I awaken to first light coming in through cracks in the blinds, the birds are singing their cheerful wake-up songs and I can hear the low cooing of doves. It must be around 6:30. Soon John will stir, then get up and make our coffee. Bleary-eyed, I pick my watch up from the nightstand to see what time it is. And it’s….3:35 a.m. Welcome to summer in Northern Europe.
We’re in Scotland. It’s a country neither John nor I have visited before. In twelve days spent in three cities: Edinburgh, Oban, and Stirling, we begin to get to know the place. Scotland makes a definite impression. It’s small, not much bigger than the state of South Carolina and has a population of around 6 million, about the same number of people as the Atlanta metro area. It’s a place that, in the words of one of our tour guides, punches above its weight. The history, the hospitality of the people, and the natural and rugged beauty are what we love most.
The history: no one messes with us and gets away with it
Scotland’s history is bloody, high-drama, full of palace intrigue and witches being burned at the stake or beheaded, all good reasons its stories make popular cinematic costume dramas, including Braveheart and Mary Queen of Scots. The Scottish motto is (in Gaelic) mana na hAlban, which translates to “No one provokes me with impunity.” If Lin-Manual Miranda did a musical on the history of Scotland, the motto might become “England, we ain’t gonna be yo bitch, just to make some king rich.” In our travels, we pieced together various parts of the history at Edinburgh, Stirling, and Dunollie castles and at the National Museum of Scotland, among other places.
Beyond the years of bloodshed, we’re into the 18th century and the Scottish Enlightenment, a period of rapid advancement in science and the humanities and a flourishing educational system that resulted in some of the world’s best universities. Well known writers, philosophers, and economists from the period include David Hume, Adam Smith, and poet Robert Burns.
This is a proud little country eager to tell its story and most people we meet are warm and welcoming — genuinely delighted to have visitors. Many of their museums are free, including the impressive National Museum of Scotland. Several places we visited, including the National Museum, Stirling Castle, the Church of the Holy Rood in Stirling, and the Holy Rood church cemetery all had enthusiastic and capable tour guides to take us around at no charge.
Private citizens are equally helpful and friendly. In Stirling, we had reserved a college dorm room at the University of Stirling, which turned out to be too far to walk to the places we wanted to see. Since we didn’t have a car, and Uber pretty much doesn’t exist here, we had to take the local bus, which turned out to be confusing and a little unreliable. An unintended benefit of this turned out to be that, going to and from the campus, each way we met a friendly local who explained the bus system, then took the time to walk us to a place where we could easily find our destination. Along the way we enjoyed good conversations. John couldn’t resist asking them his favorite question: What do you think about Brexit? Neither our bus ride Samaritans, nor anyone else he asked is in favor of it.
Natural, rugged beauty
The train from Edinburgh to Oban is one of the most scenic train rides one will find anywhere. It goes through Trossochs National Park and along the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond. Oban itself is the gateway to the Hebrides with stunning islands, a dramatic coastline and green meadows with sheep, goats, and highland cattle. We were in Oban for five days and enjoyed a relaxed pace, walks on two of the nearby islands, fine seafood, and a beautiful harbor.
You’ll notice that the food did not make the “what we loved most” designation. With the exception of some good seafood in Oban, including some of the best and freshest oysters I’ve ever eaten, the food wasn’t really memorable. Once we got beyond the long list of burgers that seems to be on menus all over Europe these days, we found a few local dishes, including haggis and a very nice local stew of fish, leeks, and potatoes with the funny name “Cullen Skink.”
We could have easily stayed in Scotland longer and hope to be able to return one day and see more of this lovely and interesting little country.