It wouldn’t be a proper visit to Scotland if we only visited one castle, so our morning the next day consisted of a visit to Stirling Castle in the nearby town of Stirling. This castle is also on a hill, but unlike with Edinburgh Castle, much of it overlooks the surrounding vast green valley and forest of the Scottish countryside.
We drove through a lot of green forest, and saw a lot of rolling farmland and foggy highland mountains in the distance. The sun often poked out from the clouds, giving the landscape an extra majestic feel. The mix of sun and mist gave the town—and later the experience of walking the castle—that extra bit of charm as our bus made its way up to the castle.
It turns out Stirling Castle was a favorite of King James V and his wife, Mary of Guise, their daughter, Mary Queen of Scots herself, and her son James VI. She spent some of her childhood there, and later had her son baptized there. The town of Stirling is also known for battles during the Wars of Independence, including one where William Wallace defeated English forces.
We had our little history lesson in the courtyard, then broke off to explore, much like the day before. There are numerous options, and many of the rooms are staffed with actors (dressed in period) playing maids or knights who are there to answer questions. What’s also different about this castle is that some of the rooms are furnished as they would have been in Mary’s time. There are so many different parts of the castle to see, we didn’t get to all of them!
We wandered through the queen’s bedchamber (a well-furnished room), then made our way through a hall with colorful, elaborate painted portrait tiles on the ceiling, and tapestries of unicorns on the walls. We also stopped in the dining room, the chapel, the garden, an expansive terrace with a view of the forest, and the throne room, where we took pictures at the two thrones behind a long table. One of the more elaborate exhibits was the kitchen, where lifelike figures were displayed as though in the middle of a busy castle kitchen, complete with realistic-looking food and supplies.
After getting back on our bus, we started making our way into the highlands. It had warmed up by this time, the sun still poking out here and there; thankfully it made a nice debut as we pulled over in the middle of a picturesque country road. A nice breeze made the the wildflowers sway like an orchestra—I even spotted some wild thistle! We stopped to take in the scenery and pet the brown cows that gathered by the fence. (Sadly, the highland cows weren’t interested in us.)
When we reached Trossachs National Park we stopped at a lookout to take photos of the endless trees, rising and dipping to the sway of the land. For lunch, we continued on to the visitor’s center to their café; the dining area has wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows that provide panoramic views of the dense forest below. It was a great view to have while I chowed down on a satisfyingly filling chili burger—in some ways it was like being amid the trees.
From there we boarded the bus again, and in about a half hour we stopped in a small village called Balmaha, on the shores of Loch Lomond. Docked sailboats and motorboats made a pretty picture on the lake as we passed by on our way to a trailhead and swatted at midges (gnats.)
The climb was somewhat steep, but was not lacking in foliage, and the path was clear. It was a pretty short hike to a clearing of flat rock at the top, and on either side Loch Lomond shone through the trees and mist. Even on a cloudy day the water shimmered beneath the distant mountains. This breathtaking scenery absolutely was worth the midges!
The path continued on, but sadly, we had to get back to Edinburgh, so we headed back down the way we came and hopped back on the bus. Back in the city, we said good-bye to our lovely local guide, and were free to wander the city once more.
Some of us had wanted to tour Mary King’s Close, but it was sold out, so wander is basically what we did. It was the birthday of one of our new friends, so a handful of us went over to Patisserie Valerie for some decadent desserts—I enjoyed a sweet and fluffy coffee eclair. After that, more wandering and popping into shops.
A few of us ended up back in New Town, browsing Princes Street for somewhere to eat dinner. We turned on to Shandwick Place, and after some deliberation, chose a tavern called The Grosvenor. The meal I had here was perhaps my favorite in Scotland—fish and chips!
Here I had exactly the kind of authentic experience I was after. Hand-battered haddock strips with a tasty tartar sauce (which I don’t normally like) that had a hint of mint and lemon in it. I had a pint of Belhaven Best to go with, and it was a good end to a good day. We were to go to York the next day, so the rest of the evening was bittersweet with the thought of leaving this remarkable city, but anticipation for experiences to come.
Though there were more things I would have liked to do, I was in no way dissatisfied with my time in Edinburgh. I very much enjoyed getting to know Scotland, and now just hope I’ll be able to go back someday.