Friday, May 7, 2010

May 6, 2010: Glaswegians Steal A Baked Potato

Wow, what a day! It was my second last full day in Scotland, so I tried my best to tick as many things off my "to do list" as possible before tomorrow.

I arose "early" in the morning at 8 AM, and made my way down to the gates of Edinburgh castle for the opening at 9:30. Edinburgh Castle is one of the biggest tourists attractions in Edinburgh, and I had been told I would need about 2.5 hours to complete the tour, so I thought I should get there as early as possible.

(Edinburgh Castle in the background, with the beautiful Ross Fountain in Princes Street Park in the foreground.)

(A look out over New Town Edinburgh from the top of Edinburgh Castle. The small green patch of grass just below me is the cemetery for the soldier's dogs who lived here when the Castle was a functioning fortress.)

The castle was built on the top of an extinct volcano in around 1130 AD by King David I of Scotland. While definitely imposing on the edge of the rock, the castle hasn't proven to be overly secure against attack. It was captured in 1296 by Edward I of England after a three day siege. Robert the Bruce retook the castle in 1314 when the Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray, with just 30 hand-picked men, climbed up the rocky cliff behind the castle, and then climbed over the walls (they must have drug the ladders up with them) and took the entire fort by surprise. The English reclaimed the Castle in 1334, but then in another daring manoeuvre, the Scots dressed up like merchants and drove their "supply cart" towards the city, only to halt it right in the open gates to prevent them from closing, while a nearby horde of waiting soldiers rushed to ambush the Castle.

Right, well the history lesson over now so let's get back to my experience...

I'm not sure if I was just tired, or perhaps I've done too much sight seeing the last couple of days, but Edinburgh Castle wasn't nearly as enjoyable as I thought it would be. This was an unexpected revelation too, since I had actually been really looking forward to the visit all week. I feel my assessment is fairly objective though.

As I think back, the three major sights I saw this week were the Royal Yacht Britannia, The Palace of Holyrood House, and Edinburgh Castle. The Royal Yacht Britannia was essentially the floating home of the Queen, and as such it was just oozing with history and character. The Palace of Holyrood House was similarly magnificent because it is the home of the Queen/Royal Family when they visit Edinbrugh (a minimum of one week a year). The Castle however was more of a defensive stronghold, and was rarely inhabited by any of the Kings or Queens of Scotland. In fact, one particular Royal Family dreaded coming to the Castle because it was so inhospitable as a royal dwelling. Because of this, there simply was not as much pomp as one would expect in a Royal building; it was much more utilitarian in design. After finishing the tour of the Castle, I looked in at a 175 year-old Edinburgh tourist attraction: Camera Obscura.

Camera obscura simply means dark chamber in latin, and it works by making a small hole in a one wall of a dark chamber/box, and collecting the resulting image on some surface placed opposite the hole. It is the precursor to the modern camera, and in 1827 Maria Theresa Short installed one in her rooftop observatory, and one of Edinburgh's most entertaining and unique tourist attractions was born.

(The Camera Obscura is not just the camera obscura, it also has optical illusions like this picture of a lego version M.C. Escher's "Ascending and Descending".)

(Fun mirrors too. "Look ma, I'm normal sized!")

(The infra-red camera was my favourite exhibit.)

(Opera Cats.)

After some lunch at an Itallian restaurant (I think the Scott's must love Itallian food, because every third restaurant on the Royal Mile seems to be an Itallian restaurant), I headed back to Waverly Bridge to take my third of four double-decker bus city tours operating from the bridge. This was by far the weakest tour of the four, but the route was the most convenient, as it concentrated on only the most popular of the tourist attractions, and as such helped me map out a route to return by foot later, in order to get more pictures.

(The site of the gallows in the old Grassmarket street, where hundreds of Protestants were killed for not being Catholic.)

(The Last Drop Inn/Pub, just 20 metres from the site of the gallows.)

(Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye Terrier who stayed by the grave of his deceased master for 14 years, refusing to leave. His devotion is memorialised in this statue built on top of a fountain for dogs. The Bar in the background was the favourite drinking hole of his master.)

I had not planned on it, but at this point ,I decided to check out the new attraction Our Dynamic Earth. Our Dynamic Earth attempts to teach visitors about Earth's history, geography, various climates, and how Earth has changed in response to human action and may continue to change, all through interactive, hands-on exhibits. It even goes so far as to market itself as a "4-D experience".

There were definitely a few interesting, and even downright impressive exhibits at Our Dynamic Earth: the Arctic room had a massive block of ice sculpture representing a scaled version of an ice berg, and the Rain Forest room simulated a real thunderstorm. That said, it's no Edmonton Space and Science Centre (or whatever it's calling itself now), and it is definitely marketed at children/schools since I suspect anyone who was able to pass high school biology/science, should have a pretty good understanding of most of the information presented already.

As is typical it seems with my adventures, my visit was not entirely without incident. At the beginning of the tour I was directed the wrong way, and so I went to the final 360 Degree Video Dome presentation first. This was a big problem, because this was the last tour of the day, and I was supposed to make my way through the exhibits in order and then go to the video at the end. As it happened, the first half of the exhibition had shut down by the time the video had finished, but the operating manager came and opened most of it back up, and I was given a privileged private tour by one of the other employees through every exhibit. I was even given my digital audio guide for free.

By now it was after 5:30, and too late to get on the final tour bus (no worries, I have until noon tomorrow on my 48-hour ticket), so I decided to take advantage of the clear skies that were not present earlier in the day, to get some pictures of key points of historic interest in the city. Around supper I walked across the old poop river - the North Loch - and into New Town, to find the Hard Rock Cafe.

Since coming to Edinburgh I've been taking advantage of many coupons I have received in order to get discouts, and on the back of my Airport bus ticket I was given a coupon to get a free chocolae sundae with any entree. That sounds like a good 5 GBP deal, but when I looked at the menu I remembered why I never go to the Hard Rock Cafe: all the prices are 5 GBP higher than anywhere else.

From here I decided to head back to Greyfriars Bobby's Pub to pay homage to Greyfriars Bobby, but on the way there I ran into a homeless man who started telling me how he remembered me, and how I was a "good guy". I had never met this person before in my life, but I certainly did not want to spoil some stranger's good reputation, so I went along with it.

After telling me some nearly incomprehensible story about how someone had stolen his radio, or his money, or maybe both, but that he wasn't like the other homeless people, he had a brain, I thought I could get rid of him by giving him some change. But that just cemented in the man's mind that I was a "good man", and then he made me carry all of his bags all the way up the street to some tavern. Since I didn't have anywhere particularly pressing to be, I obliged.

Along the way, he stopped in at a liquor store to pick up two large bottles of beer, then he stopped two more times to tell the same story he told me to tell his other homeless friends, and he added how the judge knew that the police were harassing him, and that he was being wronged, and that he can't be arrested because he's on bail (does it work that way? And what was he talking about? I'm not sure.)

When we finally reached the tavern he made me open up all of his bags and search through everything to find four of this, or five of that. When invariably only half of what he claimed to have was there, he would explode, and tell me how the police had stolen it from him. I couldn't really follow most of his stories, but I did notice that he already had 4 litres of alcohol in his bag, and so I wondered why it was so pressing to stop and by some more along the way, not to mention make me carry it as well as the other bags.

At this point, my new friend had become quite hungry so I bought him a baked potato (he only had the 1.5 GBP I had given him, but insisted the police had stolen the rest from him). Before he could even take one bite of the potato though, some young punks from Glasgow came and stole it from him. After this, we headed off to find some solution he had in mind, but couldn't explain clearly.

We trekked through the back alleys of Old Town Edinburgh, stopping only so he could take a pee (it was "okay" because he had some deodirizer that he sprayed on it), or to tell some new stranger how he "was sick of it", before finally coming to a Salvation Army. We didn't go in though, because he saw some police officers a block over, and decided instead to head over and yell at them for stealing his money. I wasn't sticking around to help him get out of this one, so seeing my opportunity I put down his bags and left to go back to Greyfriars Bobby's to get my food. (Note: if the police were harassing or assaulting him after I left, he deserved it.)

When I finally got back to Greyfriars Bobby's Pub after an hour of carrying this guy's stuff around, I found out that the bar's kitchen had just closed, and so I couldn't get anything to eat. Feeling rather starved myself by now, I headed back up to The Royal Mile to a small pub next to my hostel that I knew served a delicious lasagna, and arrived just 10 minutes before the kitchen closed and so luckily was able to finally rest after an adventure packed day. (Even with giving the homeless guy change and buying him a potato he then lost, my supper still came out to less than it would have cost had I gone to the Hard Rock Cafe.)


  1. I would have thought hipsters would go to something more obscure that the last drop pub.