According to my Tour Of Bits Of Scotland Masterplan, I had a full day to explore Edinburgh. The first stop after breakfast was Edinburgh Castle. I walked back the way I’d come the night before (did I mention I passed a street called Spittal Street?), gazing up at the castle as I approached.
The castle literally towers over the rest of the city, which makes sense; in the old days it must have seemed the most logical place to put it. They would have looked pretty stupid building it in the valley next to the mountain, especially since the valley was underwater at the time. In fact there is evidence of there having been civilisation on the mountain for almost three thousand years, and a castle for at least a millennium and a half.
And it’s more of a real castle than the one I saw at Arundel. Arundel looks like it was built to be a tourist attraction, it’s just a bit too clean and tidy. Edinburgh is mostly just as tidy and clean, and has many more tourists, but somehow manages to look like it was built to be an actual castle, for defensive reasons.
Near the entrance they were still taking down the portable seating from the Edinburgh Tattoo, which takes place annually in what looks like it is a carpark but which is actually a parade ground. I’ve seen the Tattoo on TV a couple of times, and it never ceases to amaze me how an event like that can make watching marching bands, which sounds as though it’s some kind of extreme insomnia cure, actually quite entertaining. I bet it’s a pain if you live nearby and are trying to sleep though.
After paying the entrance fee and walking past (and I confess joining in with) a row of tourists snapping pictures of a guard standing extremely still with his chest waaaay out, I went in. I spurned the offer of a taped audio guide, partly because I wanted to check things out for myself, and partly because everyone who already had a set of headphones on and a portable CD player around their neck looked like a complete dork.
The views from the top of the castle were very impressive. It follows that if you can see the castle from anywhere in the city, you should be able to see the whole of the city from the castle. I stood for a few minutes, gazing down at the people and buses busily rushing along Princes Street below, and looking out over the city to the not-so-distant Firth of Forth, glittering in the sunshine.
Looking east(ish) from Edinburgh Castle
Then I turned around and realised there was another level of the castle to go, so I kept climbing and did it all again up there.
There are a number of buildings within the castle grounds, most of which are open and contain exhibitions, often about various aspects of Scottish military history. I poked my way through a few of these, one area containing rooms that over the centuries have been used as dungeons and soldier’s quarters alternately. Not surprisingly, the soldiers weren’t particularly enamoured with their quarters. The prisoners probably weren’t either, come to think of it.
They also had the huge old Mons Meg siege cannon, a weapon that turned out not to be particularly useful, because every time they wanted to fire it, they’d have to haul it to where it needed to go, build a structure of some kind to hold it up and aim it when it was fired, which would then frequently collapse with the force of the explosion.
Another building held two of the most precious relics of Scottish history: the Scottish Crown Jewels and The Stone Of Destiny. I overheard a guide telling some people that on no account should they take photos. Evidently the guards would immediately confiscate your camera if you did, and if they were anything like that bloke at the front gate with his chest sticking out, I reckon they’d rip the film and/or video out of the camera, stomp all over it, then dispatch it and probably you as well out of the nearest window.
So, not for one moment daring to sneak a quick pic, I lined up for the Jewels and the Stone, both of which were spectacular. The Scots only got the Stone back a couple of years ago. Of course on “Hamish Macbeth” they claim that the original is hidden somewhere in the highlands. But this one looked pretty much genuine, at least as far as my expert eye for stones of destiny could tell.
By this point it was almost midday, and the place was beginning to fill up with tourists. Not the perfectly charming tourists like you or I, you understand. No, not the well-travelled people fascinated by the new experiences they are having, and with the good sense to keep their mouths shut rather than show their ignorance, the good sense not to carry too many (or too large) cameras or too much foreign cash, and to at least attempt to blend nicely in with the locals.
No, the castle was beginning to fill up with swarms of the rather noisier, more irritating breed, so I did my best to avoid them, bidding my leave of the castle (via the gift shop), hoping in vain not to meet their like again in this fine town.
I trod off down the Royal Mile, which is the street that leads straight down the mountain from the castle, and has all sorts of historic buildings along it. At this point I began my long quest for lunch.
I don’t know if this is a condition I have, I don’t know if I should be speaking to a medical professional about this, but I have a real problem choosing where to eat. If I’m with someone else and they choose, then that’s great. But if the decision is left to me, such as when I’m on my own, I tend to roam around looking at the menus in the windows of numerous restaurants and thinking “ah well, that doesn’t look too bad, but I wonder what’s around the corner?”
There would be times on this trip when this quest for the perfect restaurant would leave me wandering the streets for hours, my stomach steadily getting more impatient for some food. This was one of those times.
I walked down the hill to Princes Street, and along, noting the locations of various fast food places, but deciding that since I was travelling to experience the places and people of Scotland, I shouldn’t be eating too much McDonalds or Burger King (no matter how Scottish McDonalds might sound, it’s not), but sampling something that if it wasn’t unique to Scotland, at least was not run by some multinational corporation that had several hundred outlets within an hour’s drive of home.
Ignoring my stomach for a moment and paying attention to my watch, I noticed it was almost 1pm, so I went down into the Princes Street gardens to look up at the castle and wait for the 1pm gun to be fired. I found a nice place to sit, waited for 12:59 and 30 seconds, and aimed the camcorder up at the castle.
Malcolm in York had warned me that it was loud – very loud. I took heed of his advice, and attempted to prepare myself for an almighty bang. But when the almighty bang came it was significantly more mighty than I expected, and the camcorder footage that resulted shows the camera suddenly jolt and someone, I’m not sure who, cries out in a male Australian’s voice “Jesus!”
But it’s just one of those things that with today’s technology you can’t adequately record for other people to experience. Like the size of the Grand Canyon cannot be captured on photos, the noise of the one o’clock gun at Edinburgh Castle cannot be captured on video.
I kept looking around for a suitable food source that would meet my ever-changing and some would say slightly deranged requirements. Some of the places along Rose Street looked nice, but also far too crowded. I eventually found a little cafe – it might have been in Castle Street – where I bravely ordered something called a “toastie”, only to find it was just a jaffle.
I decided to explore Edinburgh’s suburbs, rather than just moping around the city centre. I headed back to the Royal Mile and boarded a number 6 bus. I had spotted one earlier, and noticed the sign said it was a circle route, which I thought would reduce significantly my chances of getting lost somewhere in Edinburgh’s suburbia.
The Day Saver ticket included the fact that I was an adult male, apparently to prevent people giving their used tickets to just anybody. I wonder how the driver would classify a cross-dresser? I took a seat at the very front of the top deck of the bus.
Leith was very nice. It reminded me a bit of Williamstown in Melbourne. Lots of shipyards and docks, but also an influx of upmarket restaurants and housing. And also, I suspect, much more life to it on the weekend than during the week.
It was pretty windy, but as I inspected a plaque of John Hunter (who just happened to be governor of NSW from 1795 to 1800), some sunshine peeked its way through the clouds. By the time I got back on the 6 back into Edinburgh, it was rush hour, and the bus somewhat crawled through the traffic back to the Royal Mile.
After getting off the bus more or less where I’d originally got on it, I started looking around for dinner. I thought I’d found somewhere good, and was very pleased with myself for having taken so little time to do so, and was just double-checking the menu when a gaggle of loud American tourists loudly came along the pavement and loudly went in, loudly proclaiming that they would be eating there. So I went elsewhere.
Actually they might have been Canadian – or come to that they might have been any nationality, but they were definitely talking in North American accents. Loudly.
Instead I ended up in a nice little Italian place, far enough up the street that I couldn’t hear them, and I merrily ate spag bol and wrote postcards, though not necessarily at the same time. After that I walked at a leisurely pace back to the hostel (via the Net cafe again), and sat in the hostel lounge, pondering tomorrow, reading a newspaper and watching BBC2, and wondering why something as funny as “Shooting Stars” has never made it onto Australian TV.