It’s time to hit the road and head off from El Paso all the way across Texas to our winter spot in Harlingen Texas. Is the truck hitched? Slides in? Stairs up? Let’s go!
Out of El Paso, the mountains were close by for quite awhile, but they gradually faded into distance. The terrain is rugged here. We saw plenty of buttes, strange rock formations, and miles upon miles of open, parched land.
I should maybe have titled this blog “Four for the road”, because there were actually four overnight stops along the way, but our first was at Fort Stockton RV Park. It’s right off the highway and is primarily an overnight stop for RVers crisscrossing the state before or after the long open stretch of west Texas. There are things to do here, but we always say: “Next time!” They do have a handy little restaurant which served us up a good breakfast.
The road entered some pretty hills and valleys of the southwest corner of the Texas Hill country. Our second stop was outside of Junction, Texas for two overnights at Pecan Valley RV. This is a lovely, quiet place just behind a pecan farm. The owners of this park have had it for just a handful of years. They own just two rows of the pecan orchard. The park is a large oval with nothing but grass in the middle of the oval, and RV spaces under plenty of trees ringing just half of the outsides of the loop. There were four sites next to ours, although there were more down the road, and for a blessed twenty-four hours we had no neighbors close by.
There are deer to be seen at any time wandering around. In a little farm area, there are chickens and goats. Many of the chickens were free ranging and came to pay us a visit. Thanks to those chickens, we were able to buy a dozen multi-hued eggs.
The South Llano River is just a short walk from the goat and chicken pen. The river is what makes this park popular in the summer. Besides swimming, people enjoy rafting, kayaking or tubing. In all of its history, the river has never run dry, although with today’s climate change it does get very low in the heat of summer.
We had a full day to rest up here, so we went over to South Llano River State Park for a hike. At this park there is a large protected area where about 800 turkeys make their home. The turkeys are easily scared off, so visiting their roost is not encouraged. We hiked the Overlook Trail, which, after spending time in the Southwest, was an easy trail up for us. We were even surprised on our hike by an armadillo scurrying into the underbrush. It moved too quickly for a picture.
Junction’s single claim to fame is this antler tree, put up by the Women’s Club in 1968.
The Llano river is a bonus to the beauty of this area. I would like to be here when the trees bud again. We’re familiar with Texas Hill country and it was a good feeling to be back.
A short 140-mile drive took us further east to Guadalupe Brewing Company in New Braunfels. Since they are a Harvest Host location, we stayed a night in their back parking lot.
A surprise for this stop was that our daughter Katie, who lives in Austin, decided to come down and join us for the day. She always has ideas for different and fun things to do, so after getting set up at Guadalupe we headed off in her car. First stop: Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo. At first glance, this place looks like a tourist trap off the Interstate. But once inside, we discovered an interesting little zoo with a variety of well-cared-for animals, birds, and a good assortment of snakes.
We also had cups of food to feed a multitude of goats with many cute little kids.
New Braunfels is but one of the German heritage towns that dot this area of the Texas hill country. We walked the little downtown area. All of the busy activity on this Sunday afternoon concentrated on their large Biergarten with Hofbrau beer on tap. Instead, though, we roamed the city streets, checked out an antique mall, and visited the little train depot. If you are ever in New Braunfels in November, you can enjoy their popular Wurstfest.
We needed to patronize Guadalupe Brewing for our stay, so we headed back. They had a full selection of beers to choose from. I’m not really a fan of beer, but Cal is, so we sampled three small glasses. My favorite was their Texas Honey Ale, which is described as “a blonde ale enriched with Texas honey”. Even the description sounds delicious. They also make a good pizza, and dinner was in order. That was a fun day!
Leaving New Braunfels, we pointed Sam and Frodo due south in earnest. It was getting warmer. Putting San Antonio behind us, we were on new-to-us territory. Our last stop: Lake Corpus Christi State Park. It is about forty miles to the east from the city for which it is named. Once we set up, I just sat at our picnic table and enjoyed the warmth and the cardinals singing and flying over us.
I hiked a mile long loop trail. Cactus on the the ground were interspersed with deciduous trees with no leaves, and here and there was a palmetto or a palm tree. The trail finally opened up onto the lake.
I missed getting an excellent photo that evening, though. We walked down to a large aluminum T-shaped fishing pier in the late afternoon and caught the setting sun over the lake. The sunset was amazing. It was a walk where we were just “going exploring”, and I had left my phone and camera behind. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it was spectacular.
Traveling further south, we entered a coastal plain with low vegetation, more cactus and very little sign of human life. We had about 140 miles still to go from Lake Corpus Christi. Once near Harlingen, civilization returned. Harlingen is in the northeast part of the Rio Grande Valley, an area that also includes Brownsville and south Padre Island to the southeast and McAllen and Mission on the west. It is at the very bottom of Texas, so once again, we are not far from Mexico.
I’ll leave you here for now while we make some new memories. I’m going to pick up my Europe blogs again for three or four weeks. Do you remember my question from way back in November: what did I leave out of my Scottish blogs?
Huddled in our blankets in front of our fireplace in the cold November nights of New Mexico, we stalked the Weather Channel for a warmer place that would be still be a days driving distance from Denver. El Paso was consistently several degrees warmer. It’s a funny thing, too, because El Paso, Texas lies only approximately 50 miles to the south of Las Cruces, New Mexico. We knew where we had to go. We were going to go there anyway, but our arrival at our site in El Paso was about three weeks earlier than we originally planned.
At the very tip of the nose of Texas, on its far western side, lies the city of El Paso. Franklin Mountain rises up and pushes down into it like a thumb. The city has crept up and around the tip of that thumb. El Paso is limited in its growth southward by the Mexican city of Juarez, from which migrants poured during the months of November and December 2022. Driving along I-10 reveals a tale of two cities: Juarez, looking a little less prosperous and with a lining of smog along its mountainside, and El Paso, with its chain restaurants and hotels lining the expressway. If you look closely, you can see the immense border wall which snakes down and around, dividing Mexico and the United States.
On the northeastern side of the mountain lies sprawling Ft. Bliss, the Army’s second largest base, containing 1.1 million acres. It is so big that it is chopped up by the roads that pass through it, notably SR 54 that passes in front of the RV park. Were it not for that highway, this would be a great place to sit. Behind the park, Franklin Mountain rises up and provides a lovely backdrop. All around the mountain, development never rises much higher than this. I suspect that much of the land is owned by either the federal government or the state of Texas.
On some of my daily walks, I tried to get behind the buildings and up into the hills, but it was just too far. In the foreground of this picture is one of Ft. Bliss’s housing areas and behind that is a fence.
There was plenty of time to explore, so one of the first things we did was hike in the Franklin Mountains.
It was silent on the mountain, until the sound of birds broke through. We stood there for awhile, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from, until this gaggle of geese flew over us. They circled above our heads for quite awhile. Maybe, just like people, they were having an argument about which direction was best for their migration journey? There was quite a discussion, as evidenced by all their honking. Finally they fixed their formation and flew off. Adios amigoose!
If you want to drive to a destination in El Paso that is on the other side of the mountain from where you are, it can take some time to go around on the highway. The single other option is to travel on the only road that cuts through it, which is beautiful Transmountain Road. Franklin State Park, where we hiked, is on that road. Going from west to east, at the end of Transmountain road, sits the National Border Patrol Museum. We thought it might be interesting, so we paid a visit.
The thing that struck me most about this museum is a reminder that the United States borders do not only encompass our border with Mexico, which is what comes to mind when I think about Border Patrol. Those who work for Border Patrol have to be ready for winter conditions up on the border with Canada, and also oceanic borders in other places. The museum is small and didn’t take us long to go through. It is a good place to learn about those who protect all of our borders.
Border Patrol agents have to keep an eye out for motorized hang gliders, which are used for drug smuggling. We learned about the many ways that people try to smuggle all manner of things – and people – into the United States. Helicopters are needed, of course.
After we visited the museum, Cal made an attempt to see how high up we could drive into the mountains from our side (not very far). We passed a migrant detention center and observed many people walking around in the fenced back yard. One man was holding a baby. It is an image that stayed in my mind and put a very human face on the current migration crisis happening in this city.
We made a stop at Keystone Park and El Paso’s Botanical Garden one morning. Keystone Park needs a lot of love, as it doesn’t seem to be well maintained. It is a narrow strip of wetlands on a short trail located between a busy road and I-10, which is amazing given this light-industrial location. There were many birds to see, which made it worthwhile, and then the Botanical Garden can be accessed from this trail.
The birds would take flight and move to another section of wetland when I tried to take just a step closer, so I couldn’t get a closeup shot of them. But I did like this view of the mountains reflected in this picture. Our RV was on the other side of the mountain from here.
The garden was small, but a lot was packed in. It provided plants from the Chihuahuan desert and a peek into some past history.
In one area, there were pretty mosaics set into the wall:
I liked how they had decorated, just a little, for Christmas:
The garden also had a set up of a “paraje” which was an encampment along the Camino Real. This dates back to the 1600’s, when New Mexico was a Spanish colony. The trail covered the distance between Mexico and Santa Fe along what was originally a Pueblo Indian trail. The Spanish were setting up military outposts and needed to move both equipment and missionaries. Parajes were located every 10 or 15 miles to give shelter, rest and water to the livestock and and travelers as well.
The plan for the day was that if we had time, Cal would drop me off at Whoopee Bowl Antique Mall up the highway, and he would go to Camping World while I was there. We have such an exciting life!
I had read about Whoopee Bowl, and I love to poke around antique malls, so I wanted to check this out. If this is the sort of thing you enjoy, it is not to be missed if you are ever in El Paso. I’m always amazed at all the junk…excuse me…stuff that people collect. Whoopee Bowl takes antique malls to a whole ‘nother level.
The above picture is up on the second level. After checking out this massive place and returning down to the first floor, I found a room I hadn’t been in. There was huge fish aquarium, a blazing fire going in a massive brick fireplace, and a rousing game of poker going on.
Atlas Obscura is a guide, both on-line and in book form, to all sorts of quirky and interesting places that one might normally miss. They don’t list the Whoopee Bowl, maybe because it is a business. But they do list the Casa de Azucar, which translated from Spanish means House of Sugar. It was just down from where we were staying and made for a good walk.
It is a testament to one man’s love for both his wife and his Catholic church. Rufino Loya started building this confection of decoration around his little house and kept at it for 25 years. He died just this past August at the age of 88 years. I hope someone will keep taking care of it.
Also just up the road, two artists were working on a mural on a concrete retaining wall. I enjoyed walking by and checking their progress.
Our time in El Paso was also about catching up on chores for me and RV maintenance for Cal. The less-glamorous side of RV life is that we do have to stay on top of everything that one would normally do in their lives. Some things had not been taken care of since before our trip to Europe. It being Christmas time, there was also gift buying, Christmas cards to write, and other things that one does to get ready for the holiday. Our RV park had a club house with a kitchen I could use, and I baked some Christmas cookies there.
Just a few days before Thanksgiving, we made a last-minute decision to visit our family in Denver, so we went drove there without the RV for both the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Almost every evening while we stayed here, though, we walked together through the little streets of the RV park. It was fairly large so I could get a good number of steps in. When the sun goes down, the temperature plummets, so at times we had to make sure we got our walk in before dinner. For awhile we enjoyed a full moon. There was also a little Christmas wonderland set up by our camp hosts.
And, of course, we paid a visit to Santa!
Like a coin which has two sides, we were happy to refuge here, and also happy when it was finally time to move on down the road.
Next time – zipping across the state of Texas in five days
Happy first blog of 2023! I haven’t gotten back to blogging as quickly as I would have liked after the holidays. Blame it on the flu, and traveling, and also having some nonexistent Internet. We are now in a good spot with great Wi-Fi for awhile, so it’s time to flip the calendar back a couple of months…
Entering our RV again after 3 months away in Europe was truly like coming home. It even still had a little of that “new RV” smell. No mice had settled in and nothing catastrophic happened to any of its mechanics. The lithium batteries hadn’t even lost much of their juice. We looked forward to getting back to our nomadic life, even as we still missed some of the aspects of life that we’d had in Europe. First, though, was two weeks in Denver and a happy reunion with our family there. We would be returning at Christmas. So, for the weeks in between, we headed south to New Mexico.
Our time in this state was a comical musical chairs-style switch up in plans and RV reservations. A five-night stay in a state park was canceled by the park for maintenance issues. A clueless RV park owner who takes reservations only by phone lost our reservation and had a full park during the dates we were to be there. And, unexpected: it often got cold at night, sometimes with below-freezing temperatures. We ended up canceling three other stays because the temperatures were dipping too much. RV life sometimes calls for some flexibility!
One of our “substitute stays” took us to a KOA park in Las Vegas. No, not THAT Las Vegas…remember, we are in New Mexico. While there, we took a drive 35 miles down the highway to visit Pecos National Historical Park. The Pecos Indians had a pueblo there, four to five stories high, home to about 2,000 people for several hundred years until the Spanish came along. What the Spanish didn’t destroy, the Americans did: later, it was a stage stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Situated in a fertile valley between two mountain ranges, it was a major gathering and trading place. The warriors were known to be fierce and undefeatable.
The pueblo is in ruins. This is all that remains of a once-great people. Once upon a time, there were 20 kivas here, which were places for ritual ceremonies. I climbed down inside of one of them.
The park service is slowly reconstructing some of the park based on archeological finds. The Spanish mission was in a partially ruined state and they have rebuilt some of it and the surrounding pueblo.
We drove around Las Vegas a couple of times. It was once a stop on the Santa Fe trail during its Mexican past. Later, the railroad arrived. I read that there are 900 historic buildings in this town, dating back hundreds of years. There are things to see another time when it’s warmer. We had dinner in the Buffalo Hall and Cowboy Cafe, another old building. Their barbeque was delicious.
For me, KOA parks are usually just an overnight stop off the highway. Some are practically on the highway, and come with traffic noise and small sites. We stayed here for two nights, and I must say it wasn’t bad. They gave us site #1, which meant a full sprawling yard and no RV’s in view from our front porch. Susan, in the office, fried us up some delicious pancakes with vanilla and cinnamon for breakfast. However, this park sits near the Hogback Mountains, and Las Vegas itself is at 6,424 feet elevation. I didn’t think it would be so chilly this early in November, but we had snow on the morning of our departure. We needed to get further south!
Northern New Mexico is mountainous and is very beautiful. Santa Fe, Taos, and Angel Fire are all nearby. But we’ll have to save our exploration of it for a time when it’s a little warmer.
Our next stay, in Fort Sumner, was also a last-minute replacement find. It was a small mobile home and RV park, usually the kind of place that would be at the very bottom of our desired place to stay. But the permanent residents were to the back, us transients to the front, and all places were neat and tidy. Our site was very wide, and we were right in town. Well, such as town was. What this place lacked in amenities, it made up for in character.
The owners of Valley View RV also own the “Billy the Kid” museum up the street. Ed & Jewel Sweet opened the museum in 1953 as a repository for all the stuff they had collected in their life, and naming it after New Mexico’s famous outlaw is what drew people in. Their son, Donald (who is no spring chicken himself, but gets around well) is running the family business and together with his son, Tim, they run a tight ship.
I wasn’t much drawn into the Billy the Kid stuff. Stuff of lore though he may have been, he was still a criminal. Allegedly, he killed 21 men before he himself was killed at the age of 21 in 1881. But this is BTK territory: where ever we went around these parts, a sign would proclaim “Billy slept here!” or “Billy shot someone here!” and I couldn’t see one redeeming thing that he ever did. I guess it helps with tourism dollars, but I would say the heyday on these events has come and gone.
I loved looking at all the stuff the Sweets collected and had on for display in the museum, though. Besides these farm implements, there were collections of various household items, lots of old buggies and some covered wagons, and of course more BTK ephemera.
Whenever there is a fort to be seen, and we’re looking for something to do, we usually go see it. They’re all different, and some have been amazing for the surprises they hold. Nothing could have prepared me for Fort Sumner, though. Rather than normal western fort-looking buildings, this beautiful museum greeted us:
Recently completed, the Bosque Redondo Memorial tells the story of how 8,500 Navajo and Apache Indians were rounded up in January of 1864 and made to march almost 300 miles to this place. Called “The Long Walk”, under the leadership of Kit Carson, 200 of them died of cold and starvation on the way. The site was to be a reservation to “civilize” them by going to school, practicing Christianity, and becoming corn farmers. Once they got here, they were made to construct their own dwelling places. Unfortunately, the nearby Pecos river was brackish and caused intestinal problems and disease, armyworm destroyed the corn crops, and the wood supply was soon depleted. Most of the Apache escaped the next year, but it would be three more years before the Navajo simply walked home. The whole venture was a miserable failure.
The memorial was built at the request of some Navajo teenagers who, when visiting Ft. Sumner, wanted to know why their story here wasn’t told. Until just two years ago, you would visit the fort and simply not know what happened at this place. The events were certainly not included in any of my history books.
I didn’t have much of an appetite for visiting the fort after that, but we followed the trail out. There isn’t much left of it anyway. Walking about the grounds, I pondered the atrocities that occurred here under the direction of our government. It is a silent, windswept place.
I’m continually astounded at man’s inhumanity to man. I came away with a feeling that I, we all, need to travel and see these places and to learn their stories. Otherwise, how can we learn not to repeat them?
As a side note, after the fort was abandoned in 1869, a rancher purchased one of the old barracks buildings and turned it into a grand house. It was there that a local sheriff ended the life of Billy the Kid. He is buried in the military cemetery nearby, but we did not visit it.
Ready to get back to nature, our next stay was at Valley of Fires Recreation Area, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. It looks over part of a 44-mile lava flow that happened 5,000 years ago. It was not the result of a volcano. Instead, the Carrizozo Malpais Lava Flow was the result of volcanic vent openings in the valley floor. Our site also looked out over the lava field and provided us with several grand sunsets. From our perch, the only man-made thing that we could see was the nature trail and, occasionally, cars on the road far off in the distance to our right. Ahhhhh…excellent.
It is a quiet and peaceful place and was our favorite stay during this time.
When we hiked the nature trail, we discovered that the lava field is very much a living place. There are cactus, trees, and bushes common to the Chihuahuan Desert that we were in, as well as some late-blooming flowers. Animals live here too but we didn’t see any. Seeing lava rock again almost made us feel like we were back on the Big Island of Hawaii.
As a fill-in for our lost RV reservation, we stayed for several days in Alamogordo, right across the road from the world’s biggest pistachio.
McGinn’s PistachioLand and its neighbor, Heart of the Desert, were both great places to sample pistachios, pecans, and wine. It was very handy, after having all that wine, to just be able to walk across the road (carefully!) and go home. At McGinn’s we also took a little tram ride through the orchards and vineyards for an interesting tour. We liked McGinn’s best, but that was probably because Heart of the Desert was a smaller operation and were very busy with a wedding when we visited.
Also behind our RV park in Alamogordo was a little country road which I enjoyed walking on a couple of times. There was a large pecan orchard to look at, mountains ahead of me, and friendly horses to pet.
The highlight of our stay in Alamogordo, though, was a visit to White Sands National Park. Although it was designated a national monument in 1933, it became a national park in 2019. We took a guided walk by a park ranger, where we learned that recently they have found a set of ancient footprints here. The footprints date to 24,000 years ago, placing humans in North America sooner than was thought, but this date seems to still be in dispute. Although the gypsum sands seem dry, there is water only a couple of feet below the surface.
The sun going down made for great effect, casting its long shadows over the sandy hills. We were here in the late afternoon so as to catch the ranger’s tour, but it was a great time of day to visit.
Our last stay during this time was in Las Cruces. From our park, we were able to walk to Old Mesilla, a village that was settled over one hundred years ago. Red chile peppers adorn the plaza and the thick adobe-walled buildings contain art galleries, shops and restaurants.
I cannot help but point out that there was once a courthouse here where Billy the Kid was tried for his crimes and sentenced to hang. He escaped before that could happen.
We had excellent fajitas in a restaurant called La Posta in Old Mesilla. It had been a Butterfield stage stop and inn, and in 1935 it became a restaurant. Parrots and a piranha fish greeted us when we entered. La Posta had rooms upon rooms, and we ate in what was once was the blacksmith and harness room, with a fireplace that kept us warm. While we enjoyed our delicious dinner, we could look at an immense Christmas tree in an adjoining room.
The state of New Mexico overall has much to offer, but we will have to return at a time when it is warmer. The entire state is at elevation, which means it isn’t a great place to be in late fall and winter. Las Cruces itself, while in the far south of New Mexico, sits at 3,900 feet elevation. It was 27 degrees on our last morning in Las Cruces and it wasn’t the first time we’d had a freeze. Daytime temperatures usually warmed up into at least the 50’s, but nighttime freezing temperatures means that the RV mechanic (that’s Cal) has to disconnect hoses and turn on tank heaters. It’s always a worry that a connection might freeze and crack.
We were continuously keeping an eye on the Weather Channel, trying to figure out where would be the warmest place to sit for awhile. What did we find? That is the subject of my next post!
A couple of weeks ago, I listened and watched the entire oratorio of Handel’s “Messiah” presented at the Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It had been quite a while since I had heard the lesser-known pieces. If you don’t think you’ve ever heard of the “Messiah”, you have probably heard of one of the songs in it: the “Hallelujah Chorus”. The music took me back to Messiahs of other years.
During the middle of my time in high school, my father became the pastor of a small rural Lutheran church in northwestern Ohio. There, we lived at least ten miles from a town of any size. In the fall of my senior year and the fall following my graduation, he and I joined 150 other singers of the regionally famous Mennonite Choral Society in Berne, Indiana for practices and a performance of the Messiah just before Christmas. I don’t know how he found out about it or even if any auditions were required. I enjoyed singing some pieces from the Messiah at my previous high school the year before, so that could have been the catalyst. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and I sang soprano.
Once every week night, he and I headed out on dark and sometimes snowy or icy farm roads over the state line to Indiana to attend practices fifteen miles away. He was a taciturn man unless there were subjects to discuss that he was passionate about, so I don’t remember our conversations on the road – or even if there were any. I just remember the pride that I, and I’m sure he, felt about being part of such a wonderful performance. Knowing my dad, he probably was very happy that I did it with him.
The choir had performed the Messiah every year since 1893. Soloists were flown in from Chicago, which was Very Big Stuff to a small-town Ohio girl like me. A grand, beautiful pipe organ and small orchestra accompanied us.
The Messiah takes words from the Bible and tells the story of the nativity and its prophecy, as well as the crucifixion of Christ and victory over death. Even if you do not believe, the music itself is dramatic, heart-stopping, and absolutely beautiful. Both the oratorio and another piece, “Water Music Suite 1”, put Handel firmly in the list of my favorite composers. George Frederic Handel was originally German but he adopted London as his home. At age 56 he composed and had the very first Messiah performance not in London but in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742. Not Christmas time? No, it was originally written as an Easter Oratorio.
How the Messiah came into being at all is an interesting story. The words had been compiled and edited by a man named Charles Jennens, who gave it to his friend Handel to put into music. The well-known story is that Handel completed it in 24 days without eating or sleeping much. After the composition of the Messiah, Handel was going through a difficult time. Overworked and laden with debt, he accepted an invitation from Lord Devonshire for a ten-month stay in Dublin. He brought with him the musical score he had worked on while living in London, and the rest is history.
While we were in Dublin this summer, I looked for signs that Handel was here, and I found them. Dubliners are still proud to have hosted the first performance, all these hundreds of years later.
Before it could ever happen, Handel needed an organ to work the oratorio through, and it is reputed that St. Michan’s Church of Dublin graciously let him use theirs. The church has a long and storied history, which you can Google if you’d like. St. Michan’s is now a bustling restaurant and bar called “The Church”, and we had dinner there in what was formerly the balcony. The keyboard to the organ sits in the little alcove below the pipes. In converting to a restaurant, renovations were thoughtfully and respectfully made to keep some of the original architecture and furnishings in place.
It is still the same organ Handel played. The restaurant would like to renovate the organ. If you have $100,000 to spare, you can help them out!
The inaugural Messiah was played at the then-new Musick Hall on Fishamble Street. The original entryway is all that remains; behind it is an apartment complex.
I also found a plaque nearby that commemorates the occasion.
A open-air Messiah is performed near these gates in the Temple Bar area every year on April 13. This past year it was presented by Our Lady’s Choral Society and the Dublin Handelian Orchestra. The streets are packed and people sing along with the music.
I came full circle with Handel when we later visited London and Westminster Abbey. He is buried there, and a life-size sculpture on the wall near his grave is a memorial to him.
There have been other Messiahs over the years since the two years in Berne, Indiana. A few years ago, I sang with the church choir that I was a member of for its Christmas Eve service. My oldest sang the soprano solos, and the torch was passed. Over the years, my voice dropped from soprano to alto, and now a frog has moved into my throat, so I no longer sing publicly. But no performance has ever been the same to me as those in the Mennonite Church long ago.
I looked up the choir on YouTube, and found a recording of the Hallelujah Chorus from the 2015 performance. It was years after mine, but all was exactly as I remembered. I have placed a link here for your enjoyment.
Here’s an interesting piece of trivia: why does the audience stand up when the Hallelujah chorus starts? The very first audience in the recital hall on Fishamble Street did not. Almost a year later, the Messiah performed in London, and King George II was in attendance. He stood up when the Hallelujah chorus began. It is believed that he was so moved that he stood to show his reverence. Although maybe he was just stretching his legs, who knows? Because the king stood, the audience had to stand too, and audiences have done that ever since.
It’s time for me to have some eggnog, a Christmas cookie, and another listen to the Hallelujah chorus. Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! See you again in 2023.
Next time – a return to the RV’ing life in New Mexico
This was the day I had been waiting for: another Rabbie’s tour. The trip around Inverness with Rabbie’s had been so interesting and fun that we looked forward to our trip out to Skye for several days. It would be a much longer day: twelve hours, because Skye is a fair distance from Inverness. This tour is very popular, and although we were still in a small minibus, there were two of them waiting when we arrived at Inverness bus station.
First things first, though. There were Highland cows to see on the way out, and we had a much better view of these than we had on the earlier tour.
Besides these two, there were an additional two further out in the field. The cow on the left was very friendly and trotted right out to see us.
If you want to attempt to sound like a local, you would call this animal a “Heelan Coo”. It is indigenous to Western Scotland. Highland cows are as docile as they are cute. This one even stopped to show us one eye beneath all that hair.
When we left Inverness, the skies were clear blue. As we got closer to Skye, the clouds gathered and the day became gloomier. I hear this is pretty typical for Skye. The average amount of sun hours for Portree, the largest town on Skye, is 1,170 hours annually. If you figure an average of twelve hours of sunshine daily, more or less, that works out to only 98 days when you may luck out and get a sunny day.
Arriving on Skye, our first stop was Glen Sligachan, with the Cuillin Hills in the background. This area is peatland, which the locals once used to cut for heating and cooling. About 20% of Scotland is covered in peatland. We walked over this bridge for a better look.
It was beautiful, but there were too many people about and not enough time for a venture further into nature. People were wandering everywhere. And therein lies a problem: these peatlands are fragile and protected. A signboard made a plea for a donation to the John Muir Trust to upgrade the paths.
The two men in this statue are John MacKenzie and Norman Collie. They climbed, mapped, and named the Cuillin hills in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Their partnership together lasted fifty years, and they are buried next to each other in a small cemetery within view of the mountains they loved.
The Island of Skye is covered in sheep. Unfenced sheep are grazing everywhere. There are over 100,000 sheep on the island of Skye, with blackface being the most common breed. I stopped to admire this little group, grazing near the bus park where we had stopped. They were too busy eating to turn around and pose for a picture.
Our guide had plenty of information for us as he drove. In the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, people built new homes next to the old thatched roof ones that had housed their families for generations. They removed the thatch, replaced the roof with cheap tin, and the old home became their shed. I looked for these as we rode and found several of them. Old stone fences also criscrossed the landscape.
We had some delicious fish and chips for lunch in the town of Portree. It was the second time on our trip that we ate in a former church, and these folks were doing a brisk business. It was the only item on their menu. The tour buses and minivans that are on the island for the day all converge on Portree at the lunch hour, so every eating establishment is full.
If you have ever watched the series “Doc Martin” on PBS, Portree looks a lot like the fictional “Portwenn” from this view.
In Portree after lunch, I poked around a local craft market and found a Skye author, Liz MacRae Shaw. Her books are historical fiction. One of them, “Love and Music Will Endure”, portrayed the life of Mairi Mhor Nan Oran. She was a poet and political activist from Skye during the 19th century.
The British had decided they wanted more sheep from Scotland, and Skye in particular. The landlords were encouraged to increase their income by replacing the smaller farms in their holdings with larger farms with more grazing land. They also wanted to reduce population. As a continuation of the hardships imposed after the Battle of Culloden, they started squeezing out those smaller farms in the 1750’s, now known as “crofts”, in a policy known as “The Highland Clearances”. There was forced migration and old ancestral homes were set on fire. To add insult to injury, the potato blight struck, just like in Ireland. People were suddenly homeless and crowded into local churches. Poverty reigned, and many former crofters left for the large industrial city of Glasgow to work. Some were involuntarily sent to Canada or the United States. The Highland Clearances went on for almost a hundred years.
Mairi fought for crofter’s rights in a time when women were supposed to be tending the hearth. She expressed her love for her homeland and the need for change through her poetry. I purchased the book, Liz signed it, and I spent the next week or two engrossed in this place at that time in history.
Back on the road after lunch, we headed northward along the coast. We were sometimes on single lane roads, preariously winding around the mountains, rising in elevation, with the wind picking up. The next stop: Kilt Rock or, in Gaelic, Creag An Fheilidh.
The cliff face that looks like a kilt is in the top rear of this photo. I was honestly more entranced by the gushing waterfall in the foreground. By now we had some light rain in addition to the wind, so this was a very quick stop.
Away from the coast and higher into the mountains we climbed, with the rain coming down in earnest now. When we finally arrived at Quirang, I was stunned at the panoramic beauty of the place.
The view at Quirang was more than worth the time we spent out in the weather.
We had seen the other Rabbie’s minibus here and there throughout the day, but by Quirang it was nowhere in sight. When I expressed my appreciation to our guide/driver for making this stop in deteriorating conditions, he said that some of the other guides don’t bother with it when the weather is getting bad. It was his opinion that you shouldn’t miss seeing what you’ve paid for. Of course, I wouldn’t have known the difference if we hadn’t stopped, so I was glad that we were on this particular minibus! For me, it was the highlight of the day.
It had been our furthest point north, so we started on our way back. At the bridge to the mainland, we stopped for a cup of hot cocoa and a look at some ruins.
We took a different way back to Inverness with completely different scenery. Unfortunately, it was not possible to take pictures out the window since it had rained off and on throughout the day. Especially closer to the island, I would have liked to know what I was seeing but our guide fell silent. He’d been regaling us with his stories and talking all day so I guess he was just tired! Our Rabbie’s day had been stellar, just like the first one had been.
I will be on a Christmas topic next week, and then will be taking a week off from the blog for the holidays. What about our RV’ing life, and what did we do after we returned from Europe? I’ll be answering those questions when I return.
There will be one more blog about our travels in Scotland. I’ve left out details of three things that many people think about when they think of this country. Do you know what they are? I’ll leave you to ponder that until I get back to it in 2023!
In the months leading up to our trip, I joined a Facebook group for travelers to Scotland. People like me who are planning a trip here can ask all their questions and there is a ready supply of people who either live here or have traveled here to provide answers and suggestions. One lengthy discussion revolved around top sheets – or the lack thereof – on beds in Scotland because everyone in Europe uses only a duvet. The person was thinking about packing one, despite the fact that her trip was only ten days long. Another prospective traveler fretted about blow dryers (every single AirBnb we went to had one). A recurring theme was a concern about the availability of American drip coffee, which is not the way European coffee is made. You can try an “Americano”, which Cal did while we were here, but it’s not the same. He survived in fairly good humor for three months just fine without, in his opinion, a decent cup of coffee.
In between all the mundane stuff, I picked up some good sightseeing tips. The Dean walk that we had taken in Edinburgh was a suggestion from this group. Knowing nothing at first about what to see, I made a list of all the Highlands sites that sounded interesting. Cal and I decided fairly early on that we did not want to rent a car, but to take occasional day trips for sights that would be out of reach otherwise. A tour company name that kept popping up on the Facebook group was Rabbie’s, so I booked two day trips with them during our Inverness stay.
The first tour was called “Glen Affric, Culloden & Clava Cairns” which is exactly where we went. I had heard a little of Culloden before, and nothing of the other two. Culloden and the cairns were not far from Inverness so I thought it would be a great place to start. Both of these tours were in a small group and we rode in a mini-bus. Our driver was also our guide, and from the time we left Inverness she supplied us with a lot of information about what we were seeing.
Clava Cairns are burial tombs from the Bronze Age – about 4,000 years ago – in a circular shape. They are sacred to the people who built them and to the people who reused them some 1,000 years later. Some have an entranceway to a single burial chamber, as the one I am standing in does, and it would have been covered. Others are an unroofed ring with no access to the stones. There are four cairns here, and actually fifty of them in the Inverness area. This group is called the Balnuaran of Clava.
This signboard shows what a burial ceremony may have looked like here. It was interesting for me to compare the place to the tombs we had seen at Newgrange and Knowth in Ireland. This site was much smaller. Just like Newgrange, though, the sentinel standing stones light the passage on the winter solstice – but at sunset, not sunrise.
Although it looks like just a weathered grey pile of rocks now, the builders chose stones in various hues for their cairns. There were reds, pinks, and whites, and it is thought that the various colors had a meaning.
We had some extra time, so we strolled down the road next to the cairns to look at the railway bridge that was off in the distance.
The Battlefield of Culloden was not far from the cairns. Our guide gathered us near the visitor’s center to give us some history, and then turned us loose to explore as we wished. Inside the visitors center were historic armaments and archaeological finds from the battle. An immersion theater with a 360-degree view very realistically puts you in the middle of the battlefield with the Jacobites coming on one side and the British on the other, while you stand in the middle. The story of this battle is fascinating, complicated, and very sad. It marks the last battle that was ever fought on Scottish soil.
The Jacobites were supporters of the restoration of the Stuart line to the British throne under Prince Charles, and they were a political movement from 1688 until this day of battle. Nicknamed “Bonnie” for his youthfulness (he was 24 years old), Prince Charles’s court was in exile in France. Having won some skirmishes, he was master of Scotland and summoned troops for the uprising. The army was made up of French fighters as well as Irish and Scottish clansmen. William Augustus, duke of Cumberland, led the British soldiers on the other side. The battle occurred on the 16th of April, 1746.
The battle was a rout. The Jacobites had numbered 5,500. By the time the battle was over, 1,500 Jacobites had been slain compared to only 100 of the British. The bonnie prince turned tail and eventually ended up in Rome. This memorial, built in 1881, remembers the Scottish lives lost.
The Battle of Culloden marked a turning point in the British treatment of the Scots people. For the next 150 years, they worked hard to break up the clans by banning traditional songs, the wearing of kilts, and the Gaelic language.
As we strolled through the battlefield, I kept eyeing this picturesque little thatched cottage on the far side of it.
Leanach Cottage existed when the conflict occurred and was once part of a larger farmstead. Immediately afterward, it was used as a field hospital.
The little town of Beuly was also on our agenda for the day, and on the way to it we caught a glimpse of our first Highland cow. It wouldn’t come any closer than this for a picture, though.
Beauly was a lunch stop, but it also contained the ruins of a 12th century priory. What is a priory, you ask? I looked it up for you: it is a small monastery.
We had circled Inverness from Clava Cairns and Culloden on the east to Beauly on the west, and now it was time to head south to Glen Affric. We were on narrow roads, getting deeper into the Highland hills, and I was impressed that our guide could negotiate the traffic and also talk to us, all at the same time. Riding on the left side was still awfully confusing to this American and I was sure we were headed for a crash!
We stopped at River Affric, in Glen Affric, for a hike. There were a couple of trail options, and also an option to just sit. The group split up, and when we set off on our chosen trail we mostly had it to ourselves. The forest was hushed, the air damp. We walked through blooming heather, ferns and lush greenery, tall trees and hills, and the beautiful rushing river. A picture from our hike is at the top of this blog, and there are more below. I will leave you here for now to just enjoy them. We thoroughly enjoyed our day with Rabbie’s.
Have you ever traveled from Minneapolis to Duluth, Minnesota in the United States? It’s about a two-hour drive. Traveling north to Duluth, there is a feeling that you are entering another, separate world. Open Midwest farmlands disappear and you start to see birch trees. And then, you get a great view of Lake Superior, plunge down a massive hill on I-35, and the temperature drops. Down by Lake Superior, it can feel like you’ve stepped into a refrigerator. The distance from Edinburgh to Inverness, Scotland is a little further, the scenery completely different, but the perception is the same.
We began the first official day of our Euro Rail Pass by traveling from Edinburgh to Inverness. We had the same awareness of entering a different world as we left the city and suburbs surrounding Edinburgh behind. The villages were smaller and more spread apart. We entered the wild Cairngorms with its mountains swooping up from the valleys and the sheep grazing in the heather. There were dense forests and castles off in the distance. Stepping off the train, the cool and rainy weather let us know we were much further north. The weather felt the same as Duluth in August, although it of course did not look the same at all.
Inverness is only half the size of Duluth in terms of its population of almost 47,000 people. It is the Highland’s largest city and its cultural capital. Instead of Lake Superior, there is the River Ness, and inlets that empty into the North Sea.
The first priority is always to find our Airbnb, and we were delighted that what we needed to do was simply to follow the river. There were footpaths on either side. The question throughout our ten days here was: “which side of the river shall we walk on?” Every time we walked down these footpaths toward “home”, with the castle behind us, I felt so happy to be here. Imagine walking home on these paths every day of your life! You buy your groceries, run your errands, and maybe pick up some takeout on foot, and then just follow the beautiful river home. If you have a dog, what a perfect place to walk it. I guess I wouldn’t like being out much in the winter time, though, and I’m sure it comes early here.
People in the UK walk the same way as they drive: on the left side. I took the picture below on a beautiful Saturday so there were more people out than usual.
If we walked on this side of the river, we had to take the footbridge over to our side, which was always an extra treat.
Our AirBnb was just a block from the river and was the last in a little row of townhouses with some pretty daisies growing out front. You can just barely see the outline of the door in this picture. Inside, we had a one bedroom apartment and every room was entirely separate, our largest stay in the entire trip. It was perfect for what was to be one of our longest stays.
These pictures are a collage of many that I took while we were in Inverness. In all of our days in the town, there was plenty of time to explore. Sometimes the sun shone, sometimes not.
This picture is of the old High Church of Inverness, built in the 18th century on the spot where in 565 AD a gentleman by the name of St. Columba preached to the native Pictish people and their leader, King Brude. It is the cradle of Christianity in the Highlands. We received a fine view of the River Ness from here.
Most European cities that we visited had statues of one kind of animal created in many different ways for photo ops here and there on the city streets. In Inverness, it was the Highland Cow, affectionately known as a “Hairy Coo”. Besides this one, we would regularly see another covered in pennies when we were downriver near the footpath.
We saw the young man below standing in a cold drizzle. Michael is 15 and started playing the bagpipes at age 11. Probably more impressive, he was spending a Monday morning out on the street in his kilt. He played beautifully.
On our first Saturday afternoon in Inverness, there was a full downpour. We whiled away the afternoon by listening to traditional Scottish music at a different pub from the one above, called Hootananny. They have music that goes on through the night on two floors at this popular pub, but this afternoon they were having a “ceilidh”, which simply is Scottish or Irish folk music and singing. We enjoyed listening to them. Are you thinking that “Hootananny” is an American word? It comes over as that way to me, but the word was brought over to Appalachia from the Scots. It has roughly the same meaning as ceilidh, but somewhere along the line the spelling changed to “hootenanny”. Whatever it’s called, we enjoyed the music and the company in the pub.
Venturing a bit further downriver past our AirBnb, there are some islands in the River Ness called, appropriately, Ness Islands. This was a relaxing walk on a Sunday afternoon. I admired the homes along the river pathway.
A walk over a little bridge took us to the first island. It is a beautiful, serene place even with all the other people out enjoying the day.
From the islands, it isn’t far to Inverness Botanic Gardens. The gardens are small but I enjoyed seeing the hydrangeas and other flowers blooming.
We spent a greater portion of another day hiking the Caledonian Canal. It begins at Inverness and connects the east coast to the west coast. The canal was envisioned as a throughway and safe harbor for shipping during Napoleon’s reign. During its construction in the early 1800’s, there were cost overruns and construction issues. By the time it was completed, it was no longer usable; ships were being built that were too big to use it. Napoleon had been defeated and the threat was gone. Although never used for the commercial purposes that it was envisioned for, it became a tourist attraction. Trains were scheduled to connect with steamboat services, and even Queen Victoria took a ride in 1873. Today, narrow boating is popular; people can spend several days navigating the canal from end to end.
The canal is sixty miles long and contains twenty-eight locks. It follows the Great Glen, which is a beautiful narrow valley, and cuts through Lochs (Lakes) Oich, Lochy and Ness.
There was a small boat progressing through the locks. Cal was totally absorbed in this process, so we watched it for a quite a while. In the picture below, the lock operator is behind the white fence on the left, and one of the boat owners is walking beside her boat to tie and untie it at each lock.
While we watched the Skimble go through, we looked down at a bridge below this set of locks and wondered: what are they going to do with this bridge to let the boat pass? After a while we had the answer to this mystery: it is a swing bridge, which rolls to the side.
After the Fort Augustus Swing Bridge the canal opens up into a marina, where I photographed this cute little houseboat:
The canal starts (or ends, depending on your perspective) at Beuly Firth, an inlet which empties into the North Sea. We walked all the way to the end of the canal.
From here we retraced our steps back, stopping by the swing bridge at a tiny cafe for lunch. I ordered a split pea soup with a cheese scone. Look at the size of this scone! It was as big as a small loaf of bread and the leftovers were enough for both Cal and I to share for lunch the next day. We were outside and able to look at the canal as we had our lunch.
We had walked much further than we had intended when we left the AirBnb: 7 miles. When we returned, it was time for a nap!
I have one more food shot for you: a Scottish breakfast which I had on our last morning in Inverness. Starting with the tomato on the top and moving clockwise, there is lorne (beef) sausage, black pudding, haggis, a tattie (potato) scone, mushrooms, and of course, egg on top and tea with cream on the side. I didn’t care too much for the black pudding. Honestly, although I enjoyed this breakfast and was glad I tried the haggis, Cal had ordered a delicious-looking plate of French toast, and I kept looking longingly over at his food..
Of course, there was more to see in our stay here than just the city of Inverness. In my next posts, I will take you out and about into the Highlands of Scotland.
Next time – the countryside around Inverness, including the Battlefield of Culloden
One thing I loved about Edinburgh was the stories I heard about, and the connections from one place that we visited to another. There were three in particular: that of the poet Robert Ferguson and his connection to Robert Burns, the story of Deacon Brodie and his connection to Robert Louis Stevenson, and also a little dog named Bobby.
We first met Robert Ferguson on the street. I thought his young energy really came through in this statue of him bustling down the Royal Mile, book in hand.
For two years, Ferguson wrote poems about his home city. One acclaimed poem was “Auld Reikie”, which observed a day in the life of such ordinary people as shopkeepers, children, whores and dandies, lawyers and schoolboys. But his life was short. He fell down some stairs, hit the back of his head and languished in a hospital. Conditions were not good there and he died at only 24 years of age in 1774. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Although his body of work is short, he was already well known and respected when he passed.
All that I knew of Ferguson was from reading the stone about him under his statue. Seeing it prompted me to walk through Canongate Cemetery.
I ran into Robert Ferguson again when visiting the Writer’s Museum. Robert Burns, regarded as the national poet of Scotland and the writer of the song “Auld Lang Syne”, greatly respected Ferguson’s work. He was about nine years younger than Ferguson so was probably aware of him only through his poetry. One thing that he admired about Ferguson was that he had written not only in Scottish English, but also in the native Scots language, Gaelic. Upon hearing that Ferguson was in a pauper’s grave, he paid for a proper headstone to be erected for him fifteen years after Ferguson’s death.
Robert Burns himself was not all that old when he died at the age of 37 from rheumatic heart disease and a bacterial infection that followed. What additional contributions these men could have given the world if they had had the benefit of our modern medicine!
Deacon Brodie was another person whose name kept popping up. I can’t take credit for this excellent picture of him, though. By the time I connected who Deacon Brodie was, we had passed his landmarks.
This statue of him stands right outside the tiny cafe that bears his name and which is believed to have been his workshop back in the mid-1700’s. We had popped in for something warm on a cold and rainy morning. His story is painted on the walls but I could only see the portion by our table, since the place was full and bustling. Outside again, I saw Deacon Brodie’s Tavern across the Royal Mile. Who was this guy?
By day, William Brodie was a cabinet-maker and city councilor, a well-respected man who came by the title of Deacon by virtue of his position in the trades guild. But the fine Deacon had his secrets: he was a drinker and heavy gambler. To cover his debts, he began breaking into houses and burglarizing them. As part of his work, he would also install and repair locks. Did you need a new lock for your front door? Better not let Deacon Brodie replace it. He would copy the keys of his customers using wax impressions, and use that key to gain entry at night. Eventually he was caught, tried for his crimes, and hanged. They didn’t mess around with breaking and entering in those days.
The sad part is that he really was an excellent cabinet maker, and there in the Writer’s Museum was one of his cabinets.
This lovely piece of furniture was in Robert Louis Stevenson’s bedroom as a child and captivated his imagination. (I wonder: as a child, was it he who pulled off some of the knobs?) Later, he wrote a play about Deacon Brodie. The paradox that was evident in Deacon Brodie’s life also inspired him to write the well-known novel, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It was published in 1886, almost one hundred years after Brodie’s death.
The cutest story of all was that of Greyfriars Bobby, who lived from 1855 to 1872. He was a terrier and owned by a man named John Gray. When Bobby was only two, Gray died of tuberculosis and was buried in Greyfriars Cemetery. For fourteen years, Bobby would spend the rest of his life sitting on his master’s grave. He became the pet of the neighborhood. The owner of Greyfriars Pub would look out for him and feed him, and so did everyone else for that matter. The lord provost of Edinburgh paid for his license and gave him a collar, which can still be seen in the Museum of Edinburgh.
Soon after Bobby’s death, a woman by the name of Lady Burdett-Coutts commissioned a statue of Bobby to be erected, and he is forever remembered. A book was written about him, and there is even a Disney movie titled, of course, “Greyfriars Bobby”.
I spent some time in Edinburgh wandering around looking for Bobby’s statue whenever I thought of it. Looking for it led us into Greyfriars cemetery for an enjoyable post-dinner walk one evening. I read later that J.K. Rowling received inspiration for some of the names in this cemetery for the Harry Potter series: Potter, McGonagall, Riddell, and others. Many are located along Flodden Wall, which I did happen to take a picture of. I wasn’t looking for gravestones that evening.
Bobby is also immortalized at the entrance of the cemetery, which you can see in the top picture of this blog.
If you are in Edinburgh and find Bobby’s statue, please don’t rub his nose. It won’t really bring you good luck and the locals don’t like how the finish on his nose has worn down. They are still pretty proud of their little dog.
Flying from Dublin to Edinburgh was a little bit of an adventure. After we passed security, it seemed like we walked for miles and miles and then descended down to the bowels of the airport. We soon discovered the reason for this: we had to walk onto the tarmac to board our little airplane. It has been years since since we’ve gotten on an airplane any other way but a jet bridge. Although we traveled with carry on luggage, our suitcases were too heavy, so we had to check them. I think that if you had nothing in your suitcase, it still would be too heavy to carry on Aer Lingus. Remember the summer of ’22, when airlines were losing suitcases everywhere? We watched with some relief as they put our suitcases on the airplane. This picture was taken from our shuttle bus window, so you may see some raindrops and window glare.
At first glance from our city bus window on the ride from the airport, I knew I was going to enjoy exploring Edinburgh. The city has many buildings that are over 500 years old. Still others date back to the 1800’s. Monuments and statues are sprinkled everywhere, and Edinburgh Castle looks down on the city from above. I couldn’t wait to get out and see it all.
In the background of the picture above, the tall grey buildings were tenement buildings when first built. The arched steeple peeking over everything on the back left is the cathedral of St. Giles, on the Royal Mile. We had a tiny studio apartment in a very tall building that looked similar to the one in the front. There were three ways to get into it: from the front of the building off the street, from St. James Close at the top of the Royal Mile, and from Lady Stair’s Close.
The Royal Mile starts at the bluff of Edinburgh Castle. It is the location of the ancient and medieval city of Edinburgh, and as the city grew, it stretched down along a sloping ridge. A close, by definition, is a Scot’s term for “alleyway”, and quite a few lead to picturesque lanes, pretty courtyards, and little pubs or cafes as St James Close does in the picture above. There are many closes leading off the Royal Mile, and as we walked, we peeked into some of them.
Many of the closes had informational plaques. This is Anchor Close, named after Anchor Tavern which was formerly here. The close dates from 1521. Also noted: Smellie’s Printing House which printed Robert Burns’ works and the 1st edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the parents of Sir Walter Scott resided here until 1771. Edinburgh is full of interesting history like that.
Some closes had beautiful entryways:
In 1861, a seven story tenement building in Paisley Close collapsed and 35 people were killed. It was a huge scandal at the time. One little boy, Joseph McIvor, was heard under the debris: “Heave awa’ chaps, I’m no’ dead yet!” Now he looks over Paisley Close for the ages.
This water cistern dates to the late 1700’s. The city was having issues in that era delivering enough water to the populace. The water cisterns in the city were only turned on for three hours, starting at midnight, to limit demand. People who could afford it hired caddies to fetch their water so they wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night and stand in line!
Bookending the Royal Mile at the bottom is Holyrood Palace, the currrent residence of the British crown.
A quaint looking street, full of character, history and tourist shops that stretches for about a mile, gets more than its share of visitors. Early August is high tourist season; by late afternoon the streets were packed. Cal and I are early risers and had no problem being on the Royal Mile just when the shop owners were beginning to pull their postcard racks out onto the street. All across Europe, we reaped the benefits of being out early. I like uncovering the history of a place, and there’s no better time for that than being out before everyone else is.
A turn off the Royal Mile leads to Victoria Street, pictured at the top of this blog. This beautiful view was at the end of the street, right under the castle.
Gothic St. Giles Cathedral is the parish church of the Church of Scotland on the Royal Mile and was founded in the 12th century. The Scottish reformer John Knox is buried here. When Queen Elizabeth recently passed, her coffin was taken from her castle in Balmoral to Holyrood. From there it passed up the Royal Mile to St. Giles to lie in state for four days.
There is a chapel in St. Giles for the Scottish Order of the Thistle. It is the highest honor in Scotland and those recognized for contributing to public life become knights or ladies. In the chapel, the knights’ stalls for the honorees were based on those in Windsor Castle. Some of the animals appear in the knights’ coat of arms.
Also in St. Giles was an enormous plaque memorializing Robert Louis Stevenson. He was born and raised in Edinburgh, but is buried in Samoa. He was always in very poor health, which is probably why he is shown reclining under a blanket.
Which brings me to the Scottish Writer’s Museum. It is located in Lady Stair’s Close, right behind our apartment. After a couple of days in Edinburgh, I could no longer just walk by, and had to pay a visit to this extremely interesting museum.
Lady Stair, by the way, is not the name of the stairs going up to the close. Rather, it is the name of the fairytale-looking townhouse that was built in 1622 and now houses the museum. It was purchased about a hundred years later by Elizabeth Dundas, Lady Stair, the widow of the 1st Earl of Stair. It had been her grandparents’ house.
A floor was dedicated to each of these three authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. A narrow curving stair took me to each level. I’d love to tell you details that I learned about each one, but that would take another blog page. Maybe you’ll just need to visit the museum yourself. It was interesting just to look inside at the architecture of Lady Stair’s house.
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is considered to be part of “Old Town”. Needing to expand a growing city, New Town was built during the Georgian Era, the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s.
Sir Walter Scott’s monument, in New Town, was one of the first things to catch my eye on the day we arrived. It is the second largest monument built in the world honoring a writer. There is a larger-than-life-size statue of Scott inside which is dwarfed by the larger structure.
Why are so many of Edinburgh’s buildings and monuments dark-looking? This goes back to the days when buildings were heated and lighted by fire, and the smoke from coal and peat fires hung over the city. The smoke permeated everything, and gave the city the name of “Auld Reekie” (Old Smokey).
The front of our AirBnb building faced New Town, and down the hill from it was a floral clock built in 1901. This year, the clock was dedicated to the Queen’s 70th Jubilee.
For our last day in Edinburgh, I looked forward to taking a walk I had heard about into the the pretty village of Dean. In the 19th century there were water mills on the river, and the workers lived and worked here. It is now tucked into the neighborhoods northwest of New Town. However, I needed to see a doctor about some minor lingering Covid issues I was having. Reluctantly I booked the appointment for the day of our walk. By happy coincidence, the doctor’s office was right at the top of Dean! We were still able to go.
After leaving Dean village we were treated to a long woodsy walk along the Leith river. If we had turned left instead of right over the river from the doctor’s office, we could have walked even further. There are great walking paths here and it is a relaxing break from being in the city.
By the way, one of the issues I was seeing the doctor about was that I was still occasionally having long coughing bouts. It would happen at the worst times – in a taxi, or on a tour – places where I could not get off into a quiet corner without bothering others. The doctor and I discussed this problem at length and I finally realized it was happening when I was wearing a mask. The mask dried and irritated my still-inflamed passageways. “But why,” she asked, “are you still wearing a mask? You’re no longer positive. You can’t catch it now, because you have natural immunization.” To realize this…happy day! It was the silver lining in the big Covid cloud. From that day, Covid was no longer much of a thought in our minds. We masked only in airports and airplanes, and public transportation where required by law.
Towards the end of our Dublin visit, somewhat recovered from Covid, we took a day trip to the countryside to visit the ancient burial tombs of Knowth and Newgrange, and the Hill of Tara. I first read about Newgrange in a historical fiction novel called “Ireland” by Frank Delaney. It is a 5,200 year old passage tomb built in the Neolithic era by stone age farmers. It sounded very interesting to see, so I booked a day tour when we were still back home. Besides Newgrange, other goodies were sprinkled into the day: the Hill of Tara, and more tombs in a place called Knowth. I was so glad we were at least able to keep this tour scheduled. Coincidentally, we met a woman in the breakfast room at our hotel who was booked on our same tour, because she had read the same book I had!
Once on the bus, our tour guide kept up a constant patter of historical information as we rode, all of which was extremely interesting and most of which I’ve already forgotten. I was so happy just to see the countryside after having been in cities for my entire time in Ireland, and enjoyed gazing out the window as I listened. Our first stop was the Hill of Tara.
The bus let us out, and it was a bit of a hike over to the hill. I was giddy with delight about being out of the city and getting some fresh air. I loved seeing little Saint Patrick’s church and graveyard on our hike. It looked like something out of an Austen or Bronte classic to me. I know…I was in Ireland, not England, but still.
The people in the group had gotten ahead of me as I photographed the church. The higher hill that some of them have already reached in this picture is the Hill of Tara.
This area has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years. The earliest peoples built the passage tombs, and the hills here are also burial sites. In the Iron Age, they were still using them. In that era, Tara became the seat of the high kings of Ireland. According to legend, there was a standing stone here called Lia Fáil, Stone of Destiny. It would cry out if touched by a true king, and the stone below is believed to be the one. It has seemed to have lost its magical powers in the modern era.
Later in history, St. Patrick converted pagans to Chrisitanity here. The stone also marks the spot where United Irishmen were attacked and defeated in their camp by British troops in 1798. Four hundred rebels lost their lives that day.
Continuing on in the bus, we learned from our guide that in this area, the Boyne River forms a large protective bend. The ancient peoples lived their lives here in this fertile valley, where food and water were plentiful.
The Battle of the Boyne also happened here in July of 1690. It was a decisive battle between England and Ireland and was the last time two kings were both present on the battlefield: William of Orange and James II. Because of this battle, the ascendency of Anglican Protestantism in Ireland was assured.
For the Knowth and Newgrange tombs, we boarded an ancient school bus and guides were waiting for us at each site. We nabbed a front seat. I entertained myself watching the driver negotiate the narrow road on the left hand side with a right hand steering wheel, and was very glad we had chosen not to rent a car.
Finally we arrived at Knowth, with its many various burial mounds. These are passage tombs, meaning that it is possible to enter the mounds, but the public cannot do so. Knowing nothing about Knowth before this day, I was surprised to see there were so many in various sizes.
At Knowth, this large mound is surrounded by 17 smaller ones. There are two passages inside and it is bordered by 127 kerbstones. In the next picture, I’ve included a picture of our guide to give some perspective on the size of these mounds, and you can see the kerbstones more closely. The stones are covered with megalithic art, and this is a third of all megalithic art known in Europe – all together, 200 stones. The meaning of the shapes on the stones is unknown.
I thought it was interesting that some of the art was done on the backs of stones and was hidden. There are a lot of theories about this. It’s possible that they intended it to stay hidden. Another theory is that they recycled stones and simply used the other side. Makes sense to me!
Later civilizations, not knowing what was underneath the ground, simply built dwelling places and villages on top of the mounds. This picture that I saw in their small museum illustrates this from left to right. Eventually, the smaller mounds were mostly buried.
These ruins in front of the mounds were the foundation of someone’s home in a later era.
This photo gives an aerial view of the mounds:
Finally, our last stop: Newgrange. The ancients had put the white stones all around the burial mounds to prevent erosion. At Knowth, these white stones were left on the ground. At Newgrange, they were put back as they had originally been. This passage tomb is huge.
The fascinating thing about Newgrange is that it is built with a box to let the sun shine through on the exact day of the winter solstice, December 21. On that single day, the sun sends a beam clear through to the center of the tomb. How did they engineer this to have it work so perfectly? In Delany’s book, the design is the work of a single genius in the tribe who was able to direct all of the inhabitants to carry out the plans. Maybe so. The truth has been lost in history.
The light box is just above the entrance. We were able to go in all the way to the center but no pictures were allowed. There were were no lights inside the tomb; it was illuminated only with natural light from the box. In the center, our guide shone her flashlight through to the front to replicate the solstice experience. It was an amazing feeling to be there; even more amazing if you could be here on the solstice.
Most of the bodies in the tombs had been cremated. When Newgrange was exacavated in the ’70’s, the unburnt bones of one man were found in an elaborately carved niche. Aha. Maybe that was the remains of the “genius”!
If you are thinking it would be great to be at Newgrange on the solstice to see this effect for yourself, tickets are extremely limited (and are probably sold out for 2022, although I haven’t checked). You could go through the expense of getting here, and end up with a cloudy day. So, no sun effect for all that effort!