Like all the best adventures, this trip began with the unknown. We stepped off our planes into a country that we didn’t know with people that we (for the most part) had only just met. Were we scared? Maybe. Excited? Definitely. Jetlagged and dazed from a lack of food and beauty rest? Not at all…
Even if we were a bit jet-lagged, we didn’t have much time to let it affect us. Shortly after we arrived, we met our tour guide in Edinburgh and headed out for a walking tour of Scotland’s capital city. For hours, we walked down the busy cobblestone streets, passing pubs and shops and all sorts of historical landmarks. One of these landmarks was an old graveyard called Greyfriars Kirkyard – where famous author J.K. Rowling used to roam while waiting for inspiration.
As we wandered down the rows of mossy tombstones, our guide told us the tale of the Black Dinner that happened in Edinburgh Castle many centuries ago. In those days, the Black Douglas clan was the strongest clan – so strong the nobles began to suspect an insurrection. One night, while the leaders of the Douglas clan feasted with their king, the king’s advisers arranged to have them framed for treason. The Douglases were tried and butchered for their supposed crimes.
We found ourselves standing before the very castle where those events transpired. The castle rose out of the heart of the city, tall and motionless despite the swarm of activity surrounding it. Bagpipe players, street magicians, and even human statues performed on the sidewalks outside. People strolled past nonchalantly, carrying their purses and sipping their coffee as if the castle were just another office building.
Inside, we visited the Scottish War Memorial, saw the Crowned Jewels, and drank tea in the castle’s tea room. After exploring the castle, we walked down the road to the Scottish Writers’ Museum.
The museum itself was tucked into the corner of a quiet courtyard – an old stone building with a beautiful spire at the top, like every other building in town. Upon entering, however, we soon found it to be a treasure trove. Old possessions, portraits, and journals lay in glass cases in the rooms.
Each level focused on a different Scottish writer. The basement level featured Robert Louis Stevenson, most known for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as Treasure Island. The main level focused on Robert Burns, whose poetry helped rouse a patriotism among the people of Scotland. Finally, the upper level was dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, the writer who first put Scotland on the map.
Highlands and Castles
Early one morning, we piled onto a tour bus and drove to see the highlands. At first, it felt like any other road trip, with houses and signs and gas stations dotting the landscape outside. Gradually, those parts of civilization faded, and green, rugged hillsides rose in their place. Along the way, our tour guide told us stories about the rogue Rob Roy, who used to roam the highlands robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.
Beneath the towering hillsides, the air was cool and clean and patches of wildflowers bloomed in the grass. Squinting, I saw what appeared to be a worn stone structure standing far off in the distance, waiting.
As we got closer, the structure grew more defined. Great gray towers, decayed and discolored, rose out of the tall stone walls. Windows were scattered all over the ruin, gaping open like wounds dealt by time. Opening a small wooden door in the wall, we entered Kilchurn Castle.
Once inside, we climbed up into the towers. Looking out the windows, we saw Loch Awe – clear and still, encircling the castle on all sides. It felt as though the castle was still at war, a man-made creation fighting to withstand the battering of wind and rain and snow as nature fought to reclaim its land.
The Lake District
Later in the trip, our group journeyed by train to the English Lake District, the region that has deeply inspired writers like Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth. When we told our cab driver our address, he exclaimed, “Oh, you’re going to the wild lands!”
It wouldn’t be long before we discovered exactly what he meant.
As we wound down the narrow country road, mountains upon mountains unfolded before us. Rocky outcroppings, stone fences, and flocks of sheep filled the grassy mountainsides.
While in the Lake District, we stayed in a small white farmhouse under the shadow of those mountains. On our first afternoon there, we had some free time and spent it exploring nearby trails. One trail led up a mountainside and into a cave, so naturally, we absolutely had to go inside. The cave got darker and darker – so dark that without flashlights, you wouldn’t have been able to see anyone or anything in front of you. As we went deeper, we had to slosh through ankle-deep pools of water to continue on the path. Finally, we reached the start of what looked like an old mine shaft and realized that it was probably the perfect time to turn around.
The next day, we traveled to a town called Grasmere to visit Dove Cottage, home to the English poet William Wordsworth. We saw the rooms where Wordsworth ate, slept and wrote, all the while learning more about his habits and bohemian lifestyle. Next, we wandered about the town of Grasmere, stopping in shops and even picking up some of their world-renowned gingerbread.
Adventuring in England
Towards the end of the trip, our group visited C.S. Lewis’s house in Oxford. Stepping into his house almost felt like stepping into Narnia itself. Was he standing in that room when he created the character of the White Witch? Or had he been walking up those stairs when he thought of the ending to The Last Battle? Transfixed, we walked from room to room, listening intently as our tour guide told us about the man whose stories had filled our young years with imagination and excitement.
The trip culminated with a visit to the Shakespeare Royal Theatre for a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. We sat near the front of the theater before a plain black stage. While we were waiting for the production to begin, hunched figures in rags emerged from the shadows and limped across the stage. An eerie hush fell over the crowd. Soon, more characters entered, dressed in long black robes with gold embroidery. And like that, the play had begun. During the play, a mighty king was reduced to a raving madman, and a raving madman was raised to a mighty king.
Return to Edinburgh
Packing our bags, we traveled back to Scotland for one last night in the city. We ate dinner as a group, saying goodbye to the country that we still barely knew and the people that we had only just met. Not wanting to leave right away, a few of us lingered in the city and went to Calton Hill, a spot we’d found earlier in the trip.
From the top of Calton Hill, all of Edinburgh stretched out around us. In front of us lay the bustling city, its lights shining in the dimming sunset. Behind us stretched all the hills and paths that we had yet to climb. In those moments, all the beautiful old stone buildings with spires at the top reached up to touch the dusky pink sky. How would it feel when we went home? Would we ever come back and see this view again? We didn’t know. Yet, as I said before, not knowing is often the start to the best adventures.
Kathryn Funk is a staff writer for the Daily Runner.