Edinburgh and St. Andrews, Scotland

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The first four days in Scotland have been incredible.

Paige, Natalie, Hannah, Nathan, and I arrived a day before the rest of the group, catching a ride on a double-decker bus from the airport and spending the night in a seedy, but overwhelmingly hip hostel called the High Street Hostel on a side road called Blackfriars. Nearly everyone had piercings, weird, shaved heads, or long, scraggly beards. We slept in a smelly, cramped room with sixteen other men and women, all speaking different languages from all over the world. Even though I didn’t relish the idea of sleeping just a couple feet away from strange men, we’ve made it a point to experience everything we can on this trip. That night, we were joined by Becca and we wandered around the city until dark, eating dinner at an upscale pub called Tiles. Though it wasn’t authentic Scottish cuisine (which saddened me to no end), it was still delicious.
 The next day we were joined by a few more members of the group, and spent the day wandering around the city. Edinburgh (pronounced: edden-BRO) is perhaps one of the most beautiful cities on earth. It’s multi-layered, winding, stone-stacked and rain-stained, an organic marriage of the modern and the ancient.

On a single street, you’ll pass dozens of tourist shops, touting all things plaid, diners serving haggis, neeps, and tatties—neeps and tatties are mashed turnips and potatoes; haggis is ground sheep intestines and oatmeal—all of which are surprisingly delicious, and various hole-in-the-wall cafes and bistros. We wandered into St. Mary’s, praying in the beautiful, vaulted cathedral after mass. That night (on recommendation from Professor Duerden, our Shakespeare professor), a small, brave group of us went to the Beltane Fire Festival up on Calton Hill. It was a huge pagan celebration heralding the arrival of summer. There was a procession of people playing drums and painted like demons, dancing with fire up the ruins on a hill, and lots and lots of men and women painted entirely red, dancing around bonfires, wearing nothing but tiny loincloths. It was an interesting experience observing such an ancient ritual. It was so packed we could barely move, but, because it was freezing, we didn’t mind too much. It was definitely an interesting cultural experience!

The next morning, we visited Edinburgh Castle. It overlooks the city like a monolith, the temperature dropping significantly at the top. The castle had a chapel, a cemetery for the royal dogs, cannons, prisons and dungeons, and a great hall. Hannah assisted a Scottish man in a kilt with a demonstration in how to fold a kilt (he called her “UTAH”, because that’s what she said after he asked her where she was from, after answering “’MURICA.”). He also sang “Oklahoma!” to me, which was fantastic. It was amazing to think of everything that occurred at the castle and everyone who once lived there.
Later that day, we hiked up to Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s Seat is a mini-mountain on the edge of Edinburgh, covered in the greenest of grass. Hiking to the top, you really feel like you are in the presence of the ancients. You can see the sea from the top. It was extremely windy and, as we balanced at the peak, we were constantly reminded of our own mortality. We were able to view the entire city.

That night, a group of us went on a haunted tour of the city. Our tour guide was imperiously tall, was clad in a black cloak, and creeped around like a graceful velociraptor. He also whipped Nathan with a black whip (don’t worry, he didn’t draw blood). After leading us around, tell us stories of historical tortures and hangings, he took us four stories underground into the vaults, where he told us true ghost stories of recent sightings that happened in the catacombs. Pat’s young daughters were perhaps the only people who weren’t scared.

This morning, we took a train and then a coach (bus) to the coastal, college town of St. Andrews (pronounced: suh-TAN-drews), where we met the essayist Chris Arthur. After walking to an ancient cemetery, we hiked to the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. It was wild and melancholy, covered in rocks, shells, barnacles, and white and green sea glass. As we sat upon the shore, he lectured us on the process of writing an essay and signed our books. The wind nipped our faces and fingertips, the gulls cried, and we felt fearless and unified with nature as we leapt like mountain goats from rock to rock, and climbed the giant formation called Rock and Spindle, which inspired Arthur to write an essay. As we combed the coast for precious fossils of sea life and death, I thought about man’s pointless efforts to improve on nature. How more perfect could the jagged ridges of a shell, the multi-hued stripes of a stone, the rhythmic, moon-driven tide, the lonely cry of a gull be? I was, in that moment, absolutely convinced that everything made by the finger of God should remain untouched by the finger of man. We rode the train home and I sat by a elderly Scottish man who carefully propped the pages of his newspaper away from me so he could be sure that I couldn’t read over his shoulder, which was fine with me because I was able to get caught up on my journal on the two-hour ride home. Later tonight, we went to see a play called “The Sash”, which was apparently a social commentary. I wouldn’t know because I fell asleep in the first three minutes and woke up to everyone applauding in the end. The only thing I can tell you about it is that the actors’ accents were so thick, you could hardly understand a word they were saying. Then, a few of us went and had ice cream at a place on the corner called After’s, which was sweet, satisfying, but made us freezing on the walk home.

Tomorrow, we have to wake up at eight to catch the coach to Loch Lomond. Edinburgh has been absolutely incredible and we’ve loved every minute of it.


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