You won’t be surprised to discover we’re a bit tired in the morning having been up half the night journaling during Australian business hours.
Breakfast is a leisurely affair and continental in style. We chat over pastries and fresh berries. We’re in no rush. Inevitably talk turns to what we’ve got planned for today. There’s only one thing pencilled in – Edinburgh Castle. I haven’t booked tickets because we’ve joined Historic Scotland and have unlimited entry to their properties. I’m assuming we just rock up and go in. Our host suggests this might be a tad optimistic and nothing should be assumed. He seems to think we really should have pre-booked our entry to avoid lengthy queues. We’ve decided to just hop on the Majestic Bus and hop off as close to the castle as we can, walk up and find out. If it’s a total shit-fight we can book a spot for Friday.
We’re very tardy getting out and about. We wander over to the Shore. Our walking route takes us through Maritime Lane and Broad Wynd and we wait near Restaurant Martin Wishart for the bus to come. Hubby throws scorn on the idea of picking up a picnic lunch from Mimi’s Bakehouse while we wait thereby avoiding high prices at the castle. Indeed he’s keen to pay high prices at the castle. “The money goes to upkeep the castle doesn’t it?” He says, laying his trump card flat on the table. The day is dry so far but overcast and the prediction is a sixty something percent chance of rain. Indeed there’s fine light sprinkling of rain as we sit outside on the bus but it’s not enough to drive us inside. It’s not particularly cold today, just a bit damp.
It’s a slow creep up the Royal Mile and I suspect it would be a good deal quicker to walk it if we had more robust feet. I make a conscious effort to chill out and just enjoy the moment. My goodness there is a lot of merchants selling Cashmere in this city.
The sight of the National Museum of Scotland and Greyfriar’s Bobby causes a quick change of plan. We will get off here and find our way to the Castle from the Museum, this will stand us in good stead for Saturday when we’re going to the Tattoo. It’s absolutely imperative that we do not get lost on Saturday evening and if we consume today in aimless wandering it’s no biggie, we can do the Castle on Friday. I have studied the map of this part of Edinburgh at some length over the last year and I set out confident that I know where we need to be. Follow me.
He should know better really. It’s no time at all before we are lost. Well, not lost in the sense of having no idea where we are, we’re standing in front of a map that tells us “You are here” and it’s clearly absolutely correct, but I wasn’t expecting to be facing Middle Meadow Walk. Ah.
Hemisphere disorientation is belatedly asserting itself. It’s an unmistakable symptom, at critical junctions I’ve turned in precisely the opposite direction of what is required. We head back the way we have come, in my case feeling bad because I’ve caused un-necessary footsteps for Hubby. Right, this time we successfully make the turn down Candlemaker Row, pass the Oz pub and onto the Grassmarket where a pretty good band is playing to an appreciative crowd. We turn up West Bow and my eyes light up. Look! Theres Oink. Let’s have that for lunch. Agreed. We wander in and pay cash – they don’t take cards. For me an “Oink” with sage and onion stuffing and apple sauce on wholemeal. For Hubby an oink with sage and onion stuffing and cheese and chili on white. A Coke, A water. Done. We eat as we walk. It’s OK. We’re not hungry now and that’s good.
We make it successfully through upper bow to the junction of Castlehill and Lawnmarket. We turn. We walk enjoying the scenes and atmosphere. Now, we take our bearings again. Hmm. That there is unmistakably St Giles Cathedral. It has a big sign saying so. Right. Lots of people hanging out here. There’s stalls and a performance space. Milling around in the crowds was something we wanted to do. …Saturday is looking like a debacle in waiting. I save face by deciding to explore St Giles now rather than later. God knows if we’ll actually be able to find it when we mean to on Thursday. We head in. There’s lots of people in here too. There’s a piano recital in progress playing dark and powerful chords. We move among the sightseers and photographers composing shots through long lenses. They show no sign of a having a photo permit. It’s a beautiful cathedral and quite different to those we’ve visited previously in England. Indeed Hubby comments that it’s not really a cathedral at all. I’m shocked at his assessment at first but my belated Googling agrees with him. It’s really a church that has been progressively extended over many centuries. The stained glass windows are abundant and magnificent and speak with a more coherent voice of colour and style than that in most other cathedrals we’ve visited. Wanting to know more I’ve done a little research online and find that the windows were originally clear and were progressively added from the 19th century until by the mid 20th century almost all windows told stories from the bible as an aid to teaching – let’s just be clear this isn’t idolatry...
The other feature that I completely adore is the chandeliers. They are totally brilliant. They look fairly modern, but in assuming such I have to say that this is one of the most fantastic things about these iconic places of worship. They’re not just museum pieces. Despite their heritage value their congregations continue to make their mark and if I get a vote, whoever, in whatever age, gave the green light to these ageless chandeliers and the abundant stained glass deserves a completely overwhelming and lengthy standing ovation.
I explore the various aisles framing potential photo shots with limited success as I look for the cathedral shop to pay for my photo permit. It is not an easy cathedral to capture, especially with the piano recital in progress. Hubby finds a seat and rests his feet and eventually I find some angles that capture elements I want and importantly, I notice a bank of chandeliers that haven’t go the downlights operating, making photographing their detail easier.
OK. I’m done. Time we made a renewed effort to find the Castle. We decide to let Dr Google find our way. Oh yeah, we’re quick we are. Hubby has better reception on his phone and he takes the lead. We pass a piper and accompanying drum. Magnificent. I pull out my coin purse.
We walk on. We’re back at the hub… good. Hubby says, “Up this way” and we’re heading uphill. Makes sense really. A creative has composed a gorgeous scene down a dark passageway at Boswell’s Court. We press on.
Quite a lot of people are heading downhill, the weather is closing in and it’s raining lightly now. We’ve swapped cameras and are now using the waterproof one that we bought especially for capturing Scotland – rain, do your worst! We’re ready.
I make an enquiry of one of the security guards manning a barrier at the entrance to the arena and he explains where we need to go for castle entrance. We emerge into the scene of the Tattoo performances and finally I get my pinch me moment. I’ve enjoyed the Tattoo since I was very small. It is the main thing that has dictated the timing of this visit. “Where will we be sitting?” asks Hubby “Up there in section 8”. I point. Over there on the side are the other seats we were considering. We linger and snap photos and then head on.
We go to the information desk as bidden to claim our member entry tickets. After our aimless exploration of the Tower of London, this time I ask for a map! Even in this outer precinct the castle is extremely impressive for the immaculate maintenance of the stonework and the coherence of its architectural voice. There’s no queues to speak of for anyone and there’s zero queue for members. We flash our tickets and membership cards and walk through the castle gates making a bee line to the Argyle Battery to admire the views across the New Town and out over the Firth.
There’s a tour leaving in about 25 minutes. We mill about checking out Mons Meg and generally enjoying the atmosphere.
Reluctantly exposing our map to the rain we decide to explore up the Lang Stairs, wander past the Forewall Battery and line up to see The Honours of Scotland. Hubby cautions the timing but I figure there’ll be another tour. We need to see this exhibition one way or another. The queue sedately paces its way along narrow exhibition corridors in dim lighting. The walls are painted in what I think of as medieval style with courtiers and kings and panels of historical information explaining the history of Scottish Kings and Queens, coronation ritual through time and the crown jewels. Sacred medieval music accompanies our journey. The atmosphere that is created makes me feel like a participant in and ancient coronation ritual among the nobles illustrated around me who are clearly moving in the same direction bearing gifts on velvet cushions. I feel quite affected by it. The history provided is fascinating and I learn a lot. I had no idea that Charles II was crowned by the Scot’s in defiance of Cromwell following the regicide of Charles I a couple of years previously. He made his way, kitted out in his regalia from the Castle, down the Royal Mile to the Abbey. Later he ordered that the Honours should be taken to Dunnottar Castle and hidden so that Cromwell could not destroy them as he had the English Crown Jewels. Hubby comments that the more you learn about Oliver Cromwell the more you hate him. Agreed! We follow the path of the jewels through their “rediscovery” by Sir Walter Scott – well to be fair they were not actually lost, just no-one had checked they were still there for a hundred years or so after they’d been packed away in a chest after the Act of Union. Perhaps most surprising of all, or not surprising when you think about it, even as late as 1941 the Honours of Scotland were hidden by burial to protect them from a possible German invasion. I think it is this that really drives home to me that history is real and perhaps less has changed than we sometimes imagine. The tremendous symbolism and superstitious devotion associated with the items in this exhibition are I sense, completely unabated in this modern age of reason. The small room in which the Honours are displayed is wood panelled and around the room are hung small badges of arms of the various Scottish monarchs. It’s a reverent space. This exhibition has been a very thought provoking experience.
In terms of inspirational design the Honours of Scotland are worthy of their stature. The Sword of State in particular is absolutely magnificent, notwithstanding that the handle and cross guards vaguely resemble female reproductive organs… yeah… well, I’m sorry but they do. I will not relate all the fascinating history of the items on display and the atmospheric bubble has been well and truly popped now in any case, hasn’t it.
We move on to the Royal Apartments and the birth chamber of James VI of Scotland / I of England. In my pensive mood I ponder what the experience must have been like for the young Scottish Queen who would of course have been very much aware of the significance of the event and real or potential enemies her son would have from the moment of his birth. In an age when death stalked the young, a royal prince lived in deadly peril, as had Mary every day of her life, necessitating her removal to France for her protection as she grew up. It is understandable that Monarchs placed considerable reliance on spiritual faith, a support for their hope of survival sometimes against the odds. Perhaps survival and ambition were to a large degree inseparable.
Hubby’s been waiting outside and our next priority is the Scottish National War Memorial. No photos allowed. I’ve largely been hollowed out by war remembrance across my life finally putting some ghosts to bed as I toured the battlefields of the Great War back in 2012. I spend some time contemplating each memorial and reading through the battle honours. These are perhaps in an even more real sense, the honours of Scotland. The pride and the shame of humanity. The paradox that is ever present in war remembrance.
I am struck as I ponder each formation’s proud listing of battle honours, of the number of battles where Australians and Scots fought together. Our blood lies mingled in the soils of some of our shared sacred places around the world. As it does with the blood of our former enemies. Perhaps there are no enemies in death. I focus my attention to consider the meaning behind the words: Ypres; Pozieres; Villers Bretonneux, Cambrai, Arras, tears stream silently down my face. I am glad I have visited some of the cemeteries where these proud Scots are interred, or have their names inscribed among the tens upon tens of thousands of missing.
The Scottish National War Memorial was opened in 1927, similar timing to the major Australian Memorials. It’s astonishing how seamlessly they have integrated such a large new building into the castle grounds. I wander back in and ask a question of the staff about this but realise it’s a stupid question because the memorial is clearly purpose built, but I enquire anyway just couch the question a little differently. Apparently the site was previously a barracks and even earlier a church sat where the memorial now stands. My guide points out the animal memorials included. He is clearly very proud that no-one is forgotten here, not even the mice in the tunnels where the sappers were digging who, along with caged birds, gave the first alert to bad air underground.
We can’t leave this precinct without checking out the Great Hall. It’s brilliant and we catch the last presentation of the wearing of the old style kilt by a rather funny Scottish man with a brilliant broad brogue. I heard recently that younger generations now coming through are losing their strong brogue… NOOOOOOOO. Change your schooling, restructure your lives, preserve your accent it’s fantastic… but I digress.. We check out the colours from Waterloo before they are packed away forever due to their fragility. We learn of Ensign Ewart famously illustrated in the enormous painting high on the walls of his personal triumph at the Battle of Waterloo. Again I enquire and learn that he spent the rest of his life speaking at dinner engagements about the events pictured therein and he was actually a Sargeant but had to be promoted to allow him to carry the flag he’d captured!
We’re pretty footsore now but before we go I just want to do a bit of a reccie of what we haven’t seen today so I can decide if we need to come back later in the week. Hubby heads for a café seat and a coffee but they’re closing up so he catches up with me in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Regimental Museum. There’s lots of interesting information here, but we’re both very tired and it deserves better attention than we can give it today. I have snapped a couple of reminders and some panels to read later. We make our way to the castle gates via a quick visit to David’s Tower and possibly the worst ventilated toilets I’ve ever come across. Wow. That’d be a toilet stop it’s worth planning to avoid if you can. Our departure continues in slow motion as we are waylaid by quick looks at various gift shops. Hubby tries some Haggis and Cracked Pepper chips. Me the Crispy Bacon version as we pick up a few minor souvenir purchases. I’m in the market for a new knitting bag and I see some Harris Tweed bags that could be considered for the purpose.
I suggest we just get a cab home to save Hubby’s foot but he’s keen to head back to the Museum to time it and also to make sure we really know the way. It’s embarrassing how simple the route between the two actually is. How the hell did we manage to get lost. Back at the Museum we see a couple of No 35 buses travel by and we wait at the stop for the next ones to come through, alighting in due course on the Shore and adjourning to our bed for a nap before dinner.
Our reservation is for 7.30 at Kitchin in Commercial Quays, just a 5 minute walk away. I surrender my coat, Hubby has just walked over in his shirt. I booked quite a long while ago and we have, I think, possibly the best table in the house. Our seats are angled to provide a birds eye view of the activity in the kitchen and the man himself is right there, the conductor of a Scottish produce symphony.
We start with the drinks menu, Hubby opts for Bitter and Twisted beer and I indulge in a mocktail called Apple and Raspberry. We are brought some crispy wafer sticks with a blue cheese dip to munch on and we do this as we contemplate the menus.
Then the tricky pastime of choosing between the various meal options. We end up going with the a la carte. I order Hand dived Orkney Scallops baked in the shell served with a white wine, vermouth and herb sauce. Hubby opts for crispy veal sweetbreads and ox tongue from Inverurie served with potato risotto, peas and Perthshire girolles (which are the cutest little fungus you’re ever likely to meet).
For mains I offer Hubby no choice. He’s having the grouse. No arguments. I’ll have the duck. “But… I was going to get the duck” he says. If there’s duck on the menu he almost always gets it and he almost always wins by doing so. I am undeterred. “The grouse is what I’ve brought you here for.. didn’t you get the memo?” He bows to my demands. I have his interests at heart. He loves trying new varieties of birds to eat. J I trust this venue to ensure that our food is produced sustainably.
Next food is an amuse bouche of consommé served in a small cup sitting in a recessed plate. Tomato and basil featured there along with something else we can’t remember or didn’t catch. The staff speak fairly quietly and with the ambient noise and their accent it is sometimes hard to get all the detail. Then some bread which is a little loaf, crusty and warm with a little pat of Scottish butter. Delicious.
Well, I have to say my choice of starter simply blew Hubby out of the water. Not even a burning hull left floating there. My Orkney scallops have come in an enormous plate sized shell that has been sealed with pastry. The waiter breaks the seal and removes the top shell explaining that I should pick the pastry from the shell and eat it. Excellent says I. It’s good to have permission. You don’t need to invite me to do that twice! Talk about a taste sensation. Absolutely the standout course of my meal for sure. Hubby enjoys his veal sweetbreads also, but I think he wishes he too had the Orkney Scallops. Man they were delicious and I have just enough bread left to scratch up the dregs of the sauce. Soooo goooood.
Mains are described as follows: Mine: Breast of Loomswood Farm duck served with a carrot tatin, leg confit and an orange sauce. Hubby’s: First of the season grouse from the Borders served with Perthshire girolles, wild lingonberries and bread sauce.
I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that Hubby won that round. He’s really enjoyed his grouse and its accompaniments. He’s glad he got that and not the duck. I enjoyed the duck. I’m always worried that duck won’t be cooked enough for my liking but there was no problem there. The confit was crispy and delicious. The carrot tatin was very rich and quite salty, I think that could have been toned down a bit actually, but yeah a delicious meal all the same.
We watch the theatre of the kitchen as we eat. Whilst busy and I’m sure they must go home exhausted, there’s no sense of panic or shouting, it’s a well oiled team.
Its’s getting pretty late, but we’re in for the long haul and we wouldn’t dream of leaving without sampling dessert. With full bellies we’re both pretty sleepy and neither of us really thought about the time implications of ordering the soufflé. So that’s easy. Hubby will have the Coffee Souffle served with chocolate ganache and espresso ice cream. He’s not alone there. We think probably 80% or even more of the desserts emerging from the kitchen are the soufflé. Why were souffle’s so unfashionable for so long. It’s a mystery. Anyway, I love yoghurt. Seriously I LOVE (good quality) yoghurt and I really want to see what a professional does with gooseberries. It’s a no brainer I’m sampling the Knockraich Farm yoghurt panna cotta served with Perthshire gooseberry sorbet and an elderflower and gooseberry consommé.
As we wait we both admire the lobster delivered to the lady at the next table. That was really tempting when we were ordering and it looks great. A lady over closer to the kitchen has Orkney scallops delivered to her and her eyes absolutely light up. That must have been my reaction too.
Luckily the soufflé doesn’t seem to take too long and clearly Hubby is enjoying it. He doesn’t even want to try my dessert. That’s a first. My dessert is lovely with a delightfully palate stimulating mix of sharp and sweet elements and a delightful crunch from some delicate toffee like discs. The gooseberries are quite tart and there’s some little cherries there as well. The panna cotta itself is striped. I’m happy with my choice too. So I guess you’d have to say we’ve tied. I do try the soufflé. I’m not into coffee as much as Hubby but it’s delicious. It’s interesting that the tie overall is due to different victor dishes in the different courses rather than us being unable to pick a winner between the dishes we’ve each selected.
No further coffee for us. We don’t want to stay awake. Only the petit fours to go which are an orange macaroon and salted caramel chocolate ball with a mint liner. Tasty, but I’ve never been anywhere that did better petit fours than Aria in Sydney. Aria still holds the crown.
Nothing left but to pay the bill. Don’t tell me what it cost please. And could you include the signed recipe book and a copy of the menu? No problems. The restaurant has earlier provided a sweet little map of Scotland and the Borders showing where the various produce we’ve consumed was sourced.
We retrieve my coat. We say our thanks and waddle out into the night for the short walk home. We’re back not that long after 10.30 pm if memory serves. Great meal. Great Night. Dinner and the show. Fabulous ambience too. Not too stuffy, friendly, efficient staff and lots of patrons of all ages, including children, many fairly casually dressed. Smart casual.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot. The rain yesterday was great. It brought out the raincoat hawkers and one shop had a rack of what looked like Black Watch tartan raincoats on sale for only £7.99 so I got one for grandson. I’ll keep my eye out for others too in case I see something I can’t resist that I like better, but at least we won’t go home empty handed! ..and I really like Blach Watch tartan anyhow.
So that’s day two wrapped up. Superb. I hesitate to assign superb so early in the trip but really, that’s the only word that springs to mind. I am particularly tickled that so much of what we saw and learned today ties in nicely with other things on our itinerary.