Lochs, Glens, and Bens

On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond

Today was our day to get out of the city and see some of the Scottish countryside. We thought about renting a car, but the idea of driving on the other side of the road terrifies me, especially with all the roundabouts, so we opted for a 10-hour bus tour. Our guide was a very knowledgeable and personable Scot named Graham who explained that Scottish geography is all about the lochs (lakes), the glens (valleys) and the bens (mountains) and we would be seeing many of each.

The Great Hall at Stirling Castle

We started with a drive to Stirling Castle and a history lesson from Graham along the way. I’m not up on my British/Scottish history, but he helped us sort out the various Jameses and explained why a lot of Braveheart was fiction. At the castle we were given an hour and a half of free time to wander. We chose to take a guided tour to help us make sense of it all, and that was a good choice. Again, a knowledgeable guide makes all the difference, especially when your background knowledge is sketchy. Our tour guide, Charles, helped us understand the significance of Stirling Castle and why its location made it an impregnable fortress. We didn’t have time to see everything, but it was enough to make us want to come back for more some day.

Loch Lomand

Back on the bus, we took a scenic drive around the Stirling area and up into the highlands a bit. We saw several lochs and castles and a lot of sheep. One of the castles we passed was Doune Castle where Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Outlanders were filmed. We stopped for lunch, then made our way to the beautiful Loch Lomond, largest loch in Scotland. Of course, on the way there, Graham played the song The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond, thus creating our ear worm for the day. At the loch we could choose to wander through the shops and pubs or hike along the bonnie banks on the walking path. We chose the latter and it was a beautiful walk. It had rained while we were at lunch and we were afraid we might get caught in a another shower, but we were lucky. It didn’t rain, although the path was a bit muddy in places.

The Glengoyne Distillery

Our last stop was the Glengoyne Distillery for a whiskey tour. When we arrived, our guide, Anna, gave us a dram of 12-year-old Glengoyne whiskey to sample while we watched a video about the history of the place. Then we got a tour while Anna explained the process. We learned that their whiskey is called single malt because all the ingredients are sourced in one place and it’s distinctive among Scotch whiskeys because they do not use peat. It’s also interesting that the whiskey is distilled in the Scottish highlands and aged in the lowlands because the distillery sits on the road that divides the two with the warehouses on the lowland side. I’ve never been fond of Scotch, but I did like this one, although not enough to buy a bottle in the gift shop that we can get cheaper in the States.

On the drive back to Edinburgh we watched the sun set out the bus window and listened to this to replace the Bonnie Bonnie Banks ear worm. On our return to Edinburgh we walked to a pub for dinner as we hummed I Will Walk 500 Miles.



To Edinburgh and the Royal Mile

View from the Edinburgh Castle with the Firth of Forth in the background

Before I write anything else, I have to take back everything negative I said about Virgin Trains and how they run late.  Not only did they apologize several times during our trip from London to Glasgow, but today we received notice that our fare for the trip has been refunded because of the delayed arrival. If only airlines worked that way.

The Scottish Parliament

This morning we took another train (not Virgin) to Edinburgh. We arrived around 10:00 am, too early to check in to our room, so we checked our bags at the hotel and walked around town. By “around town” I really mean one street in Edinburgh’s Old Town known as the Royal Mile. We started at one end where we skipped the Palace of Holyroodhouse (home of Mary Queen of Scots) and opted to tour the Scottish Parliament Building instead. This relatively new building is strange but interesting. The architect included many symbolic features that I would not have understood if we didn’t have a guidebook. For instance, the many high windows in the debating chamber are designed to let in the “light of democracy.”

Edinburgh Castle

As we made our way up High Street towards Edinburgh Castle, we passed many shops and restaurants catering to the tourists. We stopped in a cafe for tea and a scone and then made our way to the castle in time for the One O’clock gun. Every day at 1:00 PM they shoot off a World War II cannon to mark the time. Apparently they do it at 1:00 (rather than noon) to save ammunition. (I wouldn’t want to hear 12 blasts of that gun.) The castle is huge and crowded with tourists, but a nice place to spend a few hours. The views of the city and the Firth of Forth (I love saying that) beyond are spectacular. My favorite part was the Scottish National War Memorial where they honor the Scottish soldiers lost in WW I and WW II.

After our tour of the castle, we were able to check in to our hotel and rest a bit before doing some shopping and having dinner at a pub. Our beverage was mulled wine with a shot of Amaretto, the perfect way to end the day.

Touring Glasgow by Foot and Subway (With a Stop for a Concert)

On the banks of the River Clyde
The Glasgow Cathedral seen from the Necropolis

My Fitbit says I walked 22,148 steps today and I’m feeling every one of them. We started out this morning at the crack of dawn which in Glasgow at this time of year is around 8:00. We headed to the Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis, a huge cemetery on the hill behind it. Everyone told us it was the best place to get a view of the city and they were right. It may be the coolest cemetery I’ve ever visited and it was worth the walk. (I’ll be uploading pictures to the Scotland section under the Photos tab soon.)

From there we headed to the Glasgow Green and the People’s Palace, an eclectic little history museum with the huge terra cotta Doulton Fountain in front. We hoped to visit the Winter Gardens greenhouse but we found it’s been closed for repairs so we continued on for a long, scenic walk along the River Clyde.

John Whitener, tuba player with RSNO

We made our way back to the hotel for a little rest before heading to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra center for an afternoon concert. We were looking forward to this concert because the RSNO’s tuba player, John Whitener, is from Maine and once took lessons from Paul. As we entered the lobby, we were delighted to see a life-size poster of John with his tuba. The program was short, La Bagarre by Martinů and Dvořák‘s Symphony No. 5. I wasn’t familiar with either work. I thought the Martinů piece was strange but I really liked the Dvořák. Afterward we met John and went to a coffee shop to chat. As the only non-tuba player at the table, I couldn’t contribute much to the very technical conversation that ensued, but it was fun catching up with him and hearing about his life since I last saw him, more than 20 years ago.

River walk in the Glasgow Botanic Gardens

We had some daylight left and it wasn’t raining yet, so we then headed to the subway for a trip to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. The Glasgow subway is one of least confusing I’ve ever seen. It’s just one line, running in a circle. You can take the outer train running clockwise or the inner train running anti clockwise (as they say in the UK) but it doesn’t really matter because eventually you will get to where you want to go. At the Botanic Gardens we found that the Kibble Palace, a large greenhouse, was already closed (winter hours) so we watched workers setting up lights for their Halloween program, GlasGLOW. We then took a long, beautiful walk in the twilight along their river trail, and then took the subway back to the center of town for dinner at a pub (beer and pies).

We thought about looking for some evening entertainment, but those 22,000 steps took a lot out of us, so we went back to the hotel for some needed rest.

London to Glasgow By Rail for a Night at the Opera

Theatre Royal Glasgow

One of the best reasons to travel is to actually see all those places you’ve only read about. I read a lot of novels set in the UK and Ireland and I watch a lot of shows from the BBC, so I’m happy that I get to see a little bit of Scotland on this trip.

We landed in London yesterday but only spent one night there before hopping on a train to Glasgow this morning. We had been warned that trains to Scotland are often late so we weren’t surprised that the Virgin Train left London 20 minutes behind schedule. Then there was a freight train up the line somewhere that was mysteriously disabled causing a backup that delayed us another forty minutes or so. Other than that, the train was actually quite pleasant. The seats were comfortable and the view out the window was interesting. I think I saw more sheep today than in all my previous 69 years of life.

Glasgow Street Mural

When we finally arrived, we quickly checked into our hotel and then set off on a short walk to see what we could see. Our plan was to go to Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis where we were told we could get the best views of the city. Along the way, we were distracted by some of the amazing street murals on the buildings we passed, so by the time we reached the cathedral, we were too tired and it was too late for us to climb the hill to the Necropolis. Maybe tomorrow.

After dinner we made our way to Theatre Royal, home of Scottish Opera, for a performance of Tosca. It’s a lovely hall and a lovely opera. We have seen Tosca many times and sometimes I think we’ve been spoiled by the Met Live in HD performances where the sets and costumes are spectacular and every aria is breathtaking. Tonight we saw a very respectable show without the glitz and glamor and top-name stars, but an enjoyable evening all the same. Each time we see Tosca we hope for a happier ending, but tonight was like all the others. She jumped.

Tomorrow we spend our second day in Glasgow and I’m hoping to take more pictures. The internet in our hotel is unreliable, but I’ll try to post some in the photos section.