Saga of Caledonia

The journey to Scotland was unpleasant to say the least. Being the broke uni students that we are, we elected to travel via Megabus from London to Edinburgh overnight. We thought this would be rather convenient, as we could possibly sleep through most of the journey. Oh, the lies we tell ourselves. I spent the first five hours sitting next to a man who was speaking on the phone in what I can only assume was Bengali. After he departed the bus, I was able to lay down by folding my body in half and sacrificing my left kidney which was brutally stabbed with the seatbelt. I floated in and out of consciousness for the remainder of the trip, and occasionally being jolted awake by water dripping from the emergency exit in the roof. After traveling 14 hours, we finally arrived in Edinburgh. As excited as I should have been to finally see the city, the only sight in which I was interested was a bed. But after checking into the hostel, we rallied our remaining energy for a free walking tour of the city. Our tour guide, Billy, led us on an exuberant, energetic jaunt through Edinburgh, and through Scotland’s long, eventful history. We were lucky enough to experience one of Scotland’s rare beautiful days, albeit cold and windy. Billy informed us that it was not cold, but “fresh”.  One of the highlights of the tour for me was the Harry Potter section. We saw the cafe where Rowling first started writing the series, as well as the cemetery where she drew inspiration for the names of multiple characters. Although the spellings were altered, I recognized surnames like McGonagall, Moody, and of course Riddle. The Scottish government has considered blocking off the cemetery from the public, as many tourists have left offerings to the Dark Lord at Thomas Riddle’s grave. The dilemma is that Thomas Riddle was not the Dark Lord, but a person who lived his own life. As much as I respect those who were laid to rest in the cemetery, it was so exciting to see where JK Rowling drew inspiration for the books that I and so many others have enjoyed so much.

Besides Harry Potter, we learned much more from our tour of Edinburgh. My favorite story was about the Stone of Scone, or the Stone of Destiny. The stone, which our tour guide called a glorified brick, was used in the coronation of every Scottish king up until 1296, when the stone was stolen by Edward I during one of the many wars between the English and the Scots. Since then, the stone has rested under the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, and has been used in the coronation of every English monarch since the 14th century. For centuries, the Stone of Scone was a source of tension in the already tense Anglo-Scot relationship. In 1950, four Scottish students decided (in a pub) that they would invade England and steal back the Stone of Destiny for Scotland. And miraculously, they succeeded. True, in the process of removing the stone from Westminster Abbey, the students dropped and broke the stone in two pieces, but hey, just made it easier to transport! The students were able to talk their way through the road blocks set up by the English at the border with Scotland, specifically placed there to confiscate the Stone of Scone. Of course, the stone was eventually discovered and returned to England, and the thieves (or Scottish patriots, depending on your point of view) were never prosecuted, but actually went on to become successful lawyers in Edinburgh. In 1996, the Stone was returned to Scotland, on the condition that it would be lent to England for any future coronations. The Scots still celebrate this victory, and are suitably proud of their Stone of Destiny.

Much of Scotland’s history can be found recorded in a rather unexpected place (but rather suitable for Scotland): its pubs. We would often stop outside pubs so Billy could tell us about that particular pub’s history. Some were patronized by famous writers and poets, while others simply had a great story attached to them. A pub called the Last Drop was where a prisoner would be taken for his last drink before the execution (oh, those punny Scots). One that stands out in my mind is the Maggie Dickson’s Pub. Apparently back in the day, a woman named Maggie Dickson had an affair, got pregnant, and when the baby was stillborn, she buried it on the bank of the River Tweed (I apologize for the callousness, but this is not the interesting part). The body was discovered and traced back to Maggie (by some sort of nineteenth-century CSI). She was sentenced to death, not because she was suspected of killing the child, but because she violated the Concealment of Pregnancy Act (which is exactly what it sounds like). She was hanged in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, pronounced dead, nailed into a coffin, and taken to the cemetery to be buried. On the way there, however, the gravediggers were startled by a sound they would not normally hear; knocking from inside the coffin. When the gravediggers opened the coffin, they saw a very-much alive Maggie. The lawmakers had quite a puzzle on their hands; should they have another go, or let poor Maggie go free? They eventually decided that Maggie had been saved by divine intervention, and she was allowed to live. She went on to live for another forty years and marry the man with whom she’d had the affair, known in Edinburgh as Half-Hangit Maggie. No one knows how she survived, but she gave hope to many prisoners sentenced to death by hanging.

After the tour, we went with the tour group to a pub for the national dish of Scotland: haggis. We had debated quite vigorously whether we actually we wanted to try it, considering that it consists of intestines, organs, and apparently hooves (but our tour guide may have been purposefully grossing us out). Eventually, we said, “When in Scotland, eat haggis” and tucked in. Haggis is… fine, until you start thinking about what you are putting into your body. When I was able to block images of internal organs from my mind’s eye, it tasted like a very crumbly hamburger (until I bit down on something crunchy and had to stop, sure that I had just eaten a hoof).  It was served atop mashed potatoes and mashed turnip, and smothered with a whiskey sauce (which was all delicious). Overall, I am glad I tried to say I did, but I feel no urge to partake ever again ever. On the other end of the spectrum, I had some of the best hot chocolate in Scotland. During our tour, we stopped at a chocolate shop that made its hot chocolate with actual chocolate mixed with hot milk. I had milk chocolate with cinnamon and orange, and I never wanted it to end. That night, when we went to The Elephant House (the cafe where JK Rowling began writing Harry Potter), I had hot chocolate with a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream. It hit the spot, as after the night we had, I needed something warm and a stiff drink (but I’ll get to that in a moment).

The last stop on the walking tour was to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Billy showed us the grave of Sir George Mackenzie, as well as an area with locked gates. He told us about the atrocities committed by Mackenzie in the late 1600s against Covenanters, people who refused to replaced Scotland’s Presbyterian Church with the Episcopalian Church. 1200 people were held in the kirkyard, and all of them died there. It is one of the first documented concentration camps in the world, as well as being considered the most haunted spot in the United Kingdom. In 1999, a homeless man sought refuge from the rain inside of George Mackenzie’s mausoleum. The wooden floor, which had been subject to rot and mildew damage for three hundred years, collapsed underneath his feet. He landed in a prevously unknown chamber that contained the bodies of plague victims. After this event, the supernatural incidents began. Thousand of visitors to the kirkyard reported strange smells, unexplainable temperature changes, as well as physical injuries. Bruises, burns, cuts, even broken bones were reported. Many passed out inside the kirkyard. The Scottish government made the decision to close off the kirkyard to the public. Billy told us, that for those brave (or foolhardy) enough, one tour company was entrusted with the keys, and offered tours to visitors. My friends and I took him up on that.

That night at 9:00, we met our tour guide from City of the Dead. The first place he took us to was the vaults built within Edinburgh’s South Bridge. In the 18th century, these vaults were used to house the poorest of the poor. The living conditions were absolutely horrific. They lived in complete darkness, which we experienced when our guide turned off his flashlight. I could not see my own hand directly in front of my face. They were also subject to the city’s worst criminals, who were also driven underground. Most crimes committed in the vaults went uninvestigated, because who would care what happened to the untouchables of Edinburgh? The most horrifying stories were from the fires that raged through Edinburgh. Many took refuge inside the vaults to escape the flames, but the illusion of safety soon evaporated. The heat of the flames swiftly heated up the stones, and the temperature inside the vaults rose rapidly. When the people attempted to escape however, they found that the exits on either side were blocked by flame. They were trapped, and literally cooked in their own skins. We were told these stories while standing deep inside the vaults, which was incredibly unsettling. What scared us, was when he started telling his own ghost stories. During his many times taking groups down into vaults, he has experienced abundant supernatural activity. People in his groups have heard pounding coming from inside the walls, footsteps, and even voices. Almost on cue, we heard a strange rattling sound from above our heads. Our guide hastily assured us that this was just cars driving over the bridge. Just as we relaxed however, I heard a pounding coming from the wall to my left. You have to understand, these are thick, solid stone walls we are standing in. There is no way anyone could have made that sound from simply banging on the wall… from the outside. He looked at me, and asked if I had heard that. I could only manage a jerky nod and a squeak from a very cowardly part of my throat. Our guide then chose to tell us that it is not the ghosts of the people who died here we need to fear. There is a much darker entity that prowls the vaults. The guide told us about one night down in the vaults over the summer. He and everyone in the group could sense that something was wrong, and he sped through his spiel about the vaults. They heard everything; knocking, pounding, footsteps, and even faint voices. What really scared them, was a gigantic crashing noise from down the hall. Abandoning protocol, everyone ran from the vaults in fear for their lives. When the guide went back the next day in broad sunlight, he discovered the source of the crash; a large, heavy wooden yoke that was placed in the vaults as a prop had been thrown across the room and broken in two. Needless to say, I was fairly eager to depart the vaults. And we still had the kirkyard to see…

Once we had arrived at the locked gates, we paused so the guide could give us a brief history on the kirkyard. He reiterated what we had heard from Billy earlier in the day, but he also gave us some safety tips. He pointed out two trees that stood just past the locked gate, and explained that they were known as the Sentinels. He instructed us to walk around them on the way in, but to walk between on the way out. The locals believe that the poltergeist cannot pass through the trees, and anyone who walks around on the way out can carry the entity with them. He also asked if any of us knew we were conductors of supernatural activity. My friend Adele raised her hand, as she has had several experienced in the past. The guide warned her and a few others that they were the most vulnerable to attacks, and to consider carefully whether they wanted to go inside, as he would lock the gates behind us once we were inside, and would not open them again until we all left. None of us wanted to back down now, so we agreed to go inside. I’m not sure how much of the energy I felt inside was genuine supernatural happenings, and how much was my own imagination building up tension from the night of ghost stories, but there was something about that kirkyard. The area of the kirkyard where most of the scratching, bone-breaking, and bruisings occur is the Black Mausoleum. So of course, our entire group was ushered inside. Our tour guide told us that the most injuries occurred on one of his tours because he stayed in the area for more than the prescribed ten minutes. After twenty minutes, many patrons started complaining of hands grabbing at them. The guide himself said that when he got home that night, there was a long scratch running down his ankle to foot. The strange thing was that he hadn’t felt anything, and he was wearing tall work boots. On our sojourn, the only victim was a girl who complained of feeling very light-headed. The symptoms ceased once she crossed between the sentinels, however. It was a night of heightened emotions, and immediately went off in search of something warm to drink (as well as a good stiff drink, hence the Bailey’s-infused hot chocolate).

We woke up bright and early next morning for our tour into the Scottish Highlands. Although Edinburgh was fantastic, I knew a trip to Scotland would not be complete without seeing the legendary Highlands and the mythical Loch Ness. We drove all day through Scotland, and through all four seasons. We saw sun, we saw rain, we saw colorful autumnal leaves, and we even saw snow! As we drove to greater altitudes, snow started falling, and even accumulated several inches. My words couldn’t possibly do justice to the beauty of the Highlands, but suffice it to say i understand how Scotland can boast so many prolific writers and artists after seeing the natural beauty that surrounded them. When we reached Loch Ness, the sun emerged and we were able to see blue sky. I could practically see Nessie in the clear water. Our guide regaled us with tales of Scotland’s history as well as some Scottish music as we drove through the Highlands. It was a perfect day, and truly made the trip for me.

For our last morning in Scotland, we walked the entire Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official Scottish residence, to Edinburgh Castle, the ancient home of Scottish kings. On the way, we were lucky enough to see a parade in honor of Remembrance Day. We were incredibly excited to see the veterans in their kilts, as well as the sound of bagpipes. It gave us strength the long, long bus ride ahead of us.

To my surprise, Scotland is one of my favorite visits we’ve taken so far, a reaction I didn’t expect. I have found that my favorite parts of a trip are not necessarily the places charging exorbitant admission, or buying overpriced drinks in numerous pubs. The highlights for me have been simply walking around the cities we go to, or seeing the countryside. Scotland was a perfect balance of these two things.

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