Today was the earliest that we had to be ready to head out for a tour since our adventure began. We were to depart at 9:15 in the morning, so all in all we managed to keep things relatively relaxed, which is the most important aspect of our tours. We had a different driver today, an affable Englishman by the name of Neil. We were heading to Stirling Castle and onward to the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.
We drove past some beautiful Georgian architecture that is quite prevalent in Edinburgh. The government here has been very smart in making sure that the architecture follows a certain code that respects the original Georgian architecture and Victorian as well. There are very few buildings that have a "modern" look about them, and you have to drive very far to see any that look like what we have along our interstates. The end result is that you have this continuity with the past that is fantastically palpable. It is a beautiful city and all the trappings of the 21st-century fit neatly within.
Rising up on a volcanic rock before us was Stirling Castle. This castle has been on this rock for centuries. The original Castlekeep was destroyed by King Robert the Bruce after the decisive battle of Bannockburn. He simply knocked it all down in order to keep it from being used as a military installation ever again. However, King James fixed the place up for his wife, who was the daughter of the king of France. Though it was not a military installation at that point, it became a showplace for the Stewart royalty. Jump ahead several centuries, and the British military used it as a base for their Highland regiments. As a base, many of the buildings were converted into barracks and the original roofs removed in order to allow modern roofs to be built.
The good news is that after the Highland regiments left Stirling Castle, many of the buildings were lovingly restored. A lot of research and archaeology went into studying the time of King James and they were able to find the colors used for the decorations and even the lime wash that gave the outer castle walls a cast of "kingly gold.” Apparently King James wanted people to see the majesty and glory of his kingdom. Some of the buildings were done in the French architectural style, with Roman gods carved on its outer walls. And of course joining them was a statue of good King James. This was to show visiting dignitaries that the Scottish King had not only good taste, but was a worldly man, too. By the time of King James, the use of a castle as a fortress had become passé. The arrival of the cannon had made any kind of stone battlements obsolete. So instead, earthworks were created around the castle in order to absorb the cannon balls that were being fired.
A whole day could have been dedicated just to Stirling Castle itself, there is that much history there. In one of the rooms is the Museum of the Highland Regiments. This was very interesting for me as I am quite into military history. The Highland Regiments saw much active service from their formation in the 1780s onward. They participated in the war of 1812, being one of the regiments that fought at the Battle of New Orleans. According to their history, some idiot of an officer had them advance and then, when in yards of Andrew Jackson's troops, had them hold in formation on the field. In other words they were sitting ducks in kilts. 57 dead men later, they decided, and good coordination, to leave the field of battle. Perhaps one of the more famous battles was the one against the mighty Zulu warrior's, about which the movie starring Michael Caine was made. On display were several Zulu weapons including a cow hide shield and spear, and a big wooden war club called a "nobbyknocker."
After taking a picture of the great King Robert the Bruce statue, we left the beautiful castle and its commanding views of Stirling Bridge where he trounced the English troops. I felt like I was standing at the very heart of Scottish history.
We stopped for lunch and then headed to one of the most famous lakes in all of Scotland. It is the lake known as Loch Lomond. This is quite the vacation area for the UK and there are many caravan parks, lodges and recreational areas. We took a quick hike up the hill where we were able to get a fantastic view of the lake and the Highland mountains rearing off into the distance. It was at this point that I felt that we were nearing the conclusion of our tour. We could go no further with the time we had left, and all I could do was to look toward the Highlands and hope that someday I may have the chance to return to them.
We had our final farewell dinner at the Royal Mile Tavern. Our group each had a dram of 12 year old Abderfeldy whiskey. We then had an interesting soup made of smoked haddock potatoes called "Cullen Skink" soup. It was really delicious, and everybody thought that the soup was the meal itself. But along came a great portion of haggis. Traditional haggis is a combination of the heart and lungs of the sheep mixed with barley and spices and cooked in sheep's stomach lining. Well that might sound like the most unappetizing meal ever invented by man, unless one thinks of it as nothing more than a great giant sausage or bratwurst, then you get the true picture as the meal is quite delicious. The final dish was another traditional Scottish meal called "sticky toffee pudding." This was rich and quite a find for anyone who has a sweet tooth. Our group was full and happy as we entertained them and the rest of the pub to some Scottish tunes and of course Switchback originals. Several people from various countries were in the audience, including a couple from Argentina who said they would love to bring us down to Buenos Aires. And even an Iowan came by from Dyersville! It's one of the joys of traveling. You get to meet people from all over who are there with you to share a moment and enjoy the experience of something new and exciting. For the time being, there's no worries about bills, work or anything like that. It's just sharing in the experience. I felt quite happy that we were able to contribute to the experiences of others who saw us for the first time and enjoyed the Switchback sound.
We all hugged each other and wished each other well as we had one last round to say goodbye to Scotland and this year's "Traveling Down An Irish Road" tour.
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