Friday, September 21, 2012



I was flying over the Atlantic at 40,000 feet in business class with my eyes closed, listening to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.  Life is good!  I reflected upon our last 3 weeks in the British Isles, thinking how truly blessed we are. 

First it was Ireland, then Scotland, Dublin and Edinburgh.  It's not pronounced that way;  it's Edinburra.  The British have a lot of names like this--Magdalen is pronounced MAUD-lin.  The ubiquitous Debenham's Department Store which we visited several times is DEB-in-ems. 

We left Chicago at 6:45 P.M. and 7 hours later we arrived in Dublin at about 8 in the morning, essentially without sleep.   We had 8 hours to fill in Dublin until our flight to Edinburgh so we made the most of it.  It rains a lot in Ireland, and this day was no exception.  We were armed with an umbrella.  We flagged down an airport bus for 12 Euros apiece (round trip)  to O'Connell Street in downtown Dublin, about 30 minutes away.   Dublin is not well known to Americans in that it lacks the iconic sights of England and Scotland.  But like any city, there are things to see, and we hopped on a red sightseeing bus for a one and a half tour of the city. 

You can get off at any stop, but we were so tired, that we were happy just to ride and enjoy the sights.  We saw the important ones--the Guinness Brewery and the Jameson Distillery.  The Irish are spirited people, and they certainly enjoy their spirits.  The guide pointed out the Dublin Zoo, as we passed through Phoenix Park.  It was the third zoo ever established in the world, after Vienna and Paris.

We walked around O'Connell Street in the downtown shopping area by the fashionable Clary Department Store, and hung out by the James Joyce Statue.  Joyce, with his cane and his hat jauntily tipped on his head, appears to have had a little too much spirits himself.   He was known to have spent considerable time in the many Dublin pubs, and at least one is named after him.  If you attempt to plow through Finnegan's Wake, you might be inclined to have a few drinks yourself.    The locals refer to the statue as "the prick with the stick."  I couldn't improve on that one, although nearby is the Molly Malone statue, "the tart with the cart."

Around the corner is the famous Spire of Dublin, a 398 foot stainless steel pin, the world's tallest sculpture.  It was built on the site of Lord Nelson's Pillar which was blown up by the Irish Republican Army in 1966.  The Spire, officially called Monument of Light was built in 1999 as part of a neighborhood rehab program.  It was the winning entry of an international competition chaired by the Lord Mayor of Dublin.  It looks nice and spruces up the neighborhood, but otherwise serves no apparent purpose.

It was our fifth time in Dublin, but the first time we actually toured the city.  We still had a few Euros left as we wearily caught the bus back to the airport for our flight to Edinburgh.


The flight to Edinburgh was in a 2 engine propeller plane with not enough overhead room to put my carry on bag.  I had to stuff it under the seat and prop my legs on it.  Fortunately, the one hour flight was uneventful, and we arrived in Edinburgh in one piece where we were met by the driver sent by Tauck Tours.

Edinburgh is known as the Windy City (where have I heard that before?).  It used to be called Auld Reekie( old smokey) before they cleaned up the city, switching from coal to natural gas.  Maybe the city really is windy--Chicago got its name from its "windy" 19th Century politicians.  One thing it does do in Edinburgh is rain--not all day long, but intermittent showers.  They often have "mizzle"--mist with drizzle.

We stayed at the Shearton Grand Hotel, about a half mile down the hill from Edinburgh Castle.  Edinburgh is a cultured, avant garde town.   Edinburgh Castle dominates the city.  It is built on a rocky outcropping of volcanic origin.  The castle was built to conform to the topography of the hill, rather than flattening the hill and building the structure, as they would do today.  The picturesque Royal Mile leading up to the castle is lined with small shops and pubs.  One conspicuous shop, the Scotch Whisky Museum has daily tastings--single malt, double malt, do they have triple malt?  It was doing a brisk business.

Incidentally, the difference between a "castle" and a "palace" is that a castle is fortified with high walls and a moat.  A palace is just a big house.  The U.K. is home to many castles and palaces, and we visited quite a few.  The National Trust owns many of them, and because it costs serious money to maintain them, they open them up to the general public and charge admission to defray the costs.  In some cases, palaces are owned by nobles with fancy titles who are often land rich and cash poor.

The National Trust was created to "look after places of historic interest or natural beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation..." There are two separate National Trusts--one for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the other just for Scotland.  They are both charities, staffed by volunteers.  The English one owns about 15% of the total land area of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, much of which is parks and agricultural estates attached to country homes.  It also owns some city properties such as John Lennon's and Paul McCartney's childhood homes.  They needed a big name to chair the National Trusts and they got Charlie Windsor, whom we know better as Prince Charles.

Each August for three weeks, it is festival time in Edinburgh, highlighted by the world renowned Edinburgh Military Tattoo which sells out the 9000 seat temporary arena each night.  When we booked our tour, we paid a couple hundred bucks extra so we could get tickets.  The Tattoo is the ultimate half-time show.  The elaborately costumed military bands from a variety of countries march in formation and perform to the delight of the crowd.

The Royal Regiment of Scotland and combined band from the Royal Army, Navy and Air Force began the show with an array of bagpipers playing favorites like The Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.  It was followed by the Switzerland Top Secret Drum Corps and the Norwegian Armed Forces--His Majesty the King's Guard Band & Drill Team.  Other countries represented included Australia (Waltzing Matilda), Canada, South Africa and New Zealand.     All told, over 1000 musicians, pipers, drummers, singers and dancers performed in this extravaganza.  A multi-colored light show projected the Union Jack and other patriotic themes on the castle walls.  Near the conclusion of the show, all the performers were arrayed to play God Save the Queen with nary a dry eye in the house.   This was a very powerful performance, needless to say. 

We spent four days walking the streets of Edinburgh, seeing the sights, enjoying the street performers and visiting the craft fair and the book fair.  We visited an ethnic food festival on the street where the food was cooked in wooden booths.  A Spanish restaurant cooked paella in a giant skillet in a makeshift booth.  I bought some and ate it in the nearby park.  It was excellent.  We saw booths with German bratwurst, Italian pasta, Thai noodles and even exotic stuff like wild boar, kangaroo, ostrich and buffalo.  The nearby book fair brought in authors for book signings. 

Just off the main drag, we walked down Rose Street which is little more than what Americans would call an alley, lined with shops and restaurants, as well as Debenham's Department Store which we later found in several other cities in the U.K.  A street barker gave us a coupon for free tea at Debenhams.  As it turned out, to redeem it, we had to go up to the fifth floor which, from Rose Street entailed an elevator ride plus two escalators and a one block walk through the store to the Princes Street side.   Princes Street (named after more than one prince), a short block away, is the main shopping street in Edinburgh with the classier tartan shops, several banks, upscale stores and a magnificent memorial to Sir Walter Scott.

For fast food, aside from McDonald's which is everywhere, we unexpectedly found that the British and Scots like milk shakes.  We found a shop on rose Street called Shake Away which serves about 1000 kinds of milk shakes--even hot ones.  I ordered a (cold) rice pudding shake and drank it on the street.  It was wonderfully good!  I've never seen a store like that in the U.S.  Touring the U.K., we found quite a few other milk shake shops.

We became immersed in Scottish culture and history.  We passed by the houses of Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexander Graham Bell and even Sean Connery who often hangs out in our hotel bar although we missed him.   It was his 82nd birthday on August 25th, and we had to celebrate it without him. 

The first night of our Tauck tour we had a group dinner at our hotel where we met the other 36 people on the tour.   For the first course, we were entertained by a bagpiper dressed to the nines in kilts and tartans.  Since my favorite color is plaid, I was happy.  The appetizer was haggis, the national dish of Scotland, served with "neeps and tatties" (turnips and potatoes).  If you ask what is in it, you'll never get a straight answer.  The Scots might just point to the loo.  People with delicate appetites will pass on it.

Well I looked it up.  Haggis is a ground up concoction containing sheep's heart, lungs and stomach, minced with onions, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal's stomach and simmered for 3 hours.  The kilted bagpiper who served it to us slit open the stomach with a long knife and emptied the contents into a large bowl.  Nowadays, commercial haggis is prepared in a sausage casing.  We ate it the traditional way.  In any event, I tasted it and it was delicious although many on our tour would disagree.  I finished Dianne's also. 

Our tour guide printed out copies of Robert Burns' 1787 poem Address to a Haggis which has 8 colorful stanzas.  The first stanza goes:

Fair fa' your honest sonsie [folly] face
Great chieftains o' the puddin [sausage]-race!
Aboon [above] them a' ye tak your place
Painch [stomach], tripe, or thairm [intestines]
Weel are ye wordy [worthy] of a grace
As lang's [long as] my arm

Well you've got the idea. 

For dessert we had Grimbister Cheese ice cream which, once again, was foreign to our tastes, but it was very good.  The English and Scots are not generally considered to be gourmet cooks, but I was happy with the fare at every stop.


An illustration of the Scots' doggedness, if you'll pardon the expression, is the story of the great Scottish hero, Greyfriars Bobby, a small Skye terrier dog who has been described as the most faithful dog in history.  His master, John Gray was a night watchman for the Edinburgh police force in the 19th Century.  He and Bobby made their nightly rounds together.  In 1858, Gray died and was buried in the Greyfriars churchyard.  In all kinds of weather, the dog refused to leave his master's grave, keeping a constant watch except to leave for his midday meal.  This went on for 14 years, and large crowds of people would come and watch the dog depart his post at the 1 o'clock gun, following William Dow to the same pub every day where he was given a meal.  In 1867, a law was passed requiring all dogs in the city to be licensed or be destroyed.  There was a public outcry, and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh sprang for Bobby's license which he (Bobby) wore around his neck.  The dog died in 1872 at age 16 and is buried across from the churchyard in a marked grave.  "Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all."  Children's books have been written and even a 1961 Disney movie made about the life of Greyfriars Bobby.


At the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle is Holyrood which is not to be confused with Hollywood.  Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the kings and queens of Scotland and has been so since the 1400's.  The palace is used for one week each Summer for official engagements and ceremonies.  The Queen may well be entertaining Hollywood types, but more likely she entertains heads of state including Pope Benedict XVI, Vladimir Putin, Nelson Mandela and others. 

The Augustinian abbey, now in ruins, destroyed during the Scottish Reformation in 1559, was built in 1128 by King David I of Scotland.  He claimed to have a vision of the Holy Cross (rood means cross) in the Scottish language.   The palace was home to some big names like Robert the Bruce who held a parliament there in 1326 and apparently lived there also.


As the royal residence, Holyrood was the scene of many intrigues over the centuries, and the filmmakers in Hollywood have documented some of them.  The most famous, perhaps was the story of the tall and beautiful Mary, Queen of Scots who married two thirds of her husbands there in the 1560's.  Her second husband, the tall, blond Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who was also her first cousin, was jealous of the close working relationship she had with her private secretary, David Rizzio, a short, swarthy Italian.  Darnley wanted more power as a co-soverign, and Rizzio was the guy getting the attention.  One day in 1566, Darnley and others burst in on the Queen and Rizzio who were eating dinner, and they stabbed the Italian 56 times, killing him.  Not surprisingly, that put a  strain on the Queen's marriage to Darnley.  She was pregnant at the time with the future James VI (James I of England), and she fled to Edinburgh Castle where her son was born several months later.  The legal presumption is that James was Darnley's son although he turned out to be short and swarthy like Rizzio.  They didn't have DNA testing in those days, so we can't say for sure.

Not long after that, Darnley was murdered, and the Queen, soon after, married James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell who was alleged to have been the hit man.  Bothwell had abducted the Queen and supposedly raped her although it was unclear whether she went along willingly or not.  They got married right after Bothwell's divorce.  The Scots were outraged that the Queen would marry the murderer, and ultimately the Queen and Bothwell fled to England in the hopes that Queen Elizabeth would help her regain the throne.

In the meantime, over the years, Queen Elizabeth in England had long been obsessed with Mary Queen of Scots although the two powerful women had never met face to face and never would.  Elizabeth was constantly sending potential suitors up to Scotland to report back on Mary, and she received reports that Mary was beautiful, intelligent and cultured.  More important was that Elizabeth was insecure because Mary's lineage made her a successor to the English throne.  Even more intolerable was that Mary was Catholic.   

Opportunity knocked on Elizabeth's door when Queen Mary and Bothwell showed up in England.  Elizabeth promptly imprisoned Queen Mary on questionable charges and perhaps forged documents which asserted that Mary was plotting to assassinate Elizabeth and assume the English throne for the Catholics.  Ultimately, Mary Queen of Scots spent 18 years in custody until she was beheaded.  The children's story of the Sleeping Beauty was based on this story. 

Prior to this, Mary, Queen of Scots had an interesting history.  She was the daughter of James V of Scotland who died shortly after her birth.  Her mother was Mary of Guise, who was French.  Suddenly Mary Queen of Scots was the successor to the Scottish throne, and in fact she was so crowned at age 9 months. 

The business of running Scotland was in the hands of regents--one Catholic and one Protestant--who hotly disputed who would actually run the show.  In any case,  Mary's mother perceived that life would be safer in France, and Mary was raised there from the age of 5.     The House of Stewart became the House of Stuart, using the French spelling.    Obviously when she married Henry Stewart (Darnley), that confused things even more.

At age 16, Mary married Francis, the Dauphin of France who stuttered and was about a foot shorter than she.  Soon after, King Henry II of France was killed in a jousting match, and the odd couple took charge.  Francis became King Francis II of France, with Mary as his Consort, with Francis becoming her Consort of Scotland.  Is this clear yet?  No matter, Francis died a year or so later, and in 1561, at age 19, Mary returned to a dicey political situation in Scotland to assume the throne.  Mary, being Catholic was distrusted by many of her subjects.  She was diplomatic, however, and most of her advisers were Protestant. 

With Queen Mary gone, her son James VI moved into Holyrood in 1579 at age 13 and then moved to London in 1603 when he also became James I, King of England.  The King James Bible was written during his reign, and the language of that Bible was English as spoken at that time.  (For example, thou art; the Lord giveth and taketh away).


Less than 40 miles from Edinburgh is the magnificent Stirling Castle which sits on a rocky ridge, volcanic in origin, 250 feet above the broad expanse of the surrounding plain.  Nothing is very far away in Scotland.  Built mostly in the 1400's and 1500's, Stirling Castle is a prime example of Renaissance architecture.  We saw and were to see many castles and palaces in the U.K. and they were starting to blend together for us.

Like the other castles, Stirling Castle boasts a long and rich history.  The site was originally fortified in the 11th Century.  Its location was strategic for military purposes in the 13th and 14th Century Wars of Independence.  The Stuart (or was it Stewart) monarchs spent much time here, favoring it over Holyroodhouse.  Mary Queen of Scots had her coronation here, although she didn't remember much about it as, you will recall,  she was only 9 months old. 

Stirling Castle is a museum of the Renaissance era in Scotland.  It has been recently restored to depict the king's and queen's lodgings and royal life of that era.  The ceilings and walls are beautifully hand carved.  It also houses the regimental Museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who whipped the Russians in the Crimea in 1854.  Many of the (volunteer) attendants in the castle  were dressed in period garb.  My favorite was the Joker--not the Jack Nicholson character, but dressed as the court jester with curled shoes and a pointy hat. 


No story about Scotland would be complete without Braveheart.  His statue stands at the entrance of Stirling Castle.  He was a huge man, larger than life in more ways than one.  Back in the 1200's, the English king Edward I (Longshanks) attempted to dominate Scotland and enslave the people.  Wallace arose from humble beginnings and led the Scots to a historic upset victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.  The Scots still don't much like the English. 

Wallace's victory was short-lived.  He carried out a guerrilla war against the English, but eventually the English found and captured him.  It was believed that Wallace, a commoner, was betrayed by the Scottish nobles.  In any event, the English dragged Wallace for miles along the ground by horses; then he was hanged, then he was drawn and quartered and subjected to many kinds of medieval tortures.  They didn't have water boarding in those days.  Amazingly he survived all of this.   Eventually they cut out his heart, but it continued beating.  Braveheart, indeed! 

Many of Wallace's legendary feats were recounted by the minstrel Blind Harry in an epic poem which we call The Wallace.  The actual title was much longer.  Blind Harry claimed Wallace was a giant--7 feet tall.  There were two problems with this--Blind Harry obviously didn't see Wallace, and he wrote the poem 172 years after Wallace's death.   Historians have attempted to fact check some of the other exploits described by Blind Harry, but were unable to confirm. 

Wallace was succeeded by the other great Scottish hero, Robert the Bruce who was also reputed to be 7 feet tall.  (In recent times, his skeleton was exhumed, and it appears he was just over 6 feet--still very tall for that time.)  Robert the Bruce murdered his rival for the Scottish throne and became king.  He defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1315 and achieved Scottish independence for the next few hundred years.

It is becoming evident that the British Isles was in Medieval times a violent and dangerous place--the Wild West, if you will.

Reading about the nobles, it may be helpful to understand the pecking order among the British peers after the King and Queen.

1. Duke
2. Marquess (wife is Marchioness)
3. Earl
4. Viscount
5. Baron

Generally they call each other "Lord" except that a duke is referred to as "your grace".  In the 20th Century, it became fashionable for American heiresses to marry European peers with fancy titles but little money, creating a symbiotic relationship.  Just call me the "Duke of Earl". 


We continued on into Loch Lomond National Park, home to the largest lake in Britain, 24 miles long.  It is surrounded by mountains which, in Scotland, are called Munros if they are higher than 3000 feet.  There are 282 separate mountains called Munros, named after Sir Hugh Munro, the founder of the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1889 who mapped those mountains and generated a list for mountaineers.  The objective was and is "bagging the Munro" which, speaking of mountains, sounds like something out of the Kennedy Administration and a certain film legend.  The reality, however, is that Scottish mountaineers pride themselves on climbing as many Munros as possible.  It's not as easy as it sounds because the weather on these peaks is awful, even in Summer, with strong winds, fog and freezing temperatures.

Loch Lomond is beautiful, and we took an hour boat ride and then had a delicious lunch at a restaurant overlooking it.  For those looking for the monster, Loch Lomond has none.  Transporting it from Loch Ness, 3 hours North, was not practical, so we were disappointed.  However it does have a famous song written by a homesick Scottish soldier on a campaign in England.

Oh ye'll take the high road and
I'll take the low road, and
I'll be in Scotland afore ye
But me and my true love
Will never meet again
On the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.