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Trip Report Our week in Scotland—“againn san t-seachdain ann an Alba”

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In early October my husband and I spent a week in Edinburgh with three day trips. Except for one “Hidden Gem,” we didn’t do anything very unusual, so I won’t include many details or history for most of the sites we visited or things we did. Below is a journal of our lovely week, after a little intro info which you are free to skip!

Info about us: We are in our 60’s and fairly fit. My husband (M for this report) has traveled often to Europe with his job over the last ten years or so, and he and I have also traveled there several times either on personal vacations or as extensions to his business travel. I am a teacher at a small private school, and I have taken groups of students three times on student-travel-tours. So the ins and outs of travel to Europe are pretty familiar to us, especially M; in fact, he’d had to go (somewhat unexpectedly) to Germany four times this year, actually arriving home only ten days before leaving on this trip with me. I teach upper school literature and history, so sites related to those are my favorites, and M enjoys those with me. We love to take photos, and we prefer to walk or drive to most sites on our own, but we’re familiar with most sorts of public transport. We aren’t “foodies,” but as we’ve aged have learned (well, M has!) to slow down and enjoy more refreshment breaks and longer meals!

Pre-Trip Info:
In January 2016 we decided to look at possible trips to take during my Fall Break in October. My preferred trips are to the UK, with many places I’d like to see even after six trips. M and I had been to France, Spain and Germany since we’d last been in the UK together, and I’d mentioned several times I hoped we’d go to Scotland together sometime. In 2013 as the leader of a student tour, I’d had a taste of Scotland: We landed in Glasgow (later than planned) and had a walk after dinner, then we spent a packed day in Edinburgh, returning to Glasgow to sleep before heading into England. I have some Scottish ancestry which a cousin has explored and shared with me, but his research hasn’t been extensive. But I’d loved my too brief time in Scotland and that was my first choice for this year’s trip. M found tickets on American Airlines for a round trip to Edinburgh for a decent price and also learned he had enough Hilton points for seven nights in one of the Hiltons in Edinburgh. So we got plane tickets and hotel rooms secured in January. He also put in requests for AA upgrades, which we got on five of the six legs of our journey.

Knowing I’d be going to Europe at least three times in the next nine months, I decided to follow M’s advice and got the process started to secure my Global Entry card. There was a long wait for the interview for which I’d have to travel to San Antonio, but later more slots opened, so I got the interview done and the card fairly easily. Well worth the time and money for us.

Then it was on to making a tentative itinerary for our time there. I tend to over-schedule, so I promised to make a plan that had a good bit of flexibility and a little down-time factored in. Although we knew we could just explore Edinburgh for a week, we wanted to get into some of the rest of Scotland and/or northeast England at least a little. He decided he definitely did not want to drive, so I researched day trips, either with a bus tour or on our own via trains. There are a myriad of choices of guided tours; I won’t share all the options and changes-of-mind I went through, but in the end, mostly based on Fodors’ Forum suggestions, I narrowed my choices to tours from either Rabbies or Timberbush. Timberbush had two tours that seemed to most fit my personal preferences, so later in the spring I booked our tickets on-line. We also decided to not book a tour to Stirling, which was the top site not in Edinburgh we wanted to see, but go ourselves via train.

The only other thing we got ahead of time was the Scottish Explorer Pass; I had three castles I hoped to visit, and the Pass cost the same as entrances to two of them, so I figured that was a good deal.

We made the decision to check our bags which are about 23”. In the past they’ve fit in overhead bins on AA planes, but they seem to be too big for British Airways, according to their website. Since one leg of our trip was on British Airways, and we had non-direct flights from DFW, we opted to check them. We packed planning for rain and cool weather.

The Trip begins—Saturday to Sunday:

(We live in South Texas; in October it’s still hot, in the mid-90’s. On Thursday before our trip, the A/C in the house broke. It turned out that it was fixable, but the part would not arrive until after we left. So M scheduled it to be done when we got back, and we moved into a hotel for a couple nights, which made packing up a bit more complicated! On Friday at school, as it was the end of the quarter, I had lots of papers and tests to grade and then final averages to enter into the gradebook, but I was able to do so and not have to take work with me. Yay! Friday night we finished packing in the now-hot house and got a decent night sleep in the hotel.)

Saturday morning we ran by the house early for a couple things and to tend to the dog. On to the airport, where we left a vehicle in the lot, then we checked in with no problems and sailed through security with our fast-pass status and waited a while for our on-time departure at 8 am. First class seats (due to his upgrades) are more roomy, so we were comfy. At DFW we went to the AA Lounge for a rest and snack. Our 11:25 flight left on time for JFK; we again had first class comfort; our lunch was ok. At JFK we were met by a Concierge Key representative—flying with M has its perks which he’s earned with all the miles (almost a million) and time he’s put in! We were directed to the Flagship Lounge where we had a pleasant two-hour wait. Well, pleasant but tense. Our alma mater the University of Tennessee was playing Georgia, and the game was on TV. The Vols were behind the whole time, then right as we left, they went ahead, then by the time we got to the gate they’d gotten behind, then with a miracle play they won right before we took off. Whew!

This flight to Edinburgh was also fine. We were in business class, but this old configuration of seats is not M’s preferred. We didn’t sleep much, and M wasn’t impressed with his food, but mine was good. In Edinburgh we landed to blue skies just about on time about 7 am and got through Passport Control in about 5 minutes. But then we, and everyone else, had to wait an hour on our luggage. We were second-guessing our check-the-bags decision! Urghh. Also I couldn’t get the screen to work at the ticket sales site right by luggage pickup to allow me to choose to buy tram tickets, which is what I’d decided we’d try. So when we finally left, we just went to the kiosk at the bus stop right outside and got return tickets on the AirLink bus for about £15.

It was a beautiful day; cool of course, even cold, to our Texas bodies, but mostly clear and about 46. The bus was a fine way to travel. There was enough room and took about twenty minutes to get to Haymarket Station. We alit and walked across the street and then to Grosvenor Street where our Grosvenor Hilton is located.

Despite getting an alert—“We have your room ready for early check-in”—our room wasn’t ready—and it was actually going to be in a sort of “annex” across the street from the Hilton. Turns out that double rooms are in another building called the Hilton Townhouses, just a minute walk across the street. We like having separate beds on our travels. So it was fine; but we did experience some glitches later in the week that made us feel a bit like the proverbial step-child! We re-arranged our stuff a bit to get our backpacks ready for a walk and left our luggage to be delivered to our room. I’d planned a route through New Town and Dean Village, but I knew we probably wouldn’t get to all of it this day; we’d see what we could see.

We walked less than a mile to around Charlotte Square and then wandered through New Town a little. On this early Sunday morning there were hardly any people around. We went by the Georgian House; it was on my “maybe” list to visit but wasn’t even open yet, so we just went by it. (I thought I’d try to come back but never did—next time maybe!) We walked through or past Charlotte Square, Robert Louis Stevenson’s House, and Sir Walter Scott’s House, admiring the different crescents and the symmetrical and graceful architecture.

Then it was time for a break. The Best of Scotland by Peter Irvine, a guide book we had loaded on our tablet, recommended several places for breakfast; one of them was The Edinburgh Café in the National Gallery. So we sat in a pleasant sunny dining room overlooking Princes Street Gardens and had some food and rest. More people were beginning to take advantage of this obviously gorgeous day. M’s eggs, salmon and toast were fine. I ordered a scone with salmon and cream cheese but got only a plain cheese scone. Oh well, I didn’t want to make a fuss and it was tasty and we were charged correctly. With two cups each of much needed tea, we considered this a good stop for us.

We rambled up to Princes Street through some of the Gardens and by the Scott Monument, which I find striking and M found rather Gothic for his taste! At the Tourist Information office near Waverly Station, M got a nice red scarf as a good souvenir and much needed article of clothing as he’d forgotten his. I saw some things I might return for later, but I did get a pretty pewter scarf pin with a thistle; I had decided I’d try to get some nice but not hugely expensive souvenirs with thistles on them if possible, and this fit the bill.

The day was so pretty I suggested we really try to make it up Calton Hill, where I knew the views would be spectacular, so M agreed. On the way we passed Old Calton Cemetery which I had fond memories of enjoying, but it was all boarded up til November, seems like because of needed repair work going on. Then up the Hill we trudged, where we spent some time taking pictures of the marvelous views. Clear and blue skies. Lots of people but not packed. This is a beautiful place, and the unexpectedly good weather made it a must-see today!

Our fairly straight walk back to the hotel was about 1.5 miles, and we arrived really tired, around 1:30. Our room was ready now. It was a big room with two fine beds, plenty of plugs, big windows, and updated bathroom. It was sorta on the street level, with just a few steps to go up; high ceilings with crown molding and plenty of storage space. Nice. We rested; M actually slept maybe an hour. We got cold. The radiator didn’t seem to be radiating! We got the receptionist in “our” building to come check; she said it would start warming up now. But it didn’t. She also had to address the drain problem in the tub (the plug wouldn’t function so she removed it). As we left for dinner, we told her there were still cold radiators.

We took a brief walk to take photos, catching the evening light on the stones and glass of the churches and other buildings near the hotel. We went to very-nearby Haymarket Pub, right across the street. It is a Nicholson Pub. We shared a fantastic starter—Cullen Skink, a yummy, creamy haddock and potato soup. We had good beef pastry pies with ok veggies. All in all it was quite tasty. In our walk back to familiarize ourselves with what shops and such were near, we stopped at a market on the corner for a bar of soap. When we got back, the receptionist said she’d arranged to have a space heater brought in, as seems like the heating wouldn’t be fixed until the next day. The heater arrived. It warmed us up some. Then it quit. It was really too chilly for us to be very comfy, so we hoped something would happen to improve the situation soon! We rested wearing layers of clothes until early bedtime. I fell asleep and M almost did, despite the cool room, when a person called to check on our heat situation; she promised another heater, but it never arrived. However, at some point, before he could fall completely asleep maybe near midnight, he heard water running in the radiator pipes and the heat began working, so that later it actually was too warm! His night was not long or settled enough after the plane trip!

Next Post: Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile; A Timberbush Tour to the Highlands

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    Patandhank--thanks! You will enjoy it all!

    Monday: Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile

    After M’s interrupted night, he wasn’t well rested. After tea in the room, we left after 9:30 to find some breakfast. We found a Pret a Manger (one of my favorite quick bite places), where we got a hot breakfast sandwich for him and yogurt with granola (my normal) for me—perfect.

    Now more awake, we could appreciate that it was again lovely with mostly sunny skies but still cool, in the 40’s. We headed to the castle, turning off Lothian Road to walk along King’s Stables Road from which we climbed Granny’s Green Steps to Johnston Terrace, then finished the last steep climb up Castle Wynd—but this was not the shortest or easiest way. The rest of the week we accessed The Royal Mile via Castle and then Johnston Terrace.

    We got to the castle about 10:30, finding lots of people heading in and already there. More than I expected, really. We went right in with our Passes, although there wasn’t much of a queue to avoid. We got audio guides and then just explored with those (which are well-worth the small cost) until about 12:45. M really enjoyed it, despite feeling definitely fatigued and jet-lagged. I did too. This is perhaps my favorite castle of all I’ve been blessed to visit, except for the Tower of London. We took lots of pictures, dodging all sorts of oblivious people, many with the obnoxious selfie-sticks. I wish all sites would ban them, actually.

    At 12:45 we lined up above the Dog Cemetery where we had decided we could have a good view of the one o’clock gun ceremony. In 2013 I’d been on the level below but couldn’t get a very good view, and M suggested we get above for a good vantage point. It’s a great ceremony; M was like I was in 2013—despite knowing it was coming, he still jumped, he said! (Somewhere, sometime on this trip, maybe from one of the Timberbush Tours guides, maybe on the displays at the Castle, I heard that the story/legend about why it’s a one o’clock gun isn’t really true. The story says they shoot a one o’clock gun because, since the Scots are so thrifty, it’s cheaper to shoot at one instead of twelve shots at noon. But, actually, it seems that there’s a time check for accuracy at noon each day, then exactly one hour later the gun is fired so that ships and others could know the exact time. Ships in the harbor would have to account for the delay caused by speed of sound.)

    Then we ate and took a long break in the café; the food was ok (some entrees great, some just average), but you can’t beat the view. Afterwards we looked around more; I think we at least peeked in every part of the castle, and we spent a good bit of time in some areas. The skies stayed blue, and we could see far from this high vantage. We had tea and chocolate cake in the Tea Rooms before we left around 3.

    M had looked at some live webcams before we arrived, so he wanted to find them and capture our picture from them. Ha. We’d done this in Mainz, Germany. The first camera is called the Tattoo Cam and is aimed at the castle forecourt. It took a bit of moving around, but we did locate it, and he “screen- captured” our image on his phone. Here in the area at the castle entrance they were still using cranes to remove “things” left from August’s Tattoo.

    Next, we went down the Royal Mile, in and out of stores. I have Campbell and Scott ancestors. After reading a bit and hearing the Tour guides later in the week, I know that not everyone wants to admit to Campbell kinship! But M was encouraging me to buy something with a family tartan pattern and kept finding scarves and other things. I found a mug I would have bought, but not with Campbell on it, but there was a Scott one. I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy wool anything. The prices aren’t bad even in the touristy spots, and there were many lovely things—but in South Texas, there’re just not many days to use any sort of wool! It was fun to stroll along and look, though. Near St. Giles he located the other webcam and got our screen-shot saved.

    M was also looking (guys gotta hunt, you know!) for a specific kind of shortbread. On a plane one time he had Walker’s orange-flavored shortbread, but despite looking at all the dozens of varieties in many, many stores, he did not see that sort. He finally asked at one store, and the girl made a face—UGH!—Ha! Then he actually finally found the cookies—well, sort of. The ones he settled on had a chocolate coating over the orange shortbread, but he decided to try them. We also went in the Royal Mile Market in the former Tron Church, just for a quick look. We noticed several “re-purposed” churches—market here, hostel there, café and festival ticket center elsewhere. Can’t decide if that makes me sad or glad; I’m glad the buildings weren’t destroyed, and I’m sad that they aren’t being used for spiritual reasons any more.

    It was time to head back to our rooms, so we went along the more gradual descent down Johnston/Castle Terrace. We decided to stop at the Wagamama on Lothian Road. After warming up with miso, I had very good noodles with shrimp and chicken. M got ramen with beef that wasn’t supposed to be very “chile,” but it was so hot, he couldn’t finish the noodles! We collapsed at the hotel, where it was plenty warm now.

    I backed up our photos. This is always a “chore” I try to attend to on our trips. This time we had our tablet. Our Sony camera has a large card which doesn’t fit in normal slots anymore, so I had to figure out what sort of cords and adaptors were needed to bring to put the pics on the tablet, and then also put on a thumbdrive. We like redundancy.

    Tuesday: Timberbush Tours to Loch Ness and the Highlands

    I wanted to see the Trossachs and the Highlands. I completely supported M’s decision not to drive ourselves, so the only way to do this would be with some sort of tour. One-day tours to the Highlands would be long (12-13 hours) and would not involve much time off the coach, but I knew that going into this day. So it wouldn’t be our normal way to do things, but it would afford us some sight-seeing-through-the-coach-window opportunities.

    We had to get up early to leave about 6:20. At Pret got our “regular” breakfast pretty quickly. We headed to the Timberbush Tours meeting spot which is at the Ensign Edward Pub on the Royal Mile. We got there about 7:15ish, finding 8-10 others there. Another gorgeous, unexpectedly clear and dry day promised, if cool. Soon a gentleman came to check our names and told us which bus to get on, as there would be two going. Wow. I really didn’t expect this tour to have so many folks. A bit before 8 (our departure time) our 60-passenger coach came (along with a van for maybe 20 more). People began to move like a herd, like a blob, pushing and crowding instead of just getting in some sort of line. No q-sense at all. I didn’t like the way this was handled. Our driver just admitted them to the bus as they surged to him. So although I’d made reservations maybe 8 months ahead and we were among the first to arrive at the pick-up point, by the time we got on the bus, it was half full. We’d have preferred to sit toward the front but had to sit mid-bus. A small quibble, maybe, but I was put off by the lack of orderliness.

    Our driver was Patrick Douglas and he was great (except for the above quibble!). We left at 8:03 and he kept up a running commentary almost the entire day. He had historical stories, bad jokes (ha), cultural tidbits, and language information. (I don’t know why he had to point out every evidence of forestry being done or every holiday camping opportunity, but in general he was informative and entertaining.) I wasn’t taking notes, and I didn’t follow his route along on any sort of map, so I don’t remember many of the details.

    We rolled on through the lovely Trossachs with no major traffic issues. By the time we got to our first stop near Callander, M was feeling woozy and it went downhill from there. He tends to get slightly motion sick if he’s not driving, and being in a bus was even more uncomfortable. He had some head congestion from both allergies and a cold coming on, which contributed to his inner ear issue being worse. He felt bad the rest of the week. I never anticipated (nor did he really) that he’d have this much of a problem. Callendar was a very quick stop—too quick really. We barely had time to go to the WC and for M to get a coke in a long line at the only refreshment option. And this wasn’t even prime tourist season! There were “hairy coos” in a field to take pictures of. Funny.

    Back on the bus, we shared some of those cookies, which were better than I thought they’d be. The views were really good for a bus trip. We passed some Munros and glens and rivers and lots of lochs and an occasional standing stone and the Kelpies. Not in that order. It was stark and empty yet beautiful; the heather was no longer in bloom. The area still had some green, but the browns, rusts, and grays of fall were prevalent. It is lovely.

    We stopped for lunch which was again very rushed. We got fish and chips from a shop where there was hardly any line and still barely finished. The meal was tasty except our first bites were full of bones which is a bit off-putting.

    Then it was here we figured out that we couldn’t go to Urquhart Castle as planned. One reason I’d settled on Timberbush instead of Rabbies was that Timberbush advertised three options: visiting the castle or taking a boat ride on Loch Ness or neither. Loch Ness wasn’t important to me; it was seeing the Highlands, and all tours to the Highlands included Loch Ness. Timberbush was the only one who seemed to allow time for an actual visit to the castle, too. I knew M would not want to do any sort of boat ride, so this seemed a good tour choice. The Explorer Pass would cover entrance and this would be our “free” castle, since the Pass cost the same as entrances to Stirling and Edinburgh. But now Patrick explained that the castle tour had to include a shorter boat ride, to a pick-up point (which would cost extra on top of our Pass). So our choices became do nothing or ride a boat. (Or go by myself while M did nothing, but I didn’t like that option and was irritated by the whole thing at this point.) The fine print on a printed brochure—which I never saw, having used the on-line site—and also some info rather buried amid some questions and answers on the website when I looked later does say that the boat ride is required. But I never saw that despite my close reading; I almost wonder if the website didn’t include that info months ago. Or I missed it; it certainly was NOT stated clearly.

    Anyway, we had a five-minute photo stop at the castle, where a few people got off; the best views are from the water so--bleh. It is only a ruin, but still I’d have loved to be able to scramble around and get some fresh air. Oh well. It’s done.

    The bus then went to a hotel/dock area where most of the group took the boat ride and maybe ten of us hung around the café/hotel/tourist trap. M and I had a chocolate thing with some coke, and I took pics of the Loch. The day was gorgeous and the Loch is nice.

    The ride back was less winding—and less scenic but still nice—so M felt some better. We stopped for about 30 minutes in Pitlochry where we had a nice walk in the fresh air at dusk. A very cute little village. More ice cream shops per block than I’d ever seen! Ha. Too cold for that.

    We got back in town about 8:20 and decided to return to Wagamama as it was on our walk back. We had tasty rice dishes. Our walk to the hotel was along well-lighted streets, and M felt better after getting off the bus and having food. Late bed!

    (A note about safety—On my visit to Edinburgh in 2013, even corralling students and actually getting separated from one of them for a bit (his fault), I felt it to be a very safe city. After reading Inspector Rhebus books and watching a few films, some of which I didn’t finish, I knew that, like in any city, there is a need to avoid certain areas and always be alert. But we didn’t even always wear our under-clothing document pouches, and, although we didn’t see much police presence, we did feel secure, even walking to and from our hotel in the West End. Just always be aware of surroundings, we know.)

    Next Post: More of the Royal Mile; Stirling Castle

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    Gardyloo--Hidden Gem will be in the next post--More of the Royal Mile.

    Yes, his CK status is a definite plus. But those air miles "don't come for free, and they don't give you any for pain," as Mark and Emmylou know. Traveling can be rough!

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    It's always fun for me to read trip reports about Scotland so thank you. I took a Timberbush tour on one of my first solo, no driving trips and much the same happened as one of the visits I was looking forward to was abandoned. Can't recall the reason. I have used Rabbies since then primarily because of their 16 passenger vans. I understand why you chose Timberbush just wish it had worked out for you.

    Nice to hear others are fans of afternoon tea and cake. I often skip lunch ( after a decent breakfast ) and have tea and cake early afternoon.

    Regarding tourist season, I've noticed a huge change in the last 10/15 years. It can get very busy even well into October but still much better than July/August.

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    historytraveler--yes, a sort of perfect storm of small irritations on our Timberbush day; I would still recommend them, all in all; see a later post here soon about another day trip with them.

    Wednesday—More of the Royal Mile Sites

    We slept til 8ish then ordered room service breakfast, which arrived fast about 8:15. M had a Scottish breakfast, which included haggis and blood pudding. I urged him to try the haggis, which he did and liked better than he expected. He’d pictured it in an “intestine” sack, but there was just a scoop of it. He’d tasted the blood pudding before I told him what it was, but he didn’t finish it! M also rushed to get some laundry to the desk by 8:45; he arrived about 8:48 and was told to take it across the street to the main desk. He resisted and suggested she call someone to come get it, which she did. Again, a bit of an “annexed exile” feeling! Anyway, he did get his clothes back that evening, so it worked out.

    We had an unhurried start. We left after 10 and had a coke break at Pret on the way to the Royal Mile.

    My first goal was the Writers Museum. I was a bit fuzzy-minded and got the directions a bit wrong, so we missed the turn at first. But any of the closes you go down have cool views (except for passing the sad sights of folks sleeping rough in the nooks and crannies), so the time was not wasted. Then M found Ladies Stairs and we went to the Museum. We enjoyed it a lot, M more than he thought he would. It’s small and specific but a real treat for me. I got some “stuff” for my daughter who actually teaches more Stevenson and Burns than I do currently. We spent about an hour and then admired the house itself, the close, and the other old and lovely buildings around there.

    Then it was on to the only other major stop planned for this day—St. Giles Cathedral. As it was late-lunch time, we went straight to the cathedral’s café, where lunch was delicious. We shared a veggy tart with two side salads and a scrumptious moist brownie. A quiet and lovely stop; I love eating in cathedrals.

    Before going back upstairs to the cathedral itself, we went into Parliament Square right outside the café for pics. There a gentleman stopped and said something like, “I don’t normally tell people this, but you should go into Parliament Hall with its 17th century ceiling.” And he pointed out the door to go in. Cool. So we went through security (where my passport sleeve, which has metal in it, set off the alarm twice—I had no idea!) and entered the beautiful hall. We couldn’t take pictures, so I will need to do some research to remember what I read and saw there. But the hammer-beam ceiling from the 1600’s is amazing. This building, the oldest purpose-built parliament building in the British Isles, now houses the Supreme Courts of Scotland. The displays in the hall explained some about the history of the building as well as about the robes and wigs, the roles and structure, of the judicial system; one of them said that this hall has by tradition become the place where advocates and clients walk up and down to discuss their cases, and there were several robed persons strolling and conversing here. One of the displays called this “A Hidden Gem” and I agree. Thank you, Edinburgh resident!

    We spent some time in St. Giles. One of the docents, Andy, was glad to answer some of M’s questions about the organ, taking time to give him a good bit of background and to point out some interesting features. M initially just asked about the cost (£500,000 in 1992, with donated funds), but Andy explained much more, like how it has over 4000 stops and was made from Austrian oak stained with a lovely red color which is called Scots’ Blood—but the stain was chosen for its color before the name was translated! I’m pretty sure that this was the same gentleman who took time in 2013 to show me and a fellow teacher around in the Thistle Chapel. M and I didn’t have a guide this time, but we visited the Chapel and found the angels with bagpipes for better pics than I got last time. I think this Chapel is amazing in its history and details. We admired the rest of St. Giles—its ironwork, windows, colors, and such. M enjoyed this visit. We had some tea in the sun outside the café before heading out on another stroll.

    Nearby is Victoria Street and the Grassmarket area, so we headed that way. In some little store on charming Victoria Street, I found a pretty china tea tidy with a thistle on it; tea tidies are my “must buy” souvenir if I can find one. We then went by The Elephant House (of J.K.Rowling connection) just for a picture as it wasn’t time for a meal. Then there was the Greyfriars Bobby statue, and we went into the Greyfriars Kirk yard and cemetery for some pictures and a walk around, including going past a portion of the Flodden Wall.

    Back up to the High Street we trudged next, turning east to return to the store for those special cookies. On our way, we just went in and out of shops, still speculating on whether to buy scarves (my daughter had said no, thank you, to wool!). After we found the cookies, it was late enough for an early dinner, so we stopped in Deacon Brodie’s Tavern—he of the Jekyll and Hyde inspiration. It was another Nicholson Pub like at Haymarket, so it had the same menu. After a good mushroom appetizer, I had chicken with chips and M had salmon with veggies. It was all quite good, and it was fun to eat in this place with literary associations for me! Back to the hotel and a rest.

    Thursday: Stirling Castle

    This was Stirling-Castle-on-our-own day, so we had a flexible schedule. M still felt like he was getting a cold but said he would press on. About 10 we headed out into another clear day but with more wind. We got to Pret about 10:30 and had a brunch of some toasties. On to Waverly Station, where M got tickets from a machine successfully with our Visa chip-and-signature credit card, but then we couldn’t tell from the tickets which train (final destination) to take so didn’t know which platform. I went to the information/sales area and found that there was a train in 10 minutes (or 40 if we missed it—our tickets appeared to be for any train all day). (I always think I know what I’m to do at train stations, but I don’t use trains enough to be confident, especially in a new place or if in a bit of hurry.) Platform 14 was a two minute walk, so we made the 11:10 train and rode about an hour. It makes several stops, but we had seats with a table in an uncrowded car, so it was a pleasant journey.

    We alit at Stirling to find it cold and quite windy but clear and pretty. We followed a few arrows and signs, going uphill to a Tourist Information center. They didn’t have a map, but we didn’t need one, really. At the TI I found a pretty pewter Quaich, a two-handled traditional cup I’d considered looking for as a souvenir. This one had a thistle engraving and was half price, so I got it.

    Then it was on to the castle. We used our Pass (but there was no line to avoid at all) and got the audio guides, but the lady there said there was a one-hour free guided tour in ten minutes. So we took that first. The guide Michael was great; we got a good overview of the castle’s structure and history and lots of interesting details. I especially liked learning about the reason for the gold color of mortar covering part of the castle walls and some of the details of James VI/I’s life in this castle.

    It was really, really windy, so it felt icy despite the bright sunshine and blue skies. There are lovely views of the countryside from the castle heights, including the Wallace Monument clearly visible nearby. It wasn’t crowded at all. We thoroughly enjoyed this castle, although the icy wind did curtail lengthy photo-taking. In the café we had a light lunch after the tour and warmed up a bit. We used the audio guide a little afterwards but were too cold to enjoy it a lot. About 2:30 or so we headed toward the station. Stirling looked like an interesting town to explore if we’d had more time, but we had certainly loved the castle. We caught a 4:00 pm train. This time we got off at Haymarket at 5:15. (I think we could have gotten on there in the morning, actually; the website directions didn’t make that clear enough to my limited-train-experience brain.)

    Back in the hotel M was not hungry and took a nap. About 6, I ordered some room-service food—a big “super foods” salad and smoked salmon. Interesting flavors. It was more food than I needed, and later M ate a bit.

    Then he devised another quest—for a special pudding. On a plane once he had had this great chocolate dessert from Pots and Co.; they were a thick mousse/custard of dark chocolate, smooth and creamy. When he Googled the name, he found that Waitroses carried them, and there are two of those grocery stores in Edinburgh. So he wanted to find one. We headed out into the cold wind and almost dark. He’d consulted Google maps which we were trying to follow, but at the bottom of the hill, a couple came by and stopped to offer help. They seemed a bit surprised we wanted to walk to the Waitrose, but they pointed us in the opposite direction we were about to go and gave wiggly instructions. We did that, going a wiggly way through part of Dean Village and onto Stockbridge. M kept consulting his phone maps, and we found the store—and they had the Chocolate Pots! We got a few other snacks items like shrimp and cheese. M picked a different route back. We walked and climbed some stairs and still had a hillside climb looming. It was dark and cold, and we were both tired. He flagged a taxi, which had us to the hotel in about five minutes. We had a nice chat about grocery stores (driver said Waitrose most expensive in Edinburgh) and desserts. Back in the room we enjoyed our late night snack; those pots of chocolate were worth the walk!

    Next post: Northumbria Day Trip

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    REALLY enjoying this :)

    >> Then M found Ladies Stairs and we went to the Museum. <<

    When you walked through the little opening from Lawnmarket into Lady Stairs Close - just where you exit the tunnel and walk across the courtyard to the museum entrance . . . IF you had paused to look over your right shoulders you would have been looking straight at the front door of the flat I stayed in this past August. 2-4 Lady Stairs Close -- 2nd floor w/ 2 bay windows looking up and down the Royal Mile.

    Too bad about the urpy stomach on the coach tour.

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    <The views were really good for a bus trip. We passed some Munros and glens and rivers and lots of lochs and an occasional standing stone and the Kelpies>

    Travelling north from Callander you wouldn't gave passed the Kelpies as they are located between Falkirk and Grangemouth.Perhaps you misheard the driver.
    Nice report though.

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    janisj--Hi--thanks for your encouragement. I read lots of your Scotland posts to get ready for this trip, so you get some credit for helping our plans. What a cool place to stay! I'll have to look carefully at our photos we took around the Museum, as maybe we caught the flat entrance.

    TheBigMan--Thanks. To clarify (I don't let me students leave things unclear!)--As I said, those things I listed--"...some Munros and glens and rivers and lots of lochs and an occasional standing stone and the Kelpies."--weren't in chronological order; we saw the Kelpies earlier in the ride, after Falkirk. (We also caught a distant glimpse of them from the train on the way to Stirling, too.)

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    Ah, so it was the old Parliament that was your "hidden gem." True enough, it's lovely.

    Less lovely is the jail (or gaol if you want the old spelling) - really a dungeon - down - way down - below the pretty bits. I had the misfortune to spend much of a late night there, having been busted by two of Edinburgh's finest for unpaid parking tickets incurred while I was a scofflaw postgrad student.

    I was transported from my flat in the windowless black mariah to the confines of the cells; it was late at night and most of the other occupants had just been harvested from the Grassmarket so they could sleep off their intoxicants. The cells had arched ceilings and big round iron bars. The jailer - I am not making this up - had a big ring of skeleton keys, and was (really) a hunchback.

    I got out by asserting my American citizenship and demanding to be allowed to phone the US consulate; as it was after midnight the booking officer held his head in his hands briefly then released me when I promised to return the next morning for my day in court, upstairs in the grand bits.

    I plead guilty (I was guilty as hell) and paid the forty quid fine with a promise to go forth and sin no more. Sadly, I didn't keep that promise, but this time I actually paid the tickets.

    Sorry, couldn't resist the old story.

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    Gardyloo--What a story! I'm glad you shared it!

    (Oh, wow--I give myself A- for my post above--"I don't let me students leave things unclear!"--oops, meant "I don't let my students..." I don't let them in leave typos without penalty, either!)

    Friday: Northumbria with Timberbush

    This was to be our second coach trip, but M opted not to try that again, so I went alone. I’d debated with myself long about what our second trip should include, and it seemed a tad odd to be going back into England instead of seeing more of Scotland. But I decided I might not ever be this far north in England again, and I’d wanted to see either Alnwick or Bamburgh Castle for a long time, so I chose this tour.

    I got up at 6:45 to leave about an hour later. I stopped at Pret for some yogurt to go and a sandwich for lunch. I got to The Royal Mile well before I needed to be and walked around a bit, ate my yogurt, and asked a guy at the castle entrance about the containers still being craned away. (Yes, they are for the Tattoo and they are put up in May and taken down by October.) Today was rather chilly and looked like it might rain. The skies were gray and overcast.

    At 8:30 Paul arrived in a 19-passenger-van, but there ended up only being six of us on it, as another person besides M never showed. We set off at 8:45. He tried to drive us through Holyrood Park, which I knew would give us great photo ops, but the road was closed.

    Paul was great; his commentary wasn’t as non-stop as Patrick’s, but he was very informative and accommodating. We got to Lindisfarne about 10:30 and had 75 minutes. The drive across the causeway to the island reminded me both of the South Texas wetlands—gray, muddy, and flat—and also of Mont St. Michel. We’d hit the tide time so that we had access with no problem. It was now raining some and windy so pretty miserable outside.

    I went into the visitor center where I walked through the display area quickly so I could go on outside to take pics of the priory ruins before the weather got any worse. The castle perched on its rock was cloaked in a gray mist but still looked cool. The idea of a hurried walk toward it to get a closer view was not attractive in this weather, though!

    I made a very cursory pass through the ruins. Driving light rain was not good for camera work. I went in the church for a moment. And at the visitor center I bought a guide so I can figure out what I took quick pictures of later! I have seen the Lindisfarne Gospels in the British Library a couple times at least, so it was fantastic to be at their source. Plus I’ve read more this past year about the Celtic/Irish Christianity influence, including Caedmon’s hymns and the role of Whitby, so the history of the church here meant a bit more to me than it would have in the past. And we’ve been to Durham Cathedral where Cuthbert is remembered. So while my visit here was hampered by the weather, I’m glad to have gotten the chance to connect it to other places and experiences.

    After another look around the visitor center and the gift shop, I found a little shop open where I got some crisps and coke and a pretty tea tidy (or coaster). I went back to the coach to get out of the rain for my picnic lunch and had a chat with Paul.

    A thirty-minute ride took us to Alnwick Castle, where first Paul took us to a bridge for a good vantage point from which we could get a photo of the whole castle. We were there by 1:00 and had until 3:30. It had stopped raining, although the skies stayed gray and low, so it was still not the best day for pictures. But I didn’t get a drop more of rain on me at all (the whole week!).

    This was a great visit. I just wandered around. A couple on the coach from Nova Scotia had recently discovered family ties to the Percy family, so they were excited to be here. That was fun. The Percys have inhabited this castle for over 700 years, and it’s the second largest inhabited castle, after Windsor, in England. It reminded me of both Warwick Castle and Chatsworth; there’s lots of stuff going on for tourists, as well as the property being used for film sites. All these extra events and things are to create the needed revenue to keep such properties going, whether in hands of a family (like in the case of Chatsworth and Alnwick) or not (as in Warwick’s situation). Alnwick has been used for Harry Potter scenes as well as Downton Abbey. So there were broomstick-riding lessons going on which were fun to watch and a display about the Downton Abbey filming of the Christmas special. Funny. There was also a couple things for kids—a Dragon Quest and a tilting/tournament yard. I bet it’s a riot in the summer! I loved the stone figures, in all sorts of battle poses, perched on the battlements; they date from perhaps the 1300’s. Capability Brown did some landscaping on these grounds; there are large frames set up so that you view the landscape through them like a picture; that was fascinating. Paul also showed me some mason’s marks, but he said, as masons usually hid their marks, these obvious ones were probably from later visitors—like mason graffiti. I don’t know, but it was interesting.

    I toured the rooms open to the public, full of priceless art and furniture. No photos allowed but I liked all the beautiful furnishings. In one room an attendant showed me a lovely table with intricate inlays of natural woods of all colors, even blues and greens. I forgot to see the chapel, supposedly used in HP films, so I went back; it was closed, but a nice attendant let me peek in without turning on any lights. Almost everyone there was extremely friendly.

    About 2:45 I stopped for tea and cookie (people here were not really friendly) and bought a few souvenirs. This is a top-notch castle stop! I didn’t have time to go into the gardens which look phenomenal, but I peeked in to see the cascade and also passed the prettiest ironwork gate I think I’ve ever seen, with glass irises scattered over it. Lovely.

    The ride back was through scenic and windy roads, all lovely. We passed the little place where people used to come to get married at a younger age than allowed in England, near Coldstream, just inside the Scottish border next to the Tweed River on A698; this is the eastern Scotland version of Gretna Green, which I’ve been to, so that was interesting to find out about. We stopped at a coach house on the Hirsel Estate for tea. There I had a conversation with one of the passengers, a young doctor from Buenos Aires. She had an upcoming trip to London with her boyfriend, and we discussed some of the options for her time there; she’d been before but was considering going to Oxford this time; I said go! We were in Edinburgh by about 6:15; the young lady gave me a hug and kiss and said she’d think of me in Oxford.

    Via texting, M and I had discussed dinner, so he was waiting on Castle Terrace for me. We walked back to dinner at Ryries Bar near Haymarket Station. We had yummy made-on-the-premises beef and ale pies with veggies, after soups. Our waiter told us he had family in Knoxville, where my brother’s family lives. Ha.

    We figured out what to do about a bus to the airport Sunday, backed up pictures, packed up a little bit, and collapsed in the room.

    Next post: Last Day; Trip Home

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    So, you are the lucky visitors who had the nice weather. We were in Glasgow and Edinburgh the last week of September and it rained virtually all the time. Of course we heard how sunny it would be at the start of October!

    As an aside, we took a Rabbie's tour from Glasgow into the highlands and the main reason we chose them was that they only use 16 seat vans, while Timberbrush uses both vans and coaches. I had read a complaint by someone being squeezed the the middle of a bench seat...did not sound like a fun way to spend 10 hours.

    I will motivate myself for a short report, meanwhile happy to read about Scotland...what a beautiful country!

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    giro--Yes, we were quite surprised by the nice weather, in a good way! It is a beautiful country, made better for us by being able to see it without the wet.

    Our Timberbush coach was roomy enough, for a bus seat. He had said when we were picking a tour that he'd prefer to be on a bigger vehicle, so we took the chance that Timberbush would have enough folks for a coach--which they did, but it didn't totally prevent the queasiness. But, we perservered.

    Saturday: Last Day

    This was always planned to be a catch-up or rest day. We had made it to almost all of the things I had picked as most important. So whatever we did today would be icing. M opted to take the morning off and meet me at lunch somewhere.

    Three places I had as definite destinations were Dean Village briefly, the Sherlock Holmes statue, and the National Gallery. So about 7:30 I took off; I started to go to Marks and Spencer at Haymarket for some breakfast, but I discovered an apple in my pocket, and after tea and cookie already I wasn’t that hungry, so I headed down Grosvenor Street toward St. Mary’s Cathedral. I peeked in and enjoyed the quiet for a minute. Then I went on down Palmerston Place toward Belford Road. Only a few folks were out and about. I used my phone for Google maps and wandered to Dean Village for a bit. It was a pretty walk, especially the view from the bridge in the bright morning light. I didn’t go by the Waters of Leith; it seemed the walkways I encountered were either closed or rather iffy looking for a lone lady.

    I continued my walk through New Town, retracing some of our steps from last Sunday. I was headed generally east and found my walk down Rose Street and through St. Andrews Square to be a pleasant one. I liked window shopping on George Street, and it was lovely to see the Firth of Forth in the distance as I looked north down streets like Hanover. Also on this walk I noticed more the differences among stones of the buildings of Auld Reeky, with some still black while others are light brown or grey or golden. Flower boxes were still blooming to make spots of color. I found the Sherlock Holmes statue. Yay! Then I started back up towards Princes Street where I encountered lots of crowds now at nearly noon on another gorgeous day. How many different ways can I say that the weather was unexpectedly delightful all week! I got rained on only in England, actually, and, while the cool felt cold to us, it was really pretty mild all in all—and, oh, those mostly clear skies were not what we’d planned to endure!

    In texting with M we decided to meet at Bella Italia about 12:30 right across from the Art Museum. Before I got there, I popped in the TI and finally bought two scarves for gifts for later. I also walked through Jenners, just to say I had. Ha. Bella Italia was very crowded, but I got a small table and M arrived shortly. It was ok.

    At the Art Museum we stowed our jackets and excess stuff and spent some great time. It is small but nicely presented and has a good variety. I enjoyed it immensely. I saw a few pictures that relate to my teaching (like Achilles with Patroclus and Spenser’s Una with the lion) so I was pleased.

    We had one more look around Princes Street Gardens; the Floral Clock is being re-planted so wasn’t a clock; I took a photo of the only building in the Gardens, the cosy-looking Gardeners Cottage. We felt up to one more short ramble on the Royal Mile as I decided I would buy a Campbell tartan something. So we found the store where M had located a scarf before, and they also had some lovely Burns crystal wineglasses, etched with thistles! We had to wait a long time for them to find glasses with the price on them, but they are pretty and it was worth the effort.

    But then we felt—done. We went back to the Ryrie’s pub again. M’s burger was good; I got the “wrong” fish, getting salmon instead of whatever white fish was listed on the board, but it was delicious anyway.

    We finished packing and had an early bedtime.

    Sunday: Return home

    We had to get up at 4 am. We had checked the night before with “our” receptionist who said we’d be able to check out in our building. But that turned out not to be so. We were a bit put out; we had to go to main desk; the process was quick, even at 4:40 or so, but still…. At Haymarket we caught the 5:00 am bus which was promptly on time. It took about 20 minutes again to the airport, but it was a bit more crowded. Our check-in to British Airways went smoothly. We got some breakfast at an EAT. (Pret is better!)

    Our 7:45 flight to LHR was on time; this was the only leg that was not upgraded, but it was fine anyway for the 90-minute flight. At LHR we went to Harrod’s in Terminal 3 to get boxes of my favorite English Breakfast Tea, Harrod’s # 14. But, alas, there was only one box in that whole store. I did find some pretty Port Merion china, two small tea candle holders with poppies, one of my daughters’ favorite flowers.

    Then we went to the AA Lounge for a little wait; at our gate, due to M’s Concierge Key connections, I got to board first and found our seats in business class to have the pod configuration with seats that fully recline. Nice. We left right on time for our 12:50 flight to DFW. Oh, woops, wait, now we are taxiing back to the gate. It turned out that an overhead bin had opened (during taxiing?) and a bag fell on a lady’s head. They would not leave until some medical personnel cleared her. They brought her up to business class to an empty seat while we waited….and waited. She kept saying she was fine, but the crew insisted she be checked out. There was some other event/emergency in LHR, and so there was no one available to come. What??? It was over 2 ½ hours before someone came and almost 3 before we were cleared to leave. I’m glad she was ok in the end, but the wait was ridiculous—and not her fault. So of course they had a plane full of people who mostly were going to miss their connections. M used the waiting time to contact AA and made new flight arrangements. I understand their caution about a possible head injury on a trans-continental flight, but we felt like their communication with the passengers was rather sketchy and the crew was not in any way extra patient, at least not in business class. The rest of the flight was rather eventless; we both slept some.

    In DFW we found our new boarding passes waiting for us on the wall as we entered the terminal, but we had to go to the AA desk to get luggage tags with the corrected flight number put on our bags before we re-checked them. Global Entry made the passport control process take about five minutes, and customs was quick too. After rechecking of bags, we rested in the AA Lounge. The last flight to our city left on time at 10:10, arriving at 11:30; we got to the hotel (still too hot to try un-air-conditioned sleeping!) about midnight. (AC got fixed Tuesday.)

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    I'm enjoying this report, and the parts that didn't work as well are informative. After reading about your bus tour to the highlands, I think I would avoid doing that.

    Thanks for sharing all your experiences.

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    Thanks, Nikki--I love "doing" trip reports here as it both helps me write down an account before I forget and also may help or amuse any readers.

    The long day-trip to the Highlands is something to consider, I still think. There are better ways to see them, of course--stay there, have a car, etc. But for us this trip it was the only alternative to get even the little look we got. The enjoyment was dampened by our specific "glitches," but it's still something to consider, when deciding what priorities and interests apply to you. We like self-driving better, but it just wasn't going to happen this trip.

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    Nikki: Definitely consider Rabbies. They use only small vans and the reviews are almost universally great.

    Like on TA for example 3,000 excellent/very good vs. 53 poor/terrible. And even that understates things since 2699 of those 3,000 are rated excellent.

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    Thanks Texasbookworm! You've given me some great ideas and info for our upcoming trip.

    While I have lodgings and a couple of other things set - I need to now sit down and do the "here's what we really will pick to see" list.

    Anything you would do differently in looking back?

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    patandhank--I really don't think I'd do much differently at all. I had about 8 or 10 sites in Edinburgh I wanted to get to (some major like the castle, some quick and quirky like the Holmes statue), and we made it to all of them and weren't rushed by an over-packed schedule. Given the time we had and our interests and how we felt that week, I think we used our time pretty well. I had things on my "if we have time" list we didn't do, but isn't that always the case!

    As for outside of Edinburgh--I don't regret using two days to see something else, and I would recommend the 2 Timberbush tours. If you want to see something outside of Edinburgh, then look at both Rabbies and Timberbush to see which has an itinerary to suit your interests. I'm glad we made the decision to see Stirling on our own; I would have liked to have spent a little more time in Stirling.

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    And a few last thoughts:

    Best and Worst:
    • The best is Edinburgh as a whole; we really enjoyed it. M named it the City of Spires. (I told him that was Oxford, but I agree it’s an apt name.) It has great history, pretty parks, walkable streets, friendly folks, nice and varied architecture, lovely views, plenty of literary connections, and good food.
    • We (well, I) saw three fabulous castles.
    • The weather was spectacular, especially for October in Scotland.

    • The worst was the unexpected discomfort of M on the coach ride and not getting to “do” the castle I planned. But I’d still recommend that tour to most.
    • The other worst was the delay at LHR.

    Couple other observations:
    • Practically everyone in all the service industries (shops, restaurants, hotel, museums) that I dealt with who had a Scottish (or at least British) accent was extremely friendly and polite and most of them sincerely (it seemed) wanted to know if I was enjoying my stay. Those who seemed not to be British were not as welcoming.
    • We were a bit surprised at the amount of garbage and trash on all the main streets. There were trash cans available. And we saw garbage collection occurring. We were just a bit surprised.
    • Staying in the West End was fine—especially as it was essentially free for us! Edinburgh is a pretty compact city, so walking everywhere worked for us. There are advantages to staying more city-center, but staying near Haymarket Station worked well for us.

    Next Trip:
    • I didn’t make it into the Museum of Scotland; I know it is highly recommended, but I chose art over history/culture at the end of the week when it looked like we had time for only one museum, and we just didn’t have time for it. If the weather had been wetter, we probably would have looked for more indoor spots like museums to be inside.
    • I’ll be older if I ever get back there, but I’d still like to climb Arthur’s Seat on a nice day.
    • There are still some areas and neighborhoods, like the Meadows, around the University of Edinburgh, Holyrood Park, and the Botanical Gardens, I wish we’d had time for. And since I'd be glad to re-visit most of what we did see, there's obviously need for a return visit!

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    Thanks! Hoping to go next year, perhaps in September or October, so I was glad to read about your experiences with the weather. Though it sounds like you hit a good spot!

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    Yes, I think we were very blessed. Sounds like the week before was very wet, and it wasn't as nice right after we left. So the key is to, always, expect the worst possible weather, whatever that might be, and be prepared for it--and then be jubilantly thankful if it's better! (A theme that can apply to almost all of life's circumstances, probably!)

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    Lovely trip report, texas - I just today found it!

    We were blessed with ideal weather last May, although we also planned for rain. I think you have to do that for Scotland. ;)

    But isn't it a glorious place! It has definitely taken my heart and I hope to go again. Your trip report made me miss it even more.

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    Thanks, LCBoniti--glad I helped you recall some fond memories.

    Yes, I'd go back in a heartbeat; M even mentioned returning in warmer weather with a rental car, as he found much to want to see more of, too.

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