UK Trip 2012, Day 9: Edinburgh Sightseeing

Today we were basically able to see all of the major sites in Edinburgh – it was quite the whirl-wind tour and we really enjoyed it. Edinburgh’s a great, enjoyable city. See the picture gallery for the day here, or you can read on for the details.

I started the day by trying some black pudding at our bed and breakfast’s breakfast. It was listed as an optional item on the menu, so I thought I might as well give it a try. I actually liked it – it tasted like sausage to me. Andrew did not seem to care for it. If I didn’t know what it is made of (congealed blood!), I might have enjoyed it more! (It’s on the far right in the picture below.)

After breakfast we took a taxi right up to Edinburgh Castle. The castle is well-fortified on a hill near the middle of the city. It’s a very old castle – as we learned, there have been signs of human habitation in the location for at least 3,000 years (since pre-written history). It’s clearly a good spot to live – today there’s an amazing view of the rest of the city from the walls of the castle.

A lot of the castle itself has been destroyed over the last few centuries – it’s been a royal castle since around the 1000s, but most of the buildings are newer than this. (The oldest building was built in 1130, the St. Margaret’s Chapel — it’s pictured on the far left below.) The castle itself was, admittedly, a bit underwhelming, after having seen other old buildings and sites in other parts of Europe… You could see the rooms where the royalty used to live, and when they lived there long ago. The crown jewels was on display (just one crown, unlike the crown jewels of England), next to the Stone of Scone, or the “Stone of Destiny,” which was neat to see and learn about it’s history. It’s funny to me that the Scots and British stole a stone back and forth from each other, but people do strange things where beliefs are concerned. There was also a 1400s siege cannon that could fire 330-pound stones almost two miles (according to Rick Steves!) — it was named Mons Meg.

There was also the Scottish National War Memorial, which is still being added to all the time, in memory of all the Scotts who have fallen in a war/battle since World War I. It was a very moving memorial in an impressive building. We also checked out a small prison where prisoners of war from the U.S. were kept during the American Revolution – that was kind of interesting, although it almost felt a bit like a poor imitation of a Disney re-enactment. Perhaps most interesting was a pet cemetery – it was specifically a dog cemetery for the dogs of soldiers. It was very sweet. We also enjoyed talking to some of the “guides” at the Edinburgh Castle – they were very eager to talk to people about the castle, and Scotland in general. Already the Scotts seemed friendly and more out-going than the British we’d interacted with in London.

After touring the castle, we headed out and on to the main road that leads up to the castle, called the Royal Mile. Near the castle the Royal Mile is lined with tourist shops and over-priced restaurants/pubs. (At the other end of the Royal Mile, maybe a mile away, is the palace, which we did not make it to today.) We stopped by one shop near the top to check out some Scottish wool (we have some knitting fanciers in our group) and were amazed to find automated looms making reels of plaid wool right in the basement of this huge, multi-story shop. It was very impressive. We found that the machines dated to somewhere around the 1930s at least.

We continued heading down the Royal Mile and found some excellent pastries (misc meat pies) at a pastry shop. We also saw some unusual people along the way…

We continued wandering down the Royal Mile (and we really do mean “down” – since the castle is on a hill, it’s all down hill from it). We thought about seeing Camera Obscura, a multi-story building of optical illusions with an observatory on the top, but passed it up when we saw it in person because it looked too gimmicky. We then checked out the Museum of Childhood, which is right on the Royal Mile. It’s basically five stories of historic things related to childhood, mostly antiquated toys. Like most museums in the UK, it was free, and we may not have gone in otherwise — it was interesting, and very odd, but maybe not quite as interesting as we thought it might be. There were some neat machines that played out little theatrical scenes when you put in a coin, but some were broken. There were typical children’s toys, and lots of dolls and teddy bears. What we enjoyed most was seeing old board games — since we’re pretty in to board games, it was interesting to see some that were hundreds of years old. The oldest one was from the 1750s, the “Royal Game of Goose,” made in London. There was also a very old board game similar to the game of Life. In some ways, board games haven’t changed all that much. There was also an old puzzle with a caption explaining that the first board games were made to teach students geography, making each country its own piece.

From the Museum of Childhood, we wandered a little bit away from the Royal Mile (just a block or two) to an old cemetery I was interested in seeing, Greyfriars Kirkyard. Most of the tombstones dated from the 1800s to late 1700s, so it was not that old (relatively speaking), but it was still interesting. I later realized that it would have been the view that J. K. Rowling had when looking out of the windows of The Elephant House cafe, where she wrote some of the first Harry Potter books — I wonder if it influenced the tone of the series at all. We also checked out a fossil shop nearby (my father loves fossils) and I ended up buying a nice ammonite fossil, from Madagascar.

We then walked up to the National Museum of Scotland (everything was such easy walking distance from each other!). The museum was really, really good. We could have easily spent a whole day there, but as we’d seen many museums on the trip already and were nursing sore feet, we only explored maybe one-quarter of the museum, but we still saw what a great museum it is. We checked out some of the oldest human artifacts from the area, and then skimmed over some of the newer Scottish artifacts. It’s amazing to me that people have lived in this area so long – since before written records. It’s clearly a desirable location. And so many wars/skirmishes with invaders from the south! First the Romans (although I’m sure there were some before that) and then the British, although there were also the Vikings from the east in between this. It’s interesting to think that after all the battles fought between the Scottish and the British that they’re now so interpedently tied together. Again, since we’re gamers, we were excited to see an ancient board game and board game pieces, dating to about 1000 years ago! (Now we may be inspired to make our own stone board game… Let archaeologists puzzle over that one. Hah!)

I then had to go find Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, who I had heard was in the museum. Sure enough, in an area on science and technology that had a lot of good hands-on areas for kids (and a lot of kids utilizing these areas), we found the stuffed Dolly on display, rotating on a platform. There was also a robotic arm that would spell out words using alphabet blocks — it had a memory of where all the blocks were set down. Very neat. There was also a great educational science gift shop in this part of the museum (where I purchased some educational aids on geology so I feel more knowledge in the area next time I go to a geology exhibit!).

With achy feet, we then wandered several blocks (north) from the Royal Mile area to go to Edinburgh’s New Town. It was carefully designed/planned in the late 1700s and early 1800s and contains several pedestrian-friendly shopping blocks, filled mostly with restaurants/cafes or shops selling goods (clothing, books, etc.). It was pleasant walking around the area, and from some areas there’s a great view of the castle looming overhead. We stopped and got a milkshake at a Shakeaway, a chain we’d seen a store of in Salisbury — the upstairs area had a couple free games for people to play (Foosball and air hockey) and some booths to rest our feet in.

After this we decided it’d be fun to try to walk all the way back to our hotel, using a route that the hotel staff had recommended taking to get to the castle (which we were past). (My parents had already taken a taxi back to the hotel when we left the National Museum of Scotland, so we didn’t need to worry about exhausting them, just exhausting our own numbed feet.) So, we went back through the Royal Mile and headed for The Meadows, a large park area that is clearly a popular college hangout. It was really fun to see everyone out having a fun time — there were lots of BBQs going on (clearly it’s allowed to bring your own little BBQ setup) and lots of alcoholic beverages being consumed (also allowed in the UK). Made us sad that there are so many laws in the U.S. as to make this kind of area impossible to have. It reminded me a lot of when people would (illegally) have bonfire parties on southern California beaches — it basically seemed like Edinburgh’s beach area equivalent.

Dragging our feet toward the hotel, we ran into my parents heading out for dinner at a pub near our hotel, so we joined them. It was a bit more upscale than the pubs we’d been to before, but it was interesting to try out to make the comparison.

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