m o n d a y m a y 1 7 1 9 9 9
Up at 5:-something, wide awake. I’m definitely not a morning person. We ate Pop Tarts in bed and tried to sleep some more, to get on the schedule here. Nope. Mark was in the bathtub by 6:00. We don’t have a shower, really, just a bathtub, very small, and a handheld shower thingy. The wall over the bathtub made it difficult to use, but the small, round bathroom is charming. Mark used most of the hot water, since I ran out! The towel warmer was nice, though, with no heat in the bathroom. I’m pretty sure that the entire house is heated with a few radiators and space heaters. I don’t think that many of the old houses here have central heat of any kind. You only heat the room that you are in, I suppose, and don’t bother heating unused rooms elsewhere in the house if you don’t have to. Sort of primitive ‘zone heat’. Our room doesn’t have any heat except the space heater, as far as I can tell. Not that we minded much: a featherbed and down duvet kept us toasty.
I turned on the space heater. It’s really strange — every outlet has a switch on it that turns it on. I couldn’t figure out why the heater wouldn’t turn on the first time, until I traced it back to the outlet and found the little on/off switch. I wonder why? The electrical system was added long after the house was built..maybe it’s a safety issue? At any rate, I stood over the space heater for about 10 minutes and just sort of “warmed”.
Breakfast isn’t until 8:30, so we just hung out before heading downstairs. One of the first things I noticed about breakfast is that Scottish bacon is odd — it’s slabs or circles instead of strips, and is more like a cross between our bacon and Canadian bacon than the stuff we normally eat. It tastes like ours, though, albeit a bit saltier. I ate mine and Mark’s. Also, there was something called Olivio on the table, it’s a margarine-like spread made from olive oil. We had fun examining the strange breakfast stuff. Just what is Wheetabix? Weirdest stuff. I forgot to ask for my egg scrambled, and so got fried everything. Ah, well. Our first experience with a Scottish Breakfast was deemed a success.
So, stuffed and a little overgreased, we set out to Crichton Castle . As usual, we missed the turn, had to U-turn in the middle of the street, and go back to the little entrance road. We’re doing pretty well on the driving. Mark careens and swerves, I scream. I think it works ok. Of course, the car should have a grab bar on the dash for the passenger. Frankly, it’s a bit scary. I absolutely hate the roundabouts — nothing is labelled, everyone just merges into traffic at breakneck speed. At least we haven’t accidentally turned right onto one yet.
The road to Crichton is a little one-laner. You have to walk up a long drive to the castle itself, and it’s a pretty spectacular view. The whole thing is quite enchanting. It’s a great ruin — the inside wall is covered with patterned blocks (it looks like the business end of a meat mallet), supposedly in the Italian renaissance style. For our first exposure to ruins, I was pretty impressed.
We joined Historic Scotland here, for £39 a year (currently £49.50/adult £86.50 for two, in 2016) since it will certainly pay for itself over a few visits to ruins at £2 – 4 a pop. A very nice man was manning the castle shop. We took plenty of pictures of the halls and the outside. While I walked around the castle (with a pretty scary drop off to the back!) Mark wandered off over the hill to what is apparently the quarry where all the stone used in the castle was cut. He tried going down the back to get a picture, but couldn’t make it. Of course, on the way back down to the castle, I tripped and went arse-over-teakettle into a gorse bush. I promptly got spots all over my arms and hands. They itch unbelievably! I still had blotches hours later, and if I actually succumbed and scratched them, it was murder.
Mark, being ever kind and helpful, wanted to take pictures; the camera wouldn’t cooperate. He’s lucky.
We headed back to see if Oxenfoord Castle, marked with a little placard by the roadside, was public — it’s not — and then off to Hailes Castle through Haddington (of course, just about everywhere we went today sent us through Haddington). Since we’d been through Haddington more than once, we decided to stop and take a look around.
We wandered around St. Mary Kirk and Nun’s bridge, and then up the road for lunch. The main street of Haddington is lined with shops, pubs, and little cafes, and winds through the center of town. We popped into the first pub we found for lunch and ordered steak and chips. Pretty good, and cheap, and with a half-pint of 80 shilling. Pubs in the UK are carefully monitored, and beers and wines (or maybe all alcoholic beverages) can only be served in “approved” glasses, which are all marked with the appropriate volume, to assure that all pubs are serving and charging for the same drink. I have to remember to pick up a set of beer glasses before we go home. There were only a few other people in the pub for lunch, although quite a few people popped in for a quick half-pint.
Once again well-greased (everything is fried, I think) we set off towards North Berwick. We found Nunraw Abbey by accident — it’s on a one way road, way back, and you have to ignore a couple of ‘private road’ signs to get there. It’s a working monastery, and it is sort of public (they often have an open tea in the afternoon for anyone who shows up), but it didn’t look open or even that inviting. One of the groundskeepers, Paul Macleod, came over to see what we were doing after he heard our obviously American voices and decided we sounded like his girlfriend, who is in Colorado. What a nice guy. He had just been in Denver in March, and started giving us tips on where to go in Scotland — and eventually we had the map out on the car looking at possible sites and were writing down ferry schedules and tips. Oh, Scots is a strange accent to have a stutter in. He told us to go to Fionnphort (finn-a-fort) and to a pub called Keel Row — even gave us a T-shirt and some photos of his last visit up there to show them. When we said we’d be heading up towards Aberdeen to see the castle trail, he told us that as far as he was concerned, it was ‘a waste of space’. Go west instead, see Skye and Iona, the burial place of kings, and have a £15 shot of Macallans at The Stein. We traded phone numbers, just in case he ever came back to Colorado, and headed off again.
Of course (is this sounding familiar yet?) we took a wrong turn heading out and it left us on a one lane, 2-way road — you know, a LOT of the roads here are like that. Barely wide enough for a single car, yet meant for two way traffic with ‘passing places’ where you’re supposed to pull over and let the other car go by.
Nearly every country road has stone walls beside it, and most of the pastures and farm fields are lined with stone walls three or four feet high. I’ve never seen so many. I suppose it’s the result of hundreds and hundreds of years of picking rocks up out of pasture and farmland. Nearly every road, no matter how rude, is lined with a 4′ tall capped wall of carefully stacked stone. In some cases, the wall butts right up against the road! So, on these one lane roads, you’re hemmed in on both sides. How on earth would people manage in a full size car? I can just imagine someone in a giant SUV like at home trying to navigate these roads — they’d rip the mirrors off. It’s hard enough in the little Golf, with shrubbery rubbing against the sides of the car.
So, we end up on this winding, twisting road (which, by the way, is utterly STRAIGHT on the map) dodging sheep and ‘Fording Places’. No guardrails, no curb, (or, as it’s called here, kerb) hurtling along at ludicrous speed – I’m going to recommend that anyone contemplating driving in Scotland get a copy of the video game ‘Road Racer’ (or maybe Pod Racer?) and practice at top speed. Go, speed racer, go, speed racer!
The sheep are all technicolor – colored heads for who knows what and colored butts from the rams. Bizarre. It’s lambing season, and I am utterly amazed at the number of sheep.
We found a strange, terraced 400 BC hill fort called White Castle on one of the little sheep roads. It if hadn’t have been marked on the map, neither of us would have noticed anything different about this gently sloping hill. We stopped in the middle of the road (we haven’t seen a car for the last hour or so, so I doubt we’re going to be blocking anyone), and crossed the stile to wander up the three slopes and dry moats to the top. Nothing is left of anything except the hill itself, although the plaque notes that huts and other foundations were found during archeological digs on the site. Supposedly, there are post holes and fire pits still visible, but we didn’t see anything. The ground felt weird – all squishy and spongy, like walking on marshmallows. I kept waiting to sink in to the mossy ground up to my ankles. It was a most disconcerting sensation.
We did finally find Hailes Castle –the signpost is the size of an index card and on a road that looks like a narrow alley–and parked nearby to walk up to the castle. Hailes is quite different from Crichton. Much smaller and with a better ‘living’ layout preserved. Most of the castle is gone – but you can see the faint rise where the wall was surrounding the inner court, and the thick walls that made up the hall. There is a prison in one wall, it is that thick. I never realized just how big most castles are. All those lovely pictures just don’t give you a proper sense of scale.
Past Hailes, we tried for Tantallon (tn-TAL-on). It was here that we found the most amazing road. Again, the map has it straight as an arrow, two lanes wide. (I’m beginning to think that roads in Scotland can either be straight or level. Never both.) First, a sign says “Restricted Bridge 9′”. Then the stone walls beside the road get taller and taller, until they are at least 9′ tall, and getting higher. The road, which now fills the entire space between the stone barricades, is maybe 8′ wide. Then, it starts to WIND. Unbelievable! It probably turned 90° twice in 200 yards…imagine hairpin turns in a stone tube. The road finally ended in the 9′ arched underpass — mind you , 9′ at the height of the arch – luckily most cars are kind of rounded!
We went through this bridge at a crawl – white knuckled and convinced we were going to get squished by a truck – and just stared at each other. “We have to get a picture of this!” Mark announced. We couldn’t figure out how. I suggested getting out of the car and walking back, but Mark vetoed this one on the grounds that I’d get hit by a speeding car and killed. Finally, we turned the car around, opened the sunroof, and I stood in the opening with the camera. One last check for oncoming traffic, and we raced back through the tunnel, stopped, and I took pictures. Not enough. We went back through the other way, laughing hysterically. Luckily for us, no one else was on the road!
We didn’t actually get lost on the way to Tantallon (which I still mispronounce (it’s tn-TAL-on, not TAN-ta-lon), even after a patient lesson by the nice Historic Scotland gentleman). That’s new. We did get there about 5:30, though. They close the site to new visitors around 6:15, so we didn’t see much, but we decided to come back the next morning. One of the advantages of joining Historic Scotland is free admission to all the sites. We bailed only after buying some shortbread cookies and postcards. On the way back up the coast, I developed the world’s worst headache and we just drove back to the Gilston Lodge and were in bed by 8:00 or so. We started out just napping, but didn’t wake until 1am, when we finally got undressed. Jet lag sucks.