was tricky. For one, I’d been sitting for a twelve hour coach journey and my joints were stubbornly refusing to work. But there was something else, something which made me pause at the automatic door, probably to the great annoyance of the coach driver. It was a deep-seated nervousness, combined with a sense of This is it! You’re actually here!
You see, after years of hoping and dreaming, the reality of it scared me. What if Edinburgh failed to live up to my ridiculously high expectations? What if, after all, it was simply the grey, ‘gloomy’ city my lecturer had described in a reply to my Sorry, won’t be in next week’s lecture, third year is too much and I’m running away to Scotland for a while email? (Of course the real, Actual Responsible Adult™ reason for visiting Edinburgh was to scope out the postgrad open day, but I’ll run away from that as well, while I can).
Eventually I did get off the coach and, in a bit of a daze, I wheeled both myself and my suitcase out of the station and on to North Saint Andrew Street. The first thing that hit me, straight away, was the temperature. It was freezing, but absurdly pleasant after sitting in a stuffy coach all night. In the east, the sun was rising above the distant Firth of Forth, and the sky was a gorgeous shade of purple, specked with deep oranges and strands of golden yellow which were reflected off the tall Georgian buildings nearby. My hair, caught up in the near-Arctic wind, whipped around me and, while I had barely slept all night, I felt exhilarated. I knew then– as cheesy as it may sound– that Edinburgh would not disappoint.
So we set off in search of Justin, our Airbnb host for the week, to collect keys and settle in before a long day of open day-ing and thinking of the future-ing. He was a little late and for a moment, huddled together against the cold on Nicholson Street, we wondered if Airbnb was possibly all a big scam. But Justin soon arrived, and was lovely. He gave us a quick tour of the flat –bathroom here, kitchen there, keys through the letter box when you leave – and then left us to recover from the journey and de-zombify ourselves for the day ahead.
The open day at The University of Edinburgh was brilliant. As the main reason for travelling 418.3 gruelling miles in a Megabus, I found it both useful and decidedly worth it. Still not 100% sure of the course itself though, I’m possibly leaning ever so slightly more towards another one at the moment, but it’s a shame because I fell completely head-over-heels for the university itself. Also, credit where credit’s due, the staff and open day helpers were excellent throughout the day, answering any questions we had and being very friendly.
Afterwards we all returned to Justin’s and had well-deserved naps, relishing at the prospect of sleeping in actual beds rather than a crowded moving vehicle. I slept deeply and dreamlessly and woke feeling refreshed, if still a little tired. We had dinner– a lovely meal of pasta and lentils courtesy of Wendy then left the house again for a haunted ghost walk of Edinburgh’s underground spaces with City of the Dead Tours.
It was raining buckets when we left the house, and positively chucking it down by the time we arrived at the meeting point along the Royal Mile. The drenched cobble stones and masonry were a glossy charcoal, like something out of a melodramatic Victorian murder mystery, glittering with the reflected reds and oranges of streetlights that could so easily have been gaslights. Just as I was thinking all that’s missing is Jack The Ripper, the tour guide appeared. He was draped in a thick black cloak, with a top hat perched on his head, and he called us over to the group with a thick Scots accent.
As he led the group to our underground destination deep in the Edinburgh vaults, he spoke about the history of the local area. It was embellished for effect, and there were certain bits that didn’t sound entirely historically accurate, but his words rang with a gritty realism. For the most part, he didn’t mention hauntings or ghostly goings on, but instead created a sense of horror through his descriptions of the conditions experienced by the very poorest of society.
He led us down ambling side-roads and winding cobbled streets, through historic red-light districts which were now lined with tourist shops and artisan bakeries, speaking all the while of the horrific overcrowding of the eighteenth century city, the dire mortality rates, and the failures of the state and the church in caring for the poor. When of course we finally did make it underground, he regaled us with ghost stories and descriptions of the South Bridge Entity which was said to dwell in the vaults. It was spooky, without a doubt, but I felt that the true horror of the night was resoundingly in his descriptions of the past.
As we emerged above ground again, the Old Town stretched out around us, appearing both ageless and ancient. It was all too easy to imagine the sights he had described, and the people who had suffered in this place. That was what haunted me most.
It soon started to rain heavily again and we were drenched trying to find our way home in the labyrinth of backstreets. Naturally, when Google Maps failed to work, we blamed the South Bridge Entity for making us lose our way.
Day Two: 17/11/16
Had a slight lie-in to recover from the knackering twelve-hour journey, and ended up leaving the house just after lunchtime. Our first port of call was the National Museum of Scotland, which I was embarrassingly keen to visit. It was a stunning building, both inside and out, which really did credit to the fascinating exhibits. The hands-on science and technology gallery was great fun, and we spent far too long playing with the interactive exhibits, making hot air balloons lift off and programming a robot to do our bidding. There was also a fair bit of snapchatting going on as we took in the culture which, to be fair, some exhibits seemed to directly cry out for.
As dedicated Outlander fans, Bryony and I soon headed to the eighteenth century section, where we tried and failed to be dignified in our adoration of the era. Here, we were able to sit in a miniature thatched cottage, listen to traditional music of the period, squeeze into children’s dress-up clothes, and attempt to take in as much info as we possibly could. The exhibits on Culloden and the Jacobite risings in particular were beautifully comprehensive, and it was tricky to pull ourselves away from it all.
We could have happily sat in that thatched cottage reading about Bonnie Prince Charlie for hours, but it was getting late and we wanted to visit the Royal Mile before the shops shut. So we dragged ourselves away and exited via the (genuinely amazing) gift shop. It was then only a short walk before we found ourselves on one of Edinburgh’s most famous streets. The Royal Mile was lush and, to tell you the truth, I spent far too much money in its many tourist shops. I bought a gorgeously warm and cosy Edinburgh hoodie for myself, and presents for friends and family, as well as what felt like a few hundred postcards. Worth every penny, to be honest. Je ne regrette rien.
We were making our way back to the house when, purely by chance, we realised how close we were to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Of course, being the mature adults that we are, we were thrilled at the prospect of visiting one of Scotland’s most haunted locations after dark. It was nearly pitch-black and we walked around quickly, using the light from our phones to guide us, while attempting to avoid the group of people filming a Most Haunted style documentary in one corner of the cemetery. Eventually we began to feel unsettled and decided to leave.
Day Three: 18/11/16
We woke up early in order to make it to the Glasgow University open day. Here, almost immediately upon arrival, I fell in love with the Glaswegian subway which was so refreshingly easy to use after years spent getting lost on the tube. The city had a buzz to it that’s difficult to describe, but it was artsy and ancient, energetic and fun. Glasgow doesn’t take itself seriously, which I really love about it.
The open day itself was perfect, and as of now I’m definitely planning to make an application. Everyone we encountered bent over backwards to help us and one man even walked us to the subway station in the pouring rain when we asked for directions. The city is undoubtedly deserving of its title as the world’s friendliest city.
After the open day, we had a quick look around the Hunterian Museum, then did a fair amount of tourist-ing, followed by a little bit of shopping where I was very tempted to buy quite a lot of gloves. Spotting the Duke of Wellington statue, cone and all, was a definite highlight of the trip. So too was dinner at Mono, a charming vegan restaurant/record shop in the city centre. I had a delicious to-fish and chips (battered tofu = Pure Heaven) followed by a chocolate avocado and walnut tart. Really wish there was a restaurant like this nearer to Winchester, because I could quite easily spend most of my life there.
As it was, I left Glasgow feeling sad that the day was over. I would have loved to spend more time in this brilliant city.
Day Four: 19/11/16
We spent our fourth day storming Edinburgh castle. I was amazed by how much there was to see and do here, with many individual museums nestled within the castle’s keep. After a fascinating but freezing guided tour followed by the 1pm firing of the cannon, we had a chilly lunch in the tea rooms, huddled around Bryony’s teapot for warmth. We then headed to the National War Museum, where we spent well over an hour reading displays and being drawn into the history on offer. We even found a radiator in one room, which was a godsend.
Not to mention, it was also the perfect spot for the odd #MuseumSelfie which really is terribly good fun. In the words of curator Mar Dixon (@MarDixon), “I always feel so bad for those people who don’t get #MuseumSelfie or any fun in museums. I just want to hug them and tell them it’ll be ok.”
It was difficult to decide where to visit next, as we were completely spoilt for choice. Eventually though we settled on the Prisons of War which showcased the living conditions of POWs held there throughout the centuries. These men ranged from French sailors captured in 1758, shortly after the Seven Years’ War, to soldiers of the American War of Independence (1775-83), right up to inmates from wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1793-1815). The surrounding displays told tales of the prisoners, one of whom was a five-year old drummer boy, taken at Trafalgar (1805). Another, desperate to escape, hid in a dung cart, only to be killed on the rocks below as the contents were tipped over the castle wall. Four more succeeded in escaping in 1799, by lowering themselves down the rock on washing lines, while in the more audacious outbreak of 1811, 49 prisoners cut their way through the parapet wall, beside the battery. All but one escaped and the hole is still there today.
Next we sampled some lovely Bruadar whiskey in the Whiskey and Finest Food shop, then visited The Royal Palace, a principle royal residence from the eleventh century up until the early seventeenth. It was a fascinating building, with a grand history. Indeed, it was here that, on the 19th of June, 1566, Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland. It was truly remarkable to think that the first king of England and Scotland, a man who would go on to shape both nations so dramatically, had been born in such an impossibly small room.
The next part of our visit to the castle was spent admiring the Scottish crown jewels, which are the oldest in the British Isles, created in Scotland and Italy during the reigns of James IV and James V. They were first used for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in September, 1543. We saw the Stone of Destiny as well, also known as the Stone of Scone, which is traditionally thought to have once been part of an ancient royal bench-throne, and imbued with sacred powers. For centuries, Scottish kings were ceremoniously crowned atop the stone, tying the monarch to the land forevermore.
The Stone has an eventful history. In 1296, believing himself to have a God-given right of superiority over Scotland, Edward I forcibly removed the Scots’ royal regalia and holy relics, along with 65 chests containing the records of the kingdom. In short, he took all the objects of statehood, making sure that the Stone of Destiny was in his haul, it was removed from the abbey of Scone in August, 1296 and sent to Westminster Abbey. Here, it was enclosed in a new throne, the Coronation Chair, where it has been used ever since in the coronations of most monarchs of England and, from 1714, all the rulers of Great Britain.
However, on Christmas Day, 1950, four students from the University of Glasgow removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland. On the 11th of April, 1951, it turned up 500 miles away, at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey! Afterwards, it was once again taken to Westminster Abbey, but the actions of the students made people begin to ask Why wasn’t the stone in Scotland?
Finally, in 1996, the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland on the 700th anniversary of its removal, under the proviso that it may be ‘borrowed’ for any future coronations at Westminster Abbey. It’s a truly remarkable object, and I could easily have spent all day reading about its history. There’s also a great film called The Stone of Destiny which tells the story of the four students who returned the Stone to Scotland. It’s a bit clichéd, and Charlie Cox’s Scottish accent is more than a little bit dreadful, but it’s a genuinely heart-warming tale, and I would really recommend it to anyone interested in the Stone’s history.
Finally, after a quick look around Saint Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest structure in Edinburgh (dating from 1130), and a moment of quiet reflection in The Scottish National War Memorial, it was time to leave Edinburgh Castle. Our visit was incredible, without a doubt 100% worth the admission fee. There was so much to see and do here, and exhibits to entertain people of all ages and historical inclinations. A really marvellous day out.
We walked along Princes Street on the way back to Justin’s house, recreating the opening scene of Trainspotting. Once again, the city was freezing but exhilarating, generating a genuine ‘Lust for Life’ in us all.
Day Five: 20/11/16
Returned to Winchester today.
Annoyingly, the coach journey was delayed due to traffic and road closures, and ended up taking almost 15 hours altogether. A little bit hellish, but certainly not something that could detract from the overall experience of our trip.
Because, you see, it turned out that my expectations of Edinburgh weren’t ‘ridiculously high’ at all. This was something the city proved to me day after day, as I fell more deeply in love with it than I ever could have anticipated.
Another factor I couldn’t have anticipated is my new-found dependency on Irn Bru. Really have to thank Bryony, my enabler, for introducing me to that little habit. Definitely not something to regret though.