Ireland/Britain 1998 day 25: Edinburgh/Durham/York


I began Valentine’s Day 1998 in Edinburgh by checking my bags at the railroad station. There were coin-op lockers there, but no self-service as security regulations required having my bags checked by a man with a long wand that whistled like a radio between stations. I asked him what he was looking for, and he told me plastic explosives. I wanted to ask him what he would do if he found plastic explosives – a lose/lose situation I imagined – but decided this was not the best place to ask lots of questions.

Along the streets, a mob of Socialists were canvassing the crowd to sign petitions. I wasn’t paying much attention to the news at the time, but apparently the UK & USA were planning to invade Iraq because Sadaam Hussein was making chemical and nuclear weapons. I guess the Socialists were successful in holding off the invasion for five years.

I visited Edinburgh Castle which sits impressively atop a former volcanic promontory. I found myself disappointed because the castle, while scenic, was less interesting than Stirling Castle. Even the free CD audioguides didn’t help much. Information overload if anything. I suppose that since I had Stirling Castle pretty much to myself and Edinburgh Castle was packed with fellow snap-happy tourists made a difference too.

I sadly departed Edinburgh having only scratched the surface of what this wonderful city has to offer. I took the train south to England making a day-stop in Durham. Due to security concerns, the left luggage at the station was closed so I had to haul my bags with me through the town. The advantage is that it forced me to stroll slowly through the lovely town and along the River Ware Wear. A fun bit of art along the river depicted “The Last Supper” carved into several tree trunks. The image only appears when one views it from a particular point.

The highlight of Durham and my reason for being there is Durham Cathedral. Bede the Venerable is interred here for starters. It’s an amazing work of architecture especially when one sees it used for it’s designated purpose: worship. I attended the Evensong service where the choir boys sang like angels. Quite a beautiful experience.

I continued by train to York where I spent the night at the York Youth Hotel. I took a scenic walk of the city and then returned to the hostel which had its own built-in bar. There I met a young Norwegian woman named Ann Katrin who was visiting York with a group of friends for the Viking Festival. We hit it off well and drank several bottles of Hooch, which despite it’s colorful name was merely hard lemonade.

After the bar closed we went to the hostel lounge where people were watching the Winter Olympics on tv. I had the surreal experience of watching the game of curling for the first time while buzzed on Hooch. Ann Katrin and I stayed up very late talking about things ranging from Irish crooner Daniel O’Donnell to the existence of God. I ended up very tired and cranky, which was kind of a rotten ending to a good night.

Edinburgh Castle

The hilltop location of Edinburgh Castle lends it a stunning prominence.

River Ware

The beautiful River Ware Wear in Durham.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper sculpture in Durham (I see an otter in attendance).

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 24: Edinburgh


I spent Friday the 13th of February 1998 appropriately enough in the capital city of the macabre nation of Scotland. I got the sense originally that Scots were obsessed with stories of doom, gloom, and the dead among us on my Loch Ness tour and it was only reinforced by the FREE two-hour walking tour of Edinburgh provided by the High Street Hostel.

After the tour I strolled Edinburgh’s magnificent Royal Mile, the series of main streets connecting Edinburgh Castle to the Holyrood Palace. Edinburgh is unlike any city I’ve ever scene with it’s architectural marvels built into a hillside crossed by an arched bridge. The city also provides far too many cultural opportunities for the traveler to enjoy.

I stopped in The Museum of Childhood which is probably the last place you want to take a child since it’s a display of old toys behind glass. Much cooler is Arthur’s Seat, a mountain right in the middle of the city. I’d never been to a city with a mountain before (I’ve since been to the equally wonderful Montreal) and I excitedly climbed to the top. There with my trusty self-timer camera I took a photo of myself, almost tripping and falling down the mountain in the process. I figure the Scots would’ve come up with a good ghost story of the Clumsy American Tourist to commemorate me had I fallen.

Back at ground level I walked to the other end of the Royal Mile, checked my email at an internet cafe, and then went to The Last Drop (named because it’s on the site of the former gallows) for supper. Before leaving on my trip, I joked with my friends that I’d eat vegetarian haggis in Scotland. The Last Drop actually serves the stuff, basically the stuffing without the sheep’s stomach with tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips). It was surprisingly spicy and delicious, although I have no idea if it is representative of the true haggis experience.

I continued my pub crawl at The Bare Story where I watched an hour of The Simpsons while sipping Scottish whiskey. I then took the Mercat ghost tour of Edinburgh. The guide, a local actress, tried to play up the scary stories but as we toured the Edinburgh Vaults the tourees kept interrupting to ask her about the archaeological excavations that uncovered the vaults. I had to laugh because in Colonial Williamsburg, I constantly had my historical tours interrupted by people who wanted to hear ghost stories. The guide was good natured about it though and treated us to a pint and more archeology stories at the (spooky) White Horse Bar.

I’d heard about the Friday the 13th 7 Deadly Sins pub crawl and decided to give it a shot. The basic gist is that you get a card that you have to take to 7 pubs and order the 7 drinks specified and get them stamped by the bartender. Once the card is full one can trade the card in for a prize. I got a pint of McEwan’s at Mary King’s Close Pub to start it off, but after that I gave up because the whole thing kind of seemed stupid. Not to mention that the bartenders looked at me like a stupid tourist and pub #2 was way too crowded to even enter.

Instead I went to Finnegan’s Wake for Irish music (I just can’t let go of Ireland). A raucous band played to a huge crowd. Here I met a young blond English woman named Charlotte who tried to set me up with each one of her many friends even though most of them were there with their boyfriends. I accompanied these women to The Subway, a nightclub which invested heavily in liquid nitrogen. I danced the night away unable to see more than a foot in front of me in a crowded, small venue. Every so often Charlotte bumped one of her clearly not interested friends into me. I had fun anyway.

After a long day and a good night out, I returned to the hostel where I talked with Kevin, a short Australian guy who had also had a good night. Apparently he’d been invited to a house party by a Scotsman named William Wallace. Kevin just couldn’t get over the fact that he’d been drinking with William Wallace. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was still standing, so I crawled off to my bed to sleep.

Mike the Friendly Bagpiper

Mike the Friendly Bagpiper performs for spare pence on the Royal Mile.

Arthur’s Seat

The view from Arthur’s Seat. This could very well have been the last photo of me ever.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 23: Loch Ness


I started my day at the Inverness Tourist Information center where I learned that Dr. Gordon Williamson’s minibus tours only went out on weekends in the low season. Since 12 February 1998 was a Thursday, I could not wait around for the weekend. Instead I signed up for the dreaded Inverness Traction coach tour as my only option for seeing Loch Ness. It was about as dreadful as I expected, a big bus with corny narration, but at least it made frequent stops where I could get out and away from the group.

In all those tv specials about Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster I was always drawn to the beauty of the loch itself. It did not disappoint. Loch Ness is 24 miles long, 1-1.5 miles wide, and unfathomably deep. It exudes an aura of beauty and mystery.

The coach tour’s first stop is at the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre in Drumnadrochit. The most fascinating part of this exhibit is that in all the expeditions conducted to find and/or disprove Nessie’s existence, scientists have learned about many interesting creatures that inhabit the lake such as mollusks and midges that are not known elsewhere in the region.

At another stop on the tour we visited Fort Augustus Abbey a Hanoverian fort which became a Benedictine Abbey which became an incredibly cheezy tourist attraction. Presentation is everything and we visitors were forced to carry Walkmans as we viewed waxworks, models, and artifacts. The monastery was actually still in use so after escaping the exhibit I wandered off to the peaceful chapel and then walked along the Loch itself.

All in all, it wasn’t as bad as I made out. Yes, I did have to listen to macabre tales of Alistair Crowley, but I also got to take in views of the loveliest landscape from all sides of Loch Ness.

After returning to Inverness that evening, I took the train to Edinburgh. I checked in the High Street Hostel and apparently did nothing worth writing down. The have only clues that I went on a pub crawl in search of live music because I listed the names of three pubs: The World’s End, Tron Ceilidh House, and Whistlebinkies. I guess it was a good night, but I can’t remember a thing about it.

Loch Ness Otter

Look carefully in the foreground and you may see the mysterious Loch Ness Otter.

Liam by Loch Ness

Here you can see the not so rare Loch Ness Tourist.