Early Days

I’m going back to Ireland next year.

That’s about all the decision I’ve made so far. I was torn between another trip to the UK and going back to Ireland, but news that Aer Lingus was going to start using the same reward miles company as British Air1 means that I should be able to get a cheap(er) flight to Dublin than I had feared. But the new system won’t be in place until summer, so I can’t book my ticket until then, and so I don’t know the dates, and so on.

Doesn’t stop me from reading travel sites and books, though. And so I’ve made a new itinerary page, though all it has on it right now is some links I don’t want to forget. I mean, I know I’m going to want several days in Dublin, and a few days in Waterford2, and a few days in Donegal3, and maybe back in Doolin for a bit, and maybe go kiss the Blarney Stone again4, but I don’t have anything definite sorted yet.

So, like the title says, it’s early days. But it’s starting.

  1. Where I have a lot of stranded reward miles after converting some from my credit card to theirs when planning the UK trip. []
  2. I haven’t seen that much of the south east. []
  3. I haven’t seen that much of the north west. []
  4. Kissing it’s good for seven years. I need to recharge my gift of gab. []

The Strip and the Show

Despite a pretty terrible sleep last night, we were up and at breakfast by 9:00 am. We ate at Hash House A-Go-Go, here in the Rio hotel, and the food was great. The portions, however, were ridiculously huge.

I ordered oatmeal. It said it came with fruit – I figured some apples and raisins. This had a HUGE bowl of oatmeal, bananas, apples, blueberries, cantaloupe, orange, and mango, along with brown sugar and cream.

So, yeah, that was a big breakfast.

After we ate, we caught the free shuttle from the Rio to Harrah’s1, and decided to walk down the Strip to see the sights.

The Strip is that stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard where all the famous big hotels and casinos you’ve heard of are in Las Vegas: Harrah’s, The Bilagio, Caesar’s Palace, the Mirage, etc. It’s a long stretch of street, and the buildings are HUGE, like very fancy shopping malls stretching off the street. From TV, I know that it shows up to best effect at night, when the lights are going, but there were still some impressive things to see during the day.

These waterfalls, entirely artificial, of course, are tucked in a twist of path in front of the Wynn casino, which is the copper building you can see in the background.
These waterfalls, entirely artificial, of course, are tucked in a twist of path in front of the Wynn casino, which is the copper building you can see in the background.

We made it down to Circus Circus from Harrah’s, and decided to stop there for a drink, a rest, and a show. They have free circus acts every half-hour, and we got to see a Cuban foot-juggler2 named Osmani Perez, who was pretty amazing. Then we turned back, and walked down the other side of the street back towards Harrah’s.

In the lagoon at Treasure Island, just in front of the Senor Frog restaurant, there was a pirate ship that I thought was pretty cool.
In the lagoon at Treasure Island, just in front of the Senor Frog restaurant, there was a pirate ship that I thought was pretty cool.
In front of the Mirage, there are bronze heads of Siegfried and Roy, along with one of their tigers. The heads are easily as tall as me.
In front of the Mirage, there are bronze heads of Siegfried and Roy, along with one of their tigers. The heads are easily as tall as me.

Michael and Sandy had read that there was a dolphin habitat in the Mirage, so we went looking for it. Of course, we had to make our way through the casino, and past the restaurants and spas and bars, and out the other side, past the pool. But there we found Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden3 and Dolphin Habitat.

We didn’t hesitate to slap our money down and head inside. Through pure luck, we managed to arrive with just enough time to head down into the underwater viewing area and get some pictures before the feeding started.

Here are a bunch of pictures of dolphins, now. Because dolphins are cool.

Dolphins 1

Dolphins 2

Dolphins 3

Dolphins 4

Here are the trainers, feeding the dolphins.
Here are the trainers, feeding the dolphins.
I was fascinated to watch the trainers interact with the dolphins. There was real, two-way communication between trainer and dolphin, and a lot of play and teasing. The dolphins did some tricks, but according to the trainers, it's the dolphins who pick what tricks they do. And that's really cool.
I was fascinated to watch the trainers interact with the dolphins. There was real, two-way communication between trainer and dolphin, and a lot of play and teasing. The dolphins did some tricks, but according to the trainers, it’s the dolphins who pick what tricks they do. And that’s really cool.

Past the dolphins was a small… zoo, I guess. It’s where the retired animals from the Siegfried and Roy show, plus some others they’ve saved from bad situations, live.

Near the entry is a very cool panther made of moss. Well, moss on a frame or sculpture of some sort, There was also a black panther, but I couldn't get a good picture of it.
Near the entry is a very cool panther made of moss. Well, moss on a frame or sculpture of some sort, There was also a black panther, but I couldn’t get a good picture of it.
These are Pride and Quest, two white lions that used to work onstage with Siegfried and Roy. They are old - I'm not sure how old, but their plaques list them as senior citizens.
These are Pride and Quest, two white lions that used to work onstage with Siegfried and Roy. They are old – I’m not sure how old, but their plaques list them as senior citizens. And so they are napping.
Snow White is a tiger that was doing the whole jungle-cat-pacing thing. He very nicely did a perfect turn, just like a runway model, so I got this great picture of him.
Snow White is a tiger that was doing the whole jungle-cat-pacing thing. He very nicely did a perfect turn, just like a runway model, so I got this great picture of him.
A leopard sleeping in a tree.
A leopard sleeping in a tree.
Another sleeping leopard. The one not-sleeping leopard didn't stand still long enough for me to get a decent picture.
Another sleeping leopard. The one not-sleeping leopard didn’t stand still long enough for me to get a decent picture.
Here's a six-month old tiger cub. It's actually two cubs - the white bits are a different cub. Right now, they're sleeping on a branch, piled together. They got up and played with the fellow in the cage babysitting them for a bit, but that drew such a huge crowd that I didn't get a good shot.
Here’s a six-month old tiger cub. It’s actually two cubs – the white bits are a different cub. Right now, they’re sleeping on a branch, piled together. They got up and played with the fellow in the cage babysitting them for a bit, but that drew such a huge crowd that I didn’t get a good shot.

Interesting thing about the tiger cubs: they are littermates, one orange-striped and one white. It’s a recessive gene that causes the loss of darker pigment, and the condition is not albinism, but leucism. It means that, like in this case, you can have siblings, some with normal pigmentation and some with leucism.

Siegfried and Roy are here depicted loading their animals into an ark. I thought it was a bit pretentious, but then found it was a gift from an abbey in Eastern Europe that they had helped out a great deal. And that made me feel like a judgmental twit. It's a gorgeous mosaic.
Siegfried and Roy are here depicted loading their animals into an ark. I thought it was a bit pretentious, but then found it was a gift from an abbey in Eastern Europe that they had helped out a great deal. And that made me feel like a judgmental twit.
It’s a gorgeous mosaic.

After this, we walked back to Margaritaville, and I had a really nice fish sandwich there. We were starting to feel tired by that time – we’d been on the Strip for almost six hours, walking back and forth and sightseeing – so we made our way to Bally’s and caught the shuttle back to the Rio4, and I came up to my room to chill for a bit before the main feature tonight: the Penn & Teller show.

So, I wrote the previous stuff before the Penn & Teller show. Now, it’s after the show, and I’m getting ready for bed.

The show was spectacular. It was everything I could have hoped. I was in one of the best seats, Sandy got to go on stage for a pull-the-rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick, and Michael and I were part of the human chain when they vanished the elephant. Absolutely great stuff.

After the show, Penn & Teller very graciously hung around signing stuff and having their picture taken.

Here's Penn looming over me.
Here’s Penn looming over me.
Teller doesn't exactly loom, but still has a few inches on me.
Teller doesn’t exactly loom, but still has a few inches on me.
When Teller saw what card I was asking him to sign, he chuckled and added, "Is this your card?" It made me very happy.
When Teller saw what card I was asking him to sign, he chuckled and added, “Is this your card?” It made me very happy.

Both Penn & Teller were so very friendly, even with huge crowds of folks looking for a moment with them. It’s so nice to see how graciously they treat all their fans, even the one guy who tried to bait Penn into a political argument. True gentlemen.

And that’s above and beyond the fantastic magic.

Now, to bed. Tomorrow night, we fly home.

  1. Trying not to think about how we weren’t going to get to see Mac King there this afternoon. []
  2. Yes. He juggled Cuban feet. []
  3. The name only made me a little nervous. []
  4. Eventually. The first shuttle that came by filled up too fast, and we had to wait 30 minutes for the next. Not a real hardship. []

Fremont Street

Made it to Las Vegas. The trip was fine, and went without a hitch. The line to register at the Rio was long – there was a woman who stood at the head of the line handing out water and apologizing. But, I mean, we were checking in on a Friday afternoon; of course it’s going to be busy!

After we were checked in, we went to our rooms to freshen up. Mine was still being made up, but that only took about five minutes until they were finished.

The room is huge, and very nice.
The room is huge, and very nice.

Once we met up again, we jumped in a taxi and went to Fremont Street. From what I understand, Fremont Street is the heart of old Las Vegas – the Strip before there was the Strip.

A large section has been roofed over with lights that keep running a display.
A large section has been roofed over with lights that keep running a display.
Binions
Binion’s the home of the World Series of Poker, is on Fremont street.
Vegas Vic is an iconic sign, and he lives here on Fremont Street.
Vegas Vic is an iconic sign, and he lives here on Fremont Street.

As we wandered the length of the street, which is a pedestrian-only area, it was packed with people, full of busker and beggars, lined with casinos and clubs. We stopped for dinner in an “Irish Pub”1.

Sandy spotted the Zoltar machine, and stopped to have her fortune told.
Sandy spotted the Zoltar machine, and stopped to have her fortune told.

There were also lots of zip-line folks shooting over our heads every couple of minutes. That was kind of cool.

We went down onto the more normal part of Fremont Street, and saw this:

It's a crappy picture, but yes, that's a giant metal mantis that shoots fire from its antennae. And a blue geodesic dome.
It’s a crappy picture, but yes, that’s a giant metal mantis that shoots fire from its antennae. And a blue geodesic dome.
It marked the Container Park, which is a three-storey, open air mall made out of shipping containers.
It marked the Container Park, which is a three-storey, open air mall made out of shipping containers.
The middle of Container Park has a play area, including an impressive treehouse.
The middle of Container Park has a play area, including an impressive treehouse.

After we wandered back to the middle area of Fremont Street, we took a turn through the Golden Nugget. I found it kind of depressing, to be honest – so many loud, flashing slot machines, so much loud music, so many people grimly plugging in money and pulling the levers. I know, I know, if it’s not my thing, I shouldn’t say things that’ll ruin it for others, but the whole place reeked of smoke and despair.

We’d been out wandering around for a few hours at that point, and decided to head back to the Rio. I found the cab ride to be far more exciting2 than our other rides today. At the Rio, we sat in the bar for a drink, but the long day and loud music and flashing lights were giving us sensory overload. After one drink, we headed off to our rooms.

Tomorrow morning, we’re going to figure out how to spend the day leading up to the main feature of our trip, the Penn & Teller show tomorrow evening. Looking forward to that.

  1. Note the scare quotes. It wasn’t very Irish. But the food was good. []
  2. Not terrifying, but certainly prompting some concern. []

Vegas, Baby!

So, tomorrow, I’m getting on a plane for a weekend in Las Vegas. It’s just a weekend, so it doesn’t get the whole blog treatment as my other trips. I haven’t been nearly as obsessive about planning and researching, for example, so not much to write about that.

I have been wanting to go to Las Vegas for several years, just to see Penn & Teller‘s show live. They never seem to tour up to Winnipeg, so I figured this was the only way to see them. They are heroes of mine, and there’s been a lot of my heroes dropping off the planet in the last few years. I’m not waiting any longer.

This trip is different for another reason – I’m not going alone. My friends, Michael and Sandy, are coming with me. That’s kind of weird for me, as I’m used to my solo travel mode where I don’t have to consider anyone else’s preferences on my trip. But it’ll be fun to actually have friends with me to, y’know, talk to. So, I’m looking forward to that, and will be on my best behaviour1.

Aside from the P&T show, we had also got tickets to see Mac King, another magician2, but yesterday I got e-mail saying that he’s got a substitute3 performing on Saturday, so we’ve decided to try and get a refund, instead. That’ll free up some more of our limited time to see other sights.

Gambling? Probably not. Though, if I find myself with a lot of free time and there’s someone there who can explain the appropriate etiquette to me, it might be fun4 to sit in on a low-stakes poker game in an actual Las Vegas casino.

Anyway, probably a few pictures over the weekend if you check back.

  1. Of course, as anyone who knows me will tell you, even my best behaviour is not necessarily good behaviour. []
  2. I’m a little obsessed with magic. Hard to tell, right? []
  3. Dana Daniels, who is a perfectly good magician, but he’s not the guy we (and by “we,” I mean “I”) were excited to see. []
  4. Though costly. []

Not a Grail in Sight

This is my last really touristy day. Tomorrow morning, I take the train back to London, and then fly home on Sunday. So, probably no pictures on those days. Maybe even no posts at all.

Today, I took a bus tour out of Edinburgh again. My main goal for this trip was to see Rosslyn Chapel, and we got to see that, but we also went to Dunfermline Abbey and Stirling Castle. I was interested in seeing both of these places, so that was cool.

I have to admit, I was a little leery of this tour. It’s touted as the Quest for the Holy Grail tour, and rides on the popularity of Rosslyn Chapel that grew up out of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I kinda hate that book, and I really didn’t want to be sitting through discussions of the Priory of Sion1 and the Magdalene bloodline, and all that garbage.

Fortunately, no one on the tour seemed too interested in this aspect of it, and our guide instead spent the day filling us in on the stories of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Far more interesting stuff, in my opinion.

And I got some neat pictures.

This is the rail bridge crossing the Firth of Forth, just north of Edinburgh. It's almost 125 years old. Apparently, it was being built just after another railway bridge over the Firth of Tay had collapsed, dropping a train into the water and causing numerous deaths. This one is intensively over-designed in order to avoid something similar.
This is the rail bridge crossing the Firth of Forth, just north of Edinburgh. It’s almost 125 years old. Apparently, it was being built just after another railway bridge over the Firth of Tay had collapsed, dropping a train into the water and causing numerous deaths. This one is intensively over-designed in order to avoid something similar.

The rail bridge is one of two current bridges crossing the Firth of Forth here. The other one is for cars and trucks. It’s about 50 years old, and is suffering from being overburdened. Another bridge is being built, and should open next year. I really hope they call it the Third Firth of Forth Bridge.

After this quick stop, we were on for Dunfermline Abbey.

It's actually Dunfermline Abbey Church. This wall is about all that remains of the abbey itself.
It’s actually Dunfermline Abbey Church. This wall is about all that remains of the abbey itself.
This is the grave of Mary Wallace, mother of William Wallace. Because William Wallace was quartered and his remains scattered, this is about the only site where there's a grave that's associated with him. It's an interesting grave - it's in the Christian abbey churchground, but has a number of pre-Christian features: it's got a mound, and is planted with a hawthorn tree, which is the tree of life.
This is the grave of Mary Wallace, mother of William Wallace. Because William Wallace was quartered and his remains scattered, this is about the only site where there’s a grave that’s associated with him. It’s an interesting grave – it’s in the Christian abbey churchground, but has a number of pre-Christian features: it’s got a mound, and is planted with a hawthorn tree, which is the tree of life.
Inside the church, below the pulpit, is the grave of Robert the Bruce.
Inside the church, below the pulpit, is the grave of Robert the Bruce.

From Dunfermline, we continued our journey and our history lesson until we reached the Bannockburn memorial.

The whole Bannockburn memorial is pretty huge. There was no place I could stand to get the whole thing in one picture and still be able to tell what everything was. The centre has a flagpole flying the Saltire - the flag of Scotland. Around it, is a stone wall with a wooden ring circling the top carved with a poem welcoming everyone to Scotland. Then there's the cairn inside, with a quote from Robert the Bruce on it and, out the far side of the ring, a statue of Robert the Bruce on a horse.
The whole Bannockburn memorial is pretty huge. There was no place I could stand to get the whole thing in one picture and still be able to tell what everything was. The centre has a flagpole flying the Saltire – the flag of Scotland. Around it, is a stone wall with a wooden ring circling the top carved with a poem welcoming everyone to Scotland. Then there’s the cairn inside, with a quote from Robert the Bruce on it and, out the far side of the ring, a statue of Robert the Bruce on a horse.

Next stop was Stirling Castle. Up until the time of James VI2, it was the royal residence.

These are the inner gates, taken from the wall of the outer defences. It's a little smaller than Edinburgh Castle, but otherwise has a similar feel and design.
These are the inner gates, taken from the wall of the outer defences. It’s a little smaller than Edinburgh Castle, but otherwise has a similar feel and design.
This is the Great Hall, where meals were served. It's essentially a big barn with a roof made the same way the hull of a ship is made. The sandstone is washed with lime to preserve it, and the second coat of the limewash is coloured gold. Originally, all the buildings were this colour as a display of the royal wealth.
This is the Great Hall, where meals were served. It’s essentially a big barn with a roof made the same way the hull of a ship is made. The sandstone is washed with lime to preserve it, and the second coat of the limewash is coloured gold. Originally, all the buildings were this colour as a display of the royal wealth.

I tried to get a picture of the inside, but it was crowded all four times I went in, and I didn’t want just a picture of a bunch of other tourists. So, you’ll have to use your imagination.

One of the other buildings is the palace, and it’s got a few restored rooms.

James IV built the palace for his queen, Margaret Tudor, the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, and elder sister of Henry VIII. He died before ever visiting, which is why none of his furniture is here. This is the room where the king would have met important nobles. Note the colourful faces on the ceiling - they show all manner of people of the day.
James IV built the palace for his queen, Margaret Tudor, the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, and elder sister of Henry VIII. He died before ever visiting, which is why none of his furniture is here. This is the room where the king would have met important nobles. Note the colourful faces on the ceiling – they show all manner of people of the day.
This is the queen's bedroom. It's been decorated as it would have been in the 16th century.
This is the queen’s bedroom. It’s been decorated as it would have been in the 16th century.

After Stirling, our last stop was Rosslyn Chapel. It’s a beautiful little church, despite the mutilation it has suffered over the years. The restoration is top-notch, and the interior carvings are just overwhelming. But, as it’s a working church, they do not allow photography inside.

So, all I';ve got for you is a picture of the outside. Even the outside is pretty cool, though.
So, all I’;ve got for you is a picture of the outside. Even the outside is pretty cool, though.

The lady who gave us our history talk at the chapel did a wonderful job of showing why the chapel is both important and interesting without resorting to conspiracy theories. She did give us some of the more interesting interpretations of some of the carvings, but stressed that, because none of the original documents exist anymore, no one can be sure what was intended. And that means, she says, that anyone can interpret it any way they want.

A good answer, in my opinion.

Then back to Edinburgh. I’m probably going to turn in early tonight – my long holiday is catching up to me.

And, as I said, tomorrow I start my journey home.

  1. Which was totally made up by a French dude in the 1960s to prove that his family was heir to the throne of France. []
  2. Who became James I of Britain. []

Not A Step But Fashes the Dead

Okay, let’s get this out of the way first.

The Derren Brown show, Miracles, was amazing. My seat was right up front1, right on the central aisle. At one point, Derren was close enough to me that I could have licked him2. I’m not going to say anything more about the show, because it’s best to see it unspoiled. But see it. Really.

As for the rest of the day, I wandered around the Royal Mile for most of it, just kind of taking it easy and seeing stuff.

I found the Witches' Well that Sandy told me to look for. It used to be a fountain, but doesn't seem to have any water feature. This is where they used to burn witches, and the fountain is a memorial for that. There were a lot of witches tortured and burned in Edinburgh. They even had to come up with rules for the Witchhunters - you could only hold up to 13 witches at a time, and could only torture each one once per day. Of course, there was no law about how long the period of daily torture could last, so 24 hours was not uncommon.
I found the Witches’ Well that Sandy told me to look for. It used to be a fountain, but doesn’t seem to have any water feature. This is where they used to burn witches, and the fountain is a memorial for that. There were a lot of witches tortured and burned in Edinburgh. They even had to come up with rules for the Witchhunters – you could only hold up to 13 witches at a time, and could only torture each one once per day. Of course, there was no law about how long the period of daily torture could last, so 24 hours was not uncommon.
This is St. Giles, the church of the patron saint of Edinburgh.
This is St. Giles, the church of the patron saint of Edinburgh.
The statue of David Hume in the High Street. He would be very cold in that toga. I wondered about his shiny toe, and found out that it's traditional to touch his toe for wisdom, and that keeps the verdigris from settling - it keeps getting rubbed clean. Yeah, I touched the toe.
The statue of David Hume in the High Street. He would be very cold in that toga. I wondered about his shiny toe, and found out that it’s traditional to touch his toe for wisdom, and that keeps the verdigris from settling – it keeps getting rubbed clean.
Yeah, I touched the toe.
“But do ye never think about the Heart of Midlothian? Folks always spit on it in passing. That granite heart in the High Street near St. Giles that marks the gates of the erstwhile Tollbooth Jail – as nice a bit of demolition as I could wish, that. And there ye have it. The Heart of Midlothian. Of which County Edinburgh is the heart, so ye have the heart of the heart of the heart of Scotland, as ye might say, upon which we customarily spit because it marks a jail that isn’t there. There’s something right Edinburgh about that.” Robin Williamson, Edinburgh
“But do ye never think about the Heart of Midlothian? Folks always spit on it in passing. That granite heart in the High Street near St. Giles that marks the gates of the erstwhile Tollbooth Jail – as nice a bit of demolition as I could wish, that. And there ye have it. The Heart of Midlothian. Of which County Edinburgh is the heart, so ye have the heart of the heart of the heart of Scotland, as ye might say, upon which we customarily spit because it marks a jail that isn’t there.
There’s something right Edinburgh about that.”
Robin Williamson, Edinburgh

One thing that made my day awesome was that I took a ghost tour, and the guide told us about the Tollbooth Jail and the Heart of Midlothian and encouraged us to spit in it, just like in the Robin Williamson poem.

So, yeah, I spit on the Heart of Midlothian, and that made me happier than it really should have.

James was our guide on the ghost tour. His stories were fantastic, and his character performance was great.
James was our guide on the ghost tour. His stories were fantastic, and his character performance was great.

Something I really liked about the tour was that it didn’t deal with Burke and Hare. So many tours I’ve been on find any link to Burke and Hare, but this tour, in Edinburgh, where the pair committed their crimes, didn’t even bring them up.

There were better stories: the Duke of Queensberry and his cannibal son, Deacon William Brodie and his mad double life, Sawney Beane and his horrific family.

This is one of the underground sections of Edinburgh. After the Great Fire of Edinburgh, when the city was being rebuilt, a lot of little alleys and closes were covered over by the new construction. They were rediscovered in the 80s. This is Niddry's Wynd, and it was only discovered about 18 months ago. It was lit only by a very faint green lantern while James told us the story of Sawney Beane. Creepy as hell.
This is one of the underground sections of Edinburgh. After the Great Fire of Edinburgh, when the city was being rebuilt, a lot of little alleys and closes were covered over by the new construction. They were rediscovered in the 80s. This is Niddry’s Wynd, and it was only discovered about 18 months ago. It was lit only by a very faint green lantern while James told us the story of Sawney Beane. Creepy as hell.

Then, I had some nice dinner, and came back to the hotel to rest up for Derren Brown. You know how that part of the day went.

Tomorrow, Rosslyn Chapel, Dunfermline, and Stirling Castle. If the Dan Brown stuff doesn’t drive me to kill someone, I leave Edinburgh the next day, and fly back home on Sunday.

And now, for those wondering about the title of this post, I give you Edinburgh, by Robin Williamson.

  1. Well, second row. []
  2. I chose not to. I stand by my choice. []

Towerin’ Tae The Moon

I’m pretty tired tonight, so this is going to be a quick update. Today was my trip up into the highlands.

Our first stop was Callander, on the edge of the highlands. We drove through Doun to get there, which got me thinking of a verse from Tramps and Hawkers. Later in the day, I did see Ben Nevis, but we never got near Crieff.
Our first stop was Callander, on the edge of the highlands. We drove through Doun to get there, which got me thinking of a verse from Tramps and Hawkers. Later in the day, I did see Ben Nevis, but we never got near Crieff.

Then, it was up into the mountains.

See? This is me in the highlands.
See? This is me in the highlands.
This is the scenery around that point, without me cluttering it up.
This is the scenery around that point, without me cluttering it up.
Looking out over the loch, which I don't know the name of, at the mountains. Note the snow.
Looking out over the loch, which I don’t know the name of, at the mountains. Note the snow.
It's a very pretty spot. I took a lot of pictures.
It’s a very pretty spot. I took a lot of pictures.

From there, we went on to Glencoe. That’s the spot they filmed the denouement of Skyfall in. It’s a very striking, dramatic place, and I very strikingly and dramatically fell flat on my face climbing up the side of a mountain to get a good shot. I was helped up by a little Indonesian woman who didn’t speak any English and wouldn’t let go of me until her daughter translated that I was okay. Though I seem to have bent my glasses a bit.

These are two of the Three Sisters of Glencoe. I was trying to find an angle to get all three when I took my faceplant.
These are two of the Three Sisters of Glencoe. I was trying to find an angle to get all three when I took my faceplant.
This is looking down the valley at Glencoe. Tell me that's not some top-drawer scenery.
This is looking down the valley at Glencoe. Tell me that’s not some top-drawer scenery.

Now, the next stop was Loch Ness. We ran into more traffic jams and slowdowns on the roads through the highlands than we did trying to leave Edinburgh during rush hour. The plan was to get there around 1:00. It changed to 1:30, and then hopefully in time for the 2:00 boat cruise. We made it there about five minutes before the boat set off – not enough time to grab some lunch first, but we’d agreed to take a half-hour after the cruise to grab some food.

I really wasn't clear on how big Loch Ness actually is. It's huge. Also, deep. We spent about an hour on the water, using sonar to try and spot the monster.
I really wasn’t clear on how big Loch Ness actually is. It’s huge. Also, deep. We spent about an hour on the water, using sonar to try and spot the monster.
Believe me, I was as surprised as anyone!
Believe me, I was as surprised as anyone!

After the cruise, I tried to get some lunch, but the sandwich I got was abysmal1. Back on the bus, and one final photo stop.

This is Loch Lagan. Again, beautiful scenery.
This is Loch Lagan. Again, beautiful scenery.

Back to Edinburgh, then, just before 8:30. I grabbed some fish and chips on my walk to my hotel, and managed to eat about half of it – fish and chips takeaway portions are huge, but I was starving.

Tomorrow, I am going to walk the Royal Mile and find the Witch’s Well for Sandy. In the evening, I go to see Derren Brown’s show, Miracle.

First thing, though, I need to find some ibuprofen, ’cause I’m out.

  1. First bad sandwich I’ve had in the UK. It was supposed to be chicken, but had about a third of a cup of mayonnaise on it. []

Castellum Puellarum

Edinburgh is a weird city, as far as layout goes. It grew up in a strange way, and that makes it a downright puzzling city. See, first of all, you’ve got the huge basalt mound upon which Castle Edinburgh sits1. The basalt was resistant to the flow of glaciers, which cut hugely deep gouges around it. When the city grew up, it was Castle Edinburgh, and the Royal Mile, a single, mile-long with 50 or so Closes – tiny alleyways leading to off-street courtyards.

This ran directly down the hill from the castle to the city walls2. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the city started expanding, with the New Towns built3 around the old town. These new towns meant new streets and roads needed to be built, crossing over the huge rifts in the land, meaning bridges. The bridges were lined with houses and other buildings, so that they look like streets.

This means that Edinburgh exists on several criss-crossing, levels, streets crossing over each other, with height differences in the range of 50-100 feet. And that makes it hard to find my way around, even with my map app.

And Edinburgh Castle sits high above everything else. You can see it from pretty much anywhere in the city centre. And I thought York Minster loomed; it's got nothing on this place.
And Edinburgh Castle sits high above everything else. You can see it from pretty much anywhere in the city centre. And I thought York Minster loomed; it’s got nothing on this place.

So, this morning, I walked down to Waverly Bridge, and caught the City Sightseeing bus.

The Scott Monument is right near the bus stop. It's a neat, medieval-style monument. Also, the architect who won the contest to design the monument was found face-down in a canal before it was finished. No one was convicted of killing him, but there WERE 54 other architects who might have been miffed.
The Scott Monument is right near the bus stop. It’s a neat, medieval-style monument. Also, the architect who won the contest to design the monument was found face-down in a canal before it was finished. No one was convicted of killing him, but there WERE 54 other architects who might have been miffed.

I rode the bus around the tour once, and got off when it started bucketing down rain at the end. I had a bit of lunch, then got back on, and rode it around to Castle Edinburgh. That’s where I spent the rest of the afternoon.

This is the main parade ground before the castle gates. The whole place was very busy, so I don't have as many good pictures as I might have liked. But it's an impressive gate, flanked by statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. The motto over the gate translates as "You cannot provoke me with impunity."
This is the main parade ground before the castle gates. The whole place was very busy, so I don’t have as many good pictures as I might have liked. But it’s an impressive gate, flanked by statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. The motto over the gate translates as “You cannot provoke me with impunity.”

The way up winds through the lower and middle wards, to the upper ward with the Royal Square. The square is surrounded by a building that holds the Crown Jewels, a banquet hall built by James IV for the wedding of his son and Mary of Guise, the older sister of Henry VIII.

The decorations on the hall feature both the rose and the thistle, emblems of England and Scotland.
The decorations on the hall feature both the rose and the thistle, emblems of England and Scotland.
There is a display of weapons in the great hall. Here are some big swords, a bunch of pistols and, in the case below, the key to the castle.
There is a display of weapons in the great hall. Here are some big swords, a bunch of pistols and, in the case below, the key to the castle.
This building holds the Scottish Crown Jewels: the crown, sceptre, sword of state, some other jewellery, and the Stone of Scone. This was just returned to Scotland in 1993, with the understanding that it must travel to Westminster to be used in any future coronations. "If it doesn't come back quicker than the 700 years it took last time," said our guide, Frank, "There might be trouble."
This building holds the Scottish Crown Jewels: the crown, sceptre, sword of state, some other jewellery, and the Stone of Scone. This was just returned to Scotland in 1993, with the understanding that it must travel to Westminster to be used in any future coronations. “If it doesn’t come back quicker than the 700 years it took last time,” said our guide, Frank, “There might be trouble.”
This is the War Memorial. No photography inside. But it's a very moving, affecting place. The names of all Scots who have fallen in the line of duty are entered in memorial books, one for each regiment.
This is the War Memorial. No photography inside. But it’s a very moving, affecting place. The names of all Scots who have fallen in the line of duty are entered in memorial books, one for each regiment.
This is Mons Meg, a huge medieval bombard. It was transported using the wheels, but it would be dismounted and set into a trench in an earthworks to fire. It could lob one of those 330lb gun stones up to two miles.
This is Mons Meg, a huge medieval bombard. It was transported using the wheels, but it would be dismounted and set into a trench in an earthworks to fire. It could lob one of those 330lb gun stones up to two miles.

I looked around the other museums here, including the regimental museums. They had the standard captured by Charles Ewart at Waterloo, when he took the regimental colours and gold eagle from one of Napoleon’s regiments. The eagle, unfortunately, is on loan to the National Museum, so it wasn’t here.

Then, on the way out, I saw this.

So, I had this idea about climbing Arthur's Seat. It's a fairly smooth path up the Salisbury Crags to it, and it offers amazing views of the city. But here, I got a good look at the place from the parade ground of Edinburgh Castle, and nope, I don't think I'm gonna be climbing that.
So, I had this idea about climbing Arthur’s Seat. It’s a fairly smooth path up the Salisbury Crags to it, and it offers amazing views of the city. But here, I got a good look at the place from the parade ground of Edinburgh Castle, and nope, I don’t think I’m gonna be climbing that.

I rode the sightseeing bus around to the start again, and then walked back to my hotel, stopping for some dinner.

Tomorrow, I need to be up early. I’m on a tour up to the highlands, including Glencoe and Loch Ness.

Should be fun.

  1. This site has been inhabited for about 3000 years. They have found Roman and late bronze age archaeological sites on the rock. []
  2. Which has a pub called The World’s End, because it was the end of civilized Edinburgh. []
  3. And haphazardly planned. []

Back to Edinburgh

Have to say, Oban was fun, even though I didn’t get to see Fingal’s Cave. The Old Manse was delightful, and Simon and Anna were fantastic. They really went out of their way to make everyone feel welcome, and to encourage breakfast conversations amongst their guests. I was sad that I only had two nights there.

The train ride back to Edinburgh was in brighter weather, so I got a better look at the very striking scenery on the trip. Honestly, a lot of the terrain was right out of story books. Absolutely gorgeous.

I have to say, though, that the Edinburgh train station was the most perplexing I’d been in. I wound up leaving the station through the wrong exit, and my phone directions were kind of messed up. I wound up having to climb up through a steep but interesting alley called Fleshmarket Close.

That led me, inadvertently, around to Edinburgh High Street. I look forward to walking it when I don't have all my luggage with me.
That led me, inadvertently, around to Edinburgh High Street. I look forward to walking it when I don’t have all my luggage with me.

It rained off and on for my walk to the hotel, including when I had to walk down a slick flagstone street. It was so steep, it actually had a handrail.

But I made it. Tomorrow, I go on the city sightseeing bus, and I’ll start actually seeing the city.

Poor, Lonely Fingal

Well, the seas were too rough for my tour to land at Staffa so that I could see Fingal’s Cave1. The boat captain took us out past the shelter of Iona, and the seas pitched us around pretty well, so we all got the point about it not being safe. It reminds me a little of my attempt to visit the Skelligs in Ireland – one chance in an out-of-the-way village for a boat trip that is dependent on the weather. And the weather just didn’t co-operate.

So, Fingal got no visitors today.

Anyway, here are some pictures from the adventures I did have.

This is the view from the yard of my guesthouse. Almost makes climbing the steep streets worthwhile.
This is the view from the yard of my guesthouse. Almost makes climbing the steep streets worthwhile.
This is the waterfront of Oban as the ferry carries me away towards the island of Mull.
This is the waterfront of Oban as the ferry carries me away towards the island of Mull.
This is Duart Castle, the family seat of the MacLean clan. It's sitting on a very picturesque headland on Mull.
This is Duart Castle, the family seat of the MacLean clan. It’s sitting on a very picturesque headland on Mull.

The Mull portion of the Three Isles Excursion I was on was essentially riding on a bus for 70 minutes to get from the harbour nearest Oban to the harbour nearest Iona and Staffa. Some very pretty scenery and interesting bits2, but it was all through the windows of a bus.

The next stage was supposed to be the boat ride to Staffa, but we all know how that turned out. Instead, the boat took us across to Iona3, where we had a few hours before catching the ferry back to Mull. So, I went to look at the very cool stuff on Iona.

The Iona shore. It looks so nice and clear, but the wind out of the shelter of the island is fierce.
The Iona shore. It looks so nice and clear, but the wind out of the shelter of the island is fierce.

Iona is a special place in the history of Scotland and Ireland. St. Colomba built his abbey here, and this is where the Book of Kells was written, before it was moved to Ireland to keep it away from the Viking raiders.

In the village on Iona is a 13th century nunnery.
In the village on Iona is a 13th century nunnery.
The nunnery doesn't look pleased to see me.
The nunnery doesn’t look pleased to see me.
This is an interesting carving. It's pretty worn, and I've done some fiddling with contrast and stuff to make it show up clearly. It's a sheela-na-gig, a carving of a woman with her legs spread. It's supposed to chase away evil spirits. The origins of this belief and motif are unclear, but they're fairly common in Scotland, Ireland, and England on churches from the 13th and 14th centuries.
This is an interesting carving. It’s pretty worn, and I’ve done some fiddling with contrast and stuff to make it show up clearly. It’s a sheela-na-gig, a carving of a woman with her legs spread. It’s supposed to chase away evil spirits. The origins of this belief and motif are unclear, but they’re fairly common in Scotland, Ireland, and England on churches from the 13th and 14th centuries.
This is St. Colomba's abbey. It's the same site as the original abbey from the 6th century, but the current building is from around 1200.
This is St. Colomba’s abbey. It’s the same site as the original abbey from the 6th century, but the current building is from around 1200.
This is the Road of the Dead. It originally led from the Bay of Martyrs, back by the village, up to the abbey, and is the route that chieftains would be carried for burial at the abbey. Most of the road is underneath the current ground level, but this section, near the abbey, is all that remains above ground.
This is the Road of the Dead. It originally led from the Bay of Martyrs, back by the village, up to the abbey, and is the route that chieftains would be carried for burial at the abbey. Most of the road is underneath the current ground level, but this section, near the abbey, is all that remains above ground.
This is the interior of the abbey church. It's still used for services here on Iona, and is the site of pilgrimage.
This is the interior of the abbey church. It’s still used for services here on Iona, and is the site of pilgrimage.
Okay. This is another cool carving. It's called the Tormented Soul, and features in a number of churches. It's set at the point in the ceiling where the priest should direct his voice for the acoustics of the space to make it carry to the entire area.
Okay. This is another cool carving. It’s called the Tormented Soul, and features in a number of churches. It’s set at the point in the ceiling where the priest should direct his voice for the acoustics of the space to make it carry to the entire area.
The Ninth Duke of Argyll paid for restoring and repairing the abbey, on the condition that it be used for all Christian denominations. He died before it was complete, and is buried in his home tomb. His wife survived to see the work finished and, being from the islands herself, is interred here, next to a memorial for her husband. Note that the Duke's crown is below his feet, while the Duchess's crown is on her head; that's how you can distinguish between an actual burial and a memorial. I learned that today.
The Ninth Duke of Argyll paid for restoring and repairing the abbey, on the condition that it be used for all Christian denominations. He died before it was complete, and is buried in his home tomb. His wife survived to see the work finished and, being from the islands herself, is interred here, next to a memorial for her husband. Note that the Duke’s crown is below his feet, while the Duchess’s crown is on her head; that’s how you can distinguish between an actual burial and a memorial. I learned that today.
The walls surrounding the abbey cloister are lined with some of the many, many gravestones they've found on the site.
The walls surrounding the abbey cloister are lined with some of the many, many gravestones they’ve found on the site.
The two column sets in the foreground and the only original cloister columns that have survived. The rest have been recreated, and each set carved uniquely by a different stonemason while working on restoration of the abbey. They did these columns in their spare time, over the course of thirty years.
The two column sets in the foreground and the only original cloister columns that have survived. The rest have been recreated, and each set carved uniquely by a different stonemason while working on restoration of the abbey. They did these columns in their spare time, over the course of thirty years.

So, after the abbey, I caught the ferry back to Mull, and the bus back to the other ferry, which took me back to Oban. By the time we docked, it was pouring rain. I had a nice dinner at a restaurant called Piazza, then walked back up to the Old Manse. I took the less-steep way that Simon had told me about, and it was much better.

Iona was cool, and I’m glad I got to see it and spend the time there. I’m disappointed about not getting to see Staffa, but that’s the way it goes.

Since I didn’t get to see Fingal’s Cave, I’m leaving this here.

**EDIT**

The YouTube video I linked here doesn’t seem to be available outside of the UK. So, here’s an attempt at linking in an mp3 of the same tune. This is Natalie McMaster and The Chieftains playing a set that starts with Fingal’s Cave, an old Scottish tune, either a march or a strathspey depending who you ask and how it’s being played. It’s off the Fire in the Kitchen album.

  1. Listening to the folks on the tour, I was surprised to find that pretty much everyone else wanted to land at Staffa to see puffins. Only me and a music teacher from Washington really wanted to see Fingal’s Cave. []
  2. Okay. Our guide pointed out a standing stone in the middle of a cottage garden. He said that the power of this standing stone was to allow cell reception, which was otherwise lacking on the island. You had to stand out in the garden and touch the stone, and it only worked if you had a Vodafone contract. His delivery was so wonderfully deadpan that I actually heard some folks saying wow. []
  3. We were slated to visit Iona after Staffa, anyway. []