Thursday, November 7, 2013

Castles, Ghosts and a Mini Family Reunion - Weekend in Scotland

While trying to plan out the next year of travel, Josh had suggested a trip to Scotland.  I had been to Glasgow and done a tour of the Highlands, but I was hoping to get to Edinburgh before we head home to the States for good.  So this was a great opportunity for us to hit one more country over a long weekend.  Since the weather is not super fabulous any time of the year in Scotland, we chose to go over a long weekend at the end of Oct/start of November.  There were 3 things we wanted to do while visiting Scotland:  Stay in a castle, visit Stirling Castle (home of Braveheart and Robert the Bruce fame) and visit with our British cousins whom the kids had never met.

As Scotland is well known for it's many castles, Josh had suggested that we look for a castle to stay in at least one night.  After much searching we ended up at Castle Levan in Gourock, on the west coast. Originally built in the 14th century, the castle was in a great location right by the water.  And while it wasn't super close to our final destination, Edinburgh, the Lowlands aren't that hard to travel across and we essentially went from one coast to the other in a matter of hours.  

The castle was small, maybe about 2000 square feet which just goes to show that royalty didn't always live large.  We got a little lost driving to it as it was tucked away in a development of modern homes. Actually, I had to look up when we pulled up next to it and it wasn't til I saw the flag swaying in the breeze that I realized that yup, this is it.  

It was night time when we arrived so we didn't get a bright light view but from what we could see, the gardens were beautiful.  The pictures of the exterior below are mainly from the owner who gave us a cd of pics and a few pics that I took the next morning when we did a tour.  From what the owner told us, the castle hadn't been lived in for about 300 years and up til the 80s it had no roof or floors.  It was a neighborhood haunted house that kids would play in essentially until the time it was restored which was in the 80s.  The remodel appears quite authentic and from what we read, the architect involved is an expert in castle restorations.  If it weren't for the modern amenities such as running water, toilets and lights, I would never have known it had been restored!

You can actually walk along the roofline - it had great views of the bay.

Picture from the owner

This is the staircase we took from the street down to the castle entrance below.

A real slate roof

Josh walking along the roof

View of the bay

The boys up on the roof

While we had seen pictures online of the castle, being right there was better than we could ever have expected.  The pictures just don't do it justice.  Our room was stately and while we had to share it with the kids, it was certainly large enough to do so!  The owner told us that our room was originally 2 rooms but that when the renovations were done, they combined them into one larger master bedroom.

A little nook and an old fireplace

Another nook and Liam standing in front of the door to our room.  No he hasn't gotten taller, the doorways are very low!

Another shot of a very tall Liam in the doorway

This is way cooler than they thought it would be!

Amazing ceiling in our room

Liam needed a boost to get up on the bed, it was so high!

Stairway and entrance to the bathroom (which was as big as my bedroom in Spain but significantly colder!!)

Kitchen - we didn't actually go in... it was on our cd of pics.  But love the arch!

Our visit to Levan Castle included breakfast and it was fantastic!  The owners wife, Lady Lydia, made everything to order and we had a traditional English breakfast.  Oh it's been so long since we've had a breakfast like that (traditional breakfast in Spain is more like a ham sandwich).  And while we ate, her husband regaled us with stories of the castle including a story about the White Lady who haunts it.  

Haunts it you say?  Yes, thank goodness we didn't find that out til the next morning otherwise I don't think the kids or I would have slept.  Josh, on the other hand, had been hoping it was haunted.  He's a sick man.  But I digress, the White Lady has been haunting Castle Levan since at least the 17th century. The story is that Lady Montgomery had been murdering her tenants at Castle Levan.  While originally sentenced to death herself, she ended up on house arrest.  When her husband, who had been away, heard of what happened, he sent her to the basement level and starved her to death.  She has been haunting the castle ever since.  (  

The current owner didn't say whether he had seen the White Lady or not, however, he did say that his granddaughter did have a few strange experiences.  Apparently when she was around 1 year old, her mother found her in a corner gesturing and waving at the wall.  This happened a number of times. Obviously she was too young to communicate what she saw, but it sounds convincing to me!!!  And so I'm glad we didn't know this story before sleeping or else I definitely wouldn't have slept well!!

While we had fun exploring Castle Levan, with only 2 1/2 days in Scotland we had places to see and so we were off and running again.  This time to the famous Stirling Castle.  For those that don't remember the name, think back to that famous 1995 movie - Braveheart.  Yup, you know the one. "You can take our lives, but you can't take our freedom" - that one.  While we haven't seen the movie in years and are aware that it's not totally historically accurate, it's something that Josh was super excited about - the home of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace aka Braveheart.  It doesn't get much better than that :)

The drive to Stirling was about an hour and a half from Castle Levan.  And while my pre printed google map showed us taking a coastal route, our GPS had a different way in mind.  And that way was likely just as scenic as the water would have been.  The roads in Scotland are windy and narrow, though not quite as much as they were in Ireland (thank god for that!).  With fall at it's peak, we even got to see some foliage along the way though it didn't quite compete with New England in the fall - but a taste was just enough to remind me of how much I love this time of year at home.  

Firth of Clyde, the bay that Castle Levan overlooks

Quick snapshot of Gourock, the town that Castle Levan is located in

Out like a light most of the ride

Him too... 

Some of the beautiful roads

Lots of sheep and cows along this route

More foliage

Stunning views of the rolling hills

Love it!  Look at all the colors!  It's not New England but it's close!

More sheep!

And some more :)

We finally arrived at Stirling Castle around 11:30.  My first instinct was to feed the kids before we began what I figured was several hours of touring but Josh was hot to get going.  So after a "lunch" of chips and chocolate (lunch of champions) courtesy of the gift shop, we were on our way to explore Stirling Castle.

As we approach the castle

Approaching the castle

Not sure who the statue is of, but Josh wanted a picture of it...

Church on the way up the hill to the castle

The tower in the background is the William Wallace Monument

Cemetery by the castle

Another view - probably should have checked to see if Robert the Bruce or William Wallace were buried here but didn't think of it at the time

Yes, another castle!  (Insert sarcasm here as he has just begged me to feed him and not make him tour yet another castle)

To start off, the castle wasn't as big as we thought it would be though apparently is still quite large by Scottish standards as it's the 2nd largest castle in Scotland.  But from what little of the audio I had the chance to listen to (my kids might be great travelers but that doesn't mean that they will give me 5 mins of peace to listen to an audio tour) the castle was significantly bigger many years ago.

Many of the buildings date back to the 15th and 16th century with a few being as far back as the 14th century.  Positioned on top of a hill overlooking a river, it's location was a good one as far as defense goes.  However, earliest evidence of a castle on this land dates back to the 12th century, where there is evidence that a chapel was here that was dedicated by King Alexander in the early 1100s.  It was from this time going forward that kings favored Stirling Castle as a royal residence.

Josh has been very into panoramics lately and I have to say, he's doing a nice job of them!

Liam and I climbed into one of the towers - not the best photo of us, but fun nonetheless

Castle entrance

Boys and their toys

They are doing this on purpose... Aidan looks into the cannon, Liam yells "ready, aim, fire" and...

Aidan then plays dead after Liam "shoots" him with a cannonball

Let's see if we can fall down into the well!  Great idea!!

Big wide open spaces, cannons to "shoot" = happy kids

While the outside of the castle looked to be relatively authentic and well maintained, the interior was not what we were hoping.  We had been prepared to expect things to have been "disney-fied" before visiting by a friend who had lived in Edinburgh years ago and had seen the castle in a more original state and then had visited again in recent years only to see the remodel completely changed the interior of the castle.  It was beyond obvious that things were new in the interior and little effort had been made to make those renovations appear dated.  Paintings appeared to have been finished very recently.  That was a bit of a disappointment - that little effort had been made to make it look authentic.  I recognize that at many historic sites that actual antiques and artifacts are removed and placed somewhere safe and that they are replaced for the public with replicas.  But often, the general public cannot tell the different. This was not the case at Stirling.  It was blatantly obvious that these were not originals.

The Great Hall

Interactive "games" for the kids.  And a "restored" ceiling that probably looks like the original but in fact is not nearly as details or ornate -  it's all just floorboards painted to look like details and depth but in actuality, it's flat.  But if you use your imagination, I'm sure the original ceiling was beautiful if it looked similar to this... 

Fake fire but real fireplace

Tapestries that have been redone

Again, a little too "new" looking to feel authentic

More "new" ceiling

After visiting Stirling Castle, it was time to head on to Edinburgh, our final destination.  It was a faster and easier (ie, all highway) drive than from the west coast.  Here we would meet up with Josh's cousin Fiona and her family on Saturday morning.  But we still had almost a half a day on Friday left and we weren't meeting them til noon on Saturday.  

Very odd horse monument along the highway?  This thing was several stories high... 

Rainbow as we drove to Edinburgh

As it was almost 3PM by the time we got around to lunch there wasn't a whole lot of options.  And it was just ok.  But that was to be expected.  While at lunch, we got to talking and decided to see if there were any movies playing (in English!!!) that we could go see.  We did the same thing when we were in London.  It's not that we can't see English movies here, we can.  But there is something about seeing them in an English speaking country that makes a little more special.  We found a theater about a 25 minute walk away that was playing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.  We're in!

We took our time finishing lunch and started the walk over to the movie theater.  Apparently the walk took us along a main shopping drag which was just oh so terrible ;)  Aidan and I decided we shall come back just for some shopping.  Gap, bookstores, American candy stores and did I mention the Gap???  We didn't have a lot of time so we only stopped in the bookstore which for us is such a treat because with the exception of one or two just ok stores, there really isn't much to offer for English bookstores in a Spanish speaking country - so again, just one of those pleasures we get a few times a year when we are on English speaking soil.  It's something that Aidan, especially, enjoys.

But while Aidan enjoys going into the English bookshop, I should also note that he mentioned on this trip that while it's nice to be somewhere English speaking for a little bit, he really likes that in Spain that we have to interpret places and things - that we have to think about stuff like that rather than it just being simple.  I thought that was rather deep for a 9 year old kid.  His Spanish is really coming along these days - I'm really proud of him!

Anyways, the route to the movies was especially pretty and from where we were, we could see some of the old city.  There were very few bombs in Edinburgh during WWII from what we were told and so much of the old city is still in its original state.  We got to see more of the old side on Saturday - more pictures further down on that one.

Near our hotel

Church as we walk to the movies

Edinburgh Castle as we walk to the movies - it was about a 10 min walk from our hotel

Giving me a wink

The old side of the city on the other side from where we were

Love the mix of old and new... though I was relieved to see that the colors are not painted on but plastic overlays on the columns.

Scott Monument (Monument to author Sir Walter Scott)

The movie was great and since we had such a late lunch we just grabbed Subway on the way back for the kids and headed back to the hotel.  It was a busy, but fun day and we had more fun ahead with our cousins visit on Saturday!!

So as I mentioned, the bonus to this trip was that when I was in the planning stages, I reached out to Josh's cousin, Fiona who lives in Northern England.  I wasn't sure how far they were from Edinburgh but thought what a great opportunity it would be for us all to get together as we've talked about it for a while.  And yes, we were able to make it work for part of the weekend!!

But while we waited for them to arrive on Saturday morning, we hit Edinburgh Castle.  And I have to say, this one was a lot more authentic inside and out than it's neighbor, Stirling.  While it's possible to establish that the rock on which Edinburgh Castle sits upon has been inhabited since the 2nd century AD, it was not until the 12th century that a castle was built on this site.  It was used as a royal residence until around the early 17th century.  Of the buildings that exist now, most are from the 16th century as many of the older ones had been destroyed in battles.  Still though, 16th century is still pretty damn old, and older than the US!  However, St. Margarets Chapel, built during the 12th century, still stands and is considered to be one of the oldest buildings still erect in Edinburgh.

Ok first off, how cute is this shirt???  Secondly he's very excited about going to see another castle!

Buildings near our hotel

More buildings as we head towards the castle

View of Edinburgh Castle from below - the walk up was not as daunting as it appeared.

About halfway there...

The kids loved that they could see the cannons from the outside, not just on the inside of the castle.

The Royal Mile extends in front of the castle (with the castle being at a dead end) and consists of lots of shops, restaurants, etc. leading into Old Town Edinburgh

About to enter the castle

View of the start of the Royal Mile

Panoramic a la Josh

The boys and I at the entrance of Edinburgh Castle - statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace stand guard behind us.

So it turns out the knight on the other side (which I didn't take a picture of) is William Wallace.  I only figured that out as I was researching this blog entry.  Figures!  This is the one of Robert the Bruce.

Aidan explaining to me what is on the other side of what was likely a moat

Just entered the castle grounds

Super hero

I told Aidan to make sure those gates don't come crashing down on him - ouch!!

Cannons at a castle?  No way!!

Love this picture of them - only wish Liam was looking at the camera!

Got 'em!

Josh this should be your new profile pic... 

Run!  More cannons!

Can I keep it for a pet???

Look mom, it's a horse!

This was the prison barracks

We got back to the hotel just in time for our cousins arrival.  This was a very exciting time for the kids - with no first cousins, they love getting to meet extended family and up til now, most of those cousins have been on my side.  They met one or two of Josh's cousins who had visited when we lived in the States but given we haven't lived there in almost 4 years, they really don't remember much.

So Fiona, Colin, Angus and Eden made the 4 hour trek up from England to meet up with us.  It's something we've talked about doing for a while but hadn't actually scheduled, so in the end, it worked out beautifully (and now we are in talks for some more mini reunions!).  For once, Aidan was not the oldest of the crew but instead was about the same age.  Angus is 2 years older and Eden is the same age (though significantly taller!).  And while Aidan takes a bit to warm up, Liam, as usual, just jumped right in.

Now to Fiona's kids - this was my first time meeting them.  And I cannot say enough about these kids. First off, they came right up to me and gave me the best hugs - most kids just meeting an adult wouldn't do that and it just warmed me inside and out.  Outgoing, energetic, fun and soooo polite!  I wanted to take them home with me.  It didn't feel like it was our first meeting but like we'd known each other always.  Such a great feeling and it really made for more fun on the trip.  As the day went on, Aidan jumped into the fray and became a part of the crowd.

We grabbed a leisurely lunch with the cousins and everyone spent time getting to know one another and/or catching up.  It was just so relaxed and fun and added another dimension to our trip.  We love to travel but 99% of the time it's just the 4 of us.  That's fine and we enjoy it but it's nice to add another family to the mix every now and again and this was the perfect mix.

Liam, Angus, Aidan and Eden

After lunch we had reservations to go to the Real Mary King's Close which my friend Chris had highly recommended.  We walked thru the streets of the Old Town where I was in awe at every turn at how beautiful this city is.  Unfortunately, we got lost along the way and were late for our reservations.  After much pleading, they added another tour for later in the day for us.  

Liam holding his own against his older cousin

Hmmm... maybe not after all!

Another rainbow!  I love this country!

View of the castle as we head to the Real Mary King's Close

Old Town

More of Old Town

Beautiful cobblestone streets

We sent the kids up this giant flight of stairs - easily 100 stairs - to see if that was where the entrance was (and it was) so that the adults didn't have to walk up them for nothing. 

We stopped at Starbucks for some coffee and hot chocolate before wandering around Old Town for a bit while waiting to take our tour.

Just the girls... 

That stop light is really badly placed in an otherwise beautiful shot

Boys horseplaying - what boys do best!

Group shot and please please don't stick your foot into the water that has gathered in the drain Liam!!

Loved this building!

So this being Scotland and not Spain AND coupled with the fact that our tour was now at 6:45PM instead of 2:15 as originally planned, we had to figure out what to do about dinner.  Do we eat before or after?  After would mean well after 8 (which is when the restaurants in Spain are just opening up) or before would mean more like 5.  Do we do it?  Do we eat at 5?  Actually I think we entered Prezzo (which interestingly we had eaten at before in England) at just before 5.  When I told my Spanish friends how early we ate, I think they were slightly mortified since that's just past lunch time here!

But like Boston, it was already dark by 5 unlike here in Spain where it's more like 6:30ish so it felt like dinner time and we just went with it.  And kids with full bellies are a whole lot happier on a tour than those on empty ones!  And while we are at it, English kids are ridiculously polite and I hope that my kids learned a thing or two about being in a restaurant from them!

Kids having some fun at dinner

So this time we were ready and early for our tour of the Real Mary King's Close.  At this point you are probably wondering what exactly is Mary King's Close.  I know I was as before we went on this trip I had never heard of it.  First of all, a close.  What is a close?  I went to my old go to of wikipedia for this one and honestly, it's just easier to tell you exactly what they had on their page rather than editing it because it explains it quite simply:

"The Old Town of Edinburgh, Scotland, consisted originally of the Royal Mile and the small streets and courtyards that led off it to the north and south. These are usually named after a memorable occupant of one of the apartments reached by the common entrance, or the occupations of those that traded therein. Generically they are termed closes /ˈkls/, a Scots term foralleyways, although they may be individually named closes, entries, courts and wynds. A close was private property and therefore gated, hence closed to the public, whereas a wynd was an open throughway, usually wide enough for a horse and cart. Most slope steeply down from the Royal Mile creating the impression of a herring-bone pattern formed by the main street and side streets when viewed on a map. Many have steps and long flights of stairs.
Because of the need for security within its town walls against English attacks in past wars, Edinburgh experienced a pronounced density in housing. Closes tend to be narrow with tall buildings on both sides, giving them a canyon-like appearance and atmosphere.
The Royal Mile comprises four, linear, conjoined streets: Castle Hill; Lawnmarket; High Street; and Canongate. Closes are listed below from west to east, divided between the south and north sides of the street.
This list names closes currently in existence. Since the Council encourages recreation of closes in new developments the list is not static. New buildings traditionally incorporate the name of the close that historically existed on the same site."

So Mary King's Close was a very famous close.  And it was very rare for a woman to have a close named after her in those days.  When the Royal Exchange was built, many closes became underground and were closed down.  For many years no one had ventured into Mary King's close and there were many tales of hauntings, murders and more.  This was during the time of the Plague and we heard many stories about what happened in the close (sorry for the pun) quarters so the rumors of the hauntings are about those that might have died during those times.  There have been sightings since around the 17th century.  Again, glad I didn't know this til after we did the tour.  Oh and no cameras were allowed which is why you'll only see the one picture below that the tour company took of our group (that we of course had to pay for).  

The tour was especially cool because the tour guide was one of those ones that kind of gets into the act. While she spoke with what sounded to me like an American accent, she was dressed for the times and referenced things like she had been there.  And yes, while I know that can be kind of cheesy, for the kids especially I think it was a nice touch to help them to understand a little bit more about the times and kind of get into it.  In the process we learned a bit about Scottish history, more specifically about this part of Scotland, the plague and what life was like in the 17th century.  

There were a few moments when I thought Liam was going to freak out and admittedly it got a little spooky.  My reassurances to him might also have been in a way to reassure myself too.  But he got thru it and even admitted it was fun after (thought as I'm typing this he's telling me he hated this tour and that it creeped him out - he saw the picture as I was typing).  

 A spooky picture of our little group

The tour ended just after 8 and sadly it was time to head back to the hotel as we had to get these kids to bed for an early start on Sunday.  But while the adults caught up a little bit more the kids played some video games and jenga in the hotel lobby.  We were upstairs just after 9 and heading out to the airport around 6AM.  While all our trips are fun, this one was especially so - speaking English, fun castles, ghosts and of course, our family - the trip was just a great time!  Next up ... surprise trip for the kids to Paris!!


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