Bagpipes, blue eyes, Unicorns, & 'The Da Vinci Code'—fun surprises in Scotland!
When I first heard that the unicorn is the official animal of Scotland, I was in an Edinburgh pub. This sweet and silly newfound tidbit made me smile—after all, not only is the horned horse-like creature a symbol of grace, healing, and happiness, but (c’mon, folks!) it is not real. Yet Scots, rich in imagination, love legends and colorful stories.
This information came from a nearby table, where members of a rugby team, most of whom had red hair, counted off on their captain’s fingers a slew of fun facts about their verdant homeland: approximately 70 percent of Scots have blue eyes; Scotland has more than 300 castles (about one per 100 square miles); and Edinburgh is built on seven hills—just like Rome—though there were on-going debates as to which seven they are. I was amused and enthralled.
Having traveled to the United Kingdom via a Trafalgar group tour, the journey unfolded with positive surprises, most notably how much I, an intrepid traveler, quickly came to appreciate the plusses of this escorted entourage mode—a no-fuss, easy-planning way to set my sights on the best sites and skip long lines at museums and other heritage havens. Trafalgar guides make advanced ticket arrangements, as well as deal with transportation, hotels, cultural events, and restaurant reservations. As it turned out, for me, the best Trafalgar trip bonus was the friendship I made with several amazing travel mates whom I would have otherwise never met.
In NYC, National Scotland Week, jumpstarted by Visit Scotland, kicks off April 3rd through 8th with celebrations of all things Scottish—food and drink tastings, art shows, music performances, a parade, and a Central Park marathon. April 6th is National Tartan Day, with events all over North America to honor Scottish-Americans. Vacation deals also abound in alliance with Homecoming Scotland 2014, making the summer months appealing to explore. For performing arts fans, the Edinburgh International Festival occurs this summer on August 8th to 31st.
Please click the gallery launch button (at top right or below) for 13 pics, featuring some hot spots, cool stuff, and warm feelings.
1. PIPE UP!
To listen to a skilled piper play a perfectly tuned Great Highland bagpipe can be a rousing experience. Its stirring deep legato sound is evocative of Scotland. Bagpipers don the traditional Scottish pleated skirt called a kilt. Among visitors to Scotland, there is much curiosity about whether male kilt-wearers go commando. Some do; the majority don't. (Were you hoping for a different answer?) Kilts do get around though: American astronaut Alan Bean, who has Scottish heritage, carried a piece of tartan fabric aboard the Apollo 12 in 1969. Up, up, and away!
2. SPY A CASTLE IN THE SKY
Who doesn't love a castle? And this one is a dandy! Built on a volcanic rock, enormous Edinburgh Castle, once the home of royalty, is now a national monument and museum. Its oldest standing building, constructed in the early 12th century, is lovely St. Margaret's Chapel, named after Queen Margaret, who, it is said, died of a broken heart in 1093, nine days after her husband, King Malcolm III, was killed in battle. (She was canonized.) Weddings are still performed in St. Margaret's today.
3. EYE A CROWN OF JEWELS
Inside this tall tower of Edinburgh Castle, up a spiral staircase, are the dazzling Scottish Crown Jewels—a gold headpiece, sceptre, and sword, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Behind glass but easily stare-worthy, the treasures elicit "oohs" and "aahs" from visitors, especially little children who likely have big castle fantasies dancing in their heads.
4. TAKE THE LONG VIEW
Edinburgh's medieval and neoclassical skyline utterly enchants, especially in the cobblestone street area of Old Town called the Royal Mile (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), near Edinburgh Castle. Oh, those picturesque turrets, towers, stepped gables, and crenelated battlements! Filmmakers have set handfuls of movies in Edinburgh, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Chariots of Fire (1991); and The Illusionist (2010).
5. EAT, DRINK, & BE CHEERY
Among my favorite Edinburgh restaurants is The Witchery, an elegant ode to traditional Scottish dishes—savory venison, duck, fish pie, and mutton (yep, there are options for vegetarians)—updated with modern international culinary accents. Festooned in dark carved woodwork, floor-length swag drapes, and tufted leather banquettes, dining here—with an award-winning wine list—is memorable and merry.
6. GET TO KNOW THE LOCALS
Trafalgar arranges unique "Be My Guest" experiences, an opportunity to meet with residents on their home turf. Dreamed up by Trafalgar CEO Gavin Tollman several years ago, the service opens up a more intimate side of destinations for travelers. At Ledard Farm, in Trossachs National Park about an hour's drive north of Glasgow, kilt-wearing Gregor Wood (playing a bagpipe greeting), along with his father, Fergus (both are professional musicians), welcomed my group, leading us through their sheep farm, which dates back to 1474, and into one of their barns, built in 1604, where, according to Fergus, folk hero and outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor (sometimes called the Scottish Robin Hood) came of age in 1689. Between bites of a just-caught seafood lunch, we sang together, learning rollicking lyrics to uplifting Scottish tunes. Fergus also shared funny and feisty historical yarns. Glad to be their guest, indeed.
7. DOGGONE IT, MEET THE ANIMALS, TOO!
The Ledard Farm, with hundreds of sheep, includes eight border collies and one Australian sheep dog. My friends and I delighted in playing with and petting the gregarious yet gentle dogs.
8. LIKE THE LOCHS
9. SHEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM
Driving through the Scottish countryside, it's sublime to see all the free-range sheep, growing thick wool for sweaters, blankets, mittens, and more—balls of white on a bucolic emerald canvas.
10. TASTE A "WEE DRAM"
For many travelers to Scotland, a stop-and-sip at a whisky distillery is a jubilant part of the journey. In the countryside of Dumgoyne, near Glasgow, Glengoyne Whiskey Distillery serves up elucidating tours about the single malt process. This stream, behind the distillery, is used in the making of its golden product. For those who stay in Edinburgh and are interested in Scotland's most famous libation, the multi-media Scotch Whisky Experience, in Old Town, is entertaining and educational.
11. DISCOVER ROSSLYN CHAPEL
The Rosslyn Chapel, a house of worship since 1446, in Roslin (the village's incongruous spelling probably due to a clerk registrar's slip of quill), is where author Dan Brown set the climactic scene in his best-selling 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code. Its follow-up movie (2006) of the same name, starring Tom Hanks (as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon) and directed by Ron Howard, was filmed here as well, and fans of the suspenseful thriller have made Rosslyn Chapel a popular place to visit. A small, much-loved, community-active Episcopal church, the chapel is ornate with stone wall carvings, flying buttresses, and Gothic pinnacles.
12. HORSE AROUND STABLES
I love that once the weather turns nippy, many Scots blanket their horses when outdoors!
13. FEEL (SORT OF) LIKE A QUEEN OR KING—FOR A DAY
On the final evening, back in Edinburgh, I thought of Scotland’s National poet Robert Burns, the author of Auld Lang Syne. My group—new friends who already felt like old pals—dined in high style aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, which for 44 years was used by Queen Elizabeth and her family for official receptions, head-of-state visits, as well as royal vacations and honeymoons. Now the regal vessel is open to the public for afternoon tea and self-guided audio tours, during which you can meander the bridge, engine room, outside decks, and the royal state apartments, left as they were last used. Perhaps Her Majesty's former bedroom (off-limits to enter, but keenly seen through its doorway) is the most interesting room of all—simple, pretty but understated, without any of the royal glitziness you might expect. So, here's a toast, as the Scots say: "Lang may yer lum reek" — May you live long and stay well!
Don't Miss Galleries:
Where have you most enjoyed traveling? Where do you want to go? Please tell us in the comments below—we’d love to know!
Frequent globetrotter Laura Manske has visited most U.S. states, explored 70+ countries, and cruised 60+ ships. She loves to wander the world, unearthing travel joy, beauty, adventure, and humor through her camera lens and articles. Now, she’s sharing pictures and memories of her favorite spots on Parade.com.