Posted in England, Iceland, R&R, Scotland

R&R Installment #2 – Scotland

Edinburgh

My hubby and I had both been to Edinburgh before, so we didn’t have a huge amount of local tourist sites on the list. So the first day he showed me a few of his favorite haunts, such as the Italian place that serves Haggis Ravioli, and we visited the castle with our son.

My big motivation for Edinburgh was two day trips to places (which were actually across the border in England) that had been on my bucket list since we lived in London…Lindisfarne, the first place the Vikings sacked when they arrived in England in 793, and Hadrian’s Wall, a 73-mile-long wall built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD. They were both well worth the trip.

And I was equally excited for two additional locations that were included in the tours…Alnwick Castle where they filmed several scenes from the Harry Potter movies and had the cutest “Broom Training” activity for kids and parents, and Vindolanda Roman Fort that I’d read quite a lot about in my Roman Britain online class from Oxford in Belize. Bonus!!

Approaching Alnwick Castle.
Approaching Alnwick Castle.
The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory.
The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory.
A view of Hadrian's Wall.
A view of Hadrian’s Wall and the English countryside.
The active excavation at Vindolanda Roman Fort.
The active excavation at Vindolanda Roman Fort.
A few Roman souvenirs. ;)
A few Roman souvenirs. 😉

Inverness

This was another spot that I’d visited before, but I hadn’t really explored much. So we rented a car from the airport and spent a week checking things out. We drove along Loch Ness to Urquhart Castle, took the funicular railway up Cairngorm Mountain for a bit of Highland hiking, drove through the whisky valley and stopped at a couple distilleries and the Walker shortbread factory for small tastings, and visited the Culloden battlefield.

We also attended the Inverness Highland Games, which were surprisingly unexciting compared to the enthusiastic versions in the States. It felt more like a community college sports day with a shocking lack of whisky on offer. 😉 If you get a chance, I recommend the ones in Orlando, Florida, and Estes Park, Colorado. The one at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina is also on my bucket list.

Urquhart Castle and the Fraser Clan marker at Culloden Battlefield.
Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness and the Fraser Clan marker at Culloden Battlefield.
A bit of hiking in the Highlands at Cairngorm Mountain.
A bit of hiking in the Highlands on Cairngorm Mountain.
The caber toss at the Inverness Highland Games.
The caber toss at the Inverness Highland Games.
A wee dram at the Glenfarclas Distillery.
A wee dram at the Glenfarclas Distillery.

Other than one near-death experience in the car, this portion of the trip was lovely and relaxing. And my hubby was fantastic…he did all the driving (I loathe driving on the left) and cooked big Scottish breakfasts every morning with lots of sausage and black pudding. I think we’d all be happy to go back to Scotland at any time!

Posted in Scotland

Trip to the Orkney Islands, Scotland

We just got back from five days in the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, and it was fantastic! After the crush and energy of London, it was so nice to go somewhere with seas and wind where there’re only 35 people per square kilometer.

Getting there and back was a pain in the butt though. On the way up we went from London to Edinburgh to Kirkwall. And they lost our bags on the way…mainly because the baggage agent at the Virgin Atlantic counter at Heathrow thought our son was soooooo cute that she let him press the button on the baggage conveyor belt…before putting the baggage claim tickets on it.

So we now get to file a £75 claim for the toiletries and pajamas we had to buy for the first night until our bags arrived. On the way back we were delayed due to fog and missed our connection in Aberdeen completely. So we had to exit security, reclaim our bags, get rebooked on a new flight, and go through security all over again. At least the little girl at the snack counter was nice enough to pour me a glass of wine in a paper cup so I could take it on the plane. 🙂

Transportation issues aside, I thought Orkney was quite a magical place. It’s made up of one big island called Mainland (perspective?) and a bunch of little islands. We stayed in the main town of Kirkwall (population 8,686) and found a great 3-bedroom rental cottage for only £250 per week. You can barely get a closet in a hotel for that price. So we really enjoyed it! We also rented a car so we could putter around the island.

The tiny town of Kirkwall on the left.
The tiny town of Kirkwall on the left.
Our little rental cottage.
Our little rental cottage and car.

Most of Mainland Orkney is classified as a World Heritage site called The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. It has not just one but TWO rings of standing stones (Stenness and Brodgar), one chambered burial mound (Maeshowe) and a few settlements. The most famous settlement is Skara Brae, which is considered the oldest and best preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe having been dated to about 3,000 BC.

Skara Brae.
Skara Brae.
Our son with his Viking sword in the Ring of Brodgar.
Our son with his Viking sword in the Ring of Brodgar.

The Ring of Brodgar was truly awesome, but I’m slightly more interested in Viking history. The Vikings featured heavily in the development of Orkney and even have their own saga, the Orkneyinga Saga. Even the sign above the airport is written in Norse runes. They also have an amazing red cathedral that was built in 1137 for the Viking Earls and Bishops of Orkney and their accompanying crumbling palaces.

Kirkwall airport with sign in runes.
Kirkwall airport with sign in runes.
St. Magnus Cathedral.
St. Magnus Cathedral.
Part of a plaque inside the cathedral.
Part of a plaque inside the cathedral.
Earl's Palace.
Earl’s Palace.

But I think the most unique site has to be Maeshowe. Not only is it a great example of a chambered cairn…but when the Vikings plundered it, they left graffiti on the walls in runes. With 30 inscriptions, it’s one of the largest, and most famous, collections of runes known in Europe, which is phenomenal!! And their translations are hysterical. Things like: “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes.” Basically, Haermund Hardaxe was here! “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women.”

Exterior of Maeshowe.
Exterior of Maeshowe.
Interior shot borrowed from the internet.
Interior shot borrowed from the internet.
Close up of runes borrowed from the internet.
Close up of runes borrowed from the internet.

Other highlights remain from WWII. There’s an Italian chapel constructed of two “Nissen” huts…the Brit equivalent of what we call Quonset huts…and beautifully painted by Italian POWs who also constructed the two massive barriers in the bays between two of the southern islands. There are also the visible wrecks of several ships that were intentionally sunk to block German boats.

Exterior of the Italian chapel.
Exterior of the Italian chapel.
Interior of the Italian chapel.
Interior of the Italian chapel.
WWII wrecks still visible in the water.
WWII wrecks still visible in the water.

And let’s not forget the food and drink. I opted for seafood for almost every meal…scallops, scallops, more scallops and a seafood platter with crab and scallops with a few sides of mashed potatoes and black pudding. And my hubby was always on the lookout for haggis, which he found. It was also his birthday, so the lovely staff at the Kirkwall hotel restaurant brought out his dessert with a candle in it. Happy birthday, baby!

Orkney also has no shortage of beverages. For an area of less than 400 square miles, they have three breweries (Orkney, Highland and Sinclair) and two distilleries (Highland Park and Scapa). Orkney beers were my favorite not just in flavor but because of their great names…like Skull Splitter, Raven Ale, Northern Light, Dragonhead Stout, and Dark Island! My hubby also picked up a lovely 16-year-old single malt from Scapa.

For the most part, our son was pretty well behaved in the restaurants…especially since my hubby had recently downloaded 20+ new episodes of his current favorite TV show, Rescue Bots. But his favorite part of the entire trip was throwing rocks in the water at the beach. I guess if we ever want to plan a trip that will make him really happy, we can keep it pretty simple.

Hanging out on the beach.
Hanging out on the beach.