We took an all day train from Swansea on the Atlantic coast in southeastern Wales over the mountains onto the rolling hills and sweeping valleys of the Midlands through the scenic lake district into Scotland’s borderlands near Hadrian’s Wall. Our destination was Edinburgh on Scotland’s northwestern coast on the North Sea. The journey spans hundreds of miles of scenic landscape as well as thousands of years of the history and culture of the British Isles.
Flying over the same territory, a traveler would experience the incredible variety of landscapes. But more importantly, they would miss the sense of passing through centuries of the British history from the first Celtic tribes, the Roman occupation until the 2nd century AD, The Picts around 6th century, invasion by the Vikings in 800, and the Magna Carta in 1215. And then there’s all the rich literary history of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Spencer, Donne, and Hardy to Doyle, Stevenson, Rowling, and Rankin.
Crossing over the Welsh mountains onto the Midlands around Birmingham, the landscape changes to rolling hills, long valleys and green pastures where flocks of sheep graze enclosed within centuries-old stone fences. Lots of sheep, at least a million on a journey of hundreds of miles. Maybe two million. The British woolen industry that produces elegant men’s three piece suits, women’s dresses, scarves, caps, gloves, wraps, shawls, and kilts could not exist without millions of these grazing sheep.
British woolens are still highly valued around the world as they have been since they were carried on wooden sailing ships to the American colonies and distant ports in Asia, South America, and Australia when the sun never set on the British Empire.
Coming into Birmingham, the train follows the River Severn, the longest in Britain, and a series of canals dredged in the 18th century to transport coal from Wales and northern England to Birmingham and Manchester to produce textiles, steam power, rail cars, heavy machinery, engines, and tools for the 18th and 19th centuries Industrial Age. These same canals then carried finished goods to London for export around the world.
The canals were lined with brick in many areas, which is probably one of the reasons canals are still in operation today. But instead of teams of horses towing barges along towpaths as in the 18th & 19th centuries, barges today are powered by motors and transport more tourists than coal, wheat, or machines.
The British Isles were once an enormous forest. But centuries of cutting timber to clear land for agriculture and to construct homes, the wooded landscape almost disappeared. Yet nearly every valley or hill-top still has a copse of trees as natural borders for farms or pastures. And in more remote areas, forests cover hillsides that stretch a mile or two.
In our two-day visit, we sampled the rich history and tradition of Edinburgh, the second largest city in Scotland. Much can be accomplished by walking the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle down a descending cobblestone street past the modern Scottish Parliament building to Holyrood Palace where Mary Queen of Scots reigned and the Queen stays on royal visits to Scotland. A tour of historic Edinburgh begins on the highest point in the city at Castle Rock.
Edinburgh Castle sits on the volcanic Castle Rock, which was first inhabited in the 9th century, the longest continually inhabited site in Scotland. Edinburgh Castle evolved from a royal castle built in the 12th century by David I into a fortress because its s strategic position protected by steep cliffs. From Castle Rock, invaders and armies could be seen approaching from land or sea. Garrisons of troops and armaments were instrumental during the War of Scottish Independence and the Jacobite uprising in 1745.
The entrance to Edinburgh Castle is through a gatehouse that ascends stone walkway to the Porticullis Gate, built in 1584. Inside the gate, the stone walkway ascends further past stone walls to an open area overlooking the city. Along the inside walls, ramparts with cannons protruding through turrets aimed toward the city below, the esplanade, and Clyde river leading to the North Sea.
A few steps behind the ramparts is a small rise where a small stone structure, St. Mary’s chapel, built in the 12th century by David I in honor of his mother who died in 1093. Outside the tiny chapel is a massive six-ton cannon, the Mons Meg, installed in 1457. The Mons Meg was fired only on historic occasions, including the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots in 1548. It was ‘retired’ when it blew up in 1681 firing a royal salute.
The stone walkway ascends further to a courtyard with two large stone buildings facing each other. The lower is the Scottish National War Museum with elaborate displays of uniforms, medals, artifacts, and maps depicting the history of the Scots Guards from the 18th century through the Great War, World War II, the Falklands War, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The larger structure across the courtyard is the former medieval St. Mary’s church which was turned into the Scottish National War Memorial in 1922. Inside the chapel-like war memorial are stained-glassed windows and regimental plaques commemorating major campaigns in the 20th century. Below the plaques are red leather memorial books with pages and pages of names, dates, and locations of fallen Scotsmen who died on battlefields or at sea. In the central room, possibly where there was once probably an alter, is the crypt of a Scottish unknown soldier.
The Scottish War Memorial is a somber, spiritual place, reflecting the reverence the Scottish people have for countrymen who died defending the British empire.
The Royal Mile
Exiting the castle gatehouse, one comes to the esplanade where the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is held in August with parades of bag pipes and drums performed by Scottish Guard regiments. When we visited, the esplanade was being prepared for the tattoo. Workmen were erecting viewing stands, temporary bleachers, and scaffolds for lighting and TV cameras. The tattoo is broadcast worldwide and watched by millions.
Past the esplanade, The Royal Mile descends down a cobblestoned street into the city’s old town lined with charming shops, pubs, books stores, churches, and government buildings. The area is steeped in Scottish history with statues of Adam Smith and David Bruce. A plaque outside one pub claimed that James Boswell and Samuel Jonson supped, drank, and gabbed there.
Dining in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is a bustling, international city where one hears European languages as well as Indian, Arab, Chinese and Japanese. One benefit of the international influence are the number of excellent ethnic restaurants. One evening we had a wonderful dinner at an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood where we stayed; trout filet with beans, greens, tomatoes, potatoes, and asparagus served in a stylish layered presentation. Very tasty and fresh. The next night we ate at a local French bistro, L’escargot Bleu, and enjoyed haddock with beans, potatoes, greens. Both were excellent meals as you’d expect in such a cosmopolitan, diverse city.
We’ll discuss haggis, a traditional Scottish dish, in a later posting.
Royal Botanic Gardens
One drizzling morning, we took a twenty-minute walk from our B & B to the Royal Botanic Gardens, a wooded park with flora from the British Isles as well as New Zealand, the U.S., and China. Walking along tree-lined pathways, we huddled under our umbrella and admired the many blooming flowers and shrubs, ponds, streams and geological displays of the Scottish highlands. A large palm house in the gardens contains tropical plants including banana, coconut, ferns, and palm trees.
A showcase garden honors the Queen Mother, the Scottish wife of King George VI. After the king died in 1952, their oldest daughter, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne. The beloved Queen Mother retired to her home at Mae Castle in northern Scotland to pursue her passions of gardening and charity work. In her memory, the Royal Botanic Gardens has established a special collection of flowers, trees, and shrubs with a gazebo in her name.
Few cities can claim a literary heritage as rich as Edinburgh’s. Who can claim not to have read a classic mystery, adventure tale, or contemporary novel by one of Edinburgh’s famous authors? A short list of these authors would include Sir Walter Scott, who wrote Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes classic mysteries, Robert Lewis Stevenson who wrote Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Ian Rankin, author of the contemporary crime series starring Inspector Rebus, J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, and Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Pick up a novel by one of Edinburgh’s authors and sample the long and rich literary heritage of Scotland.
* * * *
Next destination: Inverness – Loch Ness
In addition to writing this travel blog, I write fiction — thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. I’m currently writing a thriller series based in Milan featuring the anti-terrorism police, DIGOS, as they track down domestic and international terrorists.
My first thriller, Thirteen Days in Milan, is an ebook at all digital publishing sites as well as a paperback at Amazon and at bookstores by ordering.
The sequel, No One Sleeps, was published as an ebook in December. The paperback will be available in June at Amazon and at bookstores by ordering.
I’m writing Book 3 in the series, Cadorna Station, and will be researching this summer in Italy. If you’d like to follow my travels and research, sign up for my email newsletter at my web site.
Please share these sites with readers or writers who might be interested: