A Travellerspoint blog

Stirling, the heart of Scotland

rain 51 °F

We wake up early for our day trip north into the central Highlands to Stirling, a city that has had vital importance to the history of Scotland. The morning is cloudy and cold; we grab layer after layer of quick-dry shirts, base layers, and Gor-Tex jackets and pants, and easily locate our platform at Waverley.

The train has only a small handful of people on board, and we relax into the hour-long ride north through farmland filled with grazing livestock and tilled soil. When we pull into the Stirling rail station, we walk through the store-lined streets following signs for Old Town, which is the historic center of the city. Along the way we stop for breakfast in a small cafe called Old Town Coffee House, where Matt orders a vegetable omelet and I order bacon, baked beans and a slice of toasted bread topped with egg. We sip cappuccinos as we eat, not quite ready to face the chilly day.

After breakfast, we walk uphill through a maze of vein-like streets and historic stone buildings, ending up at the Stirling Castle, a fortress on a rocky crag that was integral to both the Scottish and the English during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century.

It was said that “He who holds Stirling holds Scotland.” The English and Scottish fought viciously for control of the castle, and it actually changed hands a number of times throughout history. William Wallace fought here, as did other famous Scottish knights and warriors. Being here at the Stirling Castle is an opportunity to experience a cornerstone of Scottish culture and one of the most significant sites in the entire country.

We explore the castle for a few hours, walking through the beautiful flowering gardens, following the walkways along the ramparts, and exploring stone turrets, the royal bedchambers, and the courtyard where James V housed a lion, a symbol of royalty. The castle incorporates some educational exhibits as well, such as an explanation of the roles that various people played in the castle (woodcarvers, jesters, musicians, etc), an analysis of two skeletons that were found on the premises to examine how they died (one had its skull smashed with a blunt object, the other chopped with a sword on the forehead and shot with an arrow through the chest. At the time of excavation, the arrowhead was still lodged in the torso), and war strategies about how to achieve victory if you are the invader trying to capture the castle (starve the enemy out, use a trebuchet to blast parts of the walls down, etc) vs. the defender of the castle (keep rations low, promptly repair damaged walls, use cannon fire or boiling oil to incapacitate attackers).

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But what we find especially remarkable is the view of the Highland mountains just a short distance from the castle, shrouded partly in cloudy mist and alluringly mysterious. These hills are bare of trees and instead are rocky, grassy monoliths that I'm just dying to hike. I can only imagine how windblown those peaks must be; from here on the high ramparts of the castle, the wind is biting and oppressive. We can barely hear each other over the sound of the wind on our Gor-Tex hoods, and our fingers start to feel numb from the wet cold. I keep my fingers tucked into my sleeve but still, nothing feels dry and nothing feels warm.

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After a few hours we make our way back down from the castle hill into town, where we are famished and ready to warm up over lunch. We check out a few eateries and settle on a nicer restaurant called The Golden Lion, where I order a chicken Caesar salad with a cappuccino and Matt orders duck breast with a Magner's cider.

By the time we finish lunch, we only have about an hour until we have to catch our train out of town, and now that the rain is falling in cold, powerful sheets, we walk through the local mall and look at the different stores that are popular in the UK. I see a lot of clothing stores, with cozy sweaters and tweed jackets in the window displays, that I could see myself shopping at if I lived here in Scotland, but Matt and I come across an interesting Japanese brand called Superdry, which looks to be the trendy, Abercrombie-type brand of the UK. I personally wouldn't shop here because of how Abercrombie-like it is, but there are a lot of the young people grabbing graphic tees and zip-up jackets off the racks.

We hop on the 3:30 train and head south a short way to Falkirk, where we jump on a bus for about 15 minutes until we reach the Falkirk Wheel. The Falkirk Wheel is something that Matt had said interested him because it is “an engineering masterpiece.” In person, it is an impressive, vertically rotating metal lock that connects the lower section of the canal with the rest of the canal that extends from the top of a high hill. Apparently, these two canals were originally connected by the traditional type of filling-and-draining step locks that you would be accustomed to seeing, but the wheel was built to lift or lower boats via a more efficient circular boat lift.

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Today, the wheel is a tourist attraction and, from the looks of it, a day excursion for the family. On site, in addition to offering canal boat rides up on the wheel, there are some food stands (closed because of the cold weather), hiking paths, a playground and a series of interactive water features that all flow into one another and incorporate engineering principles. For example, at the very top of the hill is a pump to allow water into the maze of water scoops, spouts, valves and curving water channels that are designed to teach children to consider the progression of the water flow and how each section will impact the rest. If I close this valve here, it will redirect the water into that water feature, but if I spin this wheel, it also scoops water and dumps it into a channel leading over that way. We pump, spin, and turn the rain-covered metal until our hands are almost numb.

There are no boats being transported in the wheel while we are at the site, but eventually it does complete a slow 180 degree turn right before we leave to catch our bus back to the train station. The large metal tub that holds the boats in a large scoop of water rolls on wheels to remain upright as the wheel turns, finally settling at the opposite landing of the canal. Matt says that this is the only lock in the world of its kind, and I can agree that it is an engineering masterpiece if I've ever seen one.

We bid farewell to the Falkirk Wheel and jump on the bus toward to the rail station. Our bus driver asks if we are American and then exclaims, “Why on earth would you want to come to SCOTLAND? With this horrid weather?” He says that this year has been unusually wet, and all summer has pretty much been like today, that the sun of last week “WAS the summer.” When we arrive a couple blocks from our train station, he halts the bus and calls to us that this is our stop, giving us walking directions the rest of the way to the station. We pull our rain hoods up over our heads and easily find our way to our train platform.

I fall asleep on our way back to Waverley, my head slumped against the window. By the time we arrive back in Edinburgh, the sky is dark from the setting sun and the thick cloud cover, even though it is only 6:30. We walk back to the flat to drop off our hiking packs and change out of our waterproof gear, then make our way back to the Royal Mile to try out a new pub for dinner.

We end up at The Mitre, a pub just a few doors down from Whiski, where we listened to the live music last night. Upon doing a quick Google search, I read that the cellar of the basement is allegedly haunted by the ghost of a 17th century bishop. When I announce this to Matt, a server who is taking dinner orders at the table next to us turns around and says, “So the cellar is haunted? I always heard ghost rumors but didn't know it was in the cellar specifically.” She says to another pub employee who is sitting at a table nearby, “Remember when I told you that I thought I saw a ghost?” She finishes taking the table's orders and drops them off at the kitchen, then returns to our table to tell us the story.

She says that a month or two ago, she was changing a keg down in the cellar and from the corner of her eye saw a figure in a gray cloak run into the spirits room. She was stunned for a moment then walked into the spirits room after the apparition to see if anything or anyone was there, but the room was empty. She does explain that, if it was indeed a ghost, she didn't feel threatened by or afraid of it, and she believes that it is a good-natured presence.

Another employee nearby chimes in, saying that a ghost-hunting group recently came to the pub to do an investigation and videotape the place. Whether these stories are true or not, we will never know for sure. But Matt becomes caught up in the fact that the knife at his table setting is magnetic. He keeps lifting his fork and my utensils with it, saying that the ghost must be lifting the silverware. He even calls the “ghost waitress,” as I call her, to our table to see. She is skeptical and asks if she can try, wondering if he is pulling a trick.

We order a good pub dinner of Aspall's cider, a fillet with peppercorn sauce for Matt and a burger with smoked back bacon and Stilton for me. After dinner Matt follows up with a Glenmorangie Port whisky, keeping up his after-dinner whisky tasting tradition. We want to jump from pub to pub along the Royal Mile, getting drinks at the ones that we have not been to yet, but it is raining again and the wind is painfully cold. I'm shivering as soon as we step out into the rain so we head back to the flat instead to relax and take hot showers.

There really isn't a plan for tomorrow. I think we will probably shop along the Royal Mile together (believe it or not, Matt and I have not yet done that together, even though it seems like I have been in each of those shops a handful of times). With another Scotland weather forecast in store, I'm sure there will be several cappuccinos throughout the day as well!

Posted by GoWander 15:44 Archived in Scotland

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