Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Visit to Old Smelly and the Surrounds

Smokestacks galore gave "Old Smelly" a bad name

Yea, that’s Edinburgh’s nickname – “Auld Reikie” which means Old Smelly.  Haaa, we laughed when our driver informed us that people call the second largest city in Scotland “old smelly” because of the many chimneys that once spewed coal smoke from the businesses and residences of the city.   

Our Northlink Ferry from the Orkneys

As we arrived in Aberdeen from our overnight ferry from Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, our private driver Hamish was there to pick up the four of us at the ferry station and start the 150-mile tour south toward Edinburgh. It would ordinarily take about four hours driving time, but we planned to make a few stops along the way.

Beautiful but undesirable gorse
As we sped along, Hamish pointed out the lovely yellow-flowered scrub brush called “gorse” that adorned the roadsides and the Scottish countryside.  Altho beautiful this time of year, it is a thick & thorny bush with no timber value.  It might make a good fence line if you had a bad neighbor.  The Scottish government has been trying to rid Scotland of it for years. 

Dramatically located Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle

Our 1st tour stop was Stirling Castle, one of Scotland’s greatest castles, which is located between the cities of Dundee and Edinburgh. The battle of Stirling Bridge near the castle was made famous on 11 September of 1297, when William Wallace (aka Braveheart) defeated Longshank’s English army. William Wallace is quite the prominent figure here in Scotland, and the Scot history is replete with the escapades of this popular folk hero.

Courtyard at Stirling Castle
Inside, the 900-year-old Stirling Castle was designed for the Scottish kings to impress their guests with a cobblestoned courtyard, Royal Apartments, and Royal Chapel.

Frank, always the engineer, marvels at the Falkirk Wheel

The Falkirk Wheel

The Falkirk Wheel is one of those marvelous engineering inventions that Frank has wanted to see firsthand ever since Anne discovered it in her trip research. 

The Falkirk Wheel prepares to move boats from the lower
level to the upper
It is an ingenious lock system that moves small riverboats 30 feet up or down to different river levels in just minutes and expends a minimal amount of energy in doing it. It involves a rotating wheel-like structure large enough to simultaneously lift two balanced trays of water each carrying river boats -- one tray of boats to the higher level and the other to the lower level. We observed the operation and also had the opportunity to ride a boat thru the lock to experience the wheel and lock for ourselves!

The mythical Kelpies seem to rise up out of the ground
The Kelpies

We stopped to see the sculptures of the mythical horses known as The Kelpies who used to rise up from the lochs and snatch human beings. The powerful structures also represent the role that horses played in shaping the industries of the Falkirk area. The two horsey sculptures are made of stainless steel plates and each stand about 100 feet tall. Their artistry draws quite a crowd. The sculptures project upward high enough above trees and other obstacles such that they can also be clearly seen from all the main roads around the area as you drive by their resting spot in Helix Park.

Hiking the Royal Mile
Edinburgh and the Royal Mile

Of course, we wanted to walk the Royal Mile, the most famous street in Old Town Edinburgh.  As the name implies, it is approximately one mile long and runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. 

New friends Jo and Loreen
As we walked toward Holyrood, we encountered street entertainment and several friendly folks along the way. We met new friends Josephine (from Scotland) and her friend Loreen (from Canada) near the Robbie Ferguson statue. They expressed interest in our blog and travels, so we exchanged email addresses with them, and now they have joined all of you as regular followers of our travels. Welcome Jo and Loreen! We enjoyed your company, and sorry we didn’t get a group shot of the 4 of us!  Hope you enjoy our travels as much as we enjoy writing about them.

Anne finally makes it to Holyrood!
We then continued on down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace. We had visited Edinburgh 24 years ago (1993) but missed out on the Holyrood experience because the site closed down just as we got there. (As Anne tells it, they closed the door in her face! And as Frank likes to say, Anne was so upset, she was rolling in the gravel of the palace courtyard, throwing a tantrum that would put a 2-year old to shame!) In any case, Anne was determined to see the palace this time, no matter what. So off we trudged down the Royal Mile where we were mentally equipped to tackle a few guards, scale the walls, or break down a few doors to get into the palace if need be. 

The courtyard of Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace is an official residence of the current Queen, and she occupies it two weeks each summer out of the year. Anne was enthralled, but Frank was less than thrilled. Anne enjoyed the royal surroundings and particularly the history surrounding the tragic Mary Queen of Scots. But to Frank, it was just a big ol’ house for the affluent with lots of unwarranted amenities that will forever be out of reach for ordinary people. At least it garners some income from tourists. The maintenance and the heating bill seemed like they’d be outrageously expensive – especially for a place that is only used two weeks out of the year!

Blue Bells of Scotland!
However, we both agreed that the outside flower gardens were impressive. We finally got to see Scotland’s national flower – the “Blue Bells of Scotland.” And they were in bloom! Many little blue bells on a dainty stem that stood about 6 to 8 inches high arching over at the top and hanging downward.  A perfect mascot plant for Scotland.

As you know, we always like to take “foodie tours” in new places. It gives us some perspective in selecting restaurants and what new foods to seek-out while enjoying the delights of a new culture. We took a foodie tour in Edinburgh, but we’ll tell you all about it in the final blog update when we cover the foods of Scotland in more detail.

During our week in Edinburgh, we also got to take some popular day trips outside of the city.

In the rugged Highlands of Scotland
The Highlands

The Highlands of Scotland are renowned for their ruggedness and scenic beauty.  Of course, no trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to this area.  Anyone who has watched the movie “Braveheart” has seen the alluring video of Mel Gibson recuperating from his battle wounds by running along the trails high in the Highlands. We were thrilled to observe the beauty of the region firsthand. 

More of the scenic Highlands

Our tour guide Aaron took us to “Ben Nevis,” the tallest mountain in Scotland (and tallest in the UK at 4411 feet high), and a nearby ski resort (yes, they actually have some skiing here in Scotland!).

Frank just before his Nessie sighting!

We also visited several of the deep blue lakes in the Highlands including Loch Ness and Loch Lubnaig.  BTW, Frank swears he saw the infamous monster swimming about in the rough waters of Loch Ness, but the rest of the group were incredulous and were inclined to disbelieve his tale.

Atmospheric ruins of Melrose Abbey
Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel

On another day tour to The Borders area south of Edinburgh, we got to explore Melrose Abbey and the famous Rosslyn Chapel, both situated down near the border between Scotland and England.  

Melrose Abbey is in ruins thanks to Henry VIII who destroyed everything Catholic back in the 1500’s.  Founded by monks in 1136, the Gothic-style Melrose Abbey was the 1st Cistercian Abbey in Scotland. The abbey is known for its many carved decorative details, including likenesses of saints, dragons, gargoyles, and plants. 

Rosslyn Chapel of "The DaVinci Code" fame
Rosslyn Chapel was built in 1446 and is alleged to have been a focal point for use by the Knights Templar, Free Masons, and even a resting spot for the Holy Grail. The chapel is literally covered with sculpted symbols that no one has been able to interpret.

Suspicious-looking character down in the basement crypt
Not long ago Rosslyn was a decaying, forgotten old chapel whose legends had been obliterated.  But then, as our tour guide put it, “The miracle happened.” The miracle, of course, was the book and especially the 2006 movie “The DaVinci Code” which starred Tom Hanks. Wow, what a stroke of luck for the salvation and resurrection of this chapel.  It was back on the map!!

More pics:

Bagpiping in the Highlands

Ugly gargoyle at Rosslyn Chapel
Ted and Amy at the Falkirk Wheel

Falkirk Wheel in operation.
 Note boats on both sides of the wheel.

Stunning architecture on Princes Street
 in New Town Edinburgh

Darker stone on The Royal Mile in Old Town Edinburgh

Anne "bags" herself a bagpiper!

Along The Royal Mile

Misty beauty of Loch Lubnaig

Clandestine photo taken inside Rosslyn Chapel

The four of us wish you well from the Highlands!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Orkney Islands – Journey into the Past

The four intrepid Orkney travelers!
The Orkney Islands definitely exceeded our expectations. The weather was gorgeous, mostly sunny with incredible blue skies (quite unusual as everyone kept telling us!). It was extremely windy, but we kind of got used to it. And the Orcadians, as they call themselves, described the wind we had as “mild!” The people could not have been friendlier – very warm and so accommodating. Life on Orkney Island felt gentle and kind. Made us think that these simple people have not lost sight of what is really important (as so many of us have).

Our "Orkney blue" car
This little island is jampacked with things to see and do. With our “Orkney blue” colored Suzuki, we did our best to see as much as we could in the week that we were there. The extreme prehistory here is simply unparalleled in any other area of the planet. And everything is so accessible, and unprotected, it is almost frightening.

The 5,000-year-old Ring of Brodgar
On a side note: There is little love lost between Scotland and England. The English tend to think they are better and have always believed that life in Great Britain began in southern England (near Stonehenge) and then moved north. However, the prehistoric discoveries in Orkney prove that it was exactly the opposite -- life began in the north, in Scotland, and moved south. And the Scottish could not be happier about this new revelation!

Skara Brae by the sea
Skara Brae

This was one of our favorites. Skara Brae is a prehistoric village that was uncovered by a severe storm back in 1850. While most prehistoric remains tend to be monumental structures, Skara Brae shows us how regular people of 5000 years ago lived. (And their homes actually feel homey!) Plus Skara Brae has been carbon dated and found to be older than either Stonehenge or the Pyramids!

"The Skara Brae hand grenade"
The excellent Visitor’s Center started us off with a short film and a walk through their small museum. Fabulous artifacts including mysterious carved objects with no known purpose. Strange lumpy symmetrically-cut blobs. Frank thought one looked like a hand grenade or a throwing weapon of some sort. Another theory, they may have been used to denote power: in a meeting the person holding the object may have had the “floor” and the right to speak. [Note to Nancy: Like passing the shell?]

Skara Brae restoration of House 7
Outside, we entered an impressive restoration of a prehistoric village house. House 7, as they call it,  had two beds, niches with shelves in the wall for storage, a central fire pit, a remarkable stone table with shelving that looked like a hutch in a modern kitchen, and even an aquarium of sorts for live fish to swim – probably fish for a family’s dinner or bait for a fishing trip.

The beach in front of Skara Brae
We walked down to the water’s edge to see the ancient site and found a beautiful beach with white sand and blue water that the denizens of the past must have enjoyed. Remove the wind and the cold, and you might think you were in the Caribbean!

Actual interior of a Skara Brae home
The actual physical site was stunning, right there on the edge where the land meets the water. We roamed thru the stonework structure of Skara Brae with our imaginations on our sleeves.  So much fun to envision this stone-aged village which was created here over 5,000 years ago, with the simple people who lived in it going about every day business, working, fishing, solving survival issues, while maybe even playing some sports or games. Skara Brae really allowed us a modern-day touch into the past!

Unexplained angled corner cut
 at Stones of Stennes
The Standing Stones of Stennes

The Standing Stones of Stennes are the largest stones on the island and date back to at least 3100 B.C. The availability of the artifacts here make us think the people of Orkney are so trusting. Incredibly, we could walk right up and touch these 5,000-year-old stones with virtual impunity!

These flat stone monoliths are heavy and tower above the height of any human.  They form a ceremonious religious circle, it is believed, like the famous one at Stonehenge. Many of the slabs have a curious slanted cut on one side corner at the top of the stone, adding to the mystery of the creation. The winds were fierce here, but we enjoyed roaming the site in spite of it, grabbing respite from time-to-time behind some of the slabs from the powerful gale-force gusts that pounded us unrelentingly.

Maeshowe mound with crawl-through entrance

Maeshowe appears to be a nondescript grass-covered mound in the middle of a field, but it is an ancient cairn (underground tomb) used 5000 years ago. The entrance was so low, we had to crouch down and “crab-walk” along a narrow passageway lined with massive stone slabs.

No bones were found here, so no one knows if it was a tomb, a time-piece, or perhaps even a temple. There are several theories on each alternative.  The low entrance may have been designed to force everyone entering it into a low-lying position showing respect – thus making it a temple. The entrance is also perfectly aligned for the day of the winter solstice that when a ray of sunlight enters the tomb from the entrance way on that day, it illuminates a low-lying stone at the front of the enclosure – thus making it a timepiece.

At one point in its history, Vikings discovered the cairn and lived in it. Probably for shelter from the unceasing winds. They left behind some "runes" (early system of writing) carved in the stone in the interior. One ancient rune writer in the stone made everyone laugh. Instead of leaving some words of wisdom for the future, he wrote, “I am the best rune carver that ever lived.” Nothing like a Viking braggart!

The Head of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar is the biggest stone circle in Scotland and considered one of the finest stone circles in the world. The original circle was made up of sixty stones; twenty-seven of the original stones are still standing. Each stone is different. As our friend Amy said, it was almost like walking through an art gallery!

One of the stones looked like a face, and we found out later that it is called “The Head of Brodgar”. No one knows the purpose of the circle, but Anne is convinced that the ring was designed like a helipad to provide a landing spot for aliens!  Frank thinks it was a pre-historic “fort,” the stone slabs of which were used by the occupiers of the circle to hide behind when the spears and arrows came a-flying from invading tribes nearby.

Broch of Gurness
Broch of Gurness

Another favorite, the Broch of Gurness, is a stronghold situated on the northern coast of Orkney.  When we drove to this remote location and pulled into the parking lot, we couldn’t see a thing; it was well hidden from immediate sight. Making us wonder what the fuss was all about, but we soon found out.

Frank at the entrance to the broch
No one knows why the prehistoric people felt the need to build a broch (stronghold or fortress) since there were no indications of invaders.  But nevertheless, there are 140 brochs on Orkney, the Broch of Gurness included. It’s a mystery why a farming community that should have been concentrating on growing crops put so much time and energy into crafting these brochs. Maybe these brochs were a symbol of power or prestige.  Or maybe the adage of Teddy Roosevelt applies here – ‘walk softly, but carry a big stick’; the fort was created “just in case needed.”

Remains of homes outside the Broch of Gurness
The broch itself was remarkable with a stately entrance that still impresses. And all kinds of strange stone formations inside – odd shaped scooped-out stones for holding liquids or grinding grains, and other stones jutting out of the sides, probably for hanging crocks of grain or liquid. Outside the broch were the remains of surrounding homes. The whole archaeological site was totally unprotected from tourists simple walking anywhere they chose. We could walk anywhere, climb on the stones and walls, go inside the little side homes, etc. And we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It was a Disneyland for prehistoric spelunkers like us!

The Churchill Barrier with sunken ships to
blockade the harbor
Churchill Barriers and Tomb of the Eagles

We drove south of the town of Kirkwall where we were staying to the southernmost part of the island for more prehistory events and more recent WWII history as well. This peninsula is one of the prettiest part of Orkney with spectacular views of the water on both sides. Lots of wildlife too. Frank saw a hare (described it as a rabbit the size of a small kangaroo), and we all saw a curly-haired pig. Seriously, this pig had wavy hair – like the Shirley Temple of the pig world! (Wish we had a picture. We even went back another day “pig-hunting,” but the pig was nowhere to be seen.)

More ship blocks in the Scapa Flow
This area was also very important during WWII when Churchill built causeways from one island to another to prevent the Nazi submarines from entering the waters of the nearby Scapa Flow where the bulk of the British Navy was located. As we drove across the causeways, known as the Churchill Barriers, we could see all kinds of shipwrecks still visible in the water.

Anne entering the tomb on a trolley
Our goal was to visit the Tomb of the Eagles, a family-owned stone-age site at the very bottom of the peninsula. Our visit here was quite lengthy, as family members spent time with us, sharing lots of personal information about this discovery with us. The farmer who discovered the tomb tried for years to get archaeologists to excavate what he had discovered, but to no avail. They would not respond, so he finally gave up.  He began to study archaeology on his own, and eventually did the excavating himself! And he uncovered the remains of 340 skeletons along with various tools and artifacts. His daughter passed around some of the artifacts found at the site to the individuals in our group.  Yea, we were fingering prehistoric objects dated at 5,000-year-old!

Scenic cliff walk near Tomb of the Eagles
The 2-mile easy hike to and from the site offered lots of fine, steep, cliffside views of the crashing waves. The tomb itself was a bit of a disappointment; however, entering the tomb was quite different from any other we experienced. The tomb’s discoverer devised a flat “trolley” with wheels that you lay upon and pulled yourself thru the front portal with a rope secured to the inside.  The entrance way is somewhat tight and can be claustrophobic to some.  But, if the trolley does not fit your entry style, you can always push the trolley aside and just crawl in!   

Rousay humor!
Ferry to Rousay

We stayed on the largest Orkney island, but took a ferry to another island known as Rousay (rhymes with "lousy", but the island was definitely NOT lousy!) for a day tour. Our guide, Patrick, drove us all around the small island (population: 200), and once again, we took part in the search for antiquity.  Rousay is known as “The Egypt of the North” because of the very old archaeological digs everywhere.
Strenuous hike to Midhowe on the beach below (and back!)

We continued to have the most incredible weather – all the locals marveled at our luckiness with the good weather. As we made our way around Rousay, we had clear views of several other Orkney islands. There are about 64 islands total although some of them are uninhabited. Patrick also organized a picnic lunch in the very north of the island, right near the beach there.  Very windy location!

Bench inside Midhowe where bodies were laid to rest
The archaeological highlight of Rousay is a site called Midhowe. Accessing the site required a lengthy walk down a steep path to the edge of the sea, and an excruciating hike back up. This location was popular throughout the ages and included an iron age fort plus some medieval ruins. The unusual cairn (tomb) consisted of one long passageway lined with benches where the dead bodies were laid.

Taversoe Tuick, the 2-story tomb on Rousay

We visited several other tombs as well. You could say Rousay is just lousy with tombs! One of the best was a 2-story tomb combo called Taversoe Tuick which was a burial site for farming community folks of 4500 years ago. We climbed down a ladder to the smaller, lower-lying tomb which made us feel like we were doing a movie bit for Indiana Jones.

Majestic St. Magnus


We spent a day seeing the sights of Kirkwall, the largest city in the Orkneys. Once again, we got much more than we expected. St. Magnus in the center of town is a magnificent cathedral, one of only a few that were not destroyed by Henry VIII in his quest to eradicate Catholicism.

Atmospheric ruins of the Earl's Palace

And right across the street were the ruins of the Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces. What a historical complex! The Earl’s Palace was the best in our opinion because it was the best intact structure. It was in ruin however, but once again, we got to wander unsupervised all over it.

Incredible scenery at Yesnaby Cliffs

Stromness and the Yesnaby Cliffs

On our last day, we drove along another a panoramic route to Stromness, the second largest town (which means it is a large village). Stromness is a harbor town that facilitates ferry connections to other islands, but the most memorable thing for us was the drive through the town. The two-way roads thru town were narrow for even one car in places, and required some “fancy schmancy dancy” driving to get us thru!! Driving in old towns like this has to be a cooperative effort. Lots of backing up to let other vehicles squeeze by, or go first. All of this while driving a stick shift on the left. Kudos to Mr. McFrankie, our driver supremo!

We also strolled along Yesnaby Cliffs on the western coast of Orkney. Spectacular cliffside views and some very interesting fossils. Everything here feels so untouched; if we were staying here long enough, perhaps we could discover some old things too!

That brings us to the end of our Orkney adventure. We hated to leave, but now we are on to Edinburgh!

More pics:

Even the telephone booths on Orkney are

Many young lambs prance around the field this time of year.

Frank hides from the wind behind a stone slab at
the Stones of Stennes

Interesting timepiece at the Stones of Stennes

Sampling the beers of Orkney

Amy climbs to the top of the
Broch of Gurness

"Indiana Jane" explores an ancient tomb on Orkney

Frank in the corner turret of the
Earl's Palace in Kirkwall

Amy and Anne at the Churchill Barriers

A favorite beer on Orkney (love the name!)

Slainte mhath! (to your health)