Tuesday, June 19, 2012

When I part the drapes in my room this morning at the Apex Waterloo Place, I can hardly contain a squeal of joy. For the second day in a row, there is a blue sky overhead. Hallelujah, hallelujah! For nearly three weeks I have traveled under an unrelenting canopy of gray. It’s rained nearly every day, often in torrents, and daytime temperatures have only rarely reached into the sixties. Finally the weather has broken, and in the most unexpected of places—in Scotland, where the weather is so foul that it’s earned its own adjective: dreich.

I walk along Princes Street, past the neo-Gothic grandeur of the Scott Monument, down to The Mound. I plan to start the day at the National Gallery of Scotland, which has a famous painting of the Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, but I pause first to listen to a bagpiper playing on the terrace outside. He has a kind face, gray hair, and wire rimmed glasses, and he is in traditional Highland dress, complete with a kilt, sporran, and glengarry cap. There is a length of blue plaid draped over his shoulder, held in place with a larger silver brooch. We talk for a bit and he explains that the color and pattern of the plaid tartan identifies his clan. I thank him for his time with a £1 coin and he asks me what I’d like to hear. I stand there, dumbstruck, for a second. To say “Scotland the Brave” sounds terribly uncreative, but I honestly can’t think of anything else. I tell him to pick instead and he plays something American, to match my accent—”I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which is an odd choice for a bagpipe, but an apt one since I live in Saint Albans, Vermont, a town known as the “Rail City.”

I walk through the galleries of the art museum a bit, but I’m itching to get back outside. I head into Old Town, past a giant set of Olympic rings commemorating the 2012 London Games later this year summer, and walk across the Royal Mile, downhill on Bank all the way to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, where there’s a charming bronze statue of a dog known as Greyfriar’s Bobby, who famously guarded the grave of his owner for fourteen years. Nearby is The Elephant House, the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling used to sit and write the Harry Potter books long before they made her famous. I stop inside for a cappuccino and a little literary inspiration.

I wander back up the hill along Candlemaker Row to the Grassmarket and then along the colorful shops on West Bow to Victoria Street. By the time I reach the Royal Mile again, I’m ready for lunch, which I grab at a cheery place called the St. Giles Café & Bar on a small side street across from the cathedral.

Next, I buy a ticket to tour The Real Mary King’s Close, a warren of underground streets long buried by the city’s expansion. Our guide is a pleasant American girl who tries hard, but largely fails, to adopt a British accent, and the script itself is a routine mix of ghost stories and historical narrative, worth the price of admission, perhaps, but not by a large margin.

Back above ground, I opt to spend the rest of the day shopping for souvenirs. I select a brown tweed cap for my Dad and gray cashmere scarf for my nephew. Intent on a necklace for my Mom, I stop at a stall selling Celtic jewelry just long enough to overhear this snatch of conversation:

Tourist: “Did you make this ring yourself?”

Merchant: “Naw.”

Tourist: “Where was it made, then?”

Merchant: “Ai-jah.” Or so it sounds in a nearly impenetrable Scottish brogue.

Tourist: “Ooooo, how wonderful! That must be one of those lochs up in the Highlands,” grinning to her husband while reaching for her wallet.

Me, walking away snickering: “You know, I’m pretty sure he just said it was made in ASIA.”

Further down the Royal Mile I find a silver cross set with green Scottish marble for Mom, then refocus my efforts on finding the perfect lambswool shawl for myself. After trying on various combinations of navy, green and red, I opt for something less traditional, a plaid by Lochcarron with shades of aquamarine and dusty rose, designed as a memorial tartan for Diana, Princess of Wales.

As I work through a fine plate of chicken and mushrooms over mashed potatoes at a lively pub called Whiski, I tick off the boxes on my list. I haven’t made it to the Royal Yacht Britannia, but I’ve done nearly everything else and I’ve enjoyed the city of Edinburgh immensely. I have just one more day in Scotland before heading home, and I’d like to explore the countryside. I thumb through a brochure I had picked up earlier at the tourist information center near Waverly Station. There is a Heart of Scotland tour called “Rossyln Chapel, the Borders, and Hadrian’s Wall” that runs on Wednesdays.

Sounds like a plan.

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