Edinburgh in winter 2012

2012 was a great year – Spain, Portugal and the Camino de Santiago. And spending Christmas, Hogmanay and the rest of winter in Edinburgh was the icing on the cake. Scotland is now right up there with all my other favourite places. The diary entries for this trip are long, but there was just so much to see, do and enjoy. I LOVED this home exchange ….

EDINBURGH 1:  11th December 2012

It’s early morning in Edinburgh on Day 1. 7.30am and still pitch dark outside.   The house is warm and I’m settling in.   Temperature outside is zero and there’s an icy frost on the back lawn and over the road.  

First impressions: Edinburgh at night

I got in to Waverley Station (Edinburgh) yesterday around 6.15pm after a speedy 4-hour train ride up from London. Amazingly efficient these British trains.   First impressions of Edinburgh from the taxi last night were fleeting but it looks a very grand old city with imposing Gothic buildings, winding streets and sparkling Christmas lights.   The night was crisp and clear and it felt like driving through a beautiful film set. 

81 Grange Loan

81 Grange Loan (my house) isn’t far from the city centre.  Feels like home already and I’m looking forward to the next couple of months.  But I’d better note down the details of the first few days in England… 

The Cathay Pacific flight was OK though a longer-than-scheduled stopover in Hong Kong was frustrating.   It landed at Heathrow over an hour late, and then there was an interminable queue to get through immigration.  But when the passport finally got stamped, I was back in the UK where I always feel I belong.   Sally and Colin – wonderful friends – met me, took me back to their place for breakfast, and then on to Pauline’s at Maidenhead.      

Pauline had other house guests for the first night – former neighbours David and Judy (from Wales) whom I’ve met before.  We all went down to the local Carvery for an excellent all-you-can-eat dinner before I zonked into bed around 9pm.    This was Thursday.   On Friday, Pauline and I went into Maidenhead town to wander the shops and visit the local Heritage Centre.   Strangely, in all my previous times in Maidenhead I’d never actually been there.   Among other exhibits and stories of olden times in the Maidenhead district, there’s a permanent exhibition about the Air Transport Auxiliary, the people who supported the RAF in WW2 by delivering new planes to all the airfields in the country.   Many were young women.   There’s an old Spitfire plane body in the exhibit with a flight simulator, so visitors can actually ‘fly’ it.   It’s very realistic and a bit scary – but with a bit of guidance from the guy working the computer, I ‘flew’ over the English countryside and even did some rolls and loop-the-loops. All without crashing.   I wasn’t brave enough to attempt a landing but thanks to technology, I could leave the plane in mid-air while I extracted myself from the cockpit.   I now have a certificate to prove my flying prowess….

We went to Nordern Farm twice on Saturday – to the Christmas craft fair in the morning and a Cabaret show at night.  The cabaret star was Rosemary Ashe, who I’d not heard of, but she’s apparently well-known on the West End stage.  She did an hour of Ethel Merman… suitably brash and brassy, but not exactly my cup of tea. 

And then Sunday was the best!!  We downloaded a walking guide from the web and spent all day in London wandering around the Bloomsbury district.   Spotted many blue plaques on houses where great writers, artists, architects, lawyers and other intellectuals once lived, and strolled through little parks and squares and in and out of pubs, grand hotels and museums.   Especially interesting was the Foundling Museum at Coram Fields.  This was the site of the first shelter for abandoned children in England, established in 1739 by a retired sea captain and philanthropist, Thomas Coram, who was strongly supported by William Hogarth, the artist, and Handel, the musician.  As orphanages go, the Foundling Hospital seemed to have been quite a safe and caring place if the personal stories and photos on display tell the whole story.  It continued to provide a home for abandoned children into the 1950’s and 60’s.    Today it’s a museum, art gallery and concert venue which continues to raise funds for the Coram Children’s Foundation and houses a permanent exhibition of Hogarth’s paintings and the world’s largest collection of Handel manuscripts and music scores.   Nearby Coram Fields is a large park and playground which adults can only enter if accompanied by a child.  

To get back to Paddington station, we took a double-decker London bus so got to see all the Christmas lights in Oxford Street.   Quite strange being so dark at 4pm, but even on a Sunday evening the shops were buzzing and hordes of people were still out there doing their bit for the economy. 

Monday was the day I travelled up to Scotland.  Left Maidenhead at mid-day and was in Edinburgh by 6pm.   It’s a different world up here in Auld Reekie but one I’ve already started to explore – and love.  Since beginning this diary entry this morning, I’ve walked for miles around the local area and into the city.   A full description will have to wait ‘til next time.

EDINBURGH 2:   Wednesday 12th December

Edinburgh continues to delight.   Tonight I had an encounter with a lovely young 21-year-old woman from the Barossa Valley.   We were sharing a mirror to try on hats at the Christmas market in Princes Street when we recognized fellow-Australian accents… then discovered we were both from SA.   Gaby is young, gorgeous and idealistic, travelling the world before she decides what to do with her life.  She’s currently working in Edinburgh and living with a Scottish family.   Neither of us found what we wanted in the market, so Gaby led me through the streets of the Old Town to a vintage shop where she’d bought the lovely fur coat she was wearing. When we got there, sadly it was closed, so we ended up having a drink in a cosy pub in Grassmarket, sharing travel tales and dreams (my tales, her dreams).   It was one of those serendipitous meetings that make this travelling life so happy.

I’d spent several hours at the National Museum of Scotland before wandering down to the market.  What an amazing place it is!  There’s so much to see and discover that it will take many visits to do it justice.  This time I settled for an exhibition on the history of Scotland – and also one of the current special exhibitions about Dr David Livingstone, the Scottish national hero who explored Africa, ‘discovered’ the Victoria Falls and made his mark on ending the African slave trade.  Quite an impressive chap, it seems. I learned a lot. 

The cricket club – opposite my house

Today and yesterday I’ve also explored some of my local area. This part is called The Grange. It’s very near Marchmont and Morningside for anyone who knows Edinburgh.  It’s about a 20-minute walk into the city centre from my house.  Most of the houses in the nearby streets are huge Gothic mansions, and almost directly across the road is the local Cricket Club, walled around with a high stone fence.  A little lane alongside the Cricket Club provides a short cut through to the Meadows, a vast expanse of open parkland bordering the University and the Old Town precincts.   It’s been covered with sparkling white frost when I’ve walked across.

The skating rink below the Castle

The High Street (or Royal Mile) is lined with Scottish shops selling cashmere and tartan, shortbread and postcards, while Princes Street a bit further down has all the fashion stores, bookshops, coffee shops etc.   In between, are the National Gallery, churches, gardens, statues and, at this time of year, the German Christmas markets and the ice-skating rink.   There’s a happy atmosphere with everyone rugged up against the cold, enjoying mulled wine and hot dogs, browsing stalls selling everything from Christmas decorations to hand-knitted baby clothes.   All extremely tempting, but all I’ve bought so far is a woolly hat and matching scarf.  

Thursday 13th December 

I’ve been sleeping better here than I have in years … something about the long, cold, dark nights I guess.  Also possibly the many miles I’ve walked each day, and the glass or two of duty-free port before bed-time.   There’s no live TV here in the house – only a TV set in the cold front room for watching DVDs. But I’m enjoying lots of reading and listening to the radio.   There are hundreds of books in the house and the table is now littered with all my Scottish tourist information, so plenty to keep me occupied.

Greyfriars Bobby pub – opposite the National Museum
Greyfriars Bobby’s grave

Today’s outing was back into the city, along the lane and across the Meadows.  Wandered into Greyfriars Churchyard where many famous sons of Edinburgh are buried. But probably the most well-known is Greyfriars Bobby, the little Skye terrier who sat by his master’s grave for 14 years.   There’s a little monument for him right in front of the church.   And next door to the church is a pub named after him.  Even apart from Bobby, the churchyard is a fascinating place of old, old graves, including some that have iron grilles built over them to protect them from the ghoulish gravediggers who used to dig up bodies to sell for medical research.   It’s a place full of ghosts, I’m sure.

The lovely little Writers’ Museum

From here it was on through the Grassmarket (where the vintage shop was now open, though I didn’t buy anything) and up steep flights of winding stairs to the Royal Mile again.  I then visited the Writers Museum which honours Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Lots of little nooks and crannies in this tall, thin house and lots of memorabilia describing the lives of these esteemed poets and writers.   

Then yet another museum on the way down the hill, the Museum on the Mound.  This one turned out to be about the history of the Bank of Scotland, the current building of which stands next door.  Probably of great interest to money-buffs but I preferred the Writers’ stories.

Friday 14th:   Very, very cold with 40 Shades of Grey in the skies today.  Even a few soft flakes of snow.  I rugged up during the afternoon and explored the other end of Grange Loan – down to Morningside Rd with more shops, cinema and restaurants.

Holyrood Palace

Saturday 15th December:   A big day of touristy sightseeing.  Walked into the city and headed down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, with stops along the way at St Giles Cathedral, The People’s Museum, Knox House, the Scottish Parliament and finally the Palace.  

St Giles has all you’d expect of an old cathedral – lovely windows, vaults, chapels and tombs.  But the gem is the little Chapel of the Order of the Thistle which was built onto the side of the Cathedral about 100 years ago.  It looks medieval with beautiful wood and stone carving but is actually quite new.   It’s where the Knights of the Order of the Thistle are proclaimed (invested?) by the Queen.  This is the highest honour in Scotland and not an hereditary title … the Queen herself selects them.   Princess Anne and Prince William are both Royal Kinghts of the Thistle. I saw their seats, also the one that Sir Robert Gordon Menzies sat in.   He’s the only Australian amongst this esteemed group, I think. 

It was midday when I left the Thistle heraldry, and a concert was about to begin in the main part of the Cathedral. None other than the Forth Accordion Band!  Yes, a whole troupe of young piano accordionists in Santa hats playing Scottish folk songs and Christmas carols.   Slightly bizarre but pleasant enough to while away about 20 minutes.  

Knox House is thought to be the oldest surviving house in the city.  Dating from the 1400’s, it has massive metre thick walls, stone staircases and huge tiled fireplaces, oak floorboards and painted ceilings.   It’s famous because of two of its inhabitants back in the 1500s – John Mossman, the royal jeweler and supporter of Mary Queen of Scots, and after him, John Knox the religious reformer who was one of the main figures behind Mary’s abdication.  Mary was a Catholic, but powerful preacher Knox believed that a Presbyterian would be a better ruler for Scotland.   This was a time of huge religious and political upheaval in Scotland and I learned (or re-learned) some of the story of Mary Queen of Scots and the turbulence between England and Scotland. and Catholicism and Protestantism, during those years. 

The very modern Scottish Parliament

From here it was a quick visit to the People’s Museum further along the Mile. But with too much to take in and desperate for coffee and a sit-down, I wandered on down to the new Parliament Building for lunch.   Much controversy surrounds this building – ultra-modern architecture in the midst of all the great, old buildings of the Royal Mile.  It was designed by a Spanish follower of Gaudi and has some similar features to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.   Quite beautiful in a futuristic kind of way. I also read up a bit about Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, and the Act of Union between Scotland and England. As usual, I can’t remember the details, but it was interesting at the time.   My little guidebook says that it was on September 11, 1997. that 74.3% of those who voted in the referendum supported the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament. And 2 years later both the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament were established.   Obviously this still isn’t the same as completely independent home rule because that referendum is still coming up next year – and from what I can gather, opinion is very divided about the benefit of breaking away from England again.   Watch with interest! (LATER: As we know now, the NO vote won. But there’s talk of another referendum, post-Brexit)

Holyrood Palace

Holyrood Palace, across the road from the Parliament building, and beneath the craggy cliffs of Arthurs Seat, is the Queen’s official residence in Scotland.   It’s used for official visits, garden parties and ceremonies when HRH is around.   Along with all the usual Great Halls, Morning Rooms, tapestries, bedchambers etc., the visit included Mary Queen of Scots chambers where many dramatic events occurred.  It must have been a bleak old place in those days.   The Palace is built on the site of the Holyrood Abbey, a Francisan abbey dating back to very early Christian days.   The ruins of the Abbey still stand in the Palace Gardens.  

By now I was pretty exhausted, but made my way back into the New Town and enjoyed the Saturday night atmosphere in the city while continuing to soak up the sight of the magnificent buildings on the Mound silhouetted against the night sky.   It’s a fabulous city. I just have to keep reminding myself I still have a couple of months to enjoy it all.

Sunday 16th:  

The sun shone brightly and the temperature climbed to about 8 degrees.  A really great day to be outside,. and plenty of people were doing just that.   I decided to take the local bus across town and go for a walk around Stockbridge.   There was a Sunday Farmers market in full swing when I got there – could have bought goodies such as pheasant, salmon, delicious pastries and home-made chocolates, but settled for a simple lentil and veg pie for dinner.    I walked in and out around the streets, along the Waters of Leith canal and up the hill to one of the poshest parts of the city.  Ann Street is supposedly one of the ‘best’ addresses in Edinburgh. It’s a whole street of Georgian houses designed by Sir Henry Raeburn and named after his wife.   Much as I wouldn’t mind living there, it actually looked a bit grey and heavy in the winter. Probably prettier in spring time.

Caught the bus back into the city in time for a 6pm concert at St Giles Cathedral where the Rudsambee Choir were presenting Christmas songs from around the world.   Definitely more professional than the Accordion Band yesterday, and I enjoyed it very much. 

EDINBURGH 3:   17-23 December

The past week has been a mix of Scottish history, ruined abbeys and country walks in the Tweed Valley, also galleries, museums and shopping in Edinburgh…   

Some days when I can’t decide what to do. When it looks particularly grey and damp outside, I end up sleeping in, having a cup of tea, a long read and a late breakfast, then doing some home chores, emailing etc.  But even on these days I’ve always gone out for a walk somewhere – to the local shops or the cinema.  Morningside, at the end of Grange Loan, has a good collection of shops for browsing so it’s not difficult to fill in a few hours just wandering.   I’m also still a bit spellbound by the size and shape of some of the houses around here too. They’re like mini-castles with towers, turrets and high windows.  I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to see Harry Potter or a wizard come out the front doors.   Most of the houses have sparkling Christmas trees in the windows right now, so it’s quite pretty walking along the streets after dark, which happens around 4pm.  

At the beginning of the week I visited the National Library of Scotland.   The library houses a vast collection of books but I actually went to see the exhibitions – and they’re fantastic.   Firstly there’s the story of the Bartholomew dynasty of map and atlas makers.  The earliest maps were all hand-drawn in the finest detail, but technology has obviously changed all that over the past 300 years, with the latest maps being electronically generated in 3-D.   Bartholomews eventually sold to Readers Digest, but they still produce high quality maps and atlases. 

The second exhibition contains treasures relating to many of the famous authors whose books were published by John Murray, a famous Scottish publishing house – people such as Charles Darwin, Conan Doyle, Byron, Walter Scott, Livingstone and others.  The first edition of ‘Origin of Species’ is there, along with many manuscripts, letters, items of clothing and interesting side notes about these famous people.  The whole collection has to be kept in a very low light to preserve the treasures, so it feels extra special to tiptoe from one glass case to the next.  

The Library is just up the road from the National Museum so I also wandered back in there.  This time I found the famous Lewis Chess Men.  These intricate little chess pieces were carved from walrus tusks in the 12th or 13th centuries, and discovered on the island of Lewis in 1831.   The Museum shows Scotland’s story from its earliest geological times, through the course of all the different tribes or cultures that have inhabited this land… Picts, Vikings, Angles and others.  I wish I could remember everything I read, but there’s just so much to take in.  

Another fascinating exhibit in the Museum is Dolly the Sheep, the first successfully cloned animal in the world. This happened in Scotland.  Dolly’s dead now, but she lived a few years and gave scientists and ethicists something to think about.   I was actually surprised to learn how many other animals have been cloned since Dolly, though not many lived a full and healthy life.   Also on display is one of the lunar modules, and a huge rocket that was fired in the desert of Australia in the 1950s. Probably Maralinga or Woomera?   The Museum covers 5 Levels so I don’t think I’ve even seen half of it yet….    

One of the ruined Abbeys in the Borders

Thursday and Friday (20-21 Dec) were the days I spent in the Borders, about 2 hours south of Edinburgh in the Tweed Valley.  I caught the Edinburgh-Melrose bus (a double-decker, no less) and met Penny (my NZ friend who’s visiting her family) when she hopped on in Peebles, as previously arranged by phone.   Melrose is famous for its beautiful ruined abbey – as are Jedburgh and Dryburgh, other nearby towns in the Borders.   Over the two days, we managed to see all three – in between showers of rain and short daylight hours – via a combination of local buses and walks along country lanes.   It would have been lovely to be there in sunshine, but ruined abbeys have a certain magic in the mist, and with no other tourists around, we could wander at will through the ancient pillars, stone walls and graveyards.   The 11th-15th centuries must have been a very busy time in the Tweed Valley with abbots, monks, earls and other nobles all having a part to play in the life of the abbeys. As well as hundreds of stonemasons and other craftsmen who provided the labour to build and maintain these amazing buildings.   There were Cistercian, Augustine and Premonstratensian (yes!) religious orders in one or other of the abbeys.  Their lives were supposed to be devoted to prayer and obedience, with some taking a vow of silence. But they also seemed to have become involved in the life of the surrounding towns and even amassed great wealth.  Hard to imagine what their life must have been like at the times when the abbeys were pillaged, burned, rebuilt and/or eventually destroyed during the Scottish reformation in the 1500’s.  

The Cistercian Abbey in Melrose

Melrose Abbey (Cistercian) is particularly interesting for its detailed carvings of saints, dragons and gargoyles … there’s even a bagpipe-playing pig on one of the pillars.   Jedburgh (Augustine) is the biggest, with much of the nave, walls and vaulted ceiling still intact.  But our favourite was probably Dryburgh (Premonstratensian).  To get to this one, we had to get off the bus at a roadside stop and walk about 20 minutes along a country lane, past a donkey sanctuary, across a suspension bridge over the swollen and turbulent Tweed River and up another little road past an old hotel until we found the abbey hidden in the trees.

On the Thursday night we stayed in a very comfortable B&B in Melrose and enjoyed a good meal by the fire in one of the local pubs.  Caught the bus back to Peebles – then Edinburgh – at 3.30pm on Friday afternoon in pitch darkness!  It was Dec 21st; the shortest day of the year… and it actually felt like midnight when I arrived home around 6pm.  

Today (Sunday 23rd) I walked into the city again to visit the National Gallery.  Another feast of great works of art here – Scottish artists, Old Masters, Impressionists and others – a pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon.   Yesterday I took myself to the movies.  Saw “The Master” which proved to be a waste of time and money.    

Another big week coming up with Penny, Hazel & Chris all visiting – and then Hogmanay!  

EDINBURGH 4   (December 29th Christmas and Hogmanay

At last December 25 is over.  Crazy to think I could escape it by coming to Scotland.  Maybe next year I’ll try Mongolia or Tibet….

Edinburgh has Giant Pandas – like Adelaide

I spent the day (25th) at Edinburgh Zoo.  It seemed to be the only place open.  Perhaps not surprisingly there were a lot of people there.  But at least the animals didn’t know it was supposed to be any jollier or merrier than usual, and they carried on regardless – especially the funny little monkeys and meerkats.   I also got to see a Giant Panda at last. Haven’t seen them in Adelaide Zoo yet, but travelled all the way to Edinburgh for the pleasure of visiting the only pair in the UK.  Tian Tian, the female, was sound asleep at first but she eventually stirred, yawned, sat up, then curled herself into a cuddly panda shape and went back to sleep.   The male one didn’t even appear. 

The koalas seemed popular with the visitors, but I thought they looked a bit sad sitting in make-believe gum trees in their very well-heated ‘house’.   The best sightings of the day were the magnificent leopard and the silky black jaguar in adjacent enclosures.   Both were behind glass…just as well… because they came up so close you could see every powerful muscle in their great shining bodies.   Overall, it was a good day – the sun even shone for most of it.   It certainly wasn’t a White Christmas here.     

On Xmas Eve, I took the local bus to the other end of the line to have a look at Craigmillar Castle … ruined but still in pretty good shape for a medieval castle.   It involved a short walk from the Royal Infirmary where the bus finished, and once away from this very big hospital I didn’t see another soul anywhere.  I’ve lost count of the castles I’ve explored in travels to these old countries, but I still can’t hold back from climbing up every tower and down every dungeon.   Creeping carefully up stone stair-cases and edging along turrets of this one, you get a great view of the city in the distance.   With only crows and pigeons for company it was a bit spooky, but somehow easier to imagine lords and ladies, servants and guards doing whatever they did in their great halls and chambers.   I still marvel at how these places were built without the benefit of cranes and computers though.

With time to fill after seeing the Castle I took a different bus all the way back into town, then jostled through the last-minute Christmas shoppers in Princes Street before popping into the Museum again – now one of my favourite places.  Very glad I did, because there was a tour about to start with a volunteer guide to explain some of the Scottish history exhibits.   Only 3 of us in the group – a Canadian, a Kiwi and me – so a great chance to see more and hear so much history put into context.    I’m becoming more and more proud of my Scottish ancestry every day. The Scots were (are) amazing people!   

The best night of the week, without doubt, had to be the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra’s Hogmanay Celebration at Usher Hall on Thursday 27th.  I’d booked late but got a cheap seat in the upper gallery with a fabulous view of the stage and the whole concert hall.  And what a night!!  There were pipes a-piping, drums a-drumming, wee lassies dancing and about 80 fiddlers fiddling.  Everything whirled and skirled and the conductor jigged along with the music.  The crowd clapped, tapped and sang along to all the old Scottish traditional favourites.   Especially amazing was the finale when the whole concert hall, filled to capacity, stood, joined hands and sang a rousing Auld Lang Syne.  Even after the concert, people were still singing and jigging their way out to the bus-stops.   Lots of fun and a great start to the spirit of Hogmanay.  

It was interesting seeing a left-handed violinist in the orchestra … first time I’ve ever seen that… but they were all in fine form, possibly because they were all off to China the next day for a whirlwind tour.  Wonder what the Chinese will make of the bagpipes?  

The weather’s been a bit up and down. Very windy yesterday, but bright and clear today.   Rain is forecast for NYE but I’ve found that the forecast has been wrong nearly every day, so here’s hoping for a braw, bricht, moonlicht nicht for the Hogmanay parties!


I’m sure I read it somewhere…. no-one knows how to party better than the Scots!   Think whisky, kilts and ceilidhs and you’ll have some idea of how to have a good time. 

Edinburgh’s just drawn breath again after 3 fabulous days of festivities to welcome in the New Year.  The whole city was alive, the sun shone, and thousands of people from all over the world shared the traditional Hogmanay celebrations.   

The action started here at my place with Chris and Hazel’s arrival on Saturday 29th . They drove up from Huntingdon arriving here about 4pm.  Food and wine that evening (plenty of both) got us into the party spirit – and that’s how we continued. 

Next day (Sunday 30) we were all invited up to Dundee to visit sailing friends from Greece.  David and Lyn are Scottish – their boat’s in the same boat-yard as Chris & Hazel’s during the winter non-sailing season.  I hadn’t met them before but enjoyed all the talk about the Ionian Sea and the islands where I sailed with C & H in 2009 and 2010.   They’ve recently renovated an old house, so we had a great lunch and wonderful view from their very modern sitting room overlooking the Firth of Tay.  David also took us for a quick drive up to Dundee Law, the highest point of the city, to see the city spread out below – and across the Firth to St Andrews.   It was bitterly cold with a wind blowing straight from the North Sea (felt like the North Pole) but was a great opportunity to see another part of Scotland.

Torch procession on NYE

Penny arrived in Edinburgh late afternoon that day (Sunday) and the four of us walked across the Meadows to join the Torchlight Procession in the early evening.   This is a huge event that involves many thousands of people walking through the streets carrying long wax candles blazing with light.  The procession looked like a ribbon of fire as it wound its way up to the top of Calton Hill.  And we were part of it!  At the beginning, we were accompanied by enormous floating fish-shaped balloons – and a pipe band.  And up on the hill at the end there were fireworks and a Sound and Light display. A phenomenal start to a 3-day party.

Chris and Hazel didn’t do the final bit of the walk up the hill, so we parted ways to make our way home, after calling in to one of the many bars on the way for a quick drink or two.  

On Monday 31st, we went back into the city so that Hazel and Chris could get a feel for some of the sights in daylight. Princes Street, the Castle, St Giles, Grassmarket and Greyfriars, as well as many of the other magnificent buildings and little back lanes and closes of the Old Town.   Penny had to baby-sit back in Peebles that night, so she caught her bus around 2pm and we went back to Grange Loan for a rest before hitting the streets again around 9pm.   We’d had a choice of: (i) the Street Party with 5 stages and big-name bands, and thousands of young revelers the length and breadth of Princes Street or (ii) the Ceilidh with Scottish music and dancing, so we’d planned ahead and booked for the Ceilidh.  Had to fight our way through the crowds to get into the special ceilidh area but were really glad we’d made this choice when we got there.  It was huge fun and a great way to keep warm, jumping and jigging along with the music.  It was a night when having a full-time partner would have been handy so I could have danced all the reels and jigs, but I managed a barn dance with a young German girl, and joined in lots of others when numbers didn’t strictly seem to matter.  The whole spirit of a ceilidh is so inclusive … it doesn’t matter who you are or whether you know how to do it. Everyone is welcome! 

Music, dancing, fireworks, people … Hogmanay in Scotland

At midnight came the big Countdown …. over 70,000 people shouting 10, 9, 8 … then on the stroke of zero, the fireworks lit the sky above the Castle.   After hugs and kisses all around, everyone joined hands for a rousing Auld Lang Syne to welcome in 2013.  

The music and partying probably continued all night long, but we decided midnight was time for us to wend our way home and open the bubbly.  We finally called it a night around 2am because Chris and Hazel had to leave early the next morning for the 6-hour drive home to England.   Their next Australian home exchangees were arriving the following day – and then they were flying out to Melbourne the day after –  so they had a few things to do!   It was great that they could make it up here for Hogmanay.  

But even though my guests had all gone by Janurary 1st, Edinburgh was still celebrating. And I was keen to continue to enjoy it.   There were many events on offer all day, including the Loony Dook where people throw themselves into the icy Firth for a morning swim, or the New Years Triathalon, or the Edinburgh Dogmanay with sled dog races in Holyrood Park.   But I chose to join the ‘Your Lucky Day’ event, which started at the National Museum.   All participants (many thousands of us) got to throw 2 dice, then depending on the number you threw, you were given a card with a venue corresponding with that number.  You had to make your way to that venue where something would be happening.   At the end of the performance or entertainment, you’d throw your dice again and be issued with the next card and off you’d go again.   During the afternoon I managed to find my way across the city to 5 different venues and enjoyed every single one. First there was a folk quartet at the old Tron Church, then a ceilidh at Greyfriars Kirk, an amusing afternoon tea at the City Art Centre and a jazz guitar duo at a little jazz club.   I also caught the final bars of a chamber orchestra at the Hub.  The fun of all of this was that no-one knew what to expect anywhere. It was like a giant treasure hunt with people all across the city walking around with little numbered cards and maps.   At the Art Centre, those of us who happened to arrive at the same time were ushered up to the 5th floor to find a big room with lots of round tables and a wacky bunch of kilted comedians serving cups of tea and little cakes to everyone.  You just sat anywhere and talked to the people at your table….so Scottish, and so good. 

The Big Bang Finale came at 6pm in Buccleuch Place, near Edinburgh University.   Once again, no-one had a clue what was going to happen, but a huge crowd assembled and waited. It turned out to be a UK premiere of a Street Theatre Spectacular performed by a French group called Plasticiens Volants.   It’s extremely difficult to describe, but it consisted of more of the absolutely gigantic, enormous balloon-type sculptures that had heralded the start of the Torchlight Procession.  The theme was the creation of the universe billions of years ago, so the ‘balloons’ were shaped like grotesque animal forms, planets, sea monsters, wheels and other shapes, including a huge eyeball.  These were manoeuvred by performers who wove their way through the crowds holding the giant shapes aloft – all done with a soundtrack of voice, music, smoke and coloured lights.   The backdrop setting was something of a paradox … old 5-storey high stone buildings on both sides of the street.  

Needless to say I was completely zonked at the end of the day and still had a half-hour walk home.  But I don’t know if I’ll ever get to have so much entertainment packed into 3 days again.   It’s certainly been a fabulous start to a new year.  Thank you Edinburgh! 


It’s not even quite a week since New Years Day, but it feels like a month.  Every day has been busy and enjoyable, mostly spent finding new (to me) places to explore. 

I’ve also got stuck into family history research this week, starting with half a day at New Register House where the Scottish archives and genealogical records are kept.   My research was made relatively easy by already having more than the bare bones of the Ferguson Family Tree, compiled in recent years by other family members (2nd & 3rd cousins in Australia), but I’ve already discovered more information and feel surprisingly close to these Scottish forebears.  I don’t know why I should feel so proud and happy to have Scottish blood when my maternal grandfather, Alexander Ferguson, actually deserted my grandmother after WW1 and left her to bring up my mother on her own.  My dearly-loved grandmother would be thrashing her heavenly harp if she knew that I was becoming so interested in the Ferguson story.  However, having only ‘discovered’ this grandfather in the last few years (he lived until 1964 but I didn’t know him), and finding that I have a huge family of Ferguson relations, mostly in the south-east of South Australia, I’ve been extremely keen to trace the story back to my great-grandfather, William Ferguson, who was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland.   William migrated to Australia in 1866 with his brother, John, and went on to own a successful sheep farm called Gowan Brae, near Lucindale.   My grandfather, Alexander, was the youngest of his 11 children, all born in Australia.    I’ve now found much of the story of the Ferguson family in Kirriemuir, and have decided to travel up there later this week to walk in the footsteps of my great-grandparents and their elders.  

Looking over Edinburgh from Blackford Hill

Other outings this week have included a lovely walk up Blackford Hill, and a bus trip to Cramond.  The peak of Blackford Hill is visible from my back window and it had been calling to me for days.  With map in hand, it was easy to find how to get there and I spent over an hour hiking up its paths and across the top, marveling at the fabulous views of Edinburgh on all sides.  It’s obviously a popular place for families, dog walkers and casual ramblers because there were quite a few people up there enjoying the relatively mild weather and bursts of sunshine.   There’s a direction-finder thing at the top pointing to the various surrounding hills and sights in the city … and I suddenly found myself looking across the valley to Craiglockart Hill where Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met during the 1st World War – I’d just been reading a book about the poets of the Great War and couldn’t help wondering if the grand old building over on the hill might be (or have been?) the hospital where they met?    (* The book is “Strange Meetings”; the author, Harry Ricketts, is coming to Adelaide Writers Week in March).      

It’s strange how these kinds of coincidences keep happening. For example, you read about something in one book, and it crops up again in the next.   It happened again when I went to Cramond yesterday.  The number 41 bus from very near my place goes all the way to Cramond, a village on the Firth of Forth. It takes about an hour, and gives a great opportunity to see more of the city and surrounds.  (I still like sitting in the front seat at the top of double-decker buses and just watching the world roll by.)   Anyway, Cramond proved to be a little gem.   There’s an island there that is cut off at high tide, but when the tide is out you can walk across to it.   I could have, but didn’t … might go back and do it another time.  There’s a very old church in the village built on the ruins of an old Roman fort, dating back to around 140 AD.   But the coincidence that happened was finding an information board telling me that one of the most significant archaeological treasures to be discovered in Scotland had been pulled out of the river inlet at that very spot as recently as the 1990s.  The find was a large Roman funeral statue of a lioness devouring a man, dating from the time of the Roman occupation.  It is now displayed in the National Museum, and was one of the special exhibits that I’d been shown when I did a short guided tour.  It fascinated me at the time, so much so that I revisited it next time I was there.   I knew it had been found in a river somewhere, but didn’t know (or remember) that it was at Cramond.   Maybe I’m odd (!) but I get excited when things link together like this.   

In between these outings I’ve walked around more of the city centre, through streets and arcades that I’d not found before.   The city is larger than it first appears with lots of very attractive shops, especially now with all the post-Xmas sales on.   I also took myself to the movies at the local cinema again – this time to see “Quartet”.  An absolute delight! 

Today (Monday 7) is a bit damp and overcast but I feel very lucky to have had mostly good weather over the past few days.   Will keep fingers crossed for more in coming days.

EDINBURGH 7:  7-14 January

Highlight of the past week was my trip to Kirriemuir, and surrounding towns, to continue the search for the Ferguson family history.  And I’ve since spent another day in New Register House (Scottish archives) in Edinburgh to confirm my findings.   But more of all that later ….. I’ll try to sketch in the rest of the week first. 

On Tuesday 7th, I took the train to Glasgow to meet Victoria, who I’d first met on the Camino in Spain last year.  She was volunteering then at a hostel run by an English confraternity in the village of Rabanal.   Victoria’s now living in Glasgow doing a Masters degree, and currently studying creative writing.   Irish by birth, she lived in France for the past 20 years and is fluent in at least 4 languages.   It was so good to catch up and get to know her better. We walked all day through the University, Botanic Gardens, an art gallery, and up and down countless streets.  But mostly we just talked, so I can’t say I really got to know Glasgow at all.  However, the faint (and probably unfair) impression I got is that it’s rather down-at-heel compared with Edinburgh with lots of boarded-up and peeling old buildings.  I know it was once a grand and prosperous city so I’ll try to get back there again before I fly home.  

Now jumping ahead to Sunday 13th and to a concert at Usher Hall … this time it was the Johann Strauss Orchestra and dancers performing “A Night in Vienna”.  It had sounded promising, but turned out to be quite forgettable – on a par with elevator music.   One review I’d read had raved about it, calling it a “Mum-treat”!  Not for this Mum, I’m afraid, though I think some of the older Mums (and Dads) in the Hall were swaying along with memories of waltzing together once upon a time…..  

Snow in the garden – back of my home in Grange Loan

Snow has fallen twice this week.   It looks so pretty floating past the window – and the old houses and bare trees always look like something out of a picture book when they’re dusted in white.  On Sunday morning, Blackford Hill looked like a giant Christmas pudding with icing on top for a few hours.  

Other hours/days during the week have been spent on all the usual day-to-day stuff of life … supermarket shopping, washing, vacuuming, emailing, going to the library etc – but Wednesday & Thursday (8th-9th) were the Kirriemuir days.

Firth of Forth road bridge – view from the train

I took the train to Dundee on Wednesday morning.  It was a superb winter’s day, with brilliant sunshine, so there were fabulous views on both sides when the train crossed the railway bridge over the Firth of Forth.  This is an amazing bridge, opened in 1890, 2.5km long, and said to be the world’s first major steel bridge.   Most of the way further north, the railway line ran right along the coast, and the sea (technically the Firth?) was sparkling blue with not a ripple in sight.  I needed sunglasses!   From Dundee station it was a short walk to the bus stop where I caught the local bus to Forfar, and then another on to Kirriemuir.  So about an hour later I was in the small country market-town where my great-grandfather was born in 1849. 

Kirriemuir – birthplace of my Great Grandfather.

Kirriemuir is still a relatively small town, known affectionately as “The Wee Red Toon” on account of the red-coloured stone used to build most of the cottages and local buildings.  It’s also known as the Gateway to the Glens because it’s in the middle of spectacular scenery – hills, mountains, glens and braes.  The old town centre is still a maze of little cobbled lanes and closes, little cottages and a church or two .. and, if you ignore the cars, it’s not difficult to imagine yourself back in the mid 19th-century.   Kirriemuir, like many of the nearby towns, was a centre for the weaving trade.  Most of the population worked in the weaving mills or on hand-looms in their own homes.  It’s hard to imagine now, but jute-weaving was the main industry and brought huge wealth to Dundee and surrounding districts… think of all those potato and sugar sacks needed to transport goods to the colonies.  

The childhood home of my great-grandfather in the mid-1800s

I spent most of my time in Kirriemuir, and nearby Forfar, going through records in the local libraries, and also walking around the streets just to get a feel for where my great-great-grandmother and her children must have walked, talked, shopped and played.  I found the small lanes in both towns where the census records show that the family lived in 1841 and 1851.  Ann (great-great-grandfather William’s wife) was listed as a yarn winder by occupation.   The men in the family were all agricultural labourers. Indeed my great-grandfather (also called William) became a successful farmer during his lifetime in Australia.  He emigrated from Scotland in 1866 with his brother John. 

I guess I have to acknowledge that Kirriemuir lays claim to people more famous than my Ferguson forebears.   J.M.Barrie, author of Peter Pan was born here (and is buried in the town cemetery), also Charles Lyell, one of the fathers of geology and friend of my hero, Charles Darwin.   Also Bon Scott, of AC/DC fame was born in Kirriemuir.    Bon migrated to Australia with his family when he was 6 years old (!), but they still have a whole glass case in the museum dedicated to his achievements as a rock legend.   At least my great-grandfather lived there for 25 years.   

If I’d had a car – and a travelling companion – I probably would have explored the Glens.  But travelling where I could on the local buses was fun and provided great views of the local countryside.  The little bus from Kirriemuir back to Forfar (about 9km) was a bit like something out of “Heartbeat” … the bus was probably new in 1950.  The journey took me through the village of Glamis with glimpses of Glamis Castle through the trees. This was the childhood home of the Queen Mother and a real fairy-tale castle seen from a distance. 

“Discovery” in Dundee: Scott of the Antarctic exhibition

Back in Dundee, before catching the train back to Edinburgh, I wound my way down to the harbour to view the “Discovery”, the ship that took Capt Robert Scott to the Antarctic.  It was built in Dundee and now forms the centre-piece of an excellent museum about Antarctic exploration.  Having seen and heard a lot about the Antarctic when I was married (my ex-husband spent 2 years down there in the 60’s), I did have an interest in the story of the British exploration and scientific discovery.  I have to confess that I’ve changed my mind about Scott now to. I’d always thought he was a bit of a loser, having come second to Amundsen in the quest for the South Pole, but in fact he seems to have been a great sea captain, and highly regarded by all his men on the first “Discovery” voyage.   It’s a very good museum and needs at least a couple of hours to explore.

It was quite dark by the time I left … about 5pm… so I called it a day and headed back to the station.   British trains are so efficient (warm, comfortable and on-time) so I was home in Edinburgh about an hour later.  

There’s another busy week coming up – I’m playing mahjong with the Edinburgh U3A club on Thursday, then Pauline arrives on Friday.    Among other things we’re heading up to Aberdeen for a couple of days, also celebrating Burns Night back in Edinburgh.   But that will all be in the next diary.

EDINBURGH 8:   16-26 January 

Poor old diary … it’s been at least 10 days since I’ve had a chance to sit and reflect, and I’ve probably forgotten half of what I’ve done.    Pauline (friend from England) has been staying with me and the days have been very full.  

Last time I wrote I was setting off to mahjong with the U3A group.  That turned out to be extremely pleasant. Very nice people, and only a 5-minute walk from my place.   They played with slightly different rules, but it wasn’t hard to adapt and I learned some new hands that might be of interest at home.  

The following day (Friday 18th) brought Pauline up from London – along with some very cold weather.  There’s been a lot of snow over the past week, particularly in the countryside.   Edinburgh streets were dark and icy, but day-to-day life still carried on… the traffic flowed, buses ran, and everything stayed open.  Not so in some places in the UK… schools closed, roads were blocked and presumably people stayed indoors.  

On Saturday 19th we walked through a wintry, white world into the city, up and down the Royal Mile spending time at St Giles, Holyrood Palace (for Pauline) and the Queen’s Gallery (for me).   There’s an exhibition on at present in the Queen’s Gallery – 60 photos of Her and the Family – to mark the 60 years she’s been on the throne.  I think I’m becoming more of a monarchist with each passing year (though will still vote for a Republic if ever we get another chance). I loved all the photos and the stories behind them, especially the ones of HRH with her horses and the corgis.  The thing about this exhibition is that it kind of followed the years of my own life – the fashions, events, royal births and, of course, the gradual ageing of the faces – it all resonated with me.  

That same night we went to a preview performance of “A Taste of Honey” at the lovely little Lyceum Theatre with its magnificent chandelier. Preview nights only cost £8, with no reserved seating.  It’s first in, best seats.   I remember reading the book back in the 60’s … the story of a young woman, with a single alcoholic mother, who gets pregnant to a black sailor. Sadly it seems much of the same poverty, dysfunction and discrimination still exist. So even though the play is now somewhat dated, its themes remain relevant.  It was quite good and appropriately gloomy. 

On Sunday Pauline chose to do a bus trip. So off we went to Cramond.  Because I’d been there recently, I led the way around the village and along the river walk.  I think part of the pleasure of this particular outing is the chance to see more of Edinburgh’s houses, buildings and other districts along the bus route.  Back in town it was getting too cold to walk more outdoors, so we spent an hour in the Museum before heading home.

In the grounds of Roslyn Chapel

Monday was another full day out … this time in even heavier snow.   We trod carefully on icy footpaths all the way to Morningside Road to catch the bus to Rosslyn Chapel, about ½ hour out of the city.  Despite its up-and-down existence as a beautiful little chapel since the 1500s, with a very colourful true history, it gained world-wide fame with the advent of ‘The Da Vinci Code” – the book and the movie.   Visitor numbers apparently went from a mere few thousand annually to 300,000 after the book came out.   Thank goodness things have quietened down now. And in a blizzard on Monday there were only half a dozen people like us who were braving the elements to see the very elaborate and ornate stone carvings, and hear the stories of how they have been interpreted over the centuries by different waves of Catholic and Protestant worshippers, aristocrats, Masonic Knights and ordinary visitors.   It’s quite a lovely little place and well worth the bus ride through the snow.  

The bus brought us back to Morningside – right near the local cinema – so we decided to sit in the warm, comfy Gold Class seats to see “Les Miserables”.   Thoroughly enjoyed it ( despite Russell Crowe’s lack of singing ability).

Tuesday and Wednesday were by far the best days of the past week.  We travelled up to Aberdeen on the train to stay with friends of Pauline’s in Banchory – about an hour out from Aberdeen in the Dee Valley.   I’d become quite accustomed to seeing nothing but white all around, but the train trip up (approx 2 ½ hours) was still very picturesque as we whizzed through fields of snow and along the rugged coast.  It all felt quite familiar travelling through Dundee again.

John met us at the train station and there was time for a quick visit to the Maritime Museum before catching the bus to Banchory.   The Museum is under redevelopment, so with a background accompaniment of drills and hammers, we learned something of the rich history of Aberdeen as a major sea-port and a hub of the ship-building industry.  Its wealth in more recent years has come from the massive oil rigs off its coast, out in the North Sea.   It’s a grand old city, built of grey granite.  Didn’t have time to see much of it, but gained an impression from the bus.

Staying in Banchory was absolutely wonderful.   John and Jean are retired teachers/academics who spent a few years as tour leaders for HF International, a company that takes walking tours to interesting parts of the world.  Pauline met them on one such trip to the Grand Canyon and other national parks in the US.  They’ve made many trips to New Zealand, also Nepal, and are long-time walkers in the highlands and lowlands of Scotland.   

Banchory is about 40 miles from Balmoral in the Royal Deeside valley.  The Royal Family are regular visitors and supporters of activities in the district, so the locals get to see them often.  Jean has met Camilla through her patronage of the Art Group – and finds her charming.  Being in this beautiful part of Scotland brought back memories of travelling up to the Braemar Games in the mid-60s in a Mini-minor with two former room-mates from Teachers College! 

Deeside is Castle country. There are dozens of them scattered around, which makes the whole area very attractive for tourists.  Fortunately, things are quiet in the middle of winter, particularly with a foot of snow covering everything.  It was stunningly beautiful.  I felt as if I were in a movie …. everything was snowy white, with a sparkling postcard view out of every window.  Walking through the town was like being in an alpine village. And people were clearing paths and driveways just like you see on TV.        

On Wednesday, the snow had stopped falling so we were able to take the bus to the stop nearest to Crathes Castle.   (John can’t get the car out of the garage until he clears mountains of snow.) 

After coffee at a nearby stone cottage complex of little shops, art gallery and old mill wheel, we walked through paths in the woods up to the Castle.   It’s not open at this time of year, but it looked quite magnificent in its snowy setting, particularly when the sun came out and made everything shine.  We had the place the park and woods to ourselves ..not even a deer, fox or rabbit appeared.

 Pauline and I took John and Jean to dinner at the local Douglas Arms on Wednesday evening. Sat in a nook by a big log fire.   Then on Thursday it was back to Aberdeen and the train home to Edinburgh.  We had to get back for a Burns Supper and performance we’d booked at the Scottish story-telling centre in John Knox House.    Robert Burns (the famous Scottish poet of the 1700s) was born on January 25, so Burns Night is a time to celebrate in Scotland.  Traditionally it’s a time for haggis, bagpipes and poetry … and we joined in over the next two days. 

Cutting up the haggis

On the Thursday night performance (24th), a group of actors told the story of Robbie Burns’ life and times (quite a dashing young lover with the lassies, it seems) and we enjoyed music, songs, poems and a 4-course traditional dinner of cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps & tatties (turnips & potatoes), cranachie, then shortbread and black buns with coffee.   In the intimate setting of the story-telling centre, it was a really lovely evening.   

The next day (Friday 25th) was also a full-on day.   It started with attendance at a BBC radio program called ‘The Big Debate’ being broadcast live from Greyfriars Kirk.   I’d booked free audience tickets after a tip from Charles (my current exchangee).   It’s a radio program, a bit like “Q & A” on Australian TV.  The theme of this particular session was “What does it mean to be Scottish?” . So the questions, comments and panel responses addressed everything from politics to history, geography, art, culture, language and more.   Absolutely fascinating and very entertaining.   Needless to say, I didn’t ask any questions or offer any comments, but there was a lot of lively audience participation.   

Pauline & me at Greyfriars Bobby pub

This was followed by a wander around Greyfriars churchyard (for Pauline), lunch and exhibitions at the National Library, and another stroll down the Royal Mile to the Museum of Edinburgh and the People’s Story Museum, both of which recount the story of life in this city through the ages.  It was rather surprising (and shocking) to see the level of hardship and poverty that still existed in the Old City tenements right through to the 1960s – when I was a carefree young backpacker visiting the Edinburgh Tattoo, and driving a hired mini-minor around the lochs and the castles.    Of course things have changed massively, but there’s a magic to the place that keeps the history alive.    I could live here very happily, and have in fact met 3 women-of-a-similar-age since I’ve been here (at bus-stops and library events) who have recently come from other parts of the world and chosen to make Edinburgh their home.    Not really a choice I’ll ever have to make though. The British Government is just as rigid as our own when it comes to letting foreigners in to stay. 

So, after all this sight-seeing, there was still another treat in store.  The National Library had a Poetry Grand Slam event happening in honour of Robbie Burns.  This free event had been fully booked but I thought it was worth waiting at the door in case people didn’t turn up – and sure enough we got in.  It was a competition amongst local Scottish poets, with a judging panel and cheering audience, to find the 2013 winner.   The standard of writing and presentation was incredibly high. It seems that talented and creative people still abound in Scotland.   And it was great to see the interest in poetry, both amongst performers and audience.   After preliminary rounds, the final round was won by a woman whose name I can’t remember.

It had been a long day, but we still had to eat, so called in at a corner pub on the way home to have yet another Burns supper … haggis and more tatties.     

So now it’s Saturday 26th and Australians will be celebrating Australia Day in the sunshine.  I packed Pauline off to explore by herself today, armed with maps, phone numbers and directions for getting home.    I wonder if she’ll make it?     (She did….) 

EDINBURGH 9:  January 28 – February 4

It’s been crazy weather all day today.  Snow flurries this morning and now bright blue sky and sunshine. And everything else in between.  I’m keeping fingers crossed that it will stay OK for the next few days for Rose’s visit (my former home exchangee from Cholsey, England).    

Up on the Crags above Holyrood Palace

The past week has been another busy one.  Since Pauline left, I’ve relished having time to explore more of Edinburgh on my own and to discover more delights.  Early in the week, I decided to walk from home towards Arthurs Seat.  This big old volcanic mound can be seen from nearly everywhere in the city but I’d never been quite sure how to get there…. so I just headed towards it in the hope I’d find a path somewhere.   Sure enough, after wandering along several new (to me) streets, I came out on the busy road near the Royal Commonwealth Pool and a sign pointing to Holyrood Park.   This Park is huge, has roads for cars, and many paths for walkers. And Arthurs Seat and Salisbury Crags were directly ahead.  I had a great walk but it was far too windy to get right to the top (I can well believe a friend’s anecdote about the man who had his glasses blown off his face!).   It would be a fabulous place for my Friday Walking Group on a sunny day – wonderful views in all directions, high paths and low paths, and not far from Holyrood Palace and the Royal Mile. 

Just behind the Royal Commonwealth Pool, I passed the Pollock Halls of Residence, a complex of boxy-style student accommodation.  But in the midst of all the 1960s buildings sits the most magnificent castle-like, baronial mansion, with a signpost declaring it to be St Leonard’s Hall, a conference centre.   Of course I simply had to go in and have a closer look and investigate its history… and guess what!!… amongst several other incarnations since the 18th century, it was the former St Trinians Girls’ School.   Apparently Ronald Searle, the cartoonist, had a niece at the school and it was his visits there that gave him the inspiration for the St Trinians cartoons.   It was also used as a military hospital during wartime.

In between walks and other activities, I’ve been enjoying lots of books – including several of the authors who’ll be coming to Writers Week in Adelaide and at least 4 Ian Rankin crime novels, plus a general assortment of others.   I’ve become a regular visitor to the Central Library and the local library branch in the next street, and on Saturday morning I joined a Book Lovers’ Walking Tour.  The man who led it, Allan Foster, is the author of “The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh, a Book Lover’s Guide to the World’s First City of Literature” so he should know his stuff.  There were only 3 in the little walking group and we heard tales of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling and others – i.e. just a handful of Scotland’s well-known writers.   It’s been great reading the Rankin books here in Edinburgh and recognising all the haunts of DI Rebus, but now I also know where Harry Potter really started, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gained his medical knowledge, where Robert Louis Stevenson drank with friends etc.  This city really is quite astounding for the wealth of writers and literature it’s produced … is there something in the water here??  

I’ve become fascinated with Robbie Burns since learning more about him during Burns Night events.  Have managed to read some of his poems too, or at least get the gist of them, written as they are in the old Scots language.   The other night I found a really good TV documentary on the computer about his life and times. He’s truly a national hero and his works are treasured. 

 On Saturday night I went to the Edinburgh Playhouse (just another of Edinburgh’s many theatres and concert halls) to see a Las Vegas-style performance of the Rat Pack … Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. along with showgirls, orchestra etc.  Good fun and great old songs. They did it well.     

Something I forgot in last week’s diary….among the many activities that Pauline and I crammed into the week was a tour of Edinburgh’s underground.   There are a number of tour companies here who trade in the dark side of Edinburgh’s history – ghosts, ghouls, squalor and disease – and some of this tour was fairly predictable.  But it did take us way down below some of the Old City buildings and into the tenements and closes where people used to live hundreds of years ago in horrendous conditions.  These old rabbit warrens and dark hovels were built over in the 18th & 19th centuries when Edinburgh became increasingly wealthy.  They were then were largely forgotten for many years.  But some have been re-opened more recently, so it’s possible to get some idea of how the poor lived and died before modern sanitation, education, medicine and welfare came into being.   Rats, open sewers, plagues, drunkenness, violence … it would have been a very different world back in the dark times.  

On a much brighter and more beautiful note, yesterday I walked along the Water of Leith from Dean Village to Canonmills.   The walk actually goes from the centre of the city down to Leith (about 11 miles), but the prettiest part is the middle bit around Dean, Stockbridge and the Botanic Gardens which is the section I did.  And it is gorgeous!!  Dean Village is a mix of cottages, big old stone houses, cobbled lanes and bridges.  It’s nestled in a kind of gorge through which the little river flows, so the houses are built steeply up on the rises on both sides. And there’s a great arched bridge which crosses above way up high.  The walk curves along, following the river, to the village of Stockbridge and beyond.  A short detour leads up to the Royal Edinburgh Botanic Gardens which I visited briefly but will need more time to explore in full.  I walked back through Inverleith Park – more wonderful views of the whole city from here – and a popular spot on a Sunday afternoon.   I can’t get over how lovely this city is.   I feel truly happy living here.  

The village of Dean and the Water of Leith

Choosing what to show Rose in just 4 days is going to be difficult, but we’ll make the most of it.   After she leaves, I’m heading up to Inverness by train, with a plan to spend 3-4 days making my way back down the west coast on local buses to get more of a taste of the highlands and the lochs.  I’ll probably also catch up with Victoria in Glasgow again.  And after that, there’ll just be a few last days to pack and tidy up and start the homeward-bound journey, so I guess I’d better start getting used to the idea…. 

Entrance to the Castle

EDINBURGH 10:    February 5-10

Sunday 10th:   I’ve just come home after visiting Edinburgh Castle.  This towering, majestic Castle is built high on the rocks of an extinct volcano and absolutely dominates the city.  It’s the most spectacular Edinburgh landmark and probably visited by every tourist who comes to Scotland.   It dates back thousands of years, has defended the nation in many battles and been occupied by many kings and queens.  Its powerful walls protect the battlements, towers, royal apartments, Scotland’s crown jewels and St Margaret’s Chapel – as well as many military museums and the National War Memorial housed within.  You could easily spend all day inside, visiting all the exhibitions and viewing the treasures, but I saw as much as I could reasonably take in during two hours.  I especially loved the little Chapel of St Margaret, the oldest building in the whole Castle, built to commemorate Queen Margaret, mother of David the First.   (Margaret was married to King Malcolm … perhaps Mum connected to her Scottish roots when she named my brother and me??)  

Rose was here for 4 days this week … she left yesterday.  She was a perfect guest and we shared some good times.  The sun shone throughout, and Edinburgh looked its best.

When she arrived on the airport bus on Tuesday, we took advantage of the good weather straight away to enjoy some of the sights of the Royal Mile, then a coffee in the crypt under St Giles Cathedral, before walking home across the Meadows.   And after dinner that evening, we set off to Summerhall (near the University) to go to a ceilidh to really get into the Scottish spirit.   However it was booked out by the time we got there – but we learned about another exhibition that’s showing there in the daytime, so put that on the list for another day.  

While waiting to meet Rose, I’d walked some more around the city, and this time I discovered the Oxford Bar where Detective Inspector Rebus (from the Rankin books) hangs out.  It’s an inconspicuous little place down a side street, but my guess is that it’s probably one of the most photographed pubs in Edinburgh.  The word is that the real publican hates the whole tourist fiasco that surrounds the popularity of the books – but I bet he still enjoys the income it brings in.

Rose and friend (one of Henry Moore’s sculptures)

The next day (Wednesday) turned out to be one of the best weather days since I arrived, so we set off for Dean Village and the Water of Leith again.  This time I wanted to explore a bit more upstream, and it proved quite easy to find the Dean Cemetery and the two Modern Art Museums nearby.  (There’s a free bus that normally runs between the National Gallery in the city and the Modern Art galleries – but it’s not running just now).   The Modern Art galleries are housed in magnificent old buildings set in landscaped parks, with sculptures by Henry Moore and others. I can’t say I was particularly inspired by much of the art work inside, but it was good to visit. And Rose and I later enjoyed a discussion of what we liked (or didn’t) over lunch in the bright, airy gallery café.     

The ceiling at St Johns

We then continued along the river to Stockbridge, explored all the more up-market charity shops in this part of the city, and eventually walked all the way back to Princes Street through the elegant Georgian streets and terraces of the New Town.   St Johns Church was open for a change, so we popped in there to admire the very beautiful ornate ceiling and windows.   Quite different from St Giles, which I think is rather more sombre.  

Across the road from St Johns is the grand old Caledonian Hotel.   Rose is even more assertive than I am when it comes to walking into places, so she just smiled at the top-hatted doorman and strolled  through to the gracious central courtyard where High Tea was in progress.  I followed ….and we learned that the hotel had actually been built over the old railway station where the Caledonian steam train used to come into Edinburgh.   The architects somehow joined the three buildings around the station on this busy corner, and turned the original garden into a covered terrace for drinks and teas. Lovely!   On the way back out, we chatted to the doorman who then escorted us halfway across Princes Street to show us the little steam engine which is incorporated into the great stone carving above the front door.  

Food, wine, Scrabble, reading and lots of chat filled all the evenings.  I still haven’t missed TV once.

Next day (Thursday 7th) also turned out sunny and (almost) warm – probably around 6 degrees.  Exactly as it should have done for my birthday!   It was another full day, beginning with a guided walk around the National Museum in the morning, then coffee and cake on the Museum balcony inside the Great Hall, followed by mahjong for me and Holyrood Palace and other sights for Rose.  Rose is so capable I didn’t worry for a minute about her finding her way around. We met back at home, then walked out again in the evening to enjoy a birthday dinner at the Old Bell pub on Causewayside.   Great food and atmosphere – an excellent start to my next year. 

On Friday we managed to see the exhibition of stage design we’d heard about at the Hope Gallery at Summerhall.  This proved to be well worth visiting, with sketchbooks, models, costumes and light and sound effects from many productions of plays, opera and ballets staged in various theatres in the UK.  
I don’t know much about stage design – or designers – but it was fascinating to see how they plan and build sets to create the effects for a particular production. 

Rose on the Salisbury Crags

From there we walked on to Holyrood Park and the Salisbury Crags.  Being quite a mild day, with no wind, it was relatively easy to walk and climb around these massive crags which overlook the whole city at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the Castle.   We didn’t tackle Arthur’s Seat … I’m sure it will still be there whenever I get back to Edinburgh.  We ended up walking all the way home, past the Palace and new parliament building, up the Royal Mile, Nicholson Street and into the Grange.   I’m back to feeling as fit as I was on the Camino. Must try to keep it up.

I think I forgot to describe the National Portrait Gallery which I visited between Pauline’s and Rose’s visits.   The Portrait Galleries in London and Canberra are among my favourite exhibitions, so I was pleased to discover that the Scottish gallery measures up equally well.   It’s such a great way to see and read so much history and get a feel for the lives of the people who’ve shaped their country.  Of course I don’t remember all of it, but impressions remain, and the people and events of history often turn up later in books and films.  

For Rose’s last morning yesterday, we went for a shorter walk – up Blackford Hill not far from here.  She left mid-afternoon to get the plane home.  So I was back to solo status again. Hence my visit to the Castle.    Only 10 more days for me in bonnie Scotland – and I plan to make the most of them. 

EDINBURGH 11::  Trip to the Highlands  February 11-16

It’s hard to know where to start.  Wandering around the Scottish Highlands is a dream.  During the past five days I found myself surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery I could wish for anywhere – a mix of Switzerland, Canada and the South Island of NZ, though still totally and utterly Scottish.   The beautiful soft light on the sunny days seemed to highlight the colours of the mountains and lochs, and the mist and clouds on the grey days simply added to the atmosphere.   I was lucky and scored more sunshine than rain, so I think I saw the snow-capped mountains, rolling hills and glens, rushing waterfalls and stunning great lochs at their winter-time best.  Icing on the cake would have been purple heather on the hills, but that will have to wait for another time, another season.    

Inverness Castle

I took the train up to Inverness on Monday.  Arrived at 2.30pm on a superb, sunny day so spent the afternoon just walking around soaking up the beauty of the River Ness, the Castle above the town, and the elegant houses and hotels all along the river front.   I even struck it lucky on the train up … got chatting to a woman and her daughter who were visiting her sister who happens to own a B&B.   Although she (the sister) wasn’t taking guests at this time of the year, she lives in the street where most of the B&B’s are clustered, so she drove me from the station and phoned the place across the road, and within 10 minutes of arriving, I was settled in with Margaret and Angus. Ended up staying 2 nights with them. 

Had one slightly bizarre experience while strolling along the riverbank in Inverness…. my mobile rang, and it was the Australian Embassy in Hungary on the line!  This was the result of a brief work email exchange late last week.  The Embassy is supporting a school for disadvantaged children in Hungary, and they’re seeking support from an Australian organisation experienced in working with children with autism.  I had a good chat to Gabor in Budapest, found out what I needed to know, then adjourned to an internet café to email NDS colleagues back in Melbourne and Canberra who would have found the information when they woke up next morning. What an amazing world.  

However … back to Scotland.  After a lovely day, and a gourmet dinner at a restaurant by the river in the evening, I was quite enamoured with Inverness and decided to stay another day.  This gave me the chance to do a superb train trip across the mountains to the Kyle of Lochalsh on the coast, just over the sea from the Isle of Skye.  The guide book I’d borrowed from the library describes this trip as one of the most scenic in Scotland – and I’m sure that must be right.  It takes 4 hours each way but the time passes quickly as you dash from one side of the train to the other to try to take photos of the snow, the mountains, the lochs and the coastal inlets.  Photos can’t possibly do justice to this landscape (particularly when taken from a moving train), but it was good to see it with my own eyes rather than through the lens of a camera anyway.   It must be an artist’s paradise up in this part of the world. There were some very attractive paintings of the area in a little gallery in the village of Kyle of Lochalsh.

Kyle of Lochalsh with Skye in the background

Skye is just across the water from Kyle. There’s now even a road-bridge just out of town that links the island to the mainland.  But all these coastal towns and islands still rely heavily on the ferries and there were lots of boats bobbing on the water. Also some beached high and dry on the inlets where the tide-marks appear to be very high up on the rocks and shingly beaches.   I didn’t have time to get over to Skye and back in time for the train, but it was good to see it up so close.    The village of Kyle of Lochalsh is tiny and felt a bit like a film set – not surprising really, because I heard someone say that it was where the TV series “Hamish McBeth” was filmed.   Lots of seagulls, boats and a sailors’ pub or two.   (Found out later that it was actually the next village, Plockton, where it was filmed, but no doubt they look similar.)

Back in Inverness, I woke next morning to light snow flurries and misty rain.   After two days of bright sunshine this wasn’t what I really wanted for the bus trip down to Fort William during the day.  However, it’s Scotland in February, so anything can happen, and fortunately it didn’t rain all day.  

One of the lochs … possibly Loch Ness? They’re all beautiful.

The bus travelled down the length of Loch Ness with more beautiful mountain scenery most of the way.  No sign of Nessie the Monster today – though she’s obviously good for business, with lots of hotels, shops and cafes along the way offering boat trips and souvenirs of this legendary beast.   I don’t recall much of my last visit to these parts in 1966, but I’m sure tourism must have exploded since that time long ago.  From the number of B&B’s and hotels, the place must be heaving with tourists in the summer time.   But it was all very laid back and peaceful in the winter. 

Fort William

Fort William, on the banks of Loch Linnie, is at the base of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain.  Thousands of people apparently climb this peak every year, but it was shrouded in mist when I was there.  The town clearly exists for walkers and mountain-climbers with every third shop selling boots, jackets and other outdoor gear.   There were sales on everywhere and fantastic prices, but much to my regret I couldn’t carry any of these treasures home.   I did buy a pair of walking sandals for half the price I’d pay in Adelaide.  I’d love to get back to the Highlands in spring or autumn and do some walking in the lower hills and fells. 


Another bus ride from Fort William down to Oban next day coasted along the lochs and inlets again.    Coming from dry, old South Australia, it’s phenomenal to see so much water everywhere.   You can’t tell what’s loch and what’s sea.  It’s also hard to get your head around the fact that the people who live here wake up to these spectacular views of mountain and water every day of their lives. 

The whole stretch of connecting waters from Inverness to Fort William makes up the Caledonian Canal which links the west and east coasts of Scotland.  Much of the total distance comprises Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, though engineers did have to build lock-gates, aqueducts and bridges to open the waterway to boat transport.  The Great Glen Way, one of the many long-distance walking trails in Scotland, apparently follows the line of the Canal.  

Fitting my journey in with bus and train timetables gave me most of a whole afternoon and next morning in Oban.  At this time of year, buses and trains are less frequent, but Oban proved to be a very pleasant place to hang out for a while.   It’s built on hills overlooking a pretty harbour and the nearby islands of Mull, Kerrara and Lismore.  Lots of other smaller islands are also visible, and Islay, Kintyre and Arran aren’t far away.  I’m sure it would be possible to ferry-hop from one to the next if time and weather permitted.     

Oban – with McHaig’s Tower above the town

After settling into a cheap room at the Hotel Royal in the middle of town, I spent the time walking, browsing in shops full of tartan and cashmere, and climbing the hundreds of steps up to McHaig’s Tower, a strange Victorian folly built in the 19th century to provide work for the unemployed.  The views over the harbour and town made the climb worth the effort. 

At mid-day, I caught the train from Oban back to Edinburgh, with a stop-off in Glasgow to catch up with Victoria for coffee.   She laughed when she saw me … said I looked like a peregrino again….   I probably did too- same backpack, same walking shoes, plus the same feeling of freedom and happiness.     

Last leg of the journey was the regular train from Glasgow to Edinburgh – about a 1-hour trip.   And now I really have to start accepting that this whole great Scottish experience is nearly all over….

PS…  Forgot to write about Culloden …

At Culloden – freezing day and very bleak

On the snowy morning in Inverness, I took the local bus out to Culloden Battlefield, about 4 miles out of the city.   This was the site of the famous battle where Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated by the English Government troops in 1746.   The battle lasted little more than an hour and resulted in nearly 2000 deaths, mostly on the Jacobite rebels side.   Charlie (Prince Charles Edward Stuart) had returned from exile in France, determined to defeat the English and reclaim the Scottish crown for his father, James (the something?).   He’d gathered an army of wild and rugged highlanders and marched south with some success. But at Culloden he was soundly defeated.   He fled to safety ‘over the sea to Skye’ and Scotland has been ruled by English Kings and Queens ever since.  

It’s a great story, one of the most important landmarks in Scottish history.  The Visitors’ Centre at Culloden displays it brilliantly, from both the Government and the Jacobite sides.   It’s also possible to walk out onto the bleak and lonely field where the battle actually took place, though was too cold to venture far on the day I visited.  But I did brave the snow and wind for a while to see some of the memorial stones and markers showing where the bodies fell and the blood ran free.  Worth a visit.


Time to go home. Very sad to leave Scotland.

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