For four months, I studied abroad in London, England. These notes are select entries from my experiences in the United Kingdom and Western Europe from that time.
Thursday, September 3 –
Today was an extremely busy day but exciting day. I woke up around 6:30 this morning and prepared for my trip to Scotland! But first, my business class had a morning meeting at the Museum of London for our first business seminar of the semester. After wrapping up our visit, I ate lunch and finished packing my internal frame backpack.
Around 13:45, I took the Piccadilly Line from Gloucester Road tube station to Kings Cross Station. I had bought my railcard and ticket to Edinburgh earlier in the week, so now I only needed to board my train. Kings Cross was buzzing with traffic, so I couldn’t envision what it would be like during rush hour. At 15:00, I boarded the Flying Scotsman for the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.
The Flying Scotsman is the fastest in Great Britain and reaches speeds of 125 miles per hour on the journey. Operated by the Great North Eastern Railway, it is one of the historic rail routes in the country. The Flying Scotsman has connected the two capitals of London and Edinburgh since 1862. Today it is electrified overhead and extremely comfortable with great service. I got to know my neighbors sitting next to me on the train. They seemed to be wealthy potato farmers from northern England but also had an estate in Malaga, Spain.
Around 19:30, we arrived in Edinburgh Waverley Station after the roughly four-and-one-half-hour journey from London. I then caught another train to Haymarket, Edinburgh’s other train, about five miles away on the other side of town. There I found my hotel with very little trouble and within easy walking distance. When I checked in, I was glad to find a nice room with a shower and television. At a phone booth on the street, I called home to find out Mom was recovering well from her surgery.
I then grabbed some fish and chips for dinner at a small shop nearby and talked to the young owners who were about my age. I then left to view the fireworks spectacular that was going to take place on the castle mount. The fireworks took place as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, the largest festival in Europe, that was taking place until Saturday. These fireworks were perhaps the best I have ever seen and lasted almost an hour! They were accompanied by beautiful music and lasted until about 23:30. I was told around 250,000 people were in town for the festival! At the end, I walked back to my hotel to hit the sack. What an incredible first evening in Scotland.
Friday, September 4
This morning I woke up around 8:30 and ate breakfast downstairs with an American college student from Tucson. I then went back to my room, showered, packed and checked out of my room by 10:30 a.m. Afterwards I walked about a mile or so to Waverley, the main rail station. There I stowed my stuff in a locker for half the day for about £2 so I could tour the city freely.
I first visited Edinburgh Castle, perched dramatically on a volcanic mount overlooking the old town. This is definitely one of the most impressive historic sites I have ever visited. I took the guided CD audio tour included in the £6 admission and learned a lot about Scottish history. Along the tour, I saw the Scottish crown jewels, the Stone of Scone, St. Margaret’s Chapel, the residency of Mary “Queen of Scots” and the War Museum. I also learned more about Robert the Bruce, or Robert I, King of Scots from 1306 until 1328. After the death of William Wallace of “Braveheart” fame, he lead led Scotland to victory during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England. Because of his leadership, Scotland again became an independent nation for several centuries. The views from the castle of the city and North Sea were simply stunning.
After the tour, I grabbed pizza nearby for a late lunch around 14:30 p.m. Then I did a little souvenir shopping and bought a T-shirt, postcards, a St. Andrews Flag and book about Edinburgh Castle.
Then I decided to walk the famous Royal Mile street and discover why UNESCO named Edinburgh a World Heritage Site. Along the way, I toured St. Giles Cathedral, the Westminster Abbey of Scotland. The Presbyterian cathedral is the mother church of the country and has hosted a number of significant events over 900 years of Scottish history, including coronations, weddings and funerals. It’s also the resting place of a number of important Scottish figures such as John Knox, the clergyman who was a leader of the Protestant Reformation and is considered the founder of Scotland’s Presbyterian denomination. Robert Louis Stevenson – one of my favorite novelists, poets and travel writers – is also buried inside. Stevenson is one of the most important writers from Scotland and wrote “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped,” and the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
After touring St. Giles, I visited the Museum of Scotland. Like the British Museum in London, it’s free! I learned about all sorts of history and saw one of the world’s oldest steam locomotives dating from 1812. I saw ancient pottery dating back to the Greek, Egyptian and Persian empires and admired many pieces of Scottish and European arms. I was surprised to see a sword belonging to King Felipe II of Spain in the museum.
After the museum tour, I visited a nearby famous cemetery. There I saw the grave of Adam Smith, the famous economist who wrote “The Wealth of Nations.” Then I walked to the end of the Royal Mile where I saw the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. Although you cannot tour it, the view was as impressive on the outside as Buckingham Palace. It has been the principal residence of the Kings and Queens of Scotland since the 16th century.
Then I headed back to Waverley station where I retrieved my backpack from left luggage. I had Burger King at the station for dinner around 19:00 before taking the 19:40 train on the Highland Main Line for Inverness and the Scottish Highlands. This line is diesel powered, not electrified, and most of it single track. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the sunset was outside my rail car as it faded below the horizon. It was a long and hilly journey through the Highlands of Scotland. We crossed two major summits on the line: Drumochter Summit between Blair Atholl and Dalwhinnie, and Slochd Summit between Carrbridge and Inverness.
I arrived in Inverness around 22:45. I didn’t have accommodations, but I found something through the tourist office at the nearby Alban Guest Home. I took a taxi for about £3 and arrived at the cozy B&B around 23:00. My room’s bed even had a comforter with a plaid tartan design! I read for a while before hitting the sack around 1 a.m.
Saturday, September 5
As an American of Scotch heritage, I was looking forward to seeing the Highlands up close and personal today. The Highlands are the heart of Scotland’s culture and home of its treasured traditions. I woke up around 9 a.m., took a shower and packed my daypack before my visit to Loch Ness. I had to skip breakfast because I needed to hurry to pack up and then book a seat on the bus that morning.
Upon arrival at the bus station, I bought my ticket and learned that the bus for the official Loch Ness Tour would depart from the Tourist Information Centre. I made it with five minutes to spare before we pulled out around 10:15 a.m. There were about 10 of us on the microbus including tourists from Wisconsin, Canada, South Africa, Israel, Spain and England. The tour was a great value for only £9.95. It included the whole day tour, a trip to Uruqhart Castle, a Loch Ness Cruise, and commentary from a hilarious driver.
We stopped several times by the beautiful loch. I couldn’t believe how haunting the Loch appeared surrounded in an incoming mist as I peered down after climbing the ruins of Uruqhart Castle. In what was my most memorable moment event of the day, I peered across Loch Ness as I saw an older man dressed in a kilt and stood on part of the castle. He began playing bagpipes and the song “Scotland the Brave” as the mist rolled in!
We also visited nearby St. Benedict’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery. We made a later visit to the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre in Drumnadrochit which included a museum, interesting film and diorama of Nessie accounts. I didn’t see Nessie, but I had a strange suspicion she will continue to be healthy for tourism here for years to come.
We also visited a heritage site where a historian taught us about Highlands customs. I was even a model as I was fitted with a Scottish tartan kilt! We finished the day with a scenic drive through the Scottish mountains which impressed with their flowing heather dotting the rolling Highlands and cattle grazing on the hillsides. Our last stop was a spinning mill and whisky factory for a chance to buy wool goods, sweaters and whisky. Our friendly driver finished the tour around 17:30 by telling us his own Nessie sighting. It was a great tour to understand and appreciate the Highlands.
When we arrived back in the Highland capital of Inverness, I went souvenir shopping. I bought a bagpipe CD, postcards, fudge and book about the Highlands. After returning to my B&B, I headed out for a traditional Scottish supper at a restaurant called Finleys. I had the mini-grill for £4.95. The meal would not be friendly for vegetarians as it included sausage, ham, hamburger steak, lamb chops, chips and black pudding! I was surprised that the blood pudding was actually pretty good. I then went to McDonalds to have a sundae for dessert as I watched the sunset at a picnic table overlooking the River Ness, the shortest river in Europe at only six kilometers long. The city of Inverness claims to have the fastest growing population in Britain and one of Great Britain’s highest qualities of living. It is truly beautiful at night with its castle and old cathedral illuminated as they overlook the river. I then went back to the guest house for the evening where I updated my journal and packed up for Sunday. I finally hit the sack around 12:30. What a marvelous day in the Highlands and one I will never forget.
Sunday, September 6
This morning I awoke around 7 a.m., took a shower, packed and went downstairs for breakfast. I enjoyed a Scottish breakfast of orange juice, fried eggs, bacon, toast and black pudding. I later found out that the latter was pig’s blood. It resembles sausage patties but tastes good. I left for the train station around 8:15 and arrived at 8:30. My train left at 9:40 a.m. for Edinburgh. I will definitely miss the Highlands, but life and school must continue.
The train journey was extraordinary. We passed over the magnificent viaducts at Culloden and Tomatin, the spectacular mountain pass at Drumochter. I couldn’t believe how green it was in the Highlands. We arrived in Edinburgh around 14:00. Then I decided to kill about three hours touring the National Gallery of Scotland and walking the Royal Mile one last time. Of all meals for lunch, I had Mexican food at a cantina. Around 17:00 I caught the Flying Scotsman back to London and ate a burger and chips in the diner car for supper. Upon arrival at King’s Cross Station at 21:45, I took the Piccadilly Line back to Gloucester Road. I then unpacked and finished some schoolwork. I called home before going to sleep back in home sweet London around midnight.