I didn’t truly register that I was in Scotland until I saw the castle.
“That’s….that’s a goddamn castle in our front yard!”
Castle Rock (aptly named), which would be our hostel for the next few days, is right at the base of Edinburgh Castle. It was raining as we arrived at the front door. Thick clouds blotted out the sky.
“Once again, I’m wearing gloves in July,” I told the others. “I’m never leaving.”
Mike and I were placed in a four-person room on one of the upper floors. Our view was spectacular. Cold mountain air drifted into the space, filling me with a great sense of calm.
“Yep, I’m never leaving.”
The country, that is, not the hostel. Because we did leave the hostel almost immediately after arriving there — to explore the town!
We were all on a hunt for souvenirs. I got a tweed vest, Lauren a kilt, and Mike decided to wait for his complimentary glass from the Scotch Whisky Experience (more on that later).
Our shopping eventually led us to a marketplace inside a church, just a little ways down the Royal Mile. The moment I walked in, my gaze shot to the first stall, just off to our left.
That was probably because it was chock-full of swords and other associated weaponry. Thanks to my time at The Specialists, I’m pretty geeky about swords now.
Ok, very geeky about swords. Swords are wickedly cool, okay?
We ended up visiting that stall several times during our stay in Edinburgh because I had taken a liking to Calum, the stall’s top salesman. He’s a friendly, burly Scotsman who works as a storyteller, primarily — what’s not to like?
And Mike did his part, as a friend, to help make me look good.
Calum: Didja make these [swords at The Specialists]?
Me: I wish! No, but I did work with the prop versions–
Mike: She sat on a sword once!
Me: …That was one time.
Calum had suggestions for us, and shared them openly. One such suggestion was to try a whisky from Islay when we went on the Scotch Whisky Experience.
Ah, the Scotch Whisky Experience. The first thing they have you do is sit in a giant barrel that’s connected to an automated track. The barrel ride then takes you through the production of scotch whisky; think of the “It’s A Small World” ride at Walt Disney World, only more fun, and built for alcohol-loving adults.
And then, after casually strolling through the world’s largest collection of scotch whisky, we came to the tastings. Mike had suggested we do the Gold Tour, which turned out to be a great suggestion, because it meant that we got to taste four regional malts, plus one mixed blend.
When the drams of whisky arrived, Mike and I wore matching expressions of delight; like kids at Christmas. It was a wonderful, boozy Christmas.
My favorite type of whisky ended up being the one from Islay, to no one’s surprise. This article describes its flavor the best: “[…] a campfire by the sea: smoky, earthy, a little salty, slightly medicinal.” And boy oh boy, is it delicious.
Later on, we followed Calum’s other suggestion by going to Captain’s Bar for a drink. Lo and behold, Calum was there waiting for us.
Lauren and I went straight to the bar, where I ordered a whisky (a smoky one — I am nothing if not predictable when it comes to drinks), and Lauren opted for a Guinness with gin. The bartender blinked at her.
“A Guinness with what.”
After watching the confused exchange between the two women for several minutes, I finally leaned forward.
“It dilutes the flavor a bit,” I said. “She learned it from a bartender in Ireland.” (Which is indeed where we learned it from — at O’Sheas, specifically.)
The bartender rolled her eyes and said, “Of course.” With a helpless shrug and a smile, she informed Lauren that she’d have to sell her the two alcohols separately.
That was fine.
When we got back to Mike and Calum, the two lads were comfortably talking in the corner, near the front window. Calum’s eyes narrowed at Lauren’s Guinness.
“What the fuck did you do to your drink?”
I couldn’t resist: “She put gin in it.”
When Lauren tried to argue the point, Calum responded with, “I let my Guinness be, because I respect it.”
Calum then proceeded to joyfully take the piss out of the rest of us, too. Our overall conversation with him flowed between informative and hilarious, and you never knew where the next sentence would end up taking you. One minute he’d be telling me very helpful things about work visas, and in the next moment, he was accusing me of fucking a castle.
And that being said, I now need to explain that last sentence, don’t I?
All right. To go forward, we must go back to the day before we met Calum at the bar. That day was Loch Ness day — we had signed up for a tour, so that morning, we got on yet another bus with yet another tour guide.
Richard, our tour guide, turned out to be extremely nice and knowledgeable. He took us up through the Highlands, making stops in various gorgeous locations. We passed by Stirling Castle. I bought strawberries and scones in Pitlochry. We stood where they filmed Hagrid’s Hut for the third Harry Potter movie. We visited the Commando Memorial. I put my bare feet into the waters of Loch Ness (most beautiful lake I’ve seen to date), and then I took it a step further by walking straight into Loch Laggan and standing there, letting the cold water lap about my ankles.
It was near the end of the tour when Richard said that, because we had all been so good and punctual at each stop, he could take us on a detour to see a castle. We all said yes. And it turned out that the castle was Doune Castle: the filming location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones, and Outlander.
So, naturally, I made a beeline for it the moment I was allowed off the bus. I was giddy with glee, overcome by the fact that I was standing right where the elderberries scene had happened. Lauren followed me, filming my absurd, excited gestures as I walked around the outside of the structure. (And, at one point, she stopped to reassure a fellow tourist, who was wondering if I had truly lost my senses.)
Then I walked right up to the castle and gave it a great big hug.
“I just saw Doune Castle,” I said to Lauren as we headed back to the bus. “Nothing negative can touch me today.”
When we were all on the bus, Richard paused, and turned to face us. He took a breath, and then said:
“For over twenty years I have been a soldier, a prison guard, and now a tour guide, and I thought I had seen it all. But I have never seen someone hug a castle before.”
Everyone on the bus, including me, burst out laughing. I leaned over and rested my face in my hands.
So that’s the story of how I ended up hugging a castle. (Just hugging. Good god.)
Anyhow, have I mentioned how gorgeous Scotland is? It’s a different shade of green than Ireland (much darker than Ireland’s emerald grass), yet still very, very green. Climbing up Arthur’s Seat was one of the many moments where I had to step back and properly appreciate what I was seeing with my own two eyes.
Our hostel hosts (and Google) warned us not to approach the hill from the west side, as that was the side that required the most effort. So, naturally, due to a navigational error, we ended up climbing the hill on the west side.
But it turned out to be well worth the hike.
And once we had safely made our way back to the Royal Mile, we ran into the Queen of England, because our lives are like that, apparently. She had been going to church in Edinburgh that morning, and so we had happened to be in precisely the right place at the right time.
I did not take a picture, because I was caught up in the utter absurdity and awe of the moment. (Mike and Lauren both managed to snap one, though.)
It just figures; we spent days on her home turf (I actually passed Buckingham Palace three times), and we ended up seeing her in Scotland instead.
Life is strange.
I loved Dublin and London, but as it turns out, Edinburgh’s the city that I already miss the most. I can’t quite put my finger on why that is. Maybe it’s the friendly, interesting people; the colder weather; the culture.
Or maybe I’m just missing this view:
Or maybe, and perhaps more likely, I’m missing all of those things.
One thing’s for sure: it won’t be long before I visit again.
Thank you, Scotland.
And thank you, for reading,