Americans have a stereotypical idea about the Scots, I think. It probably comes from movies and TV shows. As far as I can tell, Americans think that the Scots are quiet, standoffish, reserved, even a bit rude people, who don't really talk much. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of the Scottish people we met were friendly, talkative, smiling, and extremely helpful and nice. Yes, we ran into a very small number of "reserved" individuals, but you run into all types of people everywhere. My wife, a wonderful lady, I must add here, loves to talk. She also loves to start conversations with total strangers. Even in languages she doesn't speak. In Scotland, she would start conversations with hotel clerks, bellboys, travel information clerks, restaurant waiters, people in the streets, anybody. Most of them were thrilled to converse with her, and talked up a storm.
One conversation was extremely memorable, and she didn't start this one. We were walking along a little side-street in the lovely Scottish town of St. Andrews (famous for Golf). We were in a bit of a hurry because we wanted to get to a shop before it closed. Suddenly a Scottish gentlemen, who must have heard us talking, walked up to us and asked if we were Americans. We said we were. He then proceeded to tell us stories about his visits to America, some anecdotes about his military service, other tales from his past, etc. He continued telling one tale after another for at least half an hour. We, not wanting to be rude, listened patiently. My wife would make an occasional comment, which would then launch him into a new story. After a while, I realized that this could go on all night, so I started inching away, pretending to take pictures of the doorways and windows of the houses on the street, hoping my wife would get the hint and follow. No dice. The man continued to tell stories while following us down the street. My favorite part was when he started to tell us about the Irish. "They'll talk your head off", he said. Finally, when we reached the end of the street, he had to go in another direction from us, so he only talked for about another 10 minutes or so, with about 3 or 4 stories, and then said goodbye. He was a nice man, and we wouldn't have really minded listening to him, if we hadn't wanted to get to the store before it closed. We did make it, just barely. We suspect that he listens for American accents in the streets and does this to everyone. He probably needs new people to hear his stories, since his friends and relatives have heard them all already, possibly more than once.
One of the interesting things we found out about Scotland is the attitude the Scots have toward shopping. In the U.S., shopping is the national pastime. Maybe the national mania. In a lot of the U.S. , the stores are open all day, every day. Not so in Scotland. Here's an example: We were in Edinburgh during the beginning of our trip. We were walking down Princes Street. Princes Street in Edinburgh is like 5th avenue in New York. It's the main shopping street. It contains lots of department stores, women's clothing stores, mobile phone shops, etc. When we were there, it was jammed. There were thousands of people walking down the street, window shopping, or just enjoying the walk. It was late afternoon, around 5 PM, and it started to rain. Sorry, I meant there was a heavy mist, sort of a downpour mist. We decided to get out of the mist, so we went into a department store. This was not a new, chic, stainless steel and glass store, but one of the traditional, Scottish department stores. It had a restaurant, and a coffee bar, and a Bistro. We decided to escape the mist for a while and have a cup of tea or something, so we went to the 5th floor to the bistro. It was like a little cafeteria that served sandwiches and pastries and tea or coffee. But unlike America, there were little pots of fresh brewed tea, and scones, which we had, and enjoyed immensely. We had our tea and scones, and then went down to leave the store. It was now about 6:00 PM. When we exited back onto Princes Street, we had a little surprise. The stores were closed and the street was deserted. We walked back to our hotel, which took us through "The Royal Mile", which is another crowded street in Edinburgh which is the old part of town and is full of tourist-oriented shops and restaurants and pubs. It too, was deserted and the shops, and most of the restaurants and pubs were deserted. We found this to be true all over Scotland for the rest of the trip. Everything closes at 6:00 PM, except for the places that close at 4:00 PM. Many restaurants close early, and so the ones that didn't had signs indicating "all day meals served". This means they served dinner until 9:00 PM. What we couldn't figure out was where everybody went. We guessed that the Scots rushed home to have a "Wee Dram", but we couldn't figure out where all the tourists went. We never did find out. The thing that makes this even stranger, is that during the summer, when we were there, the Sun doesn't set until around 10:30 PM, so there was plenty of daylight, but nobody around.
Edinburgh is the first place we visited in Scotland. Note that it is pronounced like Ed-in-burrow (Rhymes with Edward R. Murrow, for you oldies out there like us). Edinburgh is a lovely small city. It has managed to preserve the medieval buildings as well as the 18th and 19th century buildings that make up much of the city. It is divided into two parts, the Old Town and the New Town. The Old Town dates from medieval times, and there are parts of buildings there that were built in the 12th century. The new town was built in the 18th century, by rich people who didn't like living in the run-down, dirty, smelly, rat-infested old town anymore. Fortunately for us, the Old Town has gotten rid of the smell and the dirt and probably most of the rats. We spent several days in Edinburgh, and we liked it there. Of course, we had to visit Edinburgh Castle, which is a huge, impressive edifice, which can be seen from most of the town.
One of the main attractions that the guide books say you must see in Edinburgh is Holyrood Palace, which is the official residence of the Queen when she visits Scotland. In fact, our hotel was only a few feet from Holyrood. We didn't get to see it though. What happened was this, we were walking along the "Royal Mile", which is one of the other main tourist attractions in Edinburgh, and we noticed trucks and workmen were installing pedestrian barriers along the curbs on both sides of the street. When we got back to our hotel, we asked about it, and they told us that there was going to be a big parade the next day, because it was the date for the yearly opening of the Scottish Parliament, and that the Queen would be in attendance. We thought, "Wow, we'll get to see the Queen!". The next morning, we made our way back to the Royal Mile, and sure enough, the parade started.
It wasn't exactly the kind of parade we were expecting though -- mostly very strange people, in very strange costumes. Yes, some bagpipers, and marching bands were there too. We waited for the queen to ride by, thinking that this was a pretty undignified parade for her to be in. The parade came to an end -- no Queen. That evening, back at our hotel, we asked where the Queen was. They told us that she wasn't in the parade, but was viewing it from a viewing stand near Holyrood. Oh yes -- Holyrood. We never got to see Holyrood because it's closed to the public when the Queen is in residence. Bummer! I later figured out why all the strange people were in the parade. Edinburgh is famous for its "Fringe Festival" which occurs during August. These people were probably street performers getting ready for the festival. Or -- maybe just weird Scots. Who knows?
The next day we checked out of our hotel, rented a car, and started our adventurous driving trip through Scotland.
Doune was an old, partially restored castle. There were some rooms that were furnished and restored, and even the empty rooms were attractive. More importantly, Doune Castle has the very impressive distinction of being one of the places where Monty Python and The Holy Grail was filmed. Yes -- the gift shop had several Monty Python books and videos, and even had little stuffed cows!
On our way to the Isle of Skye, we took a longer, more interesting route, and we went to the Isle of Seil, which is a small island on the west coast of Scotland. The island is very pretty, and there are a couple of pretty, small villages. One big attraction is the "Atlantic Bridge". This is the bridge over the Atlantic Ocean that leads onto the island. It was built in 1792! The "Atlantic Bridge" sounds large doesn't it? Take a look at the picture. There's only one lane for both directions. When you are going up the "hump", you can't see if a car is coming in the opposite direction. What Fun! And yes, that little tiny body of water that the bridge is crossing is, technically, the Atlantic Ocean.
Much more to come...
Copyright © 2007 by Jeff Kravitz