September 20, 2013

Scotland's Capital on the Firth of Forth

"And yet the place (Edinburgh) establishes an interest in people's hearts; go where they will, they find no city of the same distinction."  Robert Louis Stevenson

Al writes:  Our first impressions when visiting a new city give us an idea about the uniqueness and character of the city.  As soon as we entered Edinburgh, we felt this visit would be a special treat. Edinburgh is the historical and cultural capital of Scotland.  What we thought would be a three-day stay turned into 5 days and ended up being the longest time we have spent in one place since we arrived in Europe.
The town is on the Firth of Forth (I love saying that fast) and is built around a couple of extinct volcanoes on lava flows.  The old town dates back to medieval times and the new town is one of the first Georgian (18th Century) planned towns.  

The entire area is dominated by Edinburgh Castle (11th Century) which has been an integral fixture in the history of the city.  It currently houses the Scottish Royal Crown Jewels, the Stone of Scone (more later), National War Memorial, Scottish Military Museum, and headquarters of a Scottish Regiment.  It is also the place where the Military Tattoo takes place, which is an annual competition of bagpipe bands from around the world.  It is a big deal and you have to get reservations a year in advance.
From the castle, you enter the Royal Mile.  It is the main street through the medieval portion of the town that ends at the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse.  The street is lined with shops, restaurants, museums, the Scottish Parliament, and historic landmarks.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse and connected abbey ruins is the royal family's bungalow in Edinburgh.  The Queen comes here every year, receives the keys to the city, which she immediatley gives back for safekeeping, and throws a modest garden party for 8000 after she awards the Order of the Thistle to deserving Scots for above and beyond performance, duty, or charity.  


After visiting the new Scottish Parliament Building, I have to digress a little on the history.  The United Kingdom is composed of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Over the centuries, England had to repeatedly put down revolutions in these areas.  Scotland was always a thorn in England's butt with such guys as Bonnie Prince Charles and William Wallace.  The Scottish Parliament originated in 1293 but was dissolved in 1707.  It is only recently in 1998 that the Scots voted for home rule and the Queen formally opened Parliament in 1999.  Also, the Queen agreed to return the Stone of Scone with the condition that it be returned for future coronations at Westminster Abbey.  The Stone of Scone is a big grey chunk of rock on which the Scottish Kings as far back as the 9th century were coronated.  We saw the big grey chunk of rock next to the Crown Jewels but were forbidden to take photos.  What is more interesting is Scotland has a big vote next year on whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country.  Crazy stuff. It is like Texas trying to secede from the Union.  Hmmm, that sounds familiar.
We devoted an entire day to the National Museum of Scotland. 

Wow, what a collection of stuff in a confusing series of buildings!  I told one Scottish couple on an elevator that I have been trying to find the exit for three days and keep moving so that I am not labeled an artifact.  They laughed but I think I heard a mumble about crazy Americans.  You could spend a week in the place.  They say that there are 20,000 artifacts on display and we saw only 3,479.  I thought the highlights were the hoards and brooches.  Scotland and Ireland are covered in bogs and that is where the oldtimers hid their wealth.  The museums are full of discovered hoards that go as far back as Roman times.  I know what I would be doing if I owned some bog.

Brooches were used to hold the cape on the shoulders, and the more ornate, the higher one's standing.

Another very enjoyable museum was the National Gallery of Scotland.  For a relatively small museum, it has some world-renowned art in an impressive setting with red walls.


Other sights included a tour of a 17th century merchant's house, an 18th century Georgian house, and the Writers' Museum devoted to the big three in Scottish literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. 

Finally, our last day in Edinburgh was devoted to touring Her Majesty's Royal Yacht Britannia.  The ship served the Royal Family for 40 years and was retired in 1997, ending an unbroken string of royal yachts that stretch back to the early 17th century.  The Britannia is really two ships in one.  There is the portion that is devoted to the Royal Family and staff, and then the part that is the Royal Navy.

The ship was commissioned in the early 50's and has that look of simplicity.  It was used extensively by the royal family for showing the flag, diplomacy, vacations, and honeymoons.  It was not a bad way to travel.  A sampling of the royal suites include the Queen's bedroom,

Queen's office,

 Queen's salon,

Queen's sun deck

Queen's State Dining Room (Eisenhowers, Clintons, Reagans, Madela, Yeltsin to name a few have been fed here),

 and one of the many Queen's booze lockers.

The Royal Navy side was fascinating because of the rules followed to avoid disturbing the royal family and make it a tranquil, relaxing place.  All work was to be completed by 8 AM.  Only first names were used among the crew.  No public, loud disciplinary actions.  If you ran into a royal family member, you came to attention and looked off to the horizon. The crew was required to use hand signals.  The captain of the ship was an Admiral.  To contribute to this placid environment, there were 5 official bars for the crew depending on your rank.  Shucks, I could have enjoyed going to sea in this environment.  I could start my day quietly talking to Seaman Timmy on his chore to complete by 8, walk into the wardroom and talk about our cruise route today with Winston, the Admiral.  I could practice my hand signals for the rest of the day until it was time to have a pint of Guinness in the officer's bar.  

The tour of the yacht was very complete from the bridge to the engine room.  Some examples:

Royal Marines berthing,

low-ranking enlisted bar/lounge,

officer's bar,

engine room,

officer's wardroom (I never had ship meals with crystal),

and the senior chief's bar (I apologize for the photo but a German couple insisted that we pose with the hats).

After the tour, it was easy to see how much we have adapted from the Royal Navy (except for the bars).

Our stay in Edinburgh was a great time to explore one of the unique cities of the world.  Now it is time to move south down the west coast of England for more adventures.

"Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax.” Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II











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