A Scottish Adventure: Trains and Boats and Rains

July 3rd, 2023
Penny Hampson

Although I lived in Scotland for seven years I never made many trips to Edinburgh. That was rectified this year when my husband and I decided to have a Scottish adventure and get to know that city better.

View over Edinburgh

Our journey started with the overnight sleeper train from Euston. We travelled light with one small suitcase each, but even so the on board accomodation was rather snug. The bunk beds were comfortable and my husband, like the gentleman he is, volunteered to clamber up the ladder to the top bunk as I don’t have a head for heights.

Waverley Station

Gentle rain greeted us on our 7am arrival in Edinburgh, but happily, apart from a few torrential downpours, the weather was mostly warm and sunny for the duration of our stay. Our accomodation was handily placed on the Royal Mile in the old part of Edinburgh; it wasn’t far from the station though it was all uphill. I definitely didn’t need to use the gym that day, pulling a heavy case uphill is a good alternative to lifting weights.

A steep cobbled street

At the top of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle. I’d advise booking ahead if you want to see it; on the day of our visit tickets for people just turning up had sold out by noon.

Edinbugh Castle

If you can, arrange to be there when the one o’clock gun is fired. Introduced in 1861, this tradition takes place everyday except for Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas Day. It was designed to help shipping in the Firth of Forth to know the exact time, which was crucial for accurate navigation. The gun supplemented the existing visual time signal located on Calton Hill. The Time-Ball at the top of Nelson’s Monument was coordinated to drop at the same time as the gun fired. Sadly, it was Saturday when we walked up Calton Hill and the time-ball is only dropped on weekdays.

There are so many different things to see once inside the Castle that we didn’t have time to do justice to them all. One of the places I couldn’t miss was the Regimental Museum of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Although this regiment, an amalgamation of two cavalry regiments, was only formed in 1971, its origins go back much further to 1678 when the Scots Greys were raised by Charles II.

French Eagle and Standard

For those of you who know of my interest in the Napoleonic Wars, you will understand my excitement at seeing the Eagle and Standard of the 45th French infantry captured at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by Sergeant Charles Ewart.

Then husband and I travelled further back in time when we entered the oldest building in the Castle, St Margaret’s Chapel, dating from around 1130. Although small, it is very atmospheric. On display is a copy of St Margaret’s Gospel book; the original is held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where I used to work.

Another poignant spot close by is the small piece of greenery used as the Castle’s dog cemetery. Canine Regimental mascots and soldiers’ pet dogs have been buried here since the 1840s.

Of course, we couldn’t miss seeing the Honours of Scotland, even though the queue was fairly long. These are the Crown, Sceptre, and Sword of State and are the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles. It’s hard to believe that they were locked away in 1707 and almost forgotten about until 1818 when Sir Walter Scott was given permission to enter the room where they were kept and they were rediscovered. The Stone of Destiny is also housed in the same room. An integral part of the Coronation ceremony, the Stone is only removed from Edinburgh Castle when a new monarch takes the throne, as occurred recently with the coronation of Charles III in Westminster Abbey.

We wound up our visit with the Great Hall, a very impressive space with its medieval hammerbeam roof. It was completed in 1512 and was intended as the main place of royal ceremony. Unfortunately, when Cromwell captured the Castle in in 1650 it was transformed into a soldiers’ barracks with three floors of galleries to accomodate rows of beds. In 1886 work started on restoring the room to suit its original purpose as a place of ceremony.

View down the Royal Mile from the Castle towards St Giles Cathedral

Of course, after a long day on our feet a wee dram was necessary to restore our spirits. If you’re interested in whiskey and want to learn more about its history and production, taking one of the many whiskey experiences on offer is a must. The one we took, handily not far from the castle, not only explained how this amber nectar is made but also included tastings so the differences between the regions of production could be discerned. Visitors below the legal age for drinking alcohol were not neglected, they were supplied with that other great Scottish drink, Irn Bru.

Both the Castle and Calton Hill are great places to view the city and the Firth of Forth. Did I mention the hills? There are lots. Edinburgh is a great place if you want to get your lungs working! However, if you can’t manage hills try walking to Leith. Two miles of level walking will take you there.

This is the place where the royal yacht Britannia is berthed. Decommissioned in 1997, Britannia was in royal service for 44 years. It was fascinating to see how the ship was laid out, with chinzy English country manor vibes in the royal apartments and almost spartan utilitarian accomodation for the crew. It is a surprisingly large ship which was manned by an approximate 250-strong crew to serve the relatively small number of royals. Of course Britannia was not just for the private use of the royal family, it also served as an ambassador for British business and hosted State functions.

Britannia’s laundry

Below decks, it was fascinating to see the laundry with its industrial size washing machines, dryers, and pressers. In addition to the two galleys which prepared the officers’ and crews’ meals, there is a royal galley which was staffed by chefs from Buckingham Palace when the Queen was on board.

Laundry presses

We completed our tour of Britannia with a visit to the Royal Deck, the area used by the royal family for games and entertaining. Now it houses the tearoom and, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I cannot resist the lure of cake. A pot of tea and a scone with jam and cream were the perfect end to our Britannia visit.

After all that walking (over 22,000 steps) we decided we’d done enough and hopped on a bus back to Edinburgh.

Join me soon when I’ll tell you more about my Scottish adventure.

Images all copyright Penny Hampson