While I was waiting at the luggage belt at Edinburgh airport, I chatted to a New Zealander who had been on my flight. He didn’t understand why I spent my summer holiday in Scotland instead of somewhere warmer and sunnier. Considering that it was pouring rain outside while we had this conversation, he kind of had a point. So, why Scotland? One answer is that I was bound to be in London a week later, and if I’m coming to the UK anyway I can take the chance to visit some parts of it I hadn’t been to before. Another reason is the simple fact that all of my friends who have been to Scotland lately are raving about its beauty. How could that not make me want to go there?
The rain that had greeted me on the way from the airport luckily lessened somewhat by the time I was done checking into the hotel. I spend the evening walking down the Royal Mile through the heart of the city. Edinburgh is surprisingly small, which makes it easy to navigate on foot. I loved the Old Town with its historical buildings and narrow streets. There is a truly medieval feel to it. The atmosphere gets completed by Edinburgh Castle which sits on top of a hill overlooking the town.
I strongly recommend visiting the castle. You have to pay to get in, but it’s worth it. It’s not only one single building, but more like a little town on top of the hill. Among other things it includes former royal residences, prisons, and a church which is the oldest building in Edinburgh. The Scottish Crown Jewels are exhibited, plus you get great views of the city. Plan enough time for your visit, because there are plenty of things to keep you busy. Free guided tours, demonstrations of medieval weapons and fighting, or whisky tastings, just to name a few. I was at the castle for a good three hours before I had to catch a train to London, and it was just about enough time to see everything. I could easily have stayed much longer.
As I’m a fan of walking tours, I did several in Edinburgh. One was a free, tip-based tour through the Old Town, and the other a paid one through New Town. Both of them were organised by Sandeman’s New Europe. I like these tours because you get a lot of information you might miss out on if you’re exploring on your own, and the guides are usually fun and full of useful insider tips.
The most unusual tour I did in Edinburgh was the ghost tour. There are loads of those offered, because Edinburgh is the ghost capital of the world with the most sightings of supernatural incidents. The one I chose was with Mercat Tours. Besides the Old Town and the Canongate graveyard it included a visit to the Blair Street Underground Vaults. In the absolute dark, with only some candles to light our way, listening to the accounts of past ghost sightings in exactly these rooms was more than creepy. Especially because our guide Andrew was a very skilled narrator. You’ll probably call me crazy, but I did hear footsteps from a corridor that should have been empty. Now, I don’t know if that was really a ghost, but I certainly was very glad to be out of those vaults. Visiting a graveyard after that seemed like a piece of cake.
Luckily Edinburgh is not only frequented by ghosts. The one famous character you cannot escape there is Harry Potter. I came across him in other places in Scotland as well, because parts of the films were shot there, but in Edinburgh he’s the most present. J.K. Rowling wrote the novels there, so pretty much every old building, especially those that happen to be castles or schools, are said to have been the inspiration for Hogwarts.
There are cafés that advertise with the fact that Rowling wrote there. (Although I have been told that the most famous of these, the Elephant Cafe, pays her money for the right to call themselves the Birthplace of Harry Potter. Somewhat disenchanting, isn’t it?) There are also graveyards sporting the names of famous characters on their tombstones. The most (in)famous one is found at Greyfriars: Tom Riddle. He has apparently overtaken dog Bobby as the most photographed tombstone in Edinburgh. I took pictures of both equally, so you can’t blame that on me.
Despite that the most impressive Harry Potter experience I had in Scotland did not take place in Edinburgh, but on the Scottish west coast. I took a 5-day bus tour around Scotland with Haggis Adventures. They’re the same company I travelled with in Cornwall last year (you can read about that here), so I knew they’re good. The tour included a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train which was the model for the Hogwarts Express. It looks exactly like you remember it from the films.
Don’t worry if you’re not a Harry Potter fan though, you will still enjoy the train. The landscape is spectacular enough on its own. So much that the views will compensate you for having to endure crazy fans on board pretending to be going to Hogwarts. (I may or may not have been guilty of doing that.) The train goes all the way from Fort Williams to Mallaig, with a stop in Glennfinnan where you have time to quickly visit the West Highland Railway Museum, as well as take pictures of and with the train.
When you arrive in Mallaig, you have the option to go back on the train after a short stay. Or, you can do as we did and board the ferry over to the Isle of Skye. We spent a day on the island exploring ruined castles, magical waterfalls and spectacular lookouts. If Edinburgh was the city of Harry Potter, then Skye is the land of the fairies.
Every waterfall we stopped at had some legend connected to it that was about the fairies and the Elven King. One was supposed to bring good luck, another to fulfill your wishes, while the river at Sligachan apparently makes you stunningly beautiful if you hold your face into the water for 7 seconds. Of course it’s also possible our guide Grant made all these stories up just to have a good laugh at us while we all kneel on the ground trying to hold our face in the icy water.
Beyond the waterfalls Skye had an amazing coastline with spectacular views of the mainland. You only have to share them with the multitude of sheep running around. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
Back on the mainland the tour continued to Loch Ness. We were based in Fort Augusta at the Southern end of the loch and from there explored the lake itself, as well as the surrounding sites. Those included Inverness, and the stone circles of Clava Cairns. The last evening of the tour we took a boat cruise along the loch, looking for the monster. Nessie unfortunately was not feeling like making an appearance that day.
I was told Scotland is stunning, but what I saw exceeded my expectations by far. If I could talk to that New Zealand guy from the plane again, I would tell him that it was absolutely worth sacrificing summer heat and sunshine for a tour around Scotland. If he has not yet noted that himself, because after all he was planning to spend some time in Edinburgh too. I can’t see how anyone who visits could fail to realise how special this place is.