And so on Monday morning, we were up early to hit the road for our drive up north. We decided to stop along the way at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, built in the second century as a guard-space for Roman forces and territories, shielding them from attacks from more northern barbarians. It was a very cool and windy day, but I wish we had had even more time to enjoy the fort and see more of the sites along the wall. Again, on that upcoming backpacking trip (HA!) we’ll be hiking the wall to see some of the sites. Caution for those who visit, it is a long and uphill walk from the parking lot to the actual fort ruins, but it is well worth it to see the foundations of the buildings that remain and to see the views that stretch out over the valley. It’s easy to see why this area was chosen as a defensive spot, but it’s also beautiful to take in as well.
After realizing that we needed to be on our way if we still intended to visit a couple of border abbeys before finding our Edinburgh hotel, we snapped off a few more pics and made our way back to the visitor center for a quick bite to eat before we headed out. It seemed to take forever before we finally crossed the border into Scotland, marked most unceremoniously by a small “Welcome to Scotland” billboard. But not far past the border, we found our first Scottish stop- the ruins of Jedburgh Abbey.
Jedburgh Abbey was founded by Augustinian monks in the 12th century. The abbey was continuously patronized by various Scottish kings over the years, but as it was in close proximity to England, it was also often the target for attacks from the English and faced destruction many times. By the late 16th century, it had seen it’s better days and was beyond repair. Eventually, the remaining monks were left with a shell of what the abbey had once been. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the abbey and cloister complex. Again, the Brits and their audioguides did not let me down. This was also the first place we made use of the Scottish Explorer Pass which I recommend to anyone who may be spending more than a couple of days in Scotland. For a small fee, you can purchase the pass and gain free entry into a bunch of sites all around the country. It was a solid plan of savings for us. There is a corresponding English Pass, but that one wasn’t as useful for our purposes, so we didn’t purchase that one.
Back on the road, we headed to Melrose Abbey, another ruined border abbey not far from Jedburgh. Melrose was a Cistercian church and cloister that was also founded in the 12th century. Several early Scottish kings were buried at Melrose and the heart of Robert the Bruce (you guys have all watched Braveheart, right?) is also entombed in what used to be the Chapter House by the abbey. The abbey has a ton of interesting carvings on the tombstones in the graveyard by the church as well as on the church itself in sculptures and gargoyles. Of course, my most favorite depiction is one of Melrose’s most popular, a bagpipe playing pig gargoyle. And yes I did purchase a magnet with Wilber’s likeness on it to bring home. Thankfully, the lady running the shop did let me buy it since we were there until closing and they had started to close up the register a few minutes early. Craziness! Don’t people know I need to spend money on pigs?! I did think that Melrose was slightly more interesting than Jedburgh. It was a larger church and had a lot to view. You could also climb one of the remaining towers and get some great views of the immediate area. I love climbing ruins!
So, once we had been kicked out of Melrose Abbey, we continued on our merry way to Edinburgh, where we would be spending the night. Edinburgh is delightfully divided between the Old Town (the medieval part) where most of the touristy attractions are and the New Town (the Georgian era part) where most of the beds and breakfasts are. It took us a bit to find out B&B for the evening because there were no signs or markings of any kind on the street or doorway. We were hesitant in our knocking, fearing we would accidentally intrude on some poor Scottish man with nothing on but his kilt, but fortunately we found the right door and were greeted warmly by the daughter of the benefactors of 14 Hart Street. She showed us to our lovely and very spacious room on the ground level and kindly provided us with several recommendations for dinner that evening. We ended up choosing one of her selections, a small bistro just around the corner and had an excellent meal.
The following morning we were up early to have breakfast and venture out towards the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare for tourists. We started our morning (after a venturesome hike) at Edinburgh Castle, home to Scottish kings during the Middle Ages, and home to military regiments from the 17th century on. I will admit to not absolutely loving Edinburgh Castle. It was incredibly crowded and not much of the oldest parts of the castle remain. It now relies heavily on its military history which isn’t really my thing. You can, however, visit the Scottish crown jewels, so there’s that. Oh, and you can visit the room where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to King James. Also fun!
After visiting the castle gift shop where I picked a lovely set of Scottish teas (Scottish breakfast tea, Thistle tea, Heather tea, Whiskey Flavored tea…), we ventured down the Royal Mile stopping in a couple of kitsch souvenir shops and making our way towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of Her Majesty QEII when she’s in Scotland. Holyroodhouse has been home to monarchs for over 500 years and still houses them from time to time today. We opted out of the tours of the Queen’s art gallery and gardens and instead choose to visit just the palace itself along with the ruins of the abbey on site. Unfortunately they do not allow photos inside of Holyroodhouse, so you’ll simply have to take my word for it that the rooms and apartments are every bit as sumptuous as one would expect in a modern royal palace.
On our way back down the Royal Mile, we stopped in some famous whiskey shop that is known for its personalized recommendations based on customer preferences. Of course, the Husband insisted on having a special bottle picked out for him. That done we found a nice Italian restaurant for lunch where we could dine on American Champagne (ie Coke) and people watch the colorful characters out and about. After lunch, we took a tour of the Real Mary King’s Close which basically takes you underground the streets of Edinburgh to the remains of the medieval city that was later built upon. It’s a highly interesting tour which takes you through various living and business spaces where ordinary Scots lived and worked centuries before. This was probably my favorite activity for the day. After a brief respite that evening, we then ventured back out for a ghost tour of Edinburgh by night. Our guide was absolutely fantastic, theatrical and humorous. And the Husband even earned special honors of bringing up the rear of the group wherever we went to ensure that all souls made it through. (He was the tallest living being on the tour afterall.) Having spent time in the underground (haunted) vaults within the city, the Husband and I grabbed some quick take out (after a small hangry episode on the way back to the hotel) and headed back to 14 Hart to rest up before heading out for Stirling the following morning.