During such a journey around the world it is really nice to be able to “tick off” some of the dream destinations. Scotland is yet another one of those.
Scotland is a bit like Ireland in the sense that there are so many clichés and notions floating around. Some are true, most of them are not. However, Ireland and Scotland do have the ever changing weather conditions in common. This means that it mostly rains. I know we do travel during the winter season, but still...
In Scotland they have a long and proud history. Many of the tiny places in the countryside can oftentimes be traced back to the 12th and 13th century. This was way before Columbus discovered America! In the town of St. Andrews, housing one of the finest universities in the country (Prince William used to study here) lies a castle ruin that can be dated to around 1189 and just a few minutes walk away you find the remains of what must have been a gigantic cathedral. Erected in the years from 1158 and about a century onwards.
We spent quite a bit of time in both places, just walking around, taking it all in, reflecting about history and who might have lived and prayed here. Today you only see parts of the giant columns and the immensely thick walls, but it is quite obvious that “Think Big” was also the motto of contemporary Scottish architecture in those years. Or maybe they were just being practical and prepared for future wars and invasions. Many of the castles must have been hard to invade, considering what “means” they must have had back then. Perhaps churches and cathedrals were not direct targets of war, but then again, there has somehow always been a tradition for over proportioned, pompous architecture when it comes to anything religious. Preferably also a bit intimidating. I wish I could have seen the St. Andrews Cathedral back then when it was a place of worship. It must have been truly impressive!
Just like in Ireland, many ruins are spread out all over Scotland, and we made an ambitious plan to go and explore some of the most obvious, historic places. It is rather costly to get into most of these attractions, but we bought ourselves a “passport”, which gave us the possibility to go and see as many attractions as possible within 3 out of 5 days. This means that the passport is valid for a period of 5 days, and for each day you use it, you will get a stamp. You can do this for 3 days. But for each day you get a stamp, you can visit as many places as you like (or can manage within opening hours). It gives you the flexibility to rest or drive for 2 days within the 5 day period and that may be necessary in some cases, due to the vast distances.
Apart from St. Andrews, where we saw both the castle and the cathedral ruins, we also went to Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle. The latter was by far the most impressive to us. I have often seen Edinburgh Castle on TV and to be honest I had expected more from the biggest attraction of the city. It was quite impressive alright, but the entrance fee of 16 pounds (!) taken into account, I do not think that we got value for money! We did buy the 3-day passport, but the entrance fee still seems way out of proportions. The official entrance fee at Stirling Castle was 14 pounds. Still quite a lot, but here you get so much more value for money, in my opinion. Especially if you come as a family with children. Children can dress up in medieval, royal dresses, just like they used to look in the 16th and 17th century. There are interactive “stations” where you can learn about the “standards of the time” and get a glimpse of how life used to be at the royal court. What did a jester do, for instance? How did they cook for the big, royal parties at the castle? What was the procedures for getting an audience with the king? How did the royals actually live? You could get the answers to all of these questions at Stirling Castle. In Edinburgh it was far more focused on military history. That may also be interesting, but to us it was a disappointment.
So: If you have to prioritize, I would suggest driving the 70 kilometers from Edinburgh to Stirling to see the castle there. It is, by the way, decorated with hundreds of limestone statues and was quite a “show off” prestige project back then for the three kings James IV, James V and James VI. This was from 1490 to around 1600, when Stirling Castle was the royal center of Scotland, with a fully staffed court, including alchemists, artisans, workmen etc. They certainly were keeping a high standard!
Having said that, the city of Edinburgh is actually worth a visit. Unfortunately we did not have more than apprx. a day and a half, but it was enough to get a good “feel” for the Scottish capital. The inner city is divided in two: The old city, partly located on a hilltop, and the new city, which is pretty much spread out all over the surrounding area. There is sort of a “wedge” cutting the city into two parts, due to the character of the landscape, and it is fascinating to see the old city on the hilltop towering over the new city. It may look a bit gloomy on a rainy day, but there is actually a rather sympathetic atmosphere in Edinburgh. We went into the St. Giles Cathedral which dates back to the 15th century. I have visited quite a few churches and cathedrals during my travels around the world. It has become sort of a fetish. St. Giles Cathedral looks pompous and impressive from the outside, and there is plenty of “pompous design” on the inside as well. But there is a warm and inviting atmosphere in the cathedral, that I have rarely seen in other religious places. Churches are usually relaxing to be in, to just sit for a while and reflect, but they are not exactly “warm” and “cozy”. Well, St. Giles Cathedral was just that! Perhaps because a very skilled lightening-designer has installed some indirect lights that give the room a warm and welcoming “personality”, and at the same time all the beautiful details of the interior are highlighted. It is a must see! You immediately felt like taking out your thermo bottle of coffee, pour yourself a cup and just sit down with your picnic lunch and have a look around. I am not entirely sure the local church guard would have appreciated this, but it sure is a nice idea...
There are numerous old, exciting ruins and nicely restored places to visit in Scotland. They are literally spread out over the country and one week is nowhere near enough to see just the highlights. We already agree that we need to go back. Next time should be in summer. Then we might get a few days without any rain...!
We have rented a small Fiat 500 Sport Edition for our drive. And once again we were encouraged to make an upgrade as we picked it up. We did not even have all our luggage with us, to support any arguments from the sales agent behind the counter, that we could use some more trunk-space. Just my height alone will usually give them the idea that I cannot sit behind the wheel in a small car. In fact I have owned quite a few small cars, and they were all just fine with plenty of space for me, my long legs and big feet.
The car that we ended up with is BRAND new! We are the first ones to drive it! Fantastic! As I climbed in behind the wheel and drove away from the rental depot in London, it felt like coming “home” to my good, old Alfa Romeo 147 that I had about 10 years ago. The smell of new leather in the cabin and the beautifully designed interior simply just make me happy! There is a certain “something” about Italian cars! If you only used your common sense you could never buy them. But Italian cars are bought listening to your heart! It simply screams “YES!”. It is a fun experience with focus on driving pleasure! And all three of us are quite happy with it. Anton think it is a lot of fun driving around in the little, red “lightning” where you are seated just inches above the roadway and feel the speed as you move forward. And even though the car is small, we do carry enough luggage for all three of us for one week on the road. The trunk is big enough for that, without any problems at all! If I needed a car at home, I would buy a Fiat 500 Sport Edition in a heartbeat! Even the 11 hour drive between Denmark and Munich would not be a problem! And for the daily rides through the city it would be just perfect!