Saturday, March 28, 2009

Day 4 (Morning) in Scotland

At the other end of the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, still the Queen's residence when she is in Edinburgh. This is a delightful Palace with a well thought out audio tour.

I've noticed in general that audio tours are much better than they used to be. Early attempts at such tours tended to just dump all the information the curators has on the place into the guide. Today's tours are better thought out: timing is as important as information content. The best tours add extra numbers for special items in a room--find a room interesting and you get extra information, find it boring and you can quickly move ahead. More and more places are getting the hang of this, and the one at Holyroodhouse is excellent.

As an aside, I'd recommend for any traveler to bring your set of earphones as you travel whether or not you commonly use an MP3 player. So many place offer only low quality headphones or in the worst case you have to hold up a player to your ear, which makes your arm tired and tends to make you want to cut the tour short.

The Palace gets its name from the Holyrood Abbey next door. The Abbey was believed to have a piece of the True Cross (the "Holyrood") in its possession. A few centuries later is was attacked by an anti-Catholic mob and left in ruins. Today is has been cleaned up, and is now a beautiful ruin, especially when the sun shines out.

After the tour, I went over to the new Scottlish Parliament Building. Architecturally, this building is a mess, a mishmash of styles and symbols that make it look like it was designed by a committee of elementary school children. I heard it looked better inside, but a tour group just beat me in, and the long line at the security station deterred me.

Instead, I headed for the highest point in the city, Carlton Hill. This is a giant park with also contains a monument to civic misplanning, the Scottish National Monument, an incomplete replica of the Parthenon that only contains 12 columns. Since it was never completed, it has become known as "Scotland's Disgrace" or (according to my tour guide from the day before) if you are from Glasgow "Edinburgh's Disgrace".

In any event, there are great view from the top--I don't have any pictures to back that up, however, since the weather went from sunny to windy and rainy in a matter of moments, so I broke early for lunch. I heartily recommend Howie's, which had really great food.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Day 3 in Scotland

Walking down the Royal Mile, I noted several tour companies operating out of Edinburgh. That night, I checked out my options on the Web and decided to use Rabbies Trail Bruners for a trip to Stirling Castle. I was not disappointed: our tour was a small van with only eight people, and our driver/guide kept us informed and entertained throughout our travels.

Stirling Castle (like Edinburgh) dates back to the early part of the seoncd millenium, and has seen many wars and expansions. Wallace captured it early in the Scottish wars of Independence, and Robert the Bruce won his final victory over the English within sight of the castle.

It's not hard to see why the castle has been so important to the Scots--it lies at the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland, giving it wonderful views over much of the countryside. No wonder by the time of King James VI (James I of England) this was the royal castle. I couldn't enter the royal apartments because they are undergoing a multimillion dollar restoration at the moment. As part of that resotration, seven tapestries are being woven by a team that is working for several years. Four of these are currently on display in the Chapel, and this may have been the first time I have seen medieval style tapestries in their original brilliant colors.

After leaving the castle, the tour headed into the Trossachs National Park area. Lunch was at the idyllic town of Aberfoyle, and I can certainly recommend the food at The Carriage House.

After lunch, we headed for shores of Loch Lomand, one of the more photogenic regions in a country known for its landscapes. A short hike brought us to the top of a hill with views of the Loch as it wound around the hills.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Day 2 in Scotland

Edinburgh is a gorgeous city, divided between the Old City along the Royal Mile leading up to Edinburgh Castle, and the New Town built much later.

Today I began with the hike up to the Castle. Built at the top of a volcanic structure called Castle Rock, the Royal Mile leads from the bottom (near my hotel) an old Scottish mile (about 1 1/8 modern miles) to the top.

At the top is a Castle that has seen it all: warfare, seige, betrayal, and in between those times, an ever increasing series of fortifications as whatever potentate in control sought to improve the defenses.

Since it is at the top of Castle, Rock, the views from the Castle are outstanding. An audio tour runs for a few hours or can be completed much quicker, depending on your inclination. Naturally, I was there a long, long time.

There's lots to see and do here. Starting with St. Margaret's Chapel, the only original part of the castle (dating from the 1200's) to remain, there is the Scottish national War Memorial, two museums devoted to specific regiments of Scottish soldiers, the Scottish National War Museum, and the Royal apartments, part of which now houses the Royal Insignia of Scotland. That alone is worth the price of admission: the rest makes for a heady immersion into Scottish history.

After finishing the Castle, I started down the Royal Mile. Notable along this route is the High Kirk of St. Giles, also known as St. Giles Cathedral. The tower has the same shape as the crown, with interlacing arches. Inside, many of the side chapel and decorations are open to entry.

Next I headed back to the top of the Royal Miles, and the Camera Obscura. This is a five story building with what amounts to a periscope attached to the top. Every twenty minutes or so, a group is ushered into a darkened room, and the image from a postcard sized mirror is projected down onto a simple white table, resulting in about a 50 times magnified image. The controler below can spin the camera and move it slightly up and down, giving a 360 degree tour of the sights of the city without having to leave the room. There are other camera obscuras out there, but this is the first that I have visited, and I would highly recommend it.

Of course you can always then head outside to see the city for yourself. In addition, the other four floors are devoted to all manner of optical illusions, holograms, and giant kaleidoscopes.

Next, I headed over to the smallish Museum of the Mound. This is a museum run by the Bank of Scotland, and not only gives a history of the banking industry in Scotland, but also has many of the early bank note printing methods on display. It only took me about 30 minutes to run through, but very informative.

The nice thing about staying at the bottom of the Mile is that getting back to your hotel at the end of the day is a much more restful experience!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Day 1 in Scotland

My first day in Scotland, I decided to learn everything I could about the Jacobites, their goals, their wars, and the consequences of their defeat.

This was not a conscious decision, but one born of lucky circumstance in the places that I decided to visit my first day here. Just a few miles out of Inverness is Fort George, built starting in 1744 as a response to the Jacobite uprising of a few years earlier.

This fort reminded me a lot of Fort McHenry, and the reasons why are unsurprising. Both were built in the mid 18th century and faced the same artillery. The result is similar: stone fronting thick walls of earth to absorb cannonballs. Both are also situated on the coast, although only Fort George has a view that sometimes includes dolphins. They were a no show on this winter day, unfortunately.

They have an excellent guided audio tour at the Fort, and (unlike Fort McHenry) this is still a working military installation. This makes for a fun visit. The chapel and the seaward views are great, and places such as the inner moat shown below are in great condition.

Next stop for me was the Battlefield of Culloden. This battle was the reason Fort George was built: after crushing the Jacobite uprising here the Hanoverians decided that a fort was necessary to keep the highlands in line. The Jacobites under Bonnie Prince Charlie were decisively defeated here, putting an end to the hopes of restoring the Stewart line of kings to English rule.

Their is a wonderful new visitor center here chock full of artifacts which tells the story from both the Jacobite and Hanoverian side. This is not Gettysburg where hundreds of thousands of men clashed over three days of feints and maneuvers: instead the lines where formed, the Jacobites charged, and five minutes later it was over.

After the Battlefield I drove down past one of Scotlands more famous bodies of water: Loch Ness. Nessie was a no show, but I did get to see Urquhart Castle, blown up in 1692 so that (wait for it) the Jacobites could not use it as a base of operations. After over 300 years lovely ruins remain, and a modern visitor center puts it all in perspective.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spring Break!

Ah the joys of flying when the seat next to you is empty. Is there anything better? Well, I did almost have a whole row of 3 to myself, but I can't begrudge the guy who grabbed the other aisle seat in my row when he had the chance. Still, watching the women in front of me stretch out in luxury over all 3 seats was hard.

I used to drop out of consciousness like a petrified bird out of the air when the plane took off, but those days are gone. Still, I feel I accomplished a lot during this time. I caught up on "The Amazing Race", and read another set of pages from my student's Dissertation, and contemplation the existential mysteries of the universe. Alone time in a darkened plane will do that to you.

Anyway, to wrap this story up, we landed! And how! I think Heathrow is a very nice airport once the trek from the gate to Passport Control was completed, with a very inviting atmosphere. Of course, I knew I was leaving, and had soon caught my domestic flight to Edinburgh.

From Edinburgh I rented a car, and tried to reacquire the "driving on the left hand side of the road" skill I had worked so hard to master in Australia. In fact, it was easy--it was the snowstorm that caught me a bit off guard.

When they say "the Highlands of Scotland" they mean it, and blinding snow (for a few miles at least) is par for the course in getting from lush green valley to lush green valley. I stopped in the quant town of Dunkeld for a bit, but for the most part pushed through driving to my first stop at Inverness. My hotel was right along the bank of the River Ness, which made for a picturesque view at night.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Jumping the pond

Whew! Job interviews are over. Now the hard part begins--choosing among some incredible institutions. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunities that I have had this semester on the job market given the current economic situation.

Still, after seven journeys in six weeks, I'm glad to be done flying. Too bad all the domestic travel was just a warm-up for the international jaunt that I'd planned for a good long while. There is a conference on Monte Carlo Markov chain methods at the University of Warwick, and like most of the conferences organized there, this one looks to be top notch.

I am really looking forward to this, and to top it all off, the RDU to Heathrow route is now officially at fire sale prices. I don't know how long that will last, but for now taking a ten minute car ride (thanks Bianca!) to RDU and then jumping onto a seven and half hour flight to another continent seems the height of accessibility. The plane was half empty, which makes economy seem like first class. I've got a few days to play tourist in Scotland before heading to Warwick, and so I'm going to do my best to see as many ruined Highland castles as I can get a camera lens on.

I'll be keeping an eye out for Nessie, too. It's good to have high hopes!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

My new skill

Like so many Homo Sapiens living in the time of electronic devices, I have developed a new skill: the ability to shut off my alarm clock in my sleep.

Normally this ability does not get me into so much trouble, but today was an airplane flying day. I had set the alarm for 4:30 AM, and so my surprise when I awoke at 6:23 AM (thinking my flight was at 7:05) was substantial. Panic would not be too strong a word.

Fortunately I long ago implemented a policy of getting everything ready the night before, not only packing my bags but also laying out clothes for the morning and putting things like my ID in pockets. If there's one thing I know about myself, it is that I cannot be trusted to remember anything at 5:00 in the morning.

So I threw on my preselected duds and ran for the door, drove like a maniac to the airport and splurged on the parking garage next to the terminals. Then, of course, I went to the wrong terminal. Sigh.

Luckily, the TSA agent noticed that I was flying Delta and sent me on my way running to the other terminal (there is a shuttle as well to take people from one terminal to the other, but I had NO TIME, NO TIME, NO TIME!)

Of course, after all that the plane was actually leaving at 7:25, not 7:05 as I thought. Moreover, it was late getting boarded, and so I had more than enough time to calm my racing heart and stop in for a quick wash up so as not to frighten my fellow passengers on the plane.

The flight itself went smooth as silk--while both planes were full, most people nowadays are obeying the put your smaller carryon below the seat in front of you rule, thereby leaving enough space for everyone's primary bag. Why, after my exciting trip to get to the airport, the plane ride itself was positively tranquil.