My time in Scotland was spent divided between two major cities. The Capitals of Scotland really. Edinburgh is the official capital of Scotland, and Inverness is known as the Highland capital of Scotland. They were different, and similar, and I think give a good perspective of life in Scotland.
I’m left with an impression of stone. It seems to me when walking the streets that everything was made of stone. The colors would change, but it was always stone. It didn’t feel cold though and I was enchanted with the colors and personality in all the architecture.
Its a large city but I was able to walk everywhere. And find just about everything. If it was too rainy, or I was feeling lazy (which happens), I just hopped on a bus. Buses are frequent, clean, and easy to navigate. My AirBnB host shared with me a very awesome free app, called Transport for Edinburgh. Through the App you can enter your start and ending locations and the time you want to arrive or leave and it will calculate for you the best route, which combination of buses to take, and which stations to get on and off at. Especially great for me, as I tend to get distracted by all the sights and sounds, the app will buzz when you are nearing the stop you are supposed to get off at. You can even buy mobile bus tickets, so you don’t have to worry about having correct change. I am a person who is pretty unfamiliar with public transportation, and those bus timetables posted at the stations seem to need an advanced degree to understand, so this app was a lifesaver. I felt like I could comfortably get to anywhere I wanted to go, and back home again.
Alright, so I know how to walk and bus and navigate. Now what can I do with all that? Well pretty much anything. Edinburgh has tons restaurants, featuring many food types, more shopping than my checking account can handle, historic sites, museums, and some great theater options. I got to see a performance of Cinderella by the Scottish Ballet, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the Lyceum Theatre. Christmas was a great time to be in Scotland. On top of the personal decorations from the cities residents, there were many public events and festivals to explore. One of my favorite was the Christmas Market on Princes Street.
The Christmas Market was a mix of exotic crafts fair, swap meet, boutiques, and food vendors. Almost like a county fair but with a Christmas theme. I certainly walked away with tons of stuff, though I don’t know if that speaks to the quality of the goods or my impulsive shopping habits. There was even a Ferris Wheel and a few other rides.
Inverness is poised at what is basically the start of the Highlands. The Highland part of Scotland is much much colder and more rustic. The Internet tells me that in 2015, Inverness was identified as the “happiest city in Scotland”. People certainly seemed up beat and friendly. I arrived in the evening so my first impressions of the city were night ones. Which turned out pretty well since the whole place was lit up with Christmas lights!
I felt safe in the city, so I spent my first few hours strolling along the River Ness. The river itself was dark and ominous but the path way was well lit and there were many other people taking nighttime strolls.
I learned a bit of vocabulary while I was there, which helped to explain some of the names. Loch, is basically a lake. And Inver or Aber, which you see often in Scottish city names, mean “river mouth”. So Inverness means, at the Mouth of the River Ness. Which is exactly where it is. And Loch Ness, is the lake at the end of the river Ness. Clever right!?
I can’t talk about Scotland without talking about the Pubs. The Pub experience is entirely different from a bar experience. They both have massive amounts of alcohol but the Pub is more of a social club. From what I could tell, you are meant to just come in and sit for hours. The general pattern of my pub nights went something like this: Order a drink, talk to strangers, drink some more, talk, order french fries (or chips if you want to seem like you know the local slang), drink more, talk more, eventually take a bus or cab back home. I got invited to join a Trivia tournament at some point, which I failed at horribly. Apparently I know nothing about anything that has ever happened in the world, past or present. Though every incorrect answer seemed to trigger another round of drinks, so maybe I was doing it right after all?
One of my favorite Pub moments, was meaning a young man named Shaun, who was a regular at the Pub and desperately in love with one of the ladies who worked there. He was also beyond drunk. This lady was not working on that particular night so he was lamenting his tale of love to the Pub Patrons (there were probably about 10 of us, including the bartender). Turns out the lady has a pretty serious boyfriend, but strengthened by the alcohol, dear Shaun decided it was time to try his luck. He was determined to write her a note with all his feelings and leave it on the windshield of her car (which was parked just down the street). The Pub Patrons spent a lot of time trying to convince him that this was a poor poor idea, but Shaun would not listen. I’m not sure what the note ended up saying, I don’t imagine that it could have been very coherent, but Brave Shaun did indeed stick it to the windshield of her car (though we have no proof that this was in fact the right car at all!). When a Pub Patron rushed out afterwards to try and take it off the car, hoping to save Shaun from a very awkward morning, Shaun wrote another one. He put it back on the car and this time laid on top of it, on the windshield. And that is where he was when I left for the night. I’ll never know how it all worked out for Shaun, but I will hold onto my last image of him passed out on the hood of a car in the middle of the night, hoping for true love. I wish I could have seen the reaction of whoever showed up to that car in the morning! But I like to imagine that Shaun got his happy ending.
I wouldn’t be a good Tourist if I didn’t take some time off from the Cities and Castles to head to Loch Ness and try my luck searching for Nessie. Just a short cab ride away from downtown Inverness, Loch Ness is easy to visit once in the area. I hopped aboard a sturdy vessel for a few hours of cruising what is probably the most famous Loch in Scotland.
The Loch itself is a narrow strip about 23 miles long. But its impressive 755 foot depth is what makes it perfect for sea monsters. The first recording spotting of Nessie dates back to the 7th century, so the dear girl is probably quite old at this point. Now, here comes the sad part. I personally did not see anything resembling a sea monster. Though to be fair, my quest lasted about 15 minutes in the cold Scotland day before I gave up and returned to the interior of the boat to drink a hot chocolate by the window. Apparently I don’t have the right stuff to be a monster hunter. Nessie can continue her life in mysterious peace, at least as far as I go.
The lack of monsters in no way diminished the awe of this piece of water by the way. There were plenty of great views of the area to gaze at. The boat I was in was comfortable and warm, and had a mini cafe serving snacks and hot drinks. For someone cold adverse, it was the best way to see the Loch without being grouchy all day because I hate the cold.
I was completely addicted to tea time by the time I left Scotland. While this is traditionally an afternoon meal, I found myself having it two or three times a day. Wonderful hot teas, mini pastries and sandwiches, all day long…well I don’t see how any one can resist that! So I didn’t even bother to try.
One of my favorite spots for Afternoon Tea was in Edinburgh castle. The tea service itself was great, but was made all the more exciting by sitting in a Castle while sipping my tea. The wait is long though, seems everyone thinks this is a cool idea, and there are no reservations. Its worth waiting for but make sure you budget enough time for it.
Part one of my Scottish Adventure can be seen here.
If you want to see the exact things I saw in this post, this is how to do it.
Book a flight to Scotland: I use a combination of Skyscanner, Kayak, Hopper, and various airline travel points to book my flights. For this particular trip I used American Airlines. They get a general rating of “Meh”. Though I did find the vegetarian in-flight meal to be pretty tasty and the price was reasonable. I found it far cheaper to fly into Edinburgh and use buses to reach the other parts of Scotland.
Afternoon Tea at Edinburgh Castle: You can buy your tickets for entrance to the castle in advance, here. They are also available at the door, but the line is usually pretty long so you will save yourself some time by buying online. There are no reservations for the tea, and people usually start lining up well before the 11am opening time. So just plan on spending some time waiting. It will be worth it once you get inside.
Spend your money at the Christmas Market: The Market dates and times may change from year to year, but it is generally open from late November through early January. You can find more details on all of Edinburgh’s Christmas events here. There is no fee to get into the Market, but expect to spend money on everything else. The Market is open rain or shine so don’t let the weather scare you off! You can catch a bus from anywhere in the city to get to Princes Street Market.
Getting around Edinburgh: As I mentioned the Transport for Edinburgh app is a must. Its free and available for both Andriod and iOS.
Take a bus to Inverness: Bus travel in Scotland is simple and easy, much better than what Americas are used to. I took a bus from Edinburgh to Inverness for about $13. I choose the MegaBus, there are multiple stations in Edinburgh and one right in the center of the city. Just make sure you know which station you want to use before you go to book the ticket.
Sleep and shower in Inverness: I stayed at the Columba Hotel in Inverness. A beautiful hotel with great details, it also has an attached restaurant for breakfast and a Pub next door for everything else.
Boat Trip on the Loch Ness: I took the Loch Ness Clansman Cruise, from Jacobite Cruises. It includes a sail around the Loch after which you get dropped off at Urquhart Castle for a hour before a ride back home on the Loch. They have different cruises, with different lengths and locations visits, so you can customize based on the time you have available.