Friday, August 26, 2016

A Fling in the Highlands!

Sorry for the delay. I was busy getting a book and two paintings to places they were expected, getting ready to buy a new car... Meanwhile, back at my UK trip:

Northern England had become hilly and farmland was broken into a patchwork of stone wall-bordered plots. We paused at the border (where a bagpiper was playing in the parking lot, natch) and then moved along through a definite piedmont with very high hills and deep valleys. There were no walls to separate farm lots except the occasional hedge, and everything stretched green, green, green.

With LOTS of sheep.
This was the scene on our side of the road when we stopped for the truck fire. I know there's a painting somewhere in this series. I took LOTS of pics of sheep for future reference purposes.

As I mentioned, the bus usually took us down non-highway routes. It was along such that we encountered traffic coming to a complete stop though we were in the middle of nowhere. Ahead of us in the other lane stood a burning log truck. The explanation: "The driver went to do a wee and when he turned around there was smoke coming out of his lorry." Ouch. No one likes it when smoke comes out of their lorries. The translation: Apparently the driver had gotten out to have a little rest stop out there in the open but to the side of the road, and when he turned back to his truck, discovered it was quite on fire.

Traffic in both directions came to a halt and we had to wait until the fire and police folks came out. They got traffic moving very quickly, leaving one embarrassed fellow next to his truck awaiting a tow.

We crested one very high ridge and I could see the ocean. Or rather, the Firth of Forth. The Forth is a river, and a "firth" is an estuary, or place where a river flows into the sea. It's a type of bay with a river flowing into one side.

We soon arrived at Edinburgh, which our driver pronounced as "ed in bra." What Ed was doing in that bra I'll never know. We took a quickie tour of the town in the bus and then headed off to our hotel. My room was lovely (if outlet-deprived, as all UK hotels are), with three large windows along one wall that I could open so as to let whatever breeze I could find in so I wouldn't have to die in my sleep from heat stroke. It also let in the announcements from the train station right across the street and down a cliff, as well as noise from the street and drunks. Luckily for me, Edinburgh seems to roll up the sidewalks (and trains) before midnight.

The next morning we were up bright and early for a half-day of touring Edinburgh's castle. If we'd come a month later we might see the Tattoo, which they were setting up for. That has nothing to do with ink, but is rather a festival with lots of martial bands and pipers and horses, as well as fireworks. When we arrived, only the stands were in place around a central plaza.
View from the castle... ramparts, I guess. As any Gilmore Girls fan can tell you, the person who has the high ground, wins. Actually, the first time this castle was taken, waaaaay back when, it was torn completely down except for the chapel (iIrc) so the English couldn't use it. That's the Firth of Forth up there.

The castle was a solid tourism spot, full of stone stairs, a 900-year-old chapel, the Stone of Scone (just recently stolen back from the conniving English scum), the birth room of James VI (Mary, Queen of Scots was his mum), crown jewels, dungeons, and varied museums. One could easily spend most of a day here.

But I had friends to meet! I saw the highlights, forgot about the dungeons which had been recommended to me by our local guide, and took off down the Royal Mile back to the hotel. Martin Gray and Steven Robinson, stalwart heroes they, picked me up there and we were off! They had taken off from work just to take me around. Aww!

Let me digress a moment. On the whole, bus tours are only a step or two better than watching a travelogue on TV. You sit on the bus and the country passes outside your window. Now and then you get out and have an hour to walk about at a particular site. You don't usually get the in-depth commentary a TV show provides.

But these were Edinburghers. Or Leithers. The cities have merged over the years, like Chapel Hill/Carrboro or Raleigh/Cary/Durham. They knew their area in a different way from guides. As we set off we passed darling neighborhoods and business districts. Then we arrived at the Britannia, the retired Royal Yacht, and saw EVERYTHING. By this time my camera had pooped out, though I thought it didn't do that until the next day, but anyway, I discovered when I got home that I'd only taken a couple shots that day -- and it was the BEST DAY OF THE TOUR!! Arrggh!!!

Always, ALWAYS recharge your camera at night while on tour. Always have it with you! I'd become too accustomed to being able to go a couple months without recharging. On tour you're always turning your camera off and on and fiddling with the focus and... This takes power.

The Britannia had a contest in which they had nautical-dressed teddy bears secreted here and there. You were supposed to spot as many as you could and at the end of the tour report to someone and see if you'd won a prize for finding them all.

Martin and Steven, Edinburgh's Dynamic Duo!
Yep, Steve and I were really there. I was trying to look cool. Ah, you see the phone is out instead of my camera. When I got home, I discovered that my computer is too old to really interconnect with my new phone, so I had to take screenshots of what was on the phone. Most of these E'burgh shots came from Martin and Steven's phones, and they were kind enough to send them to me.
We lost count. There was too much to see. (And I was doing my best to appear witty. This takes concentration.) I was surprised at how bland (and yet in spots ostentatious) the royal living/entertaining quarters were. Then again, everything Mid-Century registers as Bland in my head. The crew were stuffed into semi-tiny quarters and of course they had boiler rooms and laundry with zero air conditioning, so life must have been pretty awful for people in those positions. Otoh, there were lots of photos on display of the crew having a swell ol' time doing team sports stuff about the ship. And since they were all young men in excellent condition, the photos were another perk of the tour.

From there we went to fetch some more converters for me, since the one I'd brought wasn't doing too well. (Not its fault, but rather the horribly-installed outlets in the hotels.) The new ones gave me several to experiment with and eventually I got everything recharged well. There are tricks involved. At the same shopping mall we hit a pizzeria/Italian place for late lunch. What lovely conversation! I had very little trouble understanding my Scots friends, even when Steve said, "The camel always bleem twice." I made sure he didn't see me writing that down, but I swear, that's what he said.

Before I'd left, someone had warned me about public loos and how they often had no toilet paper. What? Pshaw. Yet here at this modern, spacious pizzeria, I discovered that their ladies' room had none, not even a holder. I thought perhaps I just didn't understand this long box in my stall and it was hidden somewhere inside it, but I encountered the same type of box a few times elsewhere, and the toilet paper holders were located at another place inside the stall. ??? Yeesh.

I'm mixing up the order here, but not much. We passed Mart's apartment -- I discovered that he has two roommates, and neither of them was Steve. Our valiant Scotsmen knew I was keen on seeing Roman ruins, so they motored us to a little spot that has some stones in the ground and historical markers from where a small Roman army had housed themselves back before the Romans pulled out of the area. Cool!
Mart and I at the Roman ruins. Since this is north of Hadrian's Wall, it would be older than that. People have had a lot longer to cart all the stones from the site. They overlooked a few.

From there it was a short walk -- actually, rather long, if you realize I'd been walking since 7:30 that morning. I racked up over 20,000 steps that day! -- to the "beach," or edge of the river which did indeed seem beachy. Though a workday, there were lots of people out enjoying the day, kicking balls, eating ice cream, and making an awful mess in the public ladies' room. I was allowed (thank you!) to sit on a bench and utterly enjoy the scene.

Then it was back to the car. Just before this, Steve had made a turn to get us to our destination. It was one of those typical two-way streets without parking spots on either side, which meant there was an almost solid line of cars parked on either side of the road, half-in and half-out, transforming it into a one-way street. Cars pulled over as they could to let cars coming from the opposite direction through.

We started to pass an apartment building's parking lot. A car zipped out of it right in front of us. Steve hit the brakes hard! Phew, accident averted. As he was still stopped, the car decided that it wanted to go backward so it could go back into the lot. ((meep)) went Steve's car's horn as BUMP! the guy backed RIGHT INTO US!!!! (Despite me using my telekinesis at full power!)

Mart and I were having conniptions. I was in shock. I mean, we were RIGHT THERE. There was no way the guy could have missed seeing us! Steve got out, the guy got out, and I had Judge Judy thoughts: road rage! The guy would pull a gun on Steve!

But no, they talked a moment or two, both peered at Steve's front bumper and the guy's back one, and then both returned to their cars. The guy returned to the parking lot. Steve said the guy claimed that there was something wrong with his kid, so he was anxious about getting something something, which is why he drove the way he did. "No major damage," Steve reported.

Actually, there were a couple of small dents. Steve was completely cool about the whole thing. There had been no exchange of insurance info, etc. No cops. !!!
Drat, it's not showing up. I'll try to remember to fix this tonight if I can recall which picture it is. Oh right, it's the awful new Parliament building. Too awful for Blogspot to show, apparently. Wait, I'll Google and here it is. If I can remember, I'll add my own shot below.

From the ruins we went back to Edinburgh proper and (this might have been before) the boys gave me a driving tour of the awful new Parliament building (it really is atrocious, and it was designed by a Spaniard instead of a proper Scot) and Hollyrood, which is a palace right below Arthur's Seat, which is this big ol' mini-mountain sitting at the edge of the city, akin to Montreal's mont. Some road was closing just as we were arriving, so we couldn't drive up to see whatever they wanted to see.

But now we're back to being after the ruins. We found a parking spot near High Street (which I kept thinking was the famous Prince's Street, but that's a block or so over), which has the Royal Mile. It runs from Hollyrood up to the castle. We went in search of Edinburgh's Ghost Tour, which starts aboveground with stories of how the city used to be quite the scary place. Once again (popular UK stories) I was told that "loo" comes from "l'eau" (water), which is what the natives called the night slops that were tossed out onto the street in the morning. "Gardez l'eau!" (look out for the water) became "Gardy loo!" Drunks just becoming semi-ambulatory in the early morning, walking about and thus facing the onslaught were "shit-faced" because they looked up to mumble, "Whuh?" Splat!

Then we moved into the foundations of a not-so-old bridge. It had been designed so that businesses could be established on top, while the arches and such below could be used for storage. Only thing: the waters from above leaked through the stonework, leaving the chambers soggy. As conditions worsened topside and the law drove the poor out of the streets, they began to live in the chambers, where no law reached. Conditions and society were terrible there, and the waste that came through the walls added to the general sickness experienced by the inhabitants.

Our guide showed us through a little museum of torture devices, giving gory details of just how they were applied and what the effects were. Then we went into this one room. The city had invited Wiccans in to clear the bad spirits that had been reported. The Wiccans eventually abandoned it, but set up a ring of stones and salt to imprison one very evil essence they had encountered. (There's a current coven meeting place a few rooms down.)

Guess the hoodoo didn't work on this shot?

Our guide said that many who had dared to step into the circle had encountered bad luck (broken bones, etc) soon afterward. Of course a bunch of kids had to step into it. He also said that pictures taken across the circle would turn out blank.

Mart took a picture of our guide across the circle. When we were in the hall outside, he checked it. It showed up a moment… then blanked. "What?" He tried looking at it again and again, and each time it blanked after a moment. A girl next to us said she'd seen that trick before and it was Photoshopped. "But I just took the picture!" Mart retorted, but she had none of it.

I made the mistake of brushing up against a wall. Ugh, it was slimy! And it was the first wearing of that particular blouse. Then the water dripping out of the ceiling caught me. Ick!

I'd hate to have lived anywhere near that bridge back during the bad times, but the worst thing about it these days was the final step in and out of the place. Really, they could have put down one or two extra wooden steps to help people in. I think that's how the one guy who stepped into the circle broke his leg. No, nobody on our tour. Some other tour. Mart said he'd contact the tour company and tell them that they should do it for minimum safety standards.

We went to the Tolbooth [sic] Tavern for dinner. (Yes, we washed our hands first!) What a lovely place, so friendly! My friends joked with the waiter about me never having had haggis, and I relented to a sample. I don't see what the big deal is. It tastes like liver pudding, but lighter. They mix oatmeal or something into it so it's not so dense. It would make a good cracker spread. But Steve ordered a "Scottish Tower," I think it was called (darn me for throwing out my receipts! If you look up my review on TripAdvisor, you'll see the proper name). That's tatties (potatoes) on the bottom, haggis in the middle, and neeps (turnips) on the top, under the sprig of rosemary and the Scottish flag. Steven was kind enough to give me the actual, real, crunchy salad that surrounded the concoction. The belly back there under the Superman symbol belongs to Martin. Hi, Martin's belly!

What fun the day had been! How lovely it is to tour with such splendid chaps as Martin and Steven! Thanks, guys!!!

Uh. Is this the back of the castle? It was on the other side of the train station as we toured our final Edinburgh day. Anyway, there are several hill-topping castle-like features in Edinburgh, but the thing that caught most people's attention was the private school that inspired Hogwart's. JD Rowling lives in Edinburgh, you see. Lots of guides mentioned the Hogwart's school to us.

The next day we got a tiny tour of the "New Town," I think, just before it began to rain. Then it was off across the Firth to the Highlands! This is mountainous territory -- low mountains -- and knock-your-socks-off gorgeous. It reminds me of Montana before Montana turns into full mountains, only these hills are heavily forested and there are cute stone villages here and there. Maybe the Appalachian foothills would be a better comparison.

There was one long stretch of boring road, but we stopped along it at a farm. I had paid for this extra, but others had not. As the bus pulled away with them, they later reported that all of us on the mini-tour were just standing, hands on hips, looking off in the distance. Then ALL OF A SUDDEN comes this flock of sheep, running toward us hell-bent for leather!!!! And then behind them appears a border collie, chasing them like the very devil!

A sheep farmer was demonstrating his border collies' abilities for us. Some of you may know that my favorite dog is the border collie. This guy had about seven of them with him, and used a flock of about… oh, how many sheep are there in the shots? -- that many to demonstrate the dogs one at a time. He also had about seven ten-month puppies, and one of them wanted SO BADLY to join the adults at what they were doing! He'd pace around and stop and watch, then pace and see how close he could get to the adults without being reprimanded.

They had something like 3000 sheep on this farm and 20 collies. The farmer told us that it actually costs a little more to shear the sheep than it does for what they get for the wool. They only shear them for health reasons. The wool usually winds up being sent to China for use as insulation.

The farmer grabbed one full-grown sheep and told us it was a lamb as it was only a year and a half old. Looked like an adult to me. Anyway, the lamb had never been sheared, and now the farmer did it, manually, and invited those who wanted to to help.

Then we saw the puppies! I mean, the 10-day-old puppies whose eyes had just opened within the past twelve hours! Eee! Hillary (our guide) had to body-search one lady to make sure she didn't smuggle a puppy back onto the bus when we left.

There's the year-old pup on the left.

Think I'll leave it there. The rest should take up about two parts (maybe three with leftovers), which I'll try to have presented next week. See you then!

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