Friday, August 10 2007
setting: Dunblane, Scotland, UK
While Rachæl had to get up bright and early for her hotel desk clerk gig, Gretchen and I could sleep in and get up whenever because Mum had said she'd drive us into Stirling whenever we wanted. When we came down Mum was bustling around as always, a hummingbird fueled by continuous intake of coffee. She'd been up late last night finishing the gooseberry jam and at least one other preserve. She'd already prepared us a jar of jam to take home with us.
As we sat there in the kitchen, she prepared us a multi-course vegetarian Scottish breakfast, complete with toasted tomatoes, mushrooms, and vegan haggis. Yes, that disgusting combination of sheep lungs and god-only-knows-what stuffed into a sheep intestine has a vegetarian version that is actually rather popular in Scotland. To me, it tasted rather like one of Gretchen's nut loaves, and it was delicious enough for me to want seconds.
At some point Mum found out how hold we were, that Gretchen was thirty-six and I was nearly forty, and she was amazed; she'd thought we were somewhere down there in our twenties like her daughter Rachæl. I don't think it was so much that we looked young but that we acted that way: hitchhiking around Scotland and not having a place set up for us when we got to Stirling. "We might seem like we're irresponsible here in Scotland," I conceded, "but back home we have a house and cars and jobs."
Mum dropped us off in front of the Willy Wallace Backpackers' Hostel in city-centre Stirling, and this allowed us to check in, drop off our backpacks, and hit the town. We went first to Church of the Holy Rude and then continued on to Stirling Castle, paid the price of admission, and then went walking around inside the buildings and around the grounds. We just happened to be there during the performance of a group of Canadian bagpipers (who performed with a group of young women dancers), so I took a lot of pictures of ladies leaping about in what I took to be traditional Scottish dress. I found the Stirling Castle to be a bit of an incoherent architectural palimpsest and kept wondering "Is this really the best that Scottish royalty could do?" The rooms seemed small and inauspicious, although a lot of this had to do with the fact that they were now barren stone, completely stripped of royal finishes by years of alternative uses (particularly during World War II).
We spent a lot of time at Stirling Castle, but eventually (and slowly, stopping at things along the route home) we returned to our hostel where we napped and/or read for awhile.
In the early evening we set out for the wild parkland north of the castle in search of something called the Beheading Stone, not knowing what it was but intrigued by its name. The stone itself, preserved imperfectly against graffitists in a stout iron cage, was much less interesting than the parkland around it, which at this time of year was an unkempt riot of purple and yellow flowers. It seemed like the sort of park people go to to avoid the restrictions of society. In amongst the trash strewn along the trail were condoms, and we found a young couple making out within a couple dozen feet of the dreaded stone itself. As for the stone's history, it was supposedly present for the executions of at least one duke and one earl, though it's doubtful a beheading would be carried our upon a stone, which would (it seems) tend to ruin a headman's axe, which a headman would want to keep sharp for his next gig.
We walked back to the center of Stirling on a trail that looped around the base of castle cliffs to its west. Beneath the castle in at least one place there have been attempts to stabilize the rock, the side of a crumbling volcanic plug. It's thought that on occasion pieces of Stirling Castle have rumbled down off the cliff in landslides.
For dinner we conducted a complete canvas of the commercial center of Stirling looking for a place that looked like it had good food but wasn't too expensive. Restaurant in Stirling seemed to be a good bit higher than all the other places we'd been to in Scotland. We considered an Indian place and a Chinese place, but in the end went with Ristorante D'Agosta, another Italian restaurant on Friars Street after being sold on it by a waiter who came out to the street to urge us to come inside. His name was José and he hailed from Mexico. I know this will sound strange to an American, but he might well have been the only Mexican restaurant employee in all of Stirling.
Interestingly, bottles of wine tend to be a little less expensive in a British restaurant than they are in the United States. Even with the bad exchange rate it was possible to get a bottle for less than $20.
Back at our dormitory in the Willy Wallace Backpackers' Hostel, eighteen of us eventually filled the bunks. It was a diverse mix of genders, ages, and Caucasian places of origin. As the night wore on, three or four people started snoring. One of the snorers had a painful-sounding phlegmy buzz going on that made me so uncomfortable that I stuffed wadded up wet paper in my ears. For her part, Gretchen had come prepared with actual earplugs.
Canadian dancers doing (one imagines) a traditional Scottish dance at Stirling Castle.
View from Stirling Castle.
See more photographs from the Scotland trip.
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