09.26.2012 - 09.26.2012 56 °F
We wake up at 7 a.m. and get ready for a day trip two hours north to Stonehaven, a small seaside town on the North Sea. But with the worst September storm to hit Great Britain in three decades having passed through just yesterday, Stonehaven was barraged by 100 mph winds, heavy rain and waves that crashed over the breakwater and flooded the streets along the coast. In fact, the waves were so heavy in the harbor itself that a boat sank and others were turtled. We wonder if spending two hours on a train to get to Stonehaven would just mean a long train ride to discover that nothing is open. At the last minute, we decide to take a chance and go ahead with the trip, figuring that if nothing is open, we will just come back.
The ride up north takes us through many coastal towns, and surprisingly the weather is starting to clear. There are brief periods of rain, but most the two hours are sunny, with blue skies making an appearance for the first time all week. Our spirits are lifted and we are hopeful that the day trip will not be a wash after all.
By the time we reach Stonehaven, however, the rain is falling in a downpour that drenches the streets; we put on our rain gear and our waterproof pack covers and walk the mile into downtown Stonehaven. Many of the roads near the beach are covered in driftwood and debris, left over from the storms of the previous day. I remember seeing news footage of sea foam completely covering streets, the fronts of houses and cars. Even a small dog was caught on camera hopping through the foam as if it were deep snow.
We don't stay in the town for too long and instead make our way to the notoriously beautiful Dunnottar Castle. We hike up a narrow street lined with fields and grazing cows just south of downtown Stonehaven, and miraculously, the skies clear as we hike. The rain stops about halfway to the castle, and I say a little thank you to the fickle, unpredictable Scottish weather for giving us a break this time.
As we approach Dunnottar Castle, we are amazed by its imposing stature on a high seaside bluff, surrounded by crashing waves save for a paper-thin rocky trail connecting the bluff to the mainland. Dunnottar Castle dates back to the 5th century and has been captured by Vikings, set fire to by William Wallace (he burned the chapel to the ground when English soldiers were hiding inside), and had various Scottish royalty visit and stay within its walls.
The rich, almost unfathomable history of this place is sensed from the moment you lay eyes on it. The ruins of the castle lay spread out across the bluff, a series of winding stone staircases, chapel walls, homes and stables (all of which without roofs) that, considering their age, are in impressive condition. Well-preserved bread ovens are covered in a thin layer of green moss. What we guess to be an ancient stone sink stands against the wall. One wall of a stone chapel stands as it did back when it was built, arched with two Gothic-style openings for windows.
We wander through the plush grass between and through the various buildings, and explore the various paths along the edge of the bluff where we can see the waves pounding on the beaches and rocks below. At times I just stand and stare out at the view, stunned silent and almost brought to tears by the surprisingly blue-and-turquoise sea and the way the sun shines across the waves and the grasses.
There are two aspects of the castle that make it an absolutely wonderful place to visit. First, it is not overrun with tourists. Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle both had crowds of people walking every which way, and you couldn't take a picture without someone ending up on the background. At Dunnottar, there are some visitors, but not many (probably because of the 2 and a half mile walk to get here, plus how far up the coast it is). During our time within the castle walls we see at most 10 people total, but most the time we feel as if we are the only people in the entire area.
The second reason why we love Dunnottar is that visitors are able to freely explore and touch pretty much everything. We climb a dark spiral staircase up three floors in what was probably a large home or even palace for royalty, when in other castles visitors would have been confined to the first floor. Only a few sets of stairs in the entire castle are blocked from visitors because they are too dangerous, but what we love is that we feel as if we are the first to discover the castle ruins. It is there for the taking, beautiful in its simplicity—not prettied up by exhibits or imitation period pieces.
Never before have I been so overcome by a place and captivated by its beauty. When we have seen all there is to see in the castle, we hike the path back to the mainland and walk to the adjacent grassy bluff that overlooks Dunnottar and the surrounding beaches. We take a few photos of this dramatic landscape and sit on the edge for awhile, watching the waves and the regal silence of the stone ruins. We see a couple of seals far below us in the surf, their heads popping up through the briny wash before, with a flip of their fins, curling back beneath the surface. The sun glints off the water and casts the ruins in a warm glow. When it is time to leave the castle and head back to town, I am reluctant to leave and periodically look back over my shoulder.
The walk back into town feels long, especially because it is almost 2 and we haven't eaten since early this morning. We walk immediately to the historic Stonehaven harbor to see the boats and the waterfront. The harbor, lined with B&Bs and pubs, is filled with boats and gear such as fishing buoys and old-fashioned lobster traps. We walk on the pier in the center of the harbor and see a pile of what used to be a small boat that was cracked to pieces, probably during the storm. But besides this, there is no evidence of the storm from the day before.
We head back into the center of town and eat a quick lunch at a cafe before returning to the rail station. Matt sleeps most of the way back and I attempt to read my book but am constantly distracted by the scenery. We pull into Waverley at 6:30 and return to the apartment to drop off our gear and change before dinner. When we walk in, we see that the main hall light is on, even though we both remember that I had turned it off. We check to make sure that nothing was stolen and also notice that the apartment hasn't been cleaned, so it wasn't a cleaning person who came in. I announce to Matt that there is only one logical explanation: “Ghosts.” He doesn't really argue; he says that its possible we just forgot to turn it off, but acknowledges with a perplexed look that he remembers I turned the light switch off as we were heading out the door.
As we are leaving for dinner, we deliberately switch the light off and I say to the darkened apartment, “Please leave our lights off. We are trying to save on electricity.” Matt gives a little chuckle and shakes his head.
We walk down the Royal Mile to hit a pub that we have not yet been to, the World's End. The pub got its name because it is located right where the old city walls were, and part of the walls actually form the foundation. And for the citizens of Edinburgh who always remained within the confines of the city, the city walls would have been, in a sense, “the world's end.”
I order fish and chips—haddock breaded in a beer and pepper batter, with chunky chips and peas—and Matt has a ribeye steak with chips, peas and mushrooms. We top it off with two Strongbow ciders and, from our corner of the bar, enjoy the pub scene unfold before us. After dinner we head to Whiski for a sticky toffee pudding for me and an Irish coffee for Matt. We finish the night with some whisky—I order a Edradour and Matt has a Kilchoman Machir Bay. We want to stay at Whiski to hear their live music but I start to crash after such a busy day, so we walk back to the apartment to relax for the evening.
Tomorrow is our last day here in Scotland. We don't really have any plans, other than the various odds and ends that we wanted to see, do or buy here. Tonight I hope I will have sweet dreams of the most beautiful place I've ever seen, high above the rocky Scottish shore.