Scotland Diaries: Chillin’ with the Ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots

Wednesday, August 21

Soundtrack: “Mary Queen of Scots” Scottish BBC Symphony Orchestra

Itinerary:

  • breakfast at Spoon
  • explore Victoria Street
  • whisky tasting
  • dinner in Edinburgh
  • overnight stay at Melville Castle in Dalkeith

Edinburgh
For breakfast, we went to Spoon, a cafe noted as one of many places where J.K. Rowling spent hours writing the first few Harry Potter books. The book series would dictate many of our stops for the day, as I was now focused on the pop culture pilgrimage aspect of our time in Edinburgh. Rowling drew inspiration from spots all over the city, including Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh Castle, and Victoria Street.

On my way to the Leaky Cauldron for some firewhisky

After fueling up on toast and jam, we walked to Victoria Street, the muse for Diagon Alley. We wandered in and out of shops (many of them Harry Potter-themed), tried a hog roll from Oink (perfection), and took photos with an owl for 3 quid. A violinist performed in the street, playing the theme from Game of Thrones. Victoria and the surrounding streets capture that magical, storybook feeling, with turrets and maze-like alleyways, centuries-old churches, and towering castles. Listen, I live in a neighborhood where our most historic building is a mattress store, so this was awe-inspiring.

Scotch Whisky Experience
I know nothing about whisky. I typically drink beer or wine, and I have little to no developed palette for spirits. But I’m also game to try anything new, and Kurt asked me to bring him home a bottle of Scotch, so I gladly signed up for a tasting. Our server was incredibly helpful in creating a tasting flight that suited our requests (we wanted to try options that aren’t easily found in the States, along with some samples from the Highlands, Speyside, and Islay). Elizabeth helped guide me through the tasting. It was fun to learn something new and expand my taste horizon; for example, I learned that I like a smoky whisky with some peaty notes. Also, my favorite bottle turned out to be £179, so I also learned that I am an expensive bitch.

A great thing about traveling with a group of friends is that you get to branch out of your typical box by trying out things that they enjoy that you might not done before. In my case, I did my first ever Old Time Photo. We touched down in the studio like a human tornado of various requests for capes, crowns, and swords, while also letting the photographer know that we only had 15 minutes before we had to get to a Fringe show. The photographer was a true professional, guiding us with the expertise of someone used to dealing with tourists: “You want traditional, or the Outlander look?” We sped through the photo shoot, and at the end, he thanked us for being decisive and quick: “If only you had more time, we could have done a beheading scene.” Damn.

The final, amazing result:

The Fringe show we had planned to see ended up selling out before we could get to the box office, so instead, we stopped for a pint, then took a leisurely stroll towards dinner at Scran & Scallie. Contrary to stereotypes of Scottish food, we’d been delighted with nearly every single meal, and this dinner was among the absolute best. Oh and as general rule, when in Scotland, eat oysters whenever possible–the  country’s abundance of clear, cool water makes them incredible-tasting.

Melville Castle
One of the overnight stays we were most excited for were our suites at Melville Castle, just outside of Edinburgh in Dalkeith. For one night, we were rolling all fancy like royalty. YOU GUYS, Mary, Queen of Scots(!!!) vacationed at this very castle, and supposedly haunts the first floor to this very day, searching for her secret lover. Spending the night here is even better than my childhood dream of visiting the castle from the 1988 Steve Guttenberg movie High Spirits.

Melville Castle

Midlife Crisis board game in the Library Bar

Upon arrival, we checked in then settled into our suites. My room’s window faced the expansive grounds behind the castle, including a fountain, wooden sculptures, and horse paddock. After a full day of exploring, we were pretty exhausted, so it was a good evening for long baths, curling up with a book, or taking a leisurely stroll on the castle grounds. Sometime in the evening, I ran into Elizabeth and Anita in the library bar, and we found a board game called Midlife Crisis hidden among the typical selection of Monopoly and Life. Obviously, we had to play it. Sample card: “At 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, you discover that you have no moral values. No answers as to what is important or worthwhile in life. This is cause for concern–or is it? Add 200 stress points.” I was the only one who didn’t land in Divorce Gulch or Bankrupt City, so I won.

After the board game, we found a second wind, so we poured a few glasses of wine for the castle version of wine hiking. Quietly tiptoeing through the castle, we peeked into turret staircases and checked out the antique art in the staircases. Anita and I went for a walk in the garden to see the view of the castle lit up at night. (If you’ve seen Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, you will understand why the appearance of a ‘red room’ at night freaked me out.)

whut

Eventually, we tucked ourselves into bed in our fancy chambers. After we turned out the lights, we braced ourselves for any ghostly visitors.

 

 

Scotland Diaries: Doune It Right

Tuesday, August 20

Soundtrack: “Take Me Out” Franz Ferdinand

Itinerary:

  • breakfast in Inverness
  • explore Doune Castle
  • drive to Edinburgh
  • ghost tour of the catacombs

Inverness
After a night of wine hiking and campfire, my body was calling for a big, hearty breakfast. We drove into town for a traditional Scottish fry up at the Rendezvous Cafe (fun fact: the Beatles performed there in 1960). Our breakfast included: a fried egg, bacon, link sausage, lorne sausage,  Stornoway black pudding, haggis, tatty scone, baked beans, mushrooms, sliced tomato, and toast. I tried haggis for the first time and enjoyed it. It has a savory flavor that Anita described perfectly: “It tastes like Thanksgiving.”

nom nom nom

Doune Castle
The drive to Doune took us through  beautiful Caingorms National Park (and thankfully, it had wider roads than Loch Lomond & The Trossachs). There’s so many places in Scotland that I want to return to for camping.

Doune Castle was originally built in the 13th century, and rebuilt a century later after it was damaged during the Scottish Wars of Independence. In contemporary times, it’s served as a shooting location for Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones (used as Winterfell in the pilot episode), and Outlander (Castle Leoch). These are three of my FAVORITES, so we were psyched for the tour. I have a lifelong fascination with castles, likely due to my love of historical fiction and fantasy novels, and this documentary that we watched multiple times in high school World Civ.

A Stark must always be in Winterfell

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone

The self-guided tour features audio tracks recorded by Terry Jones and Sam Heughan, which is a fun touch. Strolling around a castle courtyard with Jamie Fraser’s voice murmuring in your ear is about as good as it gets. The gift shop even features an Outlander-themed selfie station, complete with Claire’s costumes that can be slipped on over your clothing.

Edinburgh
We arrived in the city around mid-afternoon. Being in town during the last week of Fringe meant that the city was packed with people, but it also added a buzz of energy to the atmosphere. Street performers were ubiquitous, and we stopped multiple times to take in a song, drum line, or puppet show. I turned a corner and was awestruck by my first glimpse of Edinburgh Castle looming atop a hill above the city.

A troupe of drummers performers near Edinburgh Castle

After dinner at BABA, an excellent Mediterranean restaurant, we grabbed a few pints at a bar that featured haggis bombs (Irn-Bru with a shot of Jägermeister). From there, we walked to the Old Town area near St. Giles Cathedral and Mercat Cross, the starting point of our ghost tour. As twilight set in, the golden lighting made the city even look more storybook magical. A gothic tower twisted against the backdrop of blue sky, which at first glance looks like the home of a Disney villainess (in actuality, it’s Scott Monument, a Victorian-era spire honoring Sir Walter Scott). I’d only been in Edinburgh for a few hours and I was completely enchanted by this place.

Scott Monument

On High Street, we reached peak Fringe Fest crowds, and dodged people passing out fliers for their shows while navigating the packed cobblestone roads. The ghost tour took us through the alleys and closes of Old Town, and our guide shared informative stories about life in Edinburgh in the late 1700s. Eventually, she led us underground into the catacombs beneath the city, lit solely by candlelight. The air in the vaults was thick and humid, and we listened to true stories about murderers, bodysnatchers, and ghostly encounters.

inside the Edinburgh Vaults

To cap off the night, we had a few cocktails at a speakeasy hidden beneath a vintage barber shop. An elaborate menu noted the techniques used to create their cocktails, including Sous vide, fat washing, and centrifuge. We stayed until the bar staff announced last call, then walked back to our Airbnb, giddy on handcrafted cocktails and love for Edinburgh.