Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Day 8 - Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle and the Kelpies

We are very cosy here this lovely B&B. The room décor is classic English cottage – well that’s my name for it anyway.  We’ve requested brekky for 8 am so we can be away to Stirling reasonably early. I’ve slept in and this means I don’t get yesterday’s journal completely finished before I need to be at breakfast. 
The breakfast spread is wonderful. First up we have four individual bowls with berries: raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and something else similar in look to a blackberry but fairly tart in flavour. Next to that is a dish of apricots poached with star anise; a large tub of yoghurt; an array of cereals helpfully labelled; and perfect slices of home made bread.  I know where I’m starting. Berries and yoghurt with some crunchy nut clusters.  My bowl brimming with summer delights I join hubby who has beat me down here by about 5 minutes or so. He’s also gobbling berries and some of the bread which he recommends I try, perhaps with some of the home-made jams and marmalades here on the breakfast table. We are spoiled for choice before our hot breakfast arrives.
I’m just at the toaster with half a slice of bread nearing readiness when Helen and Bob come in together with our hot breakfasts. I’ve gone for smoked haddock rarebit and Hubby has selected a range of items from the traditional Scottish breakfast list. He’s got sausage, a couple of eggs, some haggis and tomato all of which he enjoyed. My rarebit comes with a few thin rashers of bacon. It’s very rich and interesting too. Welsh rarebit is one of those dishes that has always been around as I was growing up but my family never made it. I don’t think my mum was fond of it. It’s interesting to try this variation on the traditional.
I finish off my half slice of toast with homemade raspberry jam and can’t resist another half slice just with butter to get the full flavour of the bread itself. The recipe was sent over by some guests some years ago and it has cream cheese in it. Having discovered that I make bread, Helen offers me a copy of the recipe. Don’t need to offer twice! What a great souvenir.
We tear ourselves away from the conversation and get on our way. False start after false start as each of us remembers we need to get or do this or that. Sigh. Eventually we’re on the road. We’re having some issues with the Bluetooth for the music but this morning the car has started up with the music going. We must have been fated to listen to the power and beauty of Susan Boyle’s famous rendition of I dreamed a dream as the sun breaks through the passing clouds which stalk over green countryside in moods from white to deep threatening grey. It's difficult to compose something that does the situation justice before we lose the opportunity and there's no safe place to pull over, but I do my best to capture the memory.
Rounding corners trees frame beautiful compositions of cottage gardens. Each image is only fleeting as we scoot along to the next. Soon we start seeing the National Wallace Memorial through breaks in the roadside vegetation. It’s a commanding statement. We take a lucky wrong turn and find a safe spot to stop and get some photos.
We’ve decided that the National Wallace Monument will be our first stop. There’s no way we’re going to commit to that climb at the end of the day and in any case it’s well and truly got our attention and we are keen to go up and have a look.  Our Historic Scotland or National Trust membership gets us 10% off entry.  Tickets in hand we’re told that the shuttle bus that will take us up to the monument leaves from over near the end of the building every 15 minutes. We’re in luck. One is boarding now and they’ve got just two seats left so we get promoted up the queue and are on our way up the forested hillside.
The views from the ground as we get off the bus are great but I’m keen to keep ahead of the crowds off the bus who linger there.  Another welcome and a direction to the stairs from the girl on reception in the tower and we make a start. There’s 246 stairs in all, split in four sections with exhibition floors between that let us have a break from stair climbing while retaining the dignity of being able, in all honesty, to say it was for practical reasons rather than a shocking lack of fitness.
First gallery is the Hall of Arms which tells the story of William Wallace and has displays of armour and tactics. I press play in English on a video presentation of William Wallace and another bloke who’s name I didn’t catch, discussing the Battle of Stirling Bridge and related political matters. It’s well done but I move on before the end. I’ve read a couple of books on William Wallace which is great. It saves time reading here. 
Up the next steep flight. The stairs are signposted that we should keep to the right but mostly people listen and wait if someone is coming up or down.  Gallery two is the Hall of Heroes and contains busts of Scottish high achievers. There’s the obvious and not so obvious among them. I make some notes for further research. I was particularly impressed by one George Buchanan, who is credited with having a lasting impact on political thinking in Scotland, and dare I add, thereby probably the world. Buchanan believed that power came not from God, but from the people and that even tyrants were not above the law. This was obviously rather different to the prevailing notion that Kings had a divine right to rule. Surprisingly, Buchanan was tutor to James VI / I as a child. I’d like to know more about him. I have long been glad that New South Wales had the very good fortune to have a Scot as governor at a critical point in our history and perhaps Buchanan’s influence is something we should know of and be grateful for.
I’m slow to realise that also in this gallery is the Wallace Sword. It sits in a glass case in the middle of the room. I wonder about its provenance because there’s nothing in the panels that I can see, that explains how they know this is Wallace’s sword.  I’m sceptical. Not much was recorded about Wallace during his life, not by the Scots at least. Though I guess the English may have taken his sword when he was captured, which makes some sense. At any rate, it’s an interesting object and people are clearly pleased to see it, bowing or kneeling in homage one after the other. I’m ready for the next exertion.
Gallery three is the “Royal Chamber” and it deals with the construction of the monument which was funded by public subscription in an era when building memorials was very fashionable. Notably however, the promotion of Wallace advanced political goals. It has ever been thus for William Wallace. Never more so than in the present day and for the future as Wallace has been adopted as a symbol of Scottish identity.
The monument took well over a decade to complete. 17 years from commencement to installation of the Wallace Sword. It is an amazing feat of determination and vision.
Emerging onto the final, observation level the views are spectacular but I cannot help but be distracted. This has surely got to be one of the most spectacular lookout platforms in the world. It was a hard climb but definitely worth it. It is brilliant.
We take our time considering this angle and that. Checking the panel that describes the significant viewpoints. I’ll post some to give an example but I’m not posting the “money shot” looking to Stirling Castle over the site of the battle because that should be a nice surprise for visitors.
Conscious of the time, it’s now after 12 o’clock we start to head down.
There’s quite a crowd at the base of the tower milling around and presumably waiting for the bus. Hubby suggests we walk. I don’t take much persuading. Initially I don’t get far, waylaid by a patch of gorgeous thistle flowers being serviced by large fluffy bees with white bottoms.  What a lovely collection of thistle shaped flowers there are in Scotland. These ones aren’t prickly as far as I can see.
In due course we head off, the path zig zagging down the slope. It’s lovely cool shade under the thick canopy of the forest. The vegetation is lush and abundant. It must be very lovely in spring or earlier in summer – I think the large leaved plants here and there are wild foxgloves.  We pause at a fallen tree trunk where fungi are fruiting. Who doesn’t like a nice fungus?
Heading for the car we’re very glad we did the Wallace Monument and that we did it first. It was brilliant and if we do nothing else today it wouldn’t matter.
We have acquired the Billy Connolly voice for our TomTom and with the car quiet now we can focus on his instructions to get to the castle. Although not even Billy can completely rule out our lack of directional sense. He abandons us saying that we should remember to thank him because without him none of this would have been possible. We would have been hopelessly lost. Yes. True enough. But Billy we’re still lost. We drive round and round and eventually follow the brown signs and come up through Stirling to the Castle Entrance.  
Having failed to get here nice and early to get parking, it’s a good thing we’ve been occupied for a few hours while the early birds finish because we need to wait in a queue which can progress only as cars leave the site. Staff communicate by walkie talkies (or similar) to get the go ahead to allow the next car through, based on its size and the size of the spot that’s been vacated.  I retrieve my laptop and work on my journal meanwhile, but it’s only about 15 minutes before we are following directions to a spot down towards the bottom of the car park, getting ourselves together and making our way up the hill past another war memorial, this time to the South African War.

We wait while the man at the ticket office checks with membership, I can’t see what I’ve done with my Historic Scotland membership card. Sigh. Good luck. All OK our member tickets are issued. Unfortunately they’ve sold out of audio guides, so we’ll just have to do the best we can without one. Shouldn’t be too bad, there’s guided tours departing on the hour.
The first and most striking element of Stirling Castle is the views. They are outstanding in every direction. Particularly mesmerising are the views across to the Wallace Monument. There was some rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh as to where the monument should be placed. The chosen location on Abbey Craig was something of a compromise and it was thought that Wallace surveyed the site of the battle from there. In terms of location within the landscape and relative other sites, including the castle, the position of the Wallace Monument is nothing short of inspired. It's hard to believe they ever considered anywhere else.
We have 45 mins to kill and it’s lunch time so we wander into the Unicorn Café. I’m not really too hungry after a huge breakfast so I just grab a handmade yoghurt with banana and an orange and lemon drink – both hideously over-sweetened. Hubby gets a toasted New York sandwich and a ginger beer, both of which he seems to enjoy. That’s set us back only about 15 minutes.
What next. We wander into the Castle Exhibition and check out the restored Great Hall. I have to say, it’s full marks to Historic Scotland for making several decades of investment into the restoration of this site. Not just the Great Hall, but the Royal Apartments as well. I often think that modern generations have not got the vision and determination or perseverance of our forebears but organisations like Historic Scotland clearly are an exception. I guess you need to have a very clear sense of yourself in the context of history to invest in projects that you may well not live to see completed.

It’s time for a tour departure so we head to the meeting point. The tour moves to the first discussion point out on the battlements and we are promptly told with good humour to forget anything to the contrary we may have been told at Edinburgh Castle, THIS is the most important castle in Scotland and we’re about to find out why. Basically it boils down to the strategic location. It was said that if you controlled Stirling Castle you controlled Scotland. As a consequence this was also the site for a lot of very important historical events. The ornate French Renaissance Style of the palace building was because Mary de Guise was given craftsmen to bring her palace up to French ideas of what was stylish as part of her wedding gift from her father. It is the earliest example of this style in Britain. We go on to hear about the reasons for the bars on the windows, more that does nothing to improve our regard for Oliver Cromwell but increases our affection for some pock marks on the side of the castle and other facts that enhance our appreciation of the castle and inform our decisions of what to do next.  The decision is easy! Let’s go to the restored palace!
There is no ambiguity about what we’re seeing in the refurbished palace rooms. This is a recreation and restoration not the originals. However this does nothing to diminish the impact and splendour of the rooms. We’ve seen a lot of very old tapestries and they are fabulous to see, but usually they require some imagination to envisage what they must have originally looked like. Here the trees and vegetation in the tapestries are green, everything is new and bright as it would have been when a kind was in residence. It’s so colourful! It’s brilliant. Our characters presenting the room to the visiting public are a fantastic feature and waaaaaay out in front is the young girl who appears to be about to do some sweeping or something. She’s absolutely fantastic, working hard, noting who’s arriving and redoing her presentation for new groups of people. Is it her personality or just her acting ability that sets the perfect note in both demeanour and tone.
In the next room there’s one of the selfish tourists dominating the time of the costumed character and standing right in the way of the throne that any number of other people present would really like to get a photo of without her, and I note her very long lens, in it. Grrr. We move along and resolve to come back when she overtakes us, and to admire the next room before she gets there! 
Backtracking it appears that this embroidering lady only does one on one presentations. Clearly she’s upper class and snooty. Nice to see a sweet little girl getting the attention though as they discuss how pretty the room is while stitching.
The tour route takes us through the carved heads exhibition with lots of detail about the ceilings of the original palace, who each image is what the King was aiming for when he designed this feature. It’s all about demonstrating lineage and status. Massive ego trip yes, but also one of the more peaceful ways of establishing one’s rule. 
Still to come is the Prince’s tower where a young James VI was educated by our friend George Buchanan. This is a pretty simple and basic room. If visitors are concerned at a royal prince spending so much time in such surroundings, so was his mother.
We take stock and check our map. What have we missed? The Chapel Royal. This is another restoration and there’s panels giving further detail on some key events, most of which we’ve already heard about before we come in. The ceiling was originally gold. I can see why a compromise finish has been chosen. This is another space that would be a great function venue. Our guide told us that the Great Hall hosts a couple of events every week bringing in much needed revenue for the castle, which is, obviously, a very very good thing.
I’ve only got one more thing I want to do here before we go. Hubby takes a seat and I wander in for a look at the regimental museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (aka the Princess Louise’s).  I knew right away I wasn’t going to be able to be in here very long. It’s very much overheated and although I’m dressed reasonably lightly, I’m very uncomfortable. Heating aside, this museum, which is funded entirely from contributions we are asked to make, has a lot of fascinating artefacts and information including a Zulu shield and spears picked up on the battlefield back in hmm I think it said 1879 and swords used in very famous battles, regimental colours flown at Balaclava in the Crimea .  On another day (in my swimmers and beachwear) I could spend a lot of time in here. I’m very moved to see the bagpipes that were played as the troops went over the top in the Great War and heart sick to read the account of a German Army soldier of his observation and killing of a piper playing in battle. Equally affecting was the set of pipes and the story about the work that had to be done to restore them so they could be played, as the little union jack, framed nearby, was flown at the funerals of men who perished in captivity under the Japanese.  I have a great uncle who was in the unit considered to have copped it as bad as it got for POWs under the Japanese. I wonder whether he was ever in the same camps with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
I work my way through the exhibition and in solemn frame of mind make my way back out to Hubby. We chat about our day as we walk, or actually limp, down past our car and onto the road below for a quick look around Argyll’s Lodging. We flash our castle ticket and wander in, first to a downstairs exhibition about the builder and subsequent owner of this townhouse. The 9th Argyll was eventually executed for treason and it’s a tragic tale of political rivalry that seems to have driven him to take the stand he did. Apparently the 9th Argyll made the mistake of speaking in favour of mercy for the covenanters and was then imprisoned by his political enemies. He escaped and then later backed the Monmouth Rebellion. Well that wasn’t going to make you popular was it.
Upstairs the rooms have been furnished as they were, much of it recreations but there is some original paintwork testifying to the authenticity of the remaining décor in the most impressive room, which of course is also the largest.
We move on to the kitchens and have a prowl around. I admire some casks that are held together not by metal bands but by cleverly utilised greenwood.
We’re craving time off our feel now and sink gratefully into the car and tell Billy to lead us to Grangemouth. It’s motorways pretty much and I resolve to get a map so we can give more considered directions to the device and take more interesting routes. We do our usual wandering and backtracking and reworking eventually picking up on the signs for the Kelpies and successfully finding them.  Work is still underway to finish the visitor centre and beautify the site. It will be great in future but at the moment the siting is a bit unfortunate with Motorway on one side and high voltage towers and lines on the other. The Kelpies themselves are a sight to behold. Our photo angles are limited due to the angle of the sun but we do our best. I should have read up in my newly acquired book of beasties before we went. I didn't know not to look the Kelpies in the eye.
We wander back through the fields of purple clover wondering at the identity of a couple of birds of prey over on the trees next to the motorway. I’m too tired to bother retrieving my binoculars for a better look.  We are in sightseeing retreat mode. We head next to the Unicorn Inn in Kincardine. This seems appropriate today not only for reasons of royal symbolism but that will mean we’ve had lunch and the Unicorn Café and dinner at the Unicorn Inn.
From the outside, despite the sign on the door, the Inn looks dark and like it’s not open. I try the door and it is not locked, I peer gingerly inside to be greeted by a cheerful young woman.  She invites me in but I decline. I just need to duck outside and take a photo. She must think I’m completely nuts!
Hubby fusses around locking the car and I try my best in difficult circumstances and considerable chagrin at the people who have parked cars in the vicinity (how dare they.. ). 
Our first indoor stop is the comfy sofa’s by the bar where we relax with a drink while our orders are taken and our food is prepared. We are led to our table, another comfy corner arrangement, when our meal is ready. Our food is not elaborate but well done and tasty. Hubby went for the Unicorn prawn/shrimp cocktail. Hubby and I are now bickering about whether it said prawn or shrimp. I’m sure it said shrimp, he’s sure it said prawn. Anyway, it was delicious. I opted for smoked salmon with saffron and shallot dressing. Also delicious. Hubby took the crown on the main course easily. He went for the Toulouse Sausages with red cabbage, caramelised onion and mash which was really really good. I had backed halloumi with vegetables and salad, which also nice but a long way behind the sausages.  We do dessert. I experiment which is my responsibility as journal maker and official trip researcher. I go for the Scottish Strawberry Pavlova. Hubby got Banoffee ice cream with toffee sauce which was excellent.  And so we end this excellent day with a momentous discovery.  If you’ve ever wanted to try an authentic Australian Pavlova don’t come to Australia, because they don’t sell the proper sort in shops because people make them at home. The shop ones are made for longevity in storage, or if you go high end then the chef wants to reinterpret the concept or something. The Pavlova at the Unicorn Inn in Kincardine is the real deal and it has the right tart element in the fruit that is required to stop the dish being sickly sweet and there’s the right proportion of cream to meringue and fruit. Pretty much, can’t have too much fruit... My only quibble is the arrangement on the plate. They should stop trying to be creative and sandwich the two meringues together, just break the top and put the cream on/in the meringue. That way we Aussies won’t have to rearrange the elements to be able to get the proportions of fruit, cream and meringue right in each mouthful.
Well, that’s it for day 8.  Another lovely night’s sleep and we’re off to Historic Stanley Mills and Aberdeenshire.

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