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Saturday, May 27, 2023

Scotland - Day 8: Mar sin leat

The above is my feeble attempt at saying goodbye in Scottish Gaelic.  Given that my language skills are somewhat lacking, even in English, the title is about as correct as Google can make it.  Anyway, today is our last day in Scotland, and tomorrow, bright and early, we return home.  

As for today's activities, well, things were intentionally kept on the light side.  The first stop this morning was to the Edinburgh farmer's market, where a few things were purchased.  From there, it was off to the National Museum of Scotland, which we barely made a dent in before deciding to call it a day.  Our plan from there was to head off to Arthur's Seat and do some hiking, but two things got in the way:  1) It was a bit chillier than expected and 2) We were just tired.  To that second point, I'm glad we stayed here as long as we did, but by now, the hiking miles upon miles a day is wearing a bit thin for all of us (myself especially included).  If there is ever a return trip, Arthur's Seat (and one or two other places) will be first on the list.

Back to the National Museum of Scotland...this is a must-see.  The fact that it's completely free only adds to the coolness of the place.  The museum itself has a bit of everything, from fossils to religious artifacts to weapons of a thousand years ago.  

The interior of the museum.

A copy of Mary, Queen of Scots's casket.

A precursor to the French guillotine.

Ms. Rivers and I also had a final stroll in the city before things get too dark, and we get too tired.  Of course, this somehow ended up involving a cemetery.

Here's to Catherine, being remembered again.  May she be resting in peace.

View of St. Cuthbert's cemetery and steeple.

On that note, that brings "the big Scotland vacation" to an end.  I suspect that we will be back, at some unknown point in the future.  As for me, I confess that it will be nice to sleep in my own bed, not walk up quite so many hills, and having the time to plant flowers on Monday.  There is a certain serenity in routine, but yet in leaving, I'm hoping that some of those routines are forever changed.  We shall see.

I'll end this with my favorite song about Scotland.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Scotland - Days 6 & 7: Winding Down

We're on the back end of our Scotland vacation, so I'm going to combine activities from Thursday (May 25th) and Friday (May 26th).  This is mostly because, at least for me, things are dialing down a bit.  No big tours, and no tight schedules.  I am good with this, by the way.  While I have thoroughly enjoyed what we've done so far, I'm starting to feel as if my vacation insights cup is almost full.  This is less of a writing thing and more of a mental/physically tired kind of thing.  

Homesick?  Not really.  It's probably more of a function of my incredibly short attention span.  I've seen wonderful things here, and I've learned a thing or two.  And not just about Scotland.  Big things like this...and traveling to a different country is a big thing...create a tremendous opportunity for growth, I think if we're open to it.  As I'm looking at one full day left, I'm still trying to sort out some of what I've learned.  This is a wonderful thing by the way, namely, the fact that, at age 59, I readily confess to learning new things about myself and the world.

Something I will note is that the night before we flew out here, I had something of an incredibly troubling dream.  I wouldn't use the word nightmare, but one of those sleeping cerebral movies that just sticks in your head like old gum on the bottom of a movie theater seat.  The kind of thing where the emotion of it all makes you think there must be some deeper meaning to it all, even though there probably isn't.  Flying out here that quickly evaporated.  Indeed, there was no deeper meaning.  It was just a dream.  This is, however, one of the examples of how travel can impact us:  It takes us outside of our own heads for a period of time.  The sheer difference of it all reminds us that there is much more to the world than what we think (or dream) or see in front of us every "normal" day.  

In the end, seeing the "bigness" of the world is both humbling and incredibly insightful.

I wish there was some way to expose younger folks of all economic conditions to overseas travel.  I think the world would be a far, far better place.  As it stands, this kind of travel is an example of a kind of privilege in action, which, growing on the lower socio-economic side of status, I fully appreciate as an adult.  I also appreciate the fact that Ms. Rivers is far more keen to undertake these kinds of things than I naturally am.  Granted that I do enjoy this kind of travel, but left to my own druthers, I'm not sure I would do it.

As for the last two days' worth of travels, well, as I noted above, it was a bit less scheduled.  On Thursday, we did an hour-long tour of some of the vaults that are found under the King's Mile (in Edinburgh).  It was interesting, and the guide did a good job of conjuring up some spooky mojo with her stories, in addition to talking about the real hardship of living at a time when 1) There wasn't enough housing for everyone, and 2) Actually being homeless was a criminal offense.  

The vaults we visited were off of Cow Gate, which just so happens to have the backside of a cow displayed in one of the nearby buildings.

One of the vaults was used by a local religious group for many, many years.  After their leader passed away, the group broke up, up but allowed the owner of the vault they used to be maintained, provided that no one could enter.  By the way, the vaults in this area are owned by different folks and are used for everything from nothing to storage to a bar.  

You can read more about the Edinburgh vaults HERE.

After the vaults, we had a rather uneventful dinner at what we think was a chain restaurant of sorts.  Ms. Rivers tried the beet sauce.  I didn't.  

Today (Friday) we did some more walking (surprising!) and found the beginning of a canal, complete with canal boats.

We also found a very neglected cemetery in of all places, Coffin Lane.  We would have gone down the explore, but the encampment of folks who looked like they may be been using some illegal substances was there already.  Discretion was the better part of valor.

Ms. Rivers and I went for a walk further down King's Mile later in the day.  A few things caught my eye:

Note for those with agoraphobia:  Edinburgh is a very crowded place.

Yes, I could not help myself:  Another picture of the turd building.

I'm not sure about the significance behind the locks, other than I am sure there is some significance.  

At this point, I am pretty damn tired.  Tomorrow we will be seeing a few more things that we don't want to miss before flying out bright and early on Sunday morning.

I'm thinking I have one more post in me. 

More to come.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Scotland - Day 5: There's Something In The Air

I mentioned fairly early on that there is a certain smell to this place.  Since that initial olfactory observation, I've been able to fine-tune things a bit.  Specifically:
  • There is a distinct Edinburgh smell.
  • I also got a whiff of it in a smaller town we visited (see below).
  • It reminds me of when I used to live in York, PA, and was downwind of a paper plant.
  • Said smell goes away when you leave the city; in fact, the countryside here smells wonderful.
I'm reasonably sure I'm smelling some Scottish version of sewer gases.  Now that this mystery is solved, it's time to move on to bigger and better things.

How about a few random facts?

Sheep outnumber humans in Scotland by over a million.  Reference HERE.  That's easy to see, literally.  Some of today's sheep...

(Those white things towards the left horizon?  Sheep.)

There's a lot of smoking here.  Interestingly enough though, according to Scottish government statistics, it's the tourists, not the locals.  In fact, the smoking rate in Scotland as a whole is 11% as of 2021.  Reference HERE.  In Pennsylvania, the most current rate I could find was 17.9% (reference HERE).  Why bring this up?  Well, today's trip was the Hadrian's Wall, which I'll get into in a moment.  The tie to smoking is that Ms. Rivers and I sat at the back of our tour bus today, behind a group of folks speaking Italian (Ms. Rivers seems to think they said they were from Switzerland, but I'm not so sure...).  These folks were lighting up constantly every time they left the bus, leaving us to deal with the smell when they returned.  I know, first-world problems, for sure, but it does remind me of how much things have changed for the better in this area since I was a kid.  For the record, if you smoke, please try to's simply a horrible thing to do to your body, and you deserve better.

What we haven't smelled much of is marijuana.  That could be because it's illegal in Scotland (reference HERE).  I'm not complaining.

On to the business end of today.  As noted above, we visited Hadrian's Wall*, and it was wonderful.  Well worth a day in Scotland.  Prior to arriving at the wall, we stopped at a town named Jedburgh, where there can be found the ruins of a large abbey.  It was actually really interesting.  

This is also a place where Mary, Queen of Scotts stayed at one point.  From here, we visited 4 different sites related to Hadrian's Wall.  Here are some of the better pictures:

None of this, by the way, does the wall...and its related ruins...justice.  This is just something you need to experience.  It felt kind of unique to sit on a section of the wall, knowing that over 1900 years ago soldiers from the Roman Empire were doing the exact same thing.  It's also rather marvelous to experience something so old yet created by humans, particularly in an age where it seems like everything is disposable.

I'll post more pictures on the Facebooks.

Finally, I saw this stone at the border between Scotland and England (Hadrian's Wall is in England).  It tells its own story.

I (obviously) have skin in the Scottish Independence game, but it seems to me that this is a culturally distinct place.  

(*) You can learn more about Hadrian's Wall by linking to:

More to come.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Scotland - Day 4: King For A Day

Maybe, quite possibly, I might have gotten enough sleep last night.  Granted that sleep is sometimes more of a concept for me than an actuality.  That's a fancy way of saying sleep and I don't always get along.  Anyway, I actually got something along the lines of 8 hours of sleep.  That's a good start to the day.  This was needed as today we spent a few hours at Edinburgh Castle.  

As we were waiting outside St. Giles Cathedral, we heard an actual Scottish street preacher doing this thing catercorner to the church.  

I almost feel guilty burning up a posting photo on the guy (due to posting size limits, I can typically fit about 5-6 high resolutions per posting), but it's worth it.  There's something unqualifying interesting about a man yelling the name of "Jesus Christ!" in a thick Scottish accent at one of the busiest corners of Edinburgh.  He was literally fighting a losing battle against traffic.  Some nice soul in a passing taxi was even kind enough to take of one his pamphlets.  All in a day's work I suppose.

On to Edinburgh Castle, which is many things, including amazing.  A few points of interest.

St. Margaret's Chapel is one of the oldest buildings in the U.K. dating back to around the year 1130.  It's also the oldest surviving building at the castle, here basically because King Robert the Bruce was afraid of creating bad mojo with the Pope.

You can get married in the chapel, which is why I couldn't take any interior photos, as that was actually happening during our visit.  Congratulations to the groom and bride, whomever they are.

I didn't go into many of the castle buildings, mostly because it was nice outside and many of them don't allow interior photography.  I did, however, get to see the changing of the guard.  Fun fact:  Edinburgh Castle is a real U.K. military base, with a garrison of troops stationed there at all times.  One of the places they guard, in addition to the actual castle entrance, is a building dedicated to those from the U.K. military who lost their lives during their service.

The above was right before the changing of the guard.  A side note:  One of the other tour groups had a guide that was speaking loudly as the ceremony began. Very, very disrespectful.  Thankfully, I think she got the hint and stopped.

I have about a dozen castle exterior shots that I'll post on the Facebooks, but here's one of the nicer ones.

The view from the castle can best be described as jaw-dropping.  Here's a sample:

If you look carefully at the photo, towards the top right, you'll see a rather new-ish building that is actually shaped like a turd.  I am not kidding.  Said building is not on the graphic at this location of the castle that points out city landmarks.  This could be for two reasons:
  1. The building came after the graphic was installed.
  2. No one wanted to actually include in the graphic the description of the "Turd Building".
Either explanation seems plausible to me. I'll post a larger picture of the Turd Building on the Facebooks.

Our day of exploration ended with a second trip through the cemetery where Greyfriar's Bobby is buried.  And yes, I get that it seems like we're spending a lot of time in cemeteries during this trip.  Actually, I'm not quite sure what to make of that myself, come to think about it.  In any event, here's one more cemetery picture.

Finally, when I was thinking about castles and kings, the Thompson Twins song "King for a Day" came to mind.  That's a fine way to end things...

More to come.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Scotland - Day 3: Authenticity

I don't try to explain, after the fact, what these bordering-on-ridiculous blog postings mean.  There are a couple reasons for that, none of which are entertaining enough (for me...) to write about.  This noted, what I do find fascinating is how easy it is to read intent into written words.  That's both a curse and a blessing for folks that write things, even hacks such as myself.  Anyway, I'm going to make an exception to the blog posting interpretation rule.

For example, in my Day 1 posting, I compared how Edinburgh is, well, gritty, dirty, and kind of smells like the Scranton I knew as a kid.  I get that this certainly sounds bad...unless you are me, and you grew up in Scranton in the '70s.  Granted that other folks, outside of fans of the U.S. version of The Office, probably have a negative impression of Scranton, but I don't.  In fact, that gritty/dirty/smells description is, in a word, authentic.  While there are tons of tourists here in Edinburgh, as I noted in the Day 2 posting, this is a lived-in kind of place.  The tourists just seem to be here for the ride.  

Another way to think about this is to consider Edinburgh as a kind of anti-Disney.  This isn't a magic kingdom; this is a place where people work, sieges have been had, and more than a few people hung and/or otherwise dispatched.  In the words of our tour guide on Sunday, Edinburgh had for the longest time a reputation for being one of the most disgusting cities in Europe.  The magic in this kingdom is that people have called this home and fought for it over centuries.  

The above noted, my quota for actually explaining blog postings has been met.  Since this is about the first time since 2008 that I've done this sort of thing (explaining...), if I do the math then I won't have to do it again until sometime in 2038.

On to the day's festivities.


Today we did the quasi-common bus tour of the countryside thing.  It was fun, based partially on the fact that my knees appreciated that they weren't responsible for all of the day's locomotion.  To be a bit more specific, the big stops today were Loch Lomond and Stirling Castle.  See the links for more (likely & possibly) factual information.  

As we were headed to Loch Lomond, we stopped to see an attraction known as the Kelpies.  For purposes of picture set-up, know that this is a very large metal sculpture. 

As I alluded to in the first paragraph or so of this posting, Scotland pretty much does what Scotland wants.  Giant horse heads?  Sure, why not.  There actually is some mythology about the Kelpies, which you can get from the horse's mouth HERE.  

From the Kelpies we headed to the Loch, for an all too brief visit.  Photographs don't do it justice, but here's one anyway.

This is an old place, well-used, yet still incredibly beautiful.  Something else to mention?  It smelled wonderful.  Actually, the Kelpies smelled wonderful too.  Just the right combination of flowers were in bloom I suppose, creating a scent that would rival a stand of honeysuckle.  

By the way, I am reasonably sure that there are more sheep in Scotland than there are people.  Without any exaggeration whatsoever.  The sheep we saw driving around the countryside were legion, for they were many.

Granted, I don't want to think too hard about Scotland's sheep, as that results in thoughts about what becomes of the cute little guys (re:  Haggis).

After the Loch and countless sheep-spotting opportunities, we stopped for lunch.  That was something of an adventure (for mundane reasons I will not get into), but what was really cool was the fact that we stopped at a town that was literally at the border between the Scottish lowlands and highlands.  

Foreground = Lowlands.  Background = Highlands.

Our final stop was Castle Stirling, complete with a larger-than-life statue of Robert the Bruce.  Yes, that was a character in the movie Braveheart, and yes, the locals are keenly aware of how inaccurate Mel Gibson's movie really was.  Regardless, it's an impressive statue.

I didn't do the castle tour (Ms. Rivers did), but instead went wandering around the castle grounds, which were beautiful.  The history of this place literally permeates the air.

Finally, I can't let the opportunity pass to take a few critter shots, and today was no exception.  

With apologies for the off-center shot, but in all fairness, 1) He was moving a lot and 2) I was using a cellphone camera.

All of the above noted, it was a long but interesting day.  Now to get some rest.  I think I slept for something like four hours last night, due to a variety of reasons.  I need to do better,.  Tomorrow will be more castle touring and maybe a ghost* bus tour.

More to come.

(*) Ghosts don't exist, but for the purposes of this vacation, I'll play along.


Sunday, May 21, 2023

Scotland - Day 2: It's Pronounced "Edin-Brah"

A minor mystery has been solved.  What mystery, you may ask?  Well, is this town named...



...wrong on both counts.  According to our tour guide this morning, the very talented Ms. Roisin, it's actually pronounced something like "Edin-brah", where the "brah" part sounds like what a 20-something-year-old dude who vapes a lot calls everyone he knows.  See below.

On a more serious note, I highly recommend anyone who happens to be in Edin-brah (sorry, that's the last time I'll use that gag, promise) to check out Little Fish Tours.  Our guide, the above-referenced Ms. Roisin, was excellent.  In fact, we decided to take another one of their tours later in the week.  I'm not always a big fan of guided tours, but they do work best when you get to know the stories of the place...not just names and dates and assorted facts...but the very human stories of people who lived in a particular place.  That's what we got today.

Today's event was the walking tour noted above, combined with some additional wandering about (sometimes in circles) in and around the castle area of Edinburgh.  One of the things I find most fascinating about places, particularly older places, are the roof lines of buildings. Modern architecture, in my extremely amateurish opinion, lacks a certain kind of distinctiveness when the building hits the sky.  Instead of a kind of crown, many newer buildings just look as if someone arbitrarily just cut them off at some point.  That's certainly not the case here.

New vs. old building rooflines.  See the difference?

One quasi-funny story:  We were near the Scottish equivalent of the Supreme Court.  As our guide was speaking, we were told to move back, and low and behold, the justices of the court walked by us (within about 10 feet), complete with powdered wigs and robes befitting the best of a 17th-century jurist.  It was almost kind of odd in a way; as I mentioned to my stepson Alex if this were the U.S. we never would have gotten that close to the justices of the Supreme would have been one warning then 20 seconds later a taser shot to the abdomen.

Much of today's walking was centered around High Street/the Royal Mile.  Some of the buildings were spectacular.   

Unfortunately, there is a limit to how many photos I can share in a blog posting, but I'll be adding more to Facebook over the next few hours.

While the buildings seen today are beautiful, what I noted yesterday, which is a certain grittiness, complete with an odd assortment of sights and smells, was sort of familiar.  This is not a clean place.  In fact, you can tell this is a very much lived-in, working, functional kind of location.  The tourists are just here for the ride.

More to come.

Scotland - Day 1: Far But Familiar

Fun fact:  The mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania belong to the same range that, in Earth's past, also include the Scottish Highlands.  You can learn more about the subject HERE.  Here's a graphic, just to punctuate the point...

This isn't the first time I've heard about the Central Pangean Mountains; that would be something Ms. Rivers' brother, a geologist, mentioned when we were visiting Scandinavia in 2018.  

Based on the title of this posting, and the reference above, it's fair to say that I am visiting Scotland this week.  By way of background, this trip is notable for a few reasons, including the fact that it's likely to be one of the last vacations we take with Ms. Rivers' sons (my stepsons).  This is because they are getting older, we are getting older, and well, everything seems to getting older.  Speaking of getting older, another reason behind the trip is the fact, as we approach an eventual, collective retirement age, it seems prudent for us to take advantage of the fact that we've been prudent with our finances.  Put another way, was can afford to travel, so why not?  In some respects, this is the first trip of what will probably be a few in the years to come.  The downside?  More tedious blog postings from me, but so I digress.

So, why Scotland?  

Well to the best of my knowledge, I have zero point zero connection to Scotland.  This is the honest-to-goodness truth, unlike what I've said about Ireland for decades.  Ms. Rivers?  Well, she does.  The genesis of the trip came after hearing about a similar trip that Ms. Rivers' sisters took years ago.  The thought was that we would travel with them, but that part didn't end up working out.  What did was our end of it, so here we are, about a year after starting to plan this vacation.  

Butterfly knees.

There is a special 1,000-year place in purgatory for people who design modern airplane seating arrangements.  Now if you are of average height, these sorts of things work out okay for you.  Me?  Not so much, so my knees end up being bent at unnatural angles for hours on end, broken up by the occasional trip to the bathroom (which is mostly just an excuse to unfurl my a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis...every now and then).  With 8 hours of travel yesterday, well, my knees were sore by the time I got off the second leg of our flights, here in Edinburgh.  Making matters worse was the fact that we then had about 3+ hours (and associated walking) before we could check in at our rented apartment in Edinburgh's old city.  By the time I was able to lay down (I had gotten about an hour of sleep the night before) my knees felt like they were got to explode and projectile my patellas across the room.  Fortunately, this did not happen. 

So here I am now, writing this on a dreary but more or less wonderful morning in the old city of Edinburgh.  My knees are about 90% recovered, and I think that today's guided walking tour will actually help things.  Or so we shall see.

One observation about Scotland so far:  It sort of reminds me of growing up in Scranton.  Connection via ancient mount range aside for a moment, this place is gritty, has lots of smells (diesel, food, stuff that was once food but now is rotting...), and is generally not well kept.  In other words, Scranton in the 1970's, but sans the three strip clubs that adorn a corner not so far from us.  Multiples seem to be a thing here, as in addition to the three strip clubs nearby, there are at least four barbers within a stone's throw from the kitchen window I am sitting next to at this very moment.  Scottsmen love well-trimmed hair I guess.

Lastly, I did not bring my usual camera gear on this trip.  This is mostly because I didn't want to have to bring another bag with me, and my Google Pixel takes great pictures anyway.  In service of my comment about Edinburgh's gritty-ness, I offer the following...

More to come.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Wind Up (or is that wind down)?

I'm not sure what was going on with me from about early February through mid-late April, other than, in some respects, it wasn't good.  Part of this was definitely physical...I struggle with some digestive issues, no doubt made worse by the "6-year-old eating mentality but with adult money" diet.  However, I know, at least for me, that parts of my physical health are strongly tied to my mental health at any given point.  This kind of makes how I am physically feeling something like a "Canary in a mine" for what's pinging around in my head.

I do have at least one theory.

That period is probably the worst of the year for me.  One of the few things in life I can say that I enjoy, without any qualification, is working outside.  Yet during that period, there is just so little I can actually do.  This is mostly because it's just too damn chilly/cold outside.  And in the spirit of my ability to dramatically over-think everything, I would never want to live anywhere that is warm all year.  I enjoy the seasons...even the advent of winter...but I just wish it would end.  This year's relatively warm late winter was similar to hanging a cupcake just out of reach of a starving person.  

There is a larger issue at play here, namely that I am borderline (seemingly) genetically pre-disposed and always on the lookout for threats, be they big or small, real or imaginary.  The appropriate mental health term is "hypervigilance", and in addition to being tiring, it takes up a heck of a lot of personal bandwidth.  The ironic part is that when viewed objectively, I have a pretty good life.  I suspect though that's all part of the larger set of complexities that reside inside my head.  I am okay, and I wouldn't be me without this stuff, but yet there are times when I would just like less of certain stuff.

I have no grand plan on dealing with the kinds of things that late winter/very early spring brought this year.  Maybe this kind of introspection* is the plan.  Who knows.  What I do know is that I spent a few hours in the yard this weekend, and it felt right.  In the third paragraph of this posting, I noted that I enjoy working outside; maybe an even better term for me is that it just feels "right".

I need to be focusing more on what feels enjoyable and good and right, which is a far harder task than it seems.  But it needs to be done.  There is a kind of hidden guilt inside of me that wants to immediately engage in castigation at the mere thought of not being on the edge, scanning for threats.  It all ties together, and I have some work to do.

Here's to basking in the warmth of the sun, the smell of flowers, and feeling growth all around us.  

(*) Introspection:  Something that requires no real effort from me, but I just wish there were more practical outcomes resulting from it.