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: Three Ravenclaws and a Slytherin Walk into a Bar Car

Sunday, August 18

Soundtrack: “Hedwig’s Theme”

Itinerary:

  • leave Glasgow for Oban
  • lunch at Oban Fish & Chip Shop
  • drive to Fort William
  • depart on the Jacobite steam train to Mallaig
  • sightsee in Maillaig
  • dinner at Ben Nevis in Fort William
  • drive to Spean Bridge and check into cottage

Oban
The 2.5 hour drive from Glasgow to Oban takes you through Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. It makes for stunning scenery but a white-knuckled driving experience, especially if you are Americans just adapting to sitting on the right side of a vehicle on the left side of the road. Elizabeth was our steadfast driver for this leg of the trip, and I can’t give her enough high fives for her excellent, Toretto family-level skills navigating narrow winding roads while trucks barreled towards us on our right at full speed (oh, and in the pouring rain, for additional funsies).

now entering the Highlands

We had lunch at Oban Fish & Chip Shop, and the haddock was  fresh, perfectly cooked, golden flaky deliciousness. I’d say it was well worth driving out of our way to make the stop, but that’s easy to say as someone who never got behind the steering wheel.

Fort William/Jacobite Steam Train
This is it nerds, the big Harry Potter moment that I’d been looking forward since the second I bought my plane ticket to Scotland. The Jacobite steam train departs from Fort William to Maillaig twice a day, and its route over the Glenfinnan Viaduct was famously used as the journey to Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. I can’t tell you how many travel blogs I scoured to figure out the best way to view the Glenfinnan Viaduct from aboard, so I will give you the full scoop here:

  • Book your tickets on the Jacobite as early in advance as possible. This train fills up fast, especially during the peak season.
  • You want to sit as close to the back of the train as possible so you can get a good view of the front steam engine as it curves around the viaduct. Aim for Carriage G, or as close to it as you can.
  • This part is hard because the seat numbers make no goddamn sense (everyone was in the wrong spot when we boarded), but for the route Fort William -> Mallaig, you want to be on the left side of the car when facing forward. For the return trip Mallaig -> Fort William, you want to be seated on the right. The view of the aquaduct is best when traveling northwest (from Fort William to Mallaig) so do your best to get your photos and have your big nerdgasm moment on the first leg of your journey (assuming you’re going roundtrip).
  • If all else fails and your assigned seat is terrible, start jockeying for a spot at any window on the left side of the train shortly before arriving at the viaduct about 45 min or so into the ride. There’s windows in the passageways between each car, located near the bathrooms. Slide the window down to get the best possible photo, and keep a tight grasp on your phone. You should get a clear view of the train turning west, steam trailing behind, and the rolling green hills in the background. There will likely be a horde of tourists standing on the hill to get photos and videos of the train in motion.
  • Congrats, you’re now at Hogwarts! Please check in with your House Prefect for the password to your Common Room.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up as we crossed the Viaduct. It was a perfect storm of events that got us into exactly the right place on the train at the right time, and my heart was bursting with gratitude for this fantastic adventure I was on with my fellow witches. We spent the rest of the train ride purchasing ciders and chocolate frogs from the bar car and reveling in the view of the lochs, the ocean, and hillscapes too green to seem real.

Mallaig
The Hogwarts Express allowed for a 90-minute layover in Hogsmeade Mallaig. There’s a lot of cute coffee shops, gift boutiques, and Harry Potter-themed merchandise to browse through. I’ll be real, I was celebrating pretty hard on the train so most of my memory of Mallaig involves having to pee and looking for a bathroom.

Mallaig

Spean Bridge
By the time we left Fort William for Spean Bridge, it was dark out. This made for some more harrowing driving, and it is especially jarring to see headlights coming at you fast from the “wrong” side of the road. Thankfully, we eventually found our cottage and got settled in for the night, though we’d have to wait until the morning to appreciate the charm of the area in the fresh light of day.