2016 hurtles towards a close…

…taking all manner of celebrities with it. Not nice news to hear about Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Liz Smith, George Michael and Richard Adams, especially after everyone else who has gone this year. By the end of this blog, we’ll probably have lost someone else.

On a lighter note, I have had a busy but wonderful month. Since London, I have completed Nanowrimo (50,000 words written in the month of November), been to Maison de Moggy (Edinburgh’s cat cafe), been to an evening with Jodi Picoult at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, celebrated Sean’s birthday with our friend Sophie who is his birthday neighbour (at Under The Stairs), had Xmas drinks and catch ups with good friends old and new, helped run a poetry trivia night for our volunteers at the Scottish Poetry Library, seen the weird and wonderful Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and headed to Dunfermline for a Jane Austen’s birthday do with the Scottish Branch of the Jane Austen Society (while there, I snuck in a quick but lovely visit to Dunfermline Abbey and Palace).

Oh, and Sean squeezed in a trip to Lisbon!

I finished work on the 21st, complete with some bubbles and pizza to send off the year, just in time for a well-earned break…but sleep is for the weak! My beloved parents and grandmother arrived that very evening to spend eight wonderful days with us. I haven’t seen these crazy kids since January 29, the day we left Australia, and after two minutes in their company, it was like no time had passed.

Edinburgh turned on her best weather for them, and by best weather I mean the stereotypically British cliche of sideways rain and wind bad enough to close Edinburgh Castle. Oh, we had fun. I can’t remember giggling quite this much since…ever! We traipsed up and down the Royal Mile and Princes St with our rain hoods up, braving the blustery Christmas Market, the slippery cobblestones, the sodden Greyfriars Kirkyard, and the very wet trek down Clerk Street to the delicious Carington Mouse’s Larder for lunch. I also took my guests to see the book sculptures, the Writers’ Museum (including the rare exhibition of J.K. Rowling’s annotated copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. We had approximately four hundred stops for coffee/tea/cake over the course of their visit and it was truly pleasurable. Scotland has some lovely places for refreshment, and Mum’s friend had given them a nice lunch at Eteaket for Christmas. Marnie and I even went to visit the sister of one of her church friends, who put on a beautiful spread for us with her husband. They were both so warm and generous with their hospitality despite having never met us before! We eventually got to Edinburgh Castle once the weather calmed down as well.

Christmas Day was spent at the AirBnb my parents had rented two streets away from our flat. Their AirBnb was a lot bigger and more comfortable than our flat, so we spent most of our time there actually! We took them to church on Christmas morning (the church I have been attending throughout the year – Pilrig St. Pauls) and then had our mates Sophie and Claire over to share all our food and Christmas cheer! Lots of food was consumed, laughter was had, television was watched, and plans were made.

Boxing Day was spent at the Royal Yacht Britannia (somewhere I had never been and had been on my list for months!) and the Princes St Waterstones store, before we awoke, FINALLY, to good weather for their final two days here.

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We picked up our hire car and hit the road, over the Firth of Forth to a tiny little place called Bandrum, up near Dunfermline. Back when I was a wee lass, my parents bought me a plot of land for my 21st birthday. It was five square feet of Scottish soil that technically makes me a Lady, purchased through this nifty website: http://www.scottishlandsales.co.uk – We found out approximately where we assumed it would be, and then trekked up and across the beautiful countryside to see the views. When we got up the top, Mum produces a crown and a flag to mark my place and many photos were taken. I can’t believe how good the weather was!!

We went to Stirling Castle afterwards, another place I had not yet been, and managed to get some photos before the sun disappeared. I will definitely go back for a longer visit next time!

The next day we drove north, stopping at Auchterarder, then Aberfeldy, then Dunkeld for walks, shopping, and more refreshments. There’s a wonderful cafe in Aberfeldy called the Habitat Cafe that Sean had recommended, but none of our choices disappointed. We raced the sun for photos, and then drove back to Edinburgh, in time to have one more meal together of authentic Scottish fish and chips.

I only cried a tiny bit while saying goodbye. They are off to Windermere today, before they visit Flintshire, Hay-on-Wye, Winchcombe, and Salisbury before heading back to Australia. So I’m incredibly excited for them, but I also don’t want it to be another thirteen months before I see them! I know I’m lucky though. The fact that I am here, and the fact that they were all able to come and see us makes me blessed indeed. I’ve already started on the itinerary for their next visit…

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Belated post!

Apologies for the lack of posting! I am going to attempt to report on everything we have done in the last 48 hours, but I don’t know how much I’ll remember, so here goes:

We had a rocking time at the ceilidh pub – it looked pretty much like a normal bar, with a big dancefloor, and this huge Scottish guy played accordion and took us through the steps for all these different traditional dances. It was so lively and fun and really hard work! We were all completely knackered by the end of the night. A lot of the steps were really bouncy which wasn’t great for my back, so I ended up just stepping them instead of bouncing them, but it worked and it didn’t deter my enjoyment at all. I got some great photos of Sean dancing too 😀 We ended up back at the hostel at about 12.30 and were all up and breakfasted and on the bus by 9am the next morning. There was an awful lot of sleeping on the bus that morning. First stop was Glencoe, scene of the infamous Glencoe massacre. We were in a deep valley, also known as ‘The Weeping Glen’ because of the huge amount of tiny rivers and waterfalls that come down the slopes into the valley. It was stunningly beautiful in the misty morning. I have noticed with so many photos, but particularly today, that the quality of the picture just can never, ever replicate what I am seeing. A 2D print can’t possibly convey the scope of the landscape and its a real shame because I want to preserve my memories as best I can.

We drove down through the Highlands along a road that the drovers used to use. We stopped at a small inn, really far away from many other things, and got to HANDFEED CARROTS TO WILD DEER. Ugh. Amazing. There was this enormous stag, and it was totally Harry Potter’s dad, I could see it in it’s eyes, and a smaller female deer, who the stag was kind of bullying, just taking all the carrots for himself. I kept surreptiously chucking carrots and the lady deer so she could have a bit. We actually didn’t get close enough to hand feed them, but they stood right in front of us and ate the carrots we put on the ground. Our guide, however, was familiar enough with them to feed them. It was one of the coolest wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. We went inside the inn, which was really cosy and adorable and had tea and coffee. I started reading one of the second-hand books on their bookshelf and was enjoying it so I asked if I could buy it from them. The lady told me just to take it, which was really sweet of her.

As we drove back to Edinburgh, we saw a lot of beautiful scenery, as is quite common in Scotland of course, and we heard about a walk called the West Highland Walk. It’s 96 miles and stretches from just above Glasgow to Fort William, and if I am one day lucky enough to be that fit, I am most definitely giving that a go. It usually takes 5-10 days, depending on your pace, so its something to aspire to once my back has sorted itself out. We also listened to some amazing music. Our playlist has varied widely over the last week, but today Dan played us some really stirring and patriotic Scottish music that almost brings a tear to your eye. (It certainly brought a tear to the eye of one Haggis tour guide who we were told about and who shall remain nameless because he is a big, tough man). The songs were ‘Caledonia’ by Dougie MacLean and a traditional folk ballad called ‘The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond’ (I THINK the version we listened to was by Runrig). The story behind ‘Loch Lomond’ and the different interpretation of the lyrics are really interesting. You should look it up! They are both really lovely, emotive songs.

We also spent a large portion of the bus ride watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which remains as hilarious as it ever was. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. We stopped at Duone Castle, which was used for various parts of the film and every year holds a ‘Monty Python Day’. It was shut unfortunately, but we got some good snaps. We also stopped at Callandar for a quick lunch and Dan took us off the beaten track to a place he personally loves – a beautiful loch called Loch Katrine. We went for a long walk up one side of the loch and took more photos and read about the faeries that live there. Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’ was inspired by Loch Katrine, in particular a fugitive woman named Ellen (Helen) Stewart, who hid on an island in the middle of the loch, now known as ‘Ellen’s Isle’. Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ also draws from this story.

Our last stop was in the town of Stirling, where we saw the beautiful Stirling Castle atop it’s hill and the river that runs through the town. This was the scene of William Wallace’s epic defeat of the English and there is an absolutely huge monument dedicated to him. It’s quite a trek up to the monument and my legs were definitely feeling the strain. The views of Stirling when you get to the top are just stunning and you can see the entire town. We didn’t go in the monument because it was closed but I got some good pics. We arrived back in Edinburgh about 6.30pm and checked into the High Street Hostel. We got into our room – ‘The Lord of the Rings’. My bed is called ‘Frodo’, Sean is in ‘Samwise’. Upon arrival, our ears were assaulted by the most bloodcurdling screams from the room next door. We listened for a bit, trying to describe if the screams were those of frivolity, passion or genuine terror. We couldn’t really decide, but I was way too nervous that someone was actually having the stuffing kicked out of them, so we went down to reception and let them know. When we got back upstairs, there was actually bashing on the walls accompanying the screams, so we then asked to move rooms for the night. Reception went up to check later and apparently the screams were of an overly enthusiastic amorous nature, but I still think it sounded like someone was being slowly tortured. So we were in a much less ear-splitting dorm for the night, with some lovely people including an Aussie guy and an American who had been on exchange in Stirling. We had a burger at the hostel with a lovely woman, Janet, who had been on the tour with us, and she showed us a lovely quiet pub where we had a pint before bed. Janet has been travelling on her own for 9 months, really without any kind of plan, just going through Europe and Asia, and my goodness she had some great stories.

This morning we woke up and moved rooms, did washing (yessssss, clean clothes) and attempted some organisational emails etc. We were in St Giles Cathedral by 12noon for a daily service in which they read some passages from the Bible and say prayers for 15 minutes. It was so good to finally be at a church service again, and it was really peaceful sitting in this enormous, ancient cathedral, surrounded by so much beauty. Janet joined us for the service too, which was nice. Then we ran to Tesco’s for some groceries before realising we were actually quite tired, and crashing in the hostel common room for an hour or so. Janet went off to meet her couch surfing host eventually and Sean and I walked to the train station to get our seat reservations for the train to Cardiff tomorrow. Dad also called to say hi and it was so good to hear his voice! Made my day 🙂 I quickly ducked into the Writer’s Museum, which is free, and in a gorgeous old house in Lady Stair’s Close (it was actually Lady Stair’s house). It focuses on the work of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. I decided not to go through it the whole way until I actually had proper time – next time I am in Edinburgh, whenever that may be. I washed my hair for the first time in 3 or 4 days and my goodness, that felt good, then my wonderful and talented man cooked an amazing chicken and rice dish for dinner. That was also a great feeling – eating food we had cooked ourselves, with a few vegetables chucked in. Then we hightailed it down to Greyfriars Kirkyard to meet our tour group for the Potter Trail, which is, you guessed it, a Harry Potter tour through Edinburgh! Our guide was extremely enthusiastic and gave us all wands to carry with us for the night. He took us through Greyfriars, as we had already done with the Sandemans tour, but we saw one gravestone we hadn’t noticed before – that of Elizabeth Moodie…perhaps an inspiration for the name Alastor Moody? Then we walked down to McEwan Hall, where the students of Edinburgh Uni (including JK Rowling) graduate. Throughout the tour, our guide gave us some great information about JK Rowling and the development of the series. Being an uber-geek, I pretty much knew all of it, but it was nice to hear it in context. He also gave us some history of witchcraft in Edinburgh and some figures that may have inspired certain characters, such as Miss Jean Brodie (she is fictional, but could have inspired McGonagall) and a creepy schoolteacher whose name escapes me who used love potions to woo his beloved (Snape). We saw JK Rowlings handprints outside City Chambers to commemorate her Edinburgh Award and we saw the Elephant House Cafe and the Spoon Cafe Bistro (formally Nicholson’s Cafe) where JK Rowling wrote the books. We also went to Edinburgh Castle, where JK Rowling hosted a party to launch Half Blood Prince and learned more about witchcraft at the Witches Well, which was created by the painter John Duncan in honour of all the innocents who were falsely accused of witchcraft and executed over the centuries. We also saw Victoria Street, a twisty little road, thought to be an inspiration for Diagon Alley. It was a fun tour, and not too long – an hour and a half – and it was tips-based. After the tour finished we toyed with the idea of going to see a movie, but ended up just coming back to the hostel to chill. Tomorrow we have a long train ride to Cardiff!

Phew!