The day had finally arrived, we had finally arrived in Scotland, and the culmination of an entire semester had arrived. After we dropped our bags at the hostel where we’ll be staying in for three nights of the trip, we ventured as a group to Edinburgh Castle for a short tour. The highest building in the castle, right in the center of the fortification, was a war memorial. The inner chamber of the building served as a mMemorial for numbers of unknown soldiers who had laid down their lives to defend the country they loved. A few lines were chiseled into the stone walls telling of the reverence that the Scots have for these valiant soldiers. This inscription inspired the enclosed narrative; it read “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. There nothing cam harm them: they are in peace. Others also there are who perished unknown; their sacrifice is not forgotten and their names, lost to us, are written in the books of God.” The title of the piece is The War Memorial.
The War Memorial
Simply walking into the room is belittling. The first thing that catches your eye is an inscription on the walls surrounding you. As you read of the respect and appreciation these people have for the numbers of unknown soldiers who have laid down their lives for their country, you become aware of the source of your initial awe at simply seeing the place. The inscription reads: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. There nothing cam harm them: they are in peace. Others also there are who perished unknown; their sacrifice is not forgotten and their names, lost to us, are written in the books of God.” And there I had already, on the first day of my journey, come across what I knew would be one of the most memorable parts of the entire trip. I knew that I would carry many memories from that trip with me for the rest of my life, but those forty-five simple words, and the rest of the spectacles with which my eyes met in that small inner chamber, no doubt gave a better start to my voyage than I could have possibly dreamed.
Yesterday was the travel day, a lot of fun though entirely too long. Woke up at 8:00 or so, did some last-minute running and packing, got on the bus for the airport at 10:30, but our plane was delayed in Houston and didn’t arrive until about 3:00, meaning we sat in the airport for about two hours doing nothing.
Then we got onboard our tiny plane (one of the small ones, still a jet, but had three seats across and no room whatsoever), cramming Nick in as necessary. At least he got an aisle seat. The flight was short, and then we had about an hour to kill before our UK flight left, so we grabbed a bite to eat and then sat around. A pair of airline employees were pushing an old lady in a wheelchair around, asking if anybody knew how to speak Spanish. One of my classmates heard them and so got me, and I got to translate for the lady. She was from Puerto Rico and didn’t speak any English, so the people pushing her had no idea where she needed to go. I guess she thought they were asking where she was from, because she just kept saying “Puerto Rico” but it turns out she just needed to get to baggage claim, so I was able to help them out and get them to where they needed to go. The joys of being able to speak two languages are many.
The flight to the UK was much better, a Boeing 757 with pillows and blankets for everyone. The in-flight movie was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I watched before getting some very small amount of shut-eye. The food was terrible, as expected. By the time they got back to us, all of the dinners they had left were the vegetarian plates which consisted of rice, and a couple things I couldn’t identify let alone eat. Breakfast was better, which consisted of a croissant roll and peaches, along with some OJ and coffee. Then the plane landed through some very thick fog.
Getting off the plane and through the passport station was relatively painless, though standing in line took a while. Then we went to the hostel, put our bags in the luggage room, and headed up to the castle. The castle was pretty neat; I have plenty of pictures, though we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the memorial to the Scots who died fighting in WWI, which was a simply amazing building. Then we walked back to the hostel and all proceeded to fall asleep in the common room around noon. Dr. Watson woke us up to check us in around 3:00 or so and we went back to sleep. I woke up at 11:30 and went out to try to find a bite to eat, wound up at some little place with some good pizza, then came back to the hostel, where I found some of the guys at the bar downstairs. They were having open mic night, so I decided to sit around and hang out for a bit. With 17 being the legal age to drink in Scotland, the hostel’s bar seemed to be a pretty popular place, even given that it was Sunday.
I finally went to bed (again) around 1:30 in the morning, and woke up at about 9:30 to get some breakfast downstairs. Cereal, toast, and water, but good enough for free. Below is a piece of overheard dialogue from last night, in which I am the American. The pair were speaking in Spanish.
(A senor and a senorita sit at a bar, talking. An American sits at a table nearby, eating.)
They’re so rude.
Better than the English.
Yeah, but my dog is better than the English.
Oh, be nice.
I’ll be nice when they stop being so damn stuck-up.
At least they tip well.
No, the Americans.
Only because they can’t count their change, so they just leave it all.
They’re not that bad, just out of place.
(The American stands, leaves some money on the counter, and heads for the door)
See? Can’t even count his change.
(American pauses in the doorway, considering something. Finally, he turns, smiles and nods to the pair at the bar, who return the gesture.)
I speak Spanish.
Events of 5/7/06
Around noon today, which my body feels as 7am, I was starving. Looking though Edinburgh Castle had drained much of the little energy remaining after our 6 hour flight. Some of us decided to go to Pizza Hut, but looking for Scottish fare, Kyle and I scoured the closes (A Close is like an alley in American, but they have names and are clearly marked.) in search of a pub. Our first attempt was “The Scotsman’s Inn” a small pub advertising “Beer” “Food” and drink specials. We walked in and sat down at a table, which was made of half of a barrel. We had waited for a few minutes and looked at the beer list, when two other Americans walked into the pub. They asked the bartender for a menu, to which he replied, “We don’t serve food.” Slightly embarrassed and shocked, Kyle and I left the pub to continue searching.
We headed down Fleshmarket Close at a whim, and passing a goth night club came upon The Halfway House, a small pub on the corner of two closes. We entered, and the kindly Scottish couple tending the bar said hello. The owner, a middle aged man, welcomed us and asked us what we’d have to drink. “Umm,” I said, “What’s good?” What followed was a 30 minute lecture on beer and beer-making which I will summarize for our readers. The owner informed us that his beers, Bitters and Ales, were true Ales made with yeast. “These are served warm,” He said, “because anything under 5 degrees celcius will kill the yeast.” It’s the yeast that creates the flavor and gives the beer its head. “Unlike your American beers,” we were informed, “which are full of carbon-dioxide, which everyone knows is a poison!” Admitting our beer inferiority, he then gave us free samples of several of his beers, before I selected the “Houston Texas” a British beer with an American name (taste, not homesickness, guided my choice). I had rosemary lamb, being too unadventurous to try haggis, neeps and taters. But fear not dear readers, I refuse to leave this land without trying the Scottish dish and will let you know how it goes.
We landed between 7 and 8 AM local time. We got on a bus to Waverly Station, then walked to our hostel. After dropping off our things we all went to Edinburgh Castle. The walk included half of the Royal Mile, then we entered the Edinburgh Castle. The front gates were impressive, a fortification that was added after a siege on the castle. This followed a pattern of many instances of where they added fortifications after there was a loss of the castle with a major event being at where they built the new defenses. While touring the castle, the buildings seemed small and the history was very long and detailed, at times even boring. However, later when I was walking around other parts of Edinburgh the sight of the castle was impressive. The hill on which it is built has very steep and rocky faces on most of the sides with the exception of where you enter the castle along the Royal Mile, the street connecting the castle with the residence of the Queen and the Parliament building.
The streets are lined with stores and restaurants. There are pubs every block at least. I planned on going to Mass at 8 PM at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, but I lost track of time. I headed in the direction of the Church at 8:10 and took a wrong turn. I finally walked in at about 8:35 and they were already finishing. So I took the long way back to the hostel, experiencing the Royal Mile. The streets were mostly empty, I was too late for the dinner crowd and too early for the party goers. Getting back to the hostel around 9 PM I was exhausted and decided to go ahead and try to catch up on sleep. This wasn't as easy as I planned because apparently there is a big nightclub a couple buildings down and they let out a noisy crowd at about 3 AM. After 30 minutes to possibly an hour of noisy, drunken banter and what I think sounded like a fight or two I finally got some more rest.
Scotland is pretty cool. Well, its as cool as my sleep deprived, alcohol driven insomnia will allow. You see my anticipation for this trip has left me eagerly awaiting the next moment so I have been forced to prepare for this experience to make it the best it could be. I knew my golf game was fine, so I worked on the finer details. My mom knitted me a scarf with our family colors. My girlfriend turned my favorite flannel into a make shift kilt that would fool any tourist. My brother pitched in and found some blue face paint. I took nature watching and photography classes in between my 14 viewings of Braveheart to ensure that Nessie would not escape my grasp. I couldn’t find bagpipes so I engineered some recorders and hot water balloons to the tune of Amazing Grace, Scotland’s national song. I then proceeded to check out every Sherlock Holmes book I could find, but there was no time for reading while I was training my liver so The Great Mouse Detective had to do. I found a nice Scottish brew, Robert the Bruce, (the buffalo skin wearing guy from Mel’s masterpiece) but bystanders pointed out it was brewed in Indiana. Some people started to talk like I was crazy. I knew better than to believe their anti-Scottish sentiment. One girl told me I was just wrong and an ignorant fool. I did a little investigation into her Scottish understanding and found that she had never even seen Braveheart. She knew nothing, bloody wanker. It was finally time to depart, and I was ready. If anything went wrong, it would be that I was more Scottish than any of the lads in Scotland.
We had a slight delay which allowed me to work on my accent. Perfect, let me tell you. On the flight over, I persuaded a young lass of a flight attendant into playing of a football tape, that’s soccer to the ignorant American, for the in flight movie. She decided it would be a good cultural experience, well that and her other movies mysteriously disappeared. At first my fellow passengers didn’t take to the choice and began to express more anti-Scottish propaganda. So I used some Scottish persuasion to win them over and bought the plane a round. To keep spirits high, I sprinted up and down the isles leading cheers. Any soccer hooligan would have been proud. Just when I was about to beat down some British wanker like Wallace, the flight attendants ushered me back to my seat and kept guard. It was a good idea though, I needed to get good and pissed before we landed. So I tried to keep the crowd going while I pounded a few more pints and waited for touchdown.
Apparently Scotland has changed a bit since the release of Mel Gibson’s documentary, so I was forced to adapt. My plan and my kilt were both unraveling so circumstances and my groups persuasion forced me to don the horrifying American tourist clothing that I tried to leave behind for this immersion trip. With the World Cup a month away, St. Andrews miles away, and Sherlock Holmes in London, depression set in. The local pub offered me a cure in some Scotch and ale. I was pretty down, so I took a few doses just to be sure that I was cured. Spirits soared as I saw that the itinerary began with a tour of a castle. I bided my time, planning on how best to scale the walls or ram the gate. Well our fearless leader somehow bought us safe passage and we found ourselves within the hallowed walls of Edinburgh castle.
Edinburgh castle is a testament to the Scottish Culture I had come to expect. It mirrored the culture around it by adapting with time while maintaining the history and integrity that consumes the Scottish motif. We passed by the old and new gatehouses, donned with statues of Robert the Bruce (first king of Scotland) and William Wallace (no introduction needed) on our way under the menacing Foog’s Gate. We immediately laid eyes upon canon lined walls and mazes of walls, passageways, and monuments. This fortress has been through countless sieges, battles, and take overs, but always ended back in the Scottish hands. My favorite story was the success of Robert the Bruce’s nephew, Randolph. He succeeded in placing an undercover soldier on the inside at a strategic locale that allowed many other elite soldiers to scale the wall with an intricate system of ladders. They slyly moved to the gate and raised the gate before an alarm could be sounded. Randolph was close by with his army dressed as merchants and they soon stormed the castle and bringing Scotland back its greatest castle.
The stories of Scotland are laced into every stone inside this amazing castle. From the oldest building, St. Margaret’s chapel, to the recently built and still used soldier’s garrison, there is a tale to tell at every corner. War memorials testify to the spirit of its dead soldiers. Scotland knows its history is indebted to this fortress, so the magnificent crown jewels, scepter, sword, and stone of Scone are on display here. All of these items in and of themselves have great stories, but they can be told at a later date.
I continued to roam the shadows of this place, looking for any British that wanted to take back the place. I found myself learning about the intricacies of construction and the survival of the place after Oliver Cromwell. My blurred vision, a side affect of the pub’s cure, was sobered by the spectacular panoramas of Edinburgh. I eventually found myself in the War prisons and really began to understand some things for the first time. I had conveniently forgot that Scotland was against America during our revolution against Britain. They had transported several prisoners back to this castle during the war. These prisoners had remained here for several years. During that time they managed to carve their initials and messages into the doors that still remain to this day. Seeing a two hundred year old American flag engraved on foreign soil as a result of fighting for my people brought on new meaning to this trip. I was not getting Scottishized but rather I was learning about a culture. I left that castle ready for more.
I know now that my preparations may have been a bit rash, but not all in vain. I am sure that they will all come in handy soon on this trip. I have not lost my original spirit, but just settled in for the sake of my traveling companions. Insomnia remains and spirits are high. There is more to see, and drink, but Scotland is pretty cool. JRS