The next stop in our journey was a country I had been dreaming of seeing my whole life… Scotland! The rolling hills, the bagpipes, the Irn Bru, the haggis! And we had picked the perfect place to start, just outside of the renowned city of Edinburgh.
We had found a wonderful couple to host us in the nearby town of Penicuik, a short 45 minute bus ride from the centre of Edinburgh. We would be staying in a beautiful, historic home, hidden through an archway off of High Street. A whimsical caravan was parked in the front (being held for a friend), and the crumbling walls of a ruined home was tucked behind, draped in ivy and with a well to Saint Mungo flowing through it.
Involved in an amazing array of community projects and committees, Nathanael and I were able to help in a few of their regular commitments. Since 1990 they have been running the Valleyfield House Project, an organic and fair trade market, out of their own home every Saturday. Everything from fair trade coffee to freshly baked bread to all-natural hygiene products can be bought in the store, and everything is at wholesale prices, making great products very affordable. Also on Saturdays is the Town Hall Open House exhibition and cafe, literally just across their yard in the town hall. After helping stock the shelves in the market, we would head up to the Town Hall to see the latest exhibition and to help out where we could.
Most of our time though, was spent in the Lost Garden of Penicuik. Intrigued? You should be! Originally built in the 1870s as a new garden on the Penicuik Estate, the garden spans two levels, connected by a grand central staircase. On the lower level, four garden quadrants met at a magnificent fountain, and on the upper level, there were beautiful glass hothouses. Unfortunately, after about a 100 years it began to fall into neglect, eventually being all but forgotten by the local community.
Hope for the gardens restoration would come through the Penicuik Community Development Trust, who negotiated a lease with the estate and began work in the garden in early 2012. There are many long-term goals for the site beyond historic restoration, including providing locally grown food for the community. Obviously the project is still in its early stages, however, already you can see the massive amount of work volunteers have done. The gardens on the upper level of the garden are slowly being expanded each year, and Nathanael and I were helping primarily with putting up a large polytunnel towards the far side of the upper level.
We spent our free time exploring the many sights in the surrounding area, including the city of Edinburgh. People have been inhabiting the area around Edinburgh for a very long time; archaeologists have found evidence of human settlement as early as 900 BC. Through war, fire, and time, Edinburgh has emerged as Scotland’s thriving capital.
We started our tour, as most tourists probably do, with Edinburgh Castle. Perched atop Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle offers great views of the rest of the city from all around vantage points. While overall we felt the admission fee was too expensive and detracts from the enjoyment of the site, there is still a lot to see and it is worth visiting. The oldest part of the castle is the small St. Margaret’s Chapel, built in the 12th century, and the rest was built over the centuries with the Scottish National War Memorial being the most recent addition, built after the First World War. Some of the highlights for me were the Prisons of War museum, the views of the city, the Great Hall, and the Crown Jewels. There are lots of other things to see though, especially if you are a military history buff.
Our next stop deserved days to do it justice, unfortunately we were only able to spend a few hours on it. The National Museum of Scotland is massive, and filled with endless collections. We started in the sections on Scotland, beginning with the geology and fossil records of prehistory through to the science and technology of the modern era. This is a museum of wonders! We barely got to scratch the surface. The grand gallery will make your jaw drop, and half the fun is stumbling across gems like the dioptic lighthouse lens, the Animal World exhibit (the entire thing blew my mind), and the painted ceiling from Rossend Castle to name just a few.
On our way out we had to pay a visit to Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier who, according to legend, guarded his former owners grave for 14 years before passing on himself. We also stumbled upon The Elephant House (where the first Harry Potter book was written) and took a few pictures.
Returning for another visit about a week later, we decided to focus on what Edinburgh had to offer outdoors. We began at Calton Hill, another great spot for views of the city, which houses the headquarters for the Scottish government and numerous monuments. The Nelson Monument is a really interesting one, shaped like an upturned telescope, and is an iconic fixture on Edinburgh’s skyline. I would say the most beautiful was the Robert Burns Monument, just down at the base of the hill.
From Calton Hill, we walked over to Holyrood Park. The highest point in the park is Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano, which is also the site of one of the four hill forts dating from around 2000 years ago. Away we went! We took a short break at St. Anthony’s Chapel, a ruined chapel on the hillside, before continuing the slow, steady trek upwards. It was well worth the climb, beautiful and rugged. It was misty, so the view of the city was a bit obscured, but the view of the park itself was gorgeous.
We finished our time in Edinburgh walking along the Royal Mile, taking in the scenery of the city. If you ever find yourself in Scotland, Edinburgh is a must-see. The city is layers on top of each other, filled with beautiful buildings, spooky church grounds, and plenty of nice spots to stop for coffee and a snack.