The history of Scotland: castles and portraits

posted in: Scotland 2023 | 0

Yesterday was my thirtieth day in Scotland and my third day in Edinburgh. Today was my fourth day in Edinburgh, but I spent the entire day (except for a fabulous dinner I’m just back from) in Stirling visiting Stirling Castle.

The photos will do justice to my last two days’ sightseeing better than anything I write here. And I’m getting a little better at including some detailed captions with my photos, so the albums kind of serve as a supplement to the blog.


The tour that wasn’t

Here are my photos from Edinburgh Day 3.

I had booked a tour called Secrets of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile for yesterday, starting at 10am. This tour had an option to add on a visit to Edinburgh Castle, and I had booked that as well.

I got to the meeting point, and was waiting with a few other people, and at 9:55 the guide hadn’t yet arrived. Finally, right at 10:00 someone from Mercat Tours showed up to tell us that the guide had called in sick and the tour was canceled.

He gave us the option to switch to a different tour, rebook for a different day, or get a refund. The problem for me and a lot of the other people is that we had other activities booked on other days. I asked the fellow if we could still visit the castle with the reservation from the tour. He said no. 

Mercat Tours is one of the largest and most popular companies doing tours in Edinburgh, so I asked him why they don’t have a backup guide on call. He had no answer except he would share my concerns back at the office. He was apologetic, but that didn’t help.

Anyway, after he processed my refund, I looked around. The Tourist Information office was right across the street. So I went in and chatted with a very helpful woman. I told her what happened and asked her if there were any slots left to visit the castle. She got on her computer and said she could get me in at 2pm. Yay! She booked me the ticket and I was all set.

And this actually turned out great in the end, because I frankly was okay not spending the morning walking around the Royal Mile. It’s so crowded, and it’s really mostly a tourist shop mall. It’s a very pretty mall, but still mostly crammed with souvenir shops selling tartan wool stuff and shortbread.

Whatever secrets Mercat knows will remain secrets to me.

This gave me time to do some other things I wanted to do:

St. Giles Cathedral

St. Giles Cathedral, which is actually right there on the Royal Mile, dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. The facade was redone in Victorian neo-Gothic, except for the ornate steeple that resembles a crown, which was added in 1495. The stained glass was removed during the Protestant Reformation, and the current stained glass is from the 19th century and later. But otherwise, the interior is largely original, and very impressive. 

Do click the link and visit the website to learn more about St. Giles. It’s pretty fascinating and there are some good descriptions.

Georgian House

You may remember from my previous post that when I went to Gladstone’s Land I learned about life in the Old Town. The Georgian House shows the story of life in the New Town. Together the two venues provided an excellent understanding of how people lived in Edinburgh in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The docents at the Georgian House were filled with detailed facts about the architecture, the furnishings, and the way people lived. I spent quite a while there.

This was designed to look like one big building, to give the neighborhood an upscale, refined appearance. But you can see the separate doors. Each was a separate house. These were fine middle-class homes, but not meant for very wealthy families. They weren’t manor homes or estates or palaces. The Georgian House is at the far left, just beyond where the vehicles are parked. Today most of these have been converted for other uses: offices or smaller apartments.

I had time for lunch before my 2pm appointment at the castle. It was an absolutely perfect day, so I had a little picnic in Princes Street Gardens, just below the castle.

By the way, the photo at the top is a “floral clock” under construction in the Princes Street Gardens. It’s been installed there every May since 1903, and will eventually have an actually working clock in the middle of the circular section.

After lunch I walked up to the castle entrance. And wow! It was mobbed with people waiting to go in. There was a sign indicating that it was fully booked for today. So I guess I was lucky to get an entry slot.

With fifteen minutes before 2:00, I decided to visit the Writers’ Museum, a small museum nearby. A small, free museum. A small, free, crowded museum.… I didn’t stay long. It was mostly “stuff.”

Edinburgh Castle

You can see all my photos in the album. I’ll just say this was a bit underwhelming for me. Maybe it was the crowds. But maybe it’s just not that interesting of a place. It’s certainly impressive. Maybe even more impressive from the outside, where you see it from almost all over the city, sitting high up and surrounded by sheer cliffs. And the views from the castle are really nice, except for one thing: it’s the one place in Edinburgh where the views don’t include the castle.

I only stayed for an hour.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

From there I headed to this fine museum. There were some very good portraits, but more interesting was seeing Scotland’s history told through pictures of its famous people, starting with Mary, Queen of Scots. I stayed there until it closed at 5:00.


Stirling Castle

I went to Stirling. It’s just under an hour by train from Edinburgh.

I loved Stirling Castle. I’m not exactly sure what made it feel so much more alive than Edinburgh Castle. Maybe its because more of Scotland’s history seems to have been written there. It’s where Scottish kings lived. It’s where Mary, Queen of Scots, was raised until the age of 5. Battles that changed the course of history took place at or near the castle.

Thinking about it, I guess it’s the presence of the Royal Palace that makes Stirling Castle so interesting. Seeing it not just as a fortification, but as a home, made its stories more interesting.

This might have been my favorite historical site of this entire trip.

Here are my photos from Stirling.

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