Despite the title, this post also includes our time in England, which we love… but we absolutely adore Scotland. (A big Canadian “sorry” to our English friends!—Scott) 😊
Note! In the interest of getting caught up on our blog, we decided to make this one giant post rather than splitting it into two parts as we’ve done in the past, even though we spent over a month in the UK. We still have to write about Germany and the Netherlands. Coming soon!
After six weeks in Romania and four consecutive months in countries where English is not always widely spoken, if much at all, we decided to give ourselves a bit of a “language-barrier break” by going to England and Scotland. Flights from Bucharest to London were also super-cheap (about $60 each), so we hopped on over to the United Kingdom.
Here are some quick highlights of our 34 days in the UK, in no particular order:
- Attending the Braemar Royal Highland Games (and seeing the Queen of England!)
- Driving through the Cotswalds, Glen Coe, the Cairngorms, and the Isle of Skye
- Being invited to a sing-along at our Inverness Airbnb hosts’ house
- Seeing and/or touring well over a dozen castles
- Visiting quite a few distilleries (not to mention some great pubs…)
Back in our “Tips for Long-Term Travel” post, we stated that you should avoid buying multi-day passes. That still holds true, generally. However, in the UK, we researched in advance all the places we wanted to visit, and as a result we bought the English Heritage tourist card. It got us into all the English Heritage-sponsored sites around England either for free or at a reduced rate. The pass definitely paid off, as we knew it would going in; we were careful to get our money’s worth!
We had both already been to London before, so we skipped it this time and headed south from the city after picking up our rental car. The English drive on the left, of course, and we had done so last year when we visited Ireland and Scotland. Our car for that prior trip had an automatic transmission, though, so it was a bit of a challenge at first for Scott to shift with the left hand. (I didn’t drive at all in the UK.—Connie) After a couple days, it got easier, and it all turned out just fine.
Our first stop was Dover. There we visited the beautiful 12th-century Dover Castle and took a tour of the underground network of tunnels, codename “Dumpy,” that were used as the headquarters for Allied forces during WW2 and later a refuge for leaders in the event of a nuclear attack back during the Cuban Missile Crisis / Cold War days. This meant that we were quite literally in the Cliffs of Dover.
We spent a lovely, if very rainy morning visiting the grounds of the Battle of Hastings, located alongside Battle Abbey. The latter was much more interesting to see; the battlefield itself is, well, a grassy field.
The Abbey was built by William the Conqueror, leader of the winning side and the new King of England, who reportedly felt guilty for the many deaths that had occurred during the battle. Today, the manor attached to the compound houses a school. You may know already that the Battle of Hastings was fought on October 14, 1066, and its outcome had a profound impact on the history of England (and thus the world): William the Conqueror was a Norman (from modern-day France), and his victory marked the end of “Angland,” or Anglo-Saxon England.
Due to the rain, my shirt was drenched after our walkabout, and I ended up buying a large poncho to wear over my jacket, which proved to be water-resistant, not waterproof as I once thought. We then hit up an adorable tea house for a warm cuppa (such an English term!).
We then visited Bodiam Castle, a 14th-century moated castle built by an English knight. It was rare in those days for a mere knight to be so wealthy. Perhaps not surprisingly, he got his riches by stealing from others… er, ahhh, I mean as spoils of war on the continent. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Anyway, Bodiam was super-cool and the first fully moated castle (i.e., with water on all sides to protect it from invaders) that we’d seen this trip.
We spent the night at Brighton Beach and I (Connie) took a walk on the boardwalk, where there were row upon row of brightly colored little storage buildings. I later learned that these tiny beach-side sheds sell for $300k – 1 million each!! They store beach stuff and can be used for getting changed or maybe making sandwiches and the like while you’re at the beach… talk about expensive real estate!
The next day we went to Arundel Castle, a medieval castle, but today a stately home and one of the longest-inhabited “country homes” in England (if this is what people mean by country living, sign me up!). The castle and its gardens were gigantic and housed several amazing artifacts, such as jewelry worn by Mary Queen of Scots, and an amazingly beautiful library.
That night we arrived a bit late in Salisbury. When we walked around looking for a restaurant that was still open — places tend to close very early in the UK relative to those in North America — we stumbled upon the Salisbury Cathedral. It looks almost unreal at night, like something from a dream. Absolutely gorgeous, like, stunningly, OMG-I-can’t-believe-my-eyes gorgeous. We stood there in awe for 20 minutes just looking at this wondrous structure.
The next day, we visited the famous Stonehenge, which is not far from Salisbury. This is an extremely ancient and mysterious place, and no one really knows its purpose for sure. If you’re in this part of England, though, you just have to go see it. The park also had a recreation of the sorts of houses the people who built Stonehenge would have lived in, and we got to see traditional burial mounds, or barrows, large mass grave sites or perhaps tombs for powerful rulers of the era.
Later that day, we also visited the nearby site of the fort at Old Sarum. This one was a personal favorite of Scott’s. Years ago, one of the RPG books he worked on, called The Great Pendragon Campaign, was set in this location. In a way, he said, it felt like he had already been there before. It was fun watching him totally geek out and get excited about something since he’s usually so calm about everything. 😊
Finally, on returning to Salisbury proper, we revisited the amazing cathedral and this time went inside. (See the pics above, though, along with the nighttime exterior pics.) Like the outside, the interior too is beautiful and ornate. The cathedral alone is worth a visit to this adorable town, even without all of the amazing historical sites nearby.
The Cotswolds is an “area of outstanding natural beauty” (AONB) that covers a huge area, nearly 800 square miles, running through the five counties of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, and Worcestershire. It abounds with beautiful pastoral little villages and lovely old churches and buildings; all around is the idyllic, rolling countryside so many English poets have effused over. Many people walk it (see: “ramblers”), but we had lots of other places to visit and only a day or two to do it, so we drove. We stopped at several little towns along the way, including Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was very quaint. There we got to see where his childhood home used to stand, as well as the theater.
Later that day, during our drive, we randomly stopped on the road to checkout a lovely gatehouse we passed, and we were kindly invited in by the caretaker. How cool is that?! The place turned out to be the gatehouse for Worcester Lodge, the home of the Duke of Beaufort.
We also stopped to tour Sudeley Castle, the burial place of King Henry the VIII’s sixth wife, Queen Catherine Parr. This is still a residence today, although it is also a major tourist attraction. Can you believe people still live in actual castles?! I sure can, and I want one too.
Just outside the Cotswolds, we stopped at Warwickshire, where I visited Warwick Castle. There were special events for both kids and adults. There, while Scott worked, I happily watched a dramatization of the Wars of the Roses, a series of English civil wars for control of the throne of England fought between supporters of two rival branches of the Plantagenets: the House of Lancaster, associated with a red rose, and the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose. It was so much fun! I was on the White Rose side. Did I mention there was jousting? So fun.
Nearby was Kenilworth Castle, which originally belonged to English kings but was then granted by Queen Elizabeth I to her lover, Robert Dudley. She visited the castle and Lord Dudley several times. So scandalous!! It’s shocking, I know, but the “Virgin Queen” may not have been a virgin after all…
Finally, just north of the Cotswolds, close to Liverpool, is the formerly walled city of Chester. Founded as a Roman fortress in the 1st century A.D., it’s known for its extensive Roman walls made of local red sandstone. It is a delightful town! We took a walking tour of the city and saw its major sites, including the town crier and its old Roman baths.
North England (and a Bit of Wales)
Along the way to the north of England, en route to Scotland, we took a brief detour into North Wales to visit Powis Castle. It’s one of the more famous places in Wales, and its gardens are among the finest we’ve seen anywhere. Really a special place.
Scott wanted to spend more time in Wales as a whole, but we just couldn’t make it happen on this trip. That’s okay, I guess: It just means we have all that much more of a reason to return to the UK!
If you’ve never heard of the Lake District of England, you’re not alone, but now have — and you should go see it. The scenery is spectacular! It’s on the northwest coast of the country and is known as a holiday destination for the English, and now we know why. Just breathtaking. We drove through it on our way to visit Vercovicium, a former Roman fortress-cum-farmstead along Hadrian’s Wall (and yes, we did make several references to the King in the North and the wildlings from Game of Thrones while we toured two of the major ruins). Scott geeked out a bit, and so did I.
The next day, we finally made it into Scotland. Along the way to our first Scottish Airbnb in Kirkcaldy, north of Edinburgh, we stopped at a few interesting places:
- Scott’s View, named for Sir Walter Scott and his favorite view of Scotland
- several memorials to Robert the Bruce and Sir William Wallace (Braveheart is not very historically accurate, by the way)
- the Antonine Wall (which is the less-well-known cousin of Hadrian’s Wall, and for good reason — there’s just not much left of it to see)
- Rosslyn Chapel, built in the 15th century, where scenes from The Da Vinci Code were filmed
In Kirkcaldy, we had an entire house as our Airbnb accommodation, and we really loved being able to stretch out a bit. I don’t think Scott left the house for three out of our four days there, taking this chance to get caught up on some work and also to have a little R&R.
On the other hand, I went twice by tram into Edinburgh, where the Fringe Festival was taking place. This annual festival brings street performers and artists from around the world, putting on performances at various venues throughout the city: pedestrian streets, local parks, stores, shops, bars, restaurants, etc., all become temporary venues for the thousands of performances throughout the month. All are free or cost very little. It was so fun wandering around the city watching all sorts of acts by these buskers and performers.
I also toured the National Museum of Scotland. I particularly loved their costume exhibit, which covered the design of clothing and costumes over the centuries. I thought of my sister, Catherine, who studied costume history at NYU, so I sent her several pictures of the exhibits. Afterward, I wandered the city some more, stopping by a little outdoor street food market and a famous pub, The World’s End, to have a beer.
Together, Scott and I spent a day at Stirling Castle, one of the most famous castles in Scotland, where we learned about royal life in the 1500s. We then visited the site of the Battle of Bannockburn, which was fought over two days, on June 23 and 24, 1314. It was one of the most significant moments in Scottish history, as it secured Robert the Bruce’s kingship. In keeping with this theme, we also stopped at Dunfermline Abbey to see the resting place of Robert the Bruce.
Heading north to our next destination of Alford, just west of Cairngorms National Park, we had lunch in Aberdeen and toured Glamis Castle, childhood home to Queen Consort Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the late “Queen Mum”). Glamis is also famous, of course, for its role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although the historical King Macbeth’s connection to the place is minimal at best. King Malcolm II really did die here in a hunting lodge on the same location as the present castle, but he died of wounds suffered in battle against Macbeth’s forces; he wasn’t murdered in his sleep.
It’s said Shakespeare may have spent time at Glamis; in any case, the reason he tied the castle to his fictional characters may have to do with Lady Janet Douglas of Glamis, the prevailing narrative of whom, in his time, probably formed the basis of his malevolent Lady Macbeth. It was a political assault of sorts, given the animosity of King James for Jane Douglas’s family. (Anyway, if you’re interested to learn more, Google “Shakespeare, Glamis, and Lady Janet Douglas” or something similar.)
The following day, we hung out at a pub so Scott could use their WiFi for work while I planned our upcoming travel. But because we couldn’t seem to go one day without seeing a castle, in the evening we drove to Craigievar, a pinkish castle rumored to have been one of the inspirations for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle.
The next day was another major touring day. We sneaked into the ruins of Kildrummy Castle before it opened and learned some interesting bits of history. For instance, the Countess of Mar, ruler of the great estate, granted her earldom to her new husband on their wedding; he then, in front of the castle gates, formally gave her back everything she had just bestowed upon him. Talk about marriage goals circa the 1400s!
After that, we took at funicular up to Cairn Gorm, the highest peak in the Cairngorms National Park; we stopped at the Aberlour and Macallan distilleries along the Whisky Trail and bought some Balvenie whisky at the Balvenie Castle; we saw some Pictish stones c. 1st millennium AD; we bought Walker’s shortbread cookies at the Walker’s Bakery headquarters; we walked across the Craigellachie Bridge built over the River Spey (the river water used to produce Speyside scotches); and we enjoyed the absolutely stunning scenery of this national park. Once we got back to our Airbnb, we ended the day with a wee whisky tasting at home, since Scott had been driving (and thus not drinking) all day.
England, Round Two
By this point in our travels, we decided that we wanted to stay longer in Scotland. Unfortunately, we couldn’t extend our rental car, so we had to drive from Alford all the way back to London. This was a huge pain, but we made it worthwhile. We broke up our road trip by stopping at Sherwood Forest, where we saw the “Major Oak” tree (named after Major Hayman Rooke, who first described it in writing); this massive old oak tree has a waistline of 33 feet, weighs 23 tons, and is thought to be over 1,150 years old.
We had a very nice couple of Airbnb hosts during our brief (one-night) stopover in Nottingham. They invited us out for dinner that evening, and we had a nice time getting to know them a bit. They were recent empty-nesters, with their kids off to college. One of the best parts of traveling, even though we don’t always talk about it, is all the wonderful people you meet!
Also in Nottingham, we had lunch at a place called Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, a public house built into the rocky hill under Nottingham Castle and that claims to be the oldest inn in Scotland, dating from 1186.
After that, we stopped in Cambridge and had dinner and drinks with Scott’s friends, former colleagues from his days at CCP, Craig Scott (along with his lovely girlfriend Lian) and Matt Woodward. We had a terrific evening! It’s always nice to catch up with folks you haven’t seen in a long time. Sadly, we were having so much fun that we didn’t think to snap any pictures of the whole group. (Craig or Matt, if you have any, please send them to us!)
The buildings in Cambridge are remarkable, by the way. Walking around with our friends there made me want to go back to school and, also, become a royal. 😊 We also saw the pub where scientists Francis Crick and James Watson first announced their discovery of how DNA carries genetic information.
Back to Scotland!
In London, we dropped our first rental car off and then turned right around to get on a plane and fly to Glasgow, where we picked up another.
We set off from Glasgow right away, planning to come back and wrap up our trip there later. We drove through what is possibly the most visually stunning region in the Highlands: Glen Coe (aka Glencoe)! If you could visit only one place in Scotland, you might want to make it Glen Coe. I almost cried, it was so beautiful.
We passed this way on the road to Isle of Skye (quite a long drive for one day, from Glasgow all the way to Isle of Skye, especially after flying that morning), where we stayed at a lovely house with a gorgeous view. I spent one day on a bus tour seeing the major sites while Scott worked, and then we drove to some of those same sites together the next day. We also hit a few new ones like the Talisker Distillery and Dunvegan Castle, home of the Clan MacLeod. Due to the stormy weather, we couldn’t hike to see the famous “Fairy Pools,” although we really wanted to see them.
Next, we went stayed in Lochcarron, where our B&B owner cooked us the most delicious full Scottish breakfast! We were the only ones at the B&B, so Scott was able to work from the front living room that overlooked the loch. Not too shabby an office location! While there, I walked about three miles to and from the original shop of the famous brand Lochcarron of Scotland, a leading manufacturer of premium high-quality tartans. There, you can have a kilt, dress, scarf, wrap, etc., handmade just for you. I even saw a video where they designed a tartan specifically for the Hello Kitty brand.
I spent about an hour and a half in the Lochcarron shop looking at everything, and I ended up buying myself a cute waterproof hat and a beautiful scarf (which I lost but then recovered later in Glasgow). Money very well spent!
On our way to Inverness, we stopped to tour Eilean Donan Castle, one of the best-known, most iconic images from Scotland known all over the world. Inhabited since at least the 6th century and fortified into a castle in the 13th, this castle stood guard over the lands of Kintail. We also stopped by Falls of Glomach and took a quick peek at some salmon jumping upstream.
We then stayed for a few days at an Airbnb outside of Inverness that proved to be a really, truly lovely experience. Top marks in all categories. The hosts, Garrick and Jane, had turned their garage into a perfect little cottage, and we were their very first guests. They were the sweetest, most fun-loving and endearing hosts we’ve had to date. (No offence meant to the other wonderful hosts we’ve had!)
Also, the showerhead in the bathroom of our cottage had blinking disco lights and the bathroom mirror had a Bluetooth speaker embedded, so all in all, an excellent time. 😊
The last night of our stay, Garrick popped over and invited us into their home for some live music and camaraderie. Sitting around their table, Garrick sang songs while his two friends accompanied and played instruments, all the while drinking whisky and taking the piss out of each other. They welcomed us with open arms, poured the whisky liberally, and even gave us a CD of their music. It was a night we will never forget. (Even though I got very, very drunk.—Scott)
Oh, and at the pub next door to our amazing Airbnb (!), Scott also discovered a whisky he loved (“definitely now in my top five!” he says), called Wemyss Tiramisu 18. Wemyss is pronounced weemz. If you ever have a chance to try it, do not hesitate.
During the stay at our lovely short-term-home-away-from-home, we visited Cawdor Castle. This place has, without a doubt, the most amusing descriptions of its rooms we’ve encountered, all written by the former owner, Hugh John Vaughan Campbell, 6th Earl Cawdor. The plaques got progressively funnier as you went further into the castle, all in that dry, wry way for which the Scottish and English are so well known. To describe the “Modern Kitchen,” he quipped: “This was once a dark and dreary place known as the School Room and may have been responsible for turning some of the Campbell ladies into confirmed spinsters and professional invalids.”
Outside the castle, as we wandered around for a bit, we chatted with one of the gardeners about the beautiful gardens. They were extremely well-maintained and had recently won an award for one of the top three gardens in Scotland.
Oh! We also went on a dolphin boat tour from Inverness, but unfortunately, the dolphins were not up to being seen that particular day. Still, it was a nice boat jaunt.
Braemar Highland Games (and the Queen!)
Also during our stay at Garrick and Janie’s lovely little Airbnb, we attended officially the biggest event of our trip in Scotland, and possibly of our whole trip thus far: The Royal Braemar Highland Games… and HRM Queen Elizabeth II of England!!! These are said to be the games to see in Scotland because they’re both the biggest and the only ones actually sponsored by the queen herself. Braemar is a very small village just down the road from Balmoral Castle, where the British royals spend their summers.
We arrived at the games fairly early in the day, after about a two-hour drive. Almost immediately upon walking into the village, I won a little bottle of whisky in a dice game run by the local Rotary Club members, who were there raising money for charity. Things were definitely looking up for the day already! We watched some pipes and drums for a bit, and then we found our seats.
We were located in front of the heavy events — hammer and stone throws, caber toss, etc. The area of the games was not huge, though, thankfully, so we could easily see the other events such as running, tug-of-war, dancing, and high jumping. There were also a ton of bag pipers and drummers (including the Pipes and Drums of Canada, from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, only about an hour from Scott’s home town!). They were everywhere, in all sorts of different tartans, and the music was ever-present throughout the day, making the whole affair extremely festive.
We spent the day watching the events, drinking whisky and beer, and talking to others in the crowd until about 3 pm when the Queen, Prince Charles, and other royals and peers slid in via Rolls-Royce. The Queen greeted all the local nobles and then waved to us mere peasants, who then sang the national anthem. The royals watched the games for maybe an hour and then gave out a few awards before leaving.
I never thought I’d see the Queen of England in my life, and there she was just across the field, in all her turquoise glory! Then, later that night, on the way home, I sprained my ankle falling down in a ditch while stopping to pee on the side of the road in the Cairngorms. Like HRM the Queen, I’m so incredibly dignified.
A bit hung over and at least one of us limping, but otherwise none the worse for wear, we headed north to see Loth, Scotland. This was the birthplace of Scott’s 8th great-grandfather (thank you Aunt Sharon for all your genealogy research!). It was little more than a stretch of rolling seaside hills and farmland, but it was beautiful.
Along our way back south, we stopped at Dunrobin, which was one of the more picturesque castles we’ve visited. It was a lovely fall day, and we also saw a falconry demonstration down in the garden, near the water. The falconer had three different species of hunting birds, and holy crap, are falcons ever fast! He explained that large houses like Dunrobin would have several falconers and many birds of prey, which would hunt rabbits and other small game for the house. The falconer showed us how he tames the animals and teaches them how to capture and retrieve the game. It was very cool!
Maybe half an hour outside of Oban, we stayed on a croft (or farm) in an old byre, a stone building where the farm animals used to share a residence with the farmer and his family. It was converted into a cozy cottage where we spent two lazy days. Scott worked, while I got the opportunity to feed some sheep and play fetch with the owners’ deaf but tireless dog. We also stopped in town at the Oban distillery for a dram or two of Oban whisky, one of my favorites!
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park
Loch Lomond is a very famous holiday destination in Scotland where people spend days out on the lake doing various watersports. I took a boat ride out on the lake, we cooked a bunch, and we toured even more castles, like the magnificent Inveraray, ancestral home of the Dukes of Argyll. The inside was nice, but the exterior was spectacular! The stone has a greenish tint and it is truly unique in appearance.
The first day back in the big city, we had two major goals: fix my hair and get Scott’s beard trimmed. Both things were accomplished within the first few hours of hitting Glasgow, and afterwards we celebrated like you do in Scotland, with some Mexican food.
For the next two days, we walked around the city seeing the sights. Some highlights were the Glasgow Cathedral, where a really cool Lego exhibit was on display in the basement; Glasgow Necropolis, a Victorian cemetery with beautiful headstones and crypts; and Oran Mor, a church converted into a multi-level bar and nightclub.
The last big highlight of our Scotland trip was Culzean Castle, former home of the Clan Kennedy (not the same as the Kennedy’s of Ireland, who went on to become so powerful in American politics). Culzean is also famous for being the image on the five-pound note. This cliff-top castle was huge, and the top floor was reserved exclusively for President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his role in the Second World War; he had often visited the area prior to the war and considered it his “Scottish hometown.” Only after his death in 1969 was it converted into the Eisenhower Hotel.
Last but not least, we also stopped briefly in Ayr, which was home to another of Scott’s ancestors. He said it reminded him a lot of Nova Scotia, where his dad’s family comes from. Maybe that’s why so many Scots settled on the east coast in Canada?
To Sum Up
We really loved our time in Scotland and would happily live there. In fact, we have discussed that possibility several times during and since our trip there. It’s an amazingly beautiful country with friendly people and good food (yes, we both love haggis!). We are definitely keeping Scotland high on our list as a potential future home.
Connie & Scott