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BEACON Senior News

Explore Scotland's cities, castles and charm

Sep 29, 2023 09:56PM ● By Victor Block

The first thing that impressed my wife Fyllis and me about Scotland was its natural beauty. 

Both the Highlands and Central Scotland are home to craggy mountains, rolling farmlands dotted by grazing sheep and the still waters of lochs (lakes). We agreed with a poll conducted by Rough Travel Guides that included Scotland among the most beautiful countries in the world.

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Contrasting with that tranquility is a history that is replete with battles against a parade of invaders and tyrants. And during pauses among those clashes, high-spirited Scottish warriors took to fighting among themselves at times.

Some chapters of that history come alive at the countless castles that dot the landscape—some of which were built well before Columbus set sail for the New World—and charming towns, each with its own stories to relate. 

Stirling Castle is located in a city of the same name. The city is known as the “Gateway to the Highlands.” Its oldest structures date back to the 14th century, and the Royal Palace looks much as it did when it was completed in the 16th century. One ceiling is adorned with original wood-carved medallions that depict images of kings, queens and other notables.

Doune Castle (pronounced Dune) dates back to the 13th century. Its quintessential fortress-like façade appeared in the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” and more recently, in the “Outlander” TV series. 

The past also lives in cities and towns, including even the tiniest hamlets that make up in allure what they lack in size. 

Inverness sits astride the Ness River, whose source is the loch where the famous fabled monster resides. This is a welcoming, walkable town with numerous inviting cozy restaurants and small shops.

A personal favorite was the Victorian Market, which retains much of its original ornate splendor from 1891. Historic photographs line the walls and independent purveyors—a butcher, fishmonger, watchmaker and some 30 others—add to the ambience.

Dunblane stands on the banks of the Allan Water (River Allan), which powered factories and mills in the past. Exhibits at the compact but outstanding Dunblane Museum trace the area’s history. One thing I found especially fascinating the collection of beggars’ badges which, in the 15th century, identified indigent people who had permission to plead for money.

The pleasant Darn Walk Trail alongside the river links Dunblane with the Bridge of Allan, a 19th-century spa town which traces its history back to a hillside fortress built during the Iron Age.

City sights

Contrasting with towns that are small in size but large in appeal is Edinburgh [pronounced Edin-borough], a magnificent city which in many ways is much more than just a pretty face. The Old Town area earns its accolade as “the heart of Scotland’s capital.” 

Stretching a mile through the city center, its stunning architecture serves as a backdrop to an active street life. Entertainers attract crowds of passersby and street musicians add a background of music to the setting.

Edinburgh Castle overlooks the Royal Mile, as it’s known, from a hilltop which has served as a defensive fortress since ancient Roman times. At the opposite end of the road is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the English monarch in Scotland. King Charles III spends one week in residence each summer but was not there when we were, so we couldn’t drop by for tea.

Another favorite site for us was Real Mary King’s Close, a narrow underground thoroughfare which provides a realistic immersion in the past. In the mid-17th century, Edinburgh was confined primarily within its security walls, and housing was built in small thoroughfares called closes, a Scottish word for alley. 

These often were named for an occupant or the business or trade of residents, which accounts for signs identifying the advocates, bake house and Old Fish Market closes.

Real Mary King’s Close is named for a merchant who lived there for a decade (1635-1645) along with about 600 other people. The tour delved into Mary’s life, those of people from all social classes and horror tales about Edinburgh’s most deadly plague.

Back to nature

Another very different site that I suggest should be on a visitor’s wish list is the Trossachs, an area of heavily wooded hills, sprawling valleys and rocky peaks. This landscape in many ways represents a microcosm of Highlands scenery. 

While our visit was limited to a self-driving tour and hike, other activities include animal and bird watching, fishing and enjoying a boat ride on a loch. History lovers may check out prehistoric sites including rock markings, burnt mounds and artificial islands once occupied by lake dwellings.

Reliving periods of history is but one of many attractions that invite visitors to Scotland. In an area about equal to that of South Carolina, its treasures include ancient history and architecture, some of Mother Nature’s most splendid handiworks and friendly people eager to share their proud heritage with guests from abroad. 

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