Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Slàinte mhath: Cheers to Scotland!

Edinburgh's New Town, with the Nor Loch in the background
My latest adventure: a week-long trip to Scotland with my 3èmes (equivalent of 9th graders)!  This was the first school trip I'd be going on where I wasn't actually a student - weird!

Ferry route from IJmuiden, Netherlands to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
We had quite the voyage to actually get from Forbach to our ultimate destination of Edinburgh...Step 1: Drive from Forbach to IJmuiden, Holland. Step 2: Take a ferry overnight from IJmuiden to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Step 3: Drive up to Edinburgh.

After about 6 hours of driving, we arrived in IJmuiden - the closest port to Amsterdam.  We boarded the ferry (along with about 1300 other people, plus cars and buses) and shoved off at about 5 pm, due to arrive in Newcastle at 9 the next morning.  In light of the recent tragedy involving the ferry which just sunk off the coast of South Korea, it was hard to be completely at ease, but we had a decent time on our journey nonetheless.    

Our ferry, the King Seaways
After dinner, some drinks on the top deck and an evening listening to some cheesy on-board entertainment in the lounge, we settled in to our tiny, clunky cabin for the night, eager to disembark and begin the real part of our trip the next morning.  

Sunset over the North Sea
We docked and finally rejoined our bus around 10 o'clock, en route for Edinburgh, Scotland with a side-trip to Greenhead, England to break up the day a bit.  At Greenhead there's a Roman Army Museum showcasing the life of the Roman soldiers who lived in the area and who were ultimately responsible for the construction of Hadrian's Wall. Artifacts in the museum show everything from clothing to tools and weapons, and there's even a 3D film you can catch which further details soldiers' lives along the wall.  

At the Roman Army Museum in Greenhead, England
Begun in 122 AD, Hadrian's Wall was ordered by the Roman Emperor Hadrian with the purpose of creating a barrier between his Empire and the savage barbarians who were living in the northern part of modern-day Great Britain.  Running from Newcastle and the North Sea west across the island to Carlisle and the Irish Sea, the wall is about 73 miles long.  Originally about 6 feet wide and upwards of 20 feet tall, historians estimate that the wall was composed of some 18 million stones!  It's thought that a soldier could hew one stone every 20 minutes, so you can imagine how many man hours it took to get this massive job done.    

Traditionally, the boundaries of the Roman Empire were dotted with watch towers and small forts from which soldiers could guard against invaders.  As the Empire in its heyday was constantly expanding, it didn't make sense to waste lots of resources constructing concrete barriers at its limits, as the Emperor's control was constantly seeping further past yesterday's established frontiers.  Hadrian's Wall, then, was something new for the Empire - for once, they decided to spend lots of effort constructing a boundary that would essentially halt the expansion of Roman territory.  While Hadrian claimed that the wall was to keep out the barbarians who lived north of the frontier, modern historians think that he simply wanted to keep his previously idle soldiers busy.  Evidence shows that the barbarians weren't particularly menacing towards the Romans and didn't have ambitions of trying to invade Roman territory, partly because the craggy landscape would have made it extremely difficult anyways.  Whatever the real motives, ruins of the wall still stand today and are well-preserved in some areas, like those at Walltown Quarry and Walltown Crags in Greenhead.

Crags separate former barbarian lands (left) from the higher Roman controlled area (right)
I had been told that it's quite windy by the Wall, but I severely underestimate the strength of the gusts we encountered on our trek! We had to pass through some sheep pastures on the way up to the top - I was slightly envious of their thick wool coats at that point.

Hiking through a sheep pasture on our way up to Hadrian's Wall
And then after a bit of huffing and puffing, we finally made it up to the top where we could take in the Wall as well as the beautiful panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Bracing myself against the insane wind up at the Wall
Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall isn't quite as high as it used to be, but considering it's nearly 2000 years old it still amazes me that there is anything left at all!
Sitting on a little piece of ancient history - with super fashionable windswept hair, no less!
And for all my fellow Game of Thrones fans (lots of free time in France = binge watching TV shows online!), the series' creator George R.R. Martin has confirmed that The Wall, which figures prominently in the show and protects the realm from the dreaded White Walkers, was indeed inspired by Hadrian's Wall - and this map of the mythical lands from the show bears a striking resemblance to the aforementioned map showing Hadrian's Wall crossing England....some food for thought!

Map of The Wall from Game of Thrones
Springtime is lambing season, and that means you'll see loads of cute little lambs scampering about! I actually couldn't believe how many sheep there were in general - every field and hillside is covered with the fluffy little critters and their baah-ing resonates across the landscape. Farmers actually spray paint either a number or a colored dot on the lambs (and often on the adults as well) so that in case they escape they can be easily identified and returned to their proper owner. 

More sheep facts: black-faced sheep come from Scotland, and white-faced sheep hail from England. Now you know!

In the height of lambing season
Continuing on from Greenhead, we crossed the border into Scotland and arrived in the environs of Edinburgh* later that evening. [*"Edinburgh" does not, in fact, rhyme with "Pittsburgh" - say "ED-in-burr-uh"!] Instead of staying in a hotel during our trip, as in common for field trips in the US, all 39 of us were lodged with Scottish host families in hopes of providing a more authentic cultural perspective - and forcing the students to practice their English, of course!   

We stayed in a city called Dalkeith, about a 20 minute drive from downtown Edinburgh.  I shared a host family with one of the other English teachers, and we had quite the host mom!  Karoline, the tattooed grandma was a chatty spitfire who had a knack for cooking and loved watching Judge Judy reruns.  She was quite happy to be welcoming fluent English-speakers, as the past few groups she had staying with her spoke extremely limited English, or none at all. Her trick for communicating with them? She'd jump on GoogleTranslate on her laptop and type them a message! I enjoyed talking with her, even though I occasionally had to ask her to repeat herself because I couldn't get past her thick Scottish accent - if I had issues with it, I can only imagine how our students must have felt upon arrival!  All in all, we had at great time at Karoline's and I think the rest of the students enjoyed their home stays as well.

Rachael the Giant!
For our first full day in Edinburgh, we began with a visit to Camera Obscura, a museum of optical illusions.  They had all sorts of interactive displays, with things like a mirror maze, human kaleidoscope, magic eye puzzles, and other parlor trick type activities.  On the top floor, you go into a dark room (a camera obscura, in Latin) and get to see a live image of the city projected onto a table in the center of the room. Built just for fun in the 1850's by Mary Theresa Short, the device, also called a camera obscura, uses mirrors and lenses to pass a live-feed image of Edinburgh through a periscope and onto a surface in the dark room.  

A diagram showing the basic workings of a camera obscura
We had fun checking out all the different exhibits and then the teachers and I headed off to lunch...

My head on a platter!
Not surprisingly, we wound up at a pub - called The Halfway House, it's supposedly Edinburgh's smallest tavern.  Of course, we were in search of authentic Scottish cuisine and a refreshing pint, so haggis and hard cider was an easy decision.  For the cider bit, the title of this post is the Scots way to say cheers: Slàinte mhath [pronounced: SLANJ-uh VAH] - let's just say we had plenty of opportunities to practice our pronunciation!  And what the heck is haggis, you ask?  A traditional Scottish sausage, haggis is a mixture of chopped sheep liver, heart and lungs, mixed with oatmeal, suet and lots of pepper, all packed inside a sheep's stomach.  I ordered haggis, neeps and tatties: ground up haggis sausage accompanied by sides of mashed potatoes and mashed turnips.  Served steaming hot out of the oven, the haggis didn't actually taste too crazy - it had the consistency of lumpy oatmeal and basically tasted like pepper.  It wasn't disgusting, but it also wasn't anything I'd expressly order again - but I'm glad I tried it!

Haggis, Neeps & Tatties
Full of traditional Scottish fare, we trotted back up the Royal Mile (the street which runs between Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle) to take a self-guided tour of the latter.

The Edinburgh Castle complex
Perched high above the city on top of Castle Rock, the fortress sits atop the remains of an extinct volcano - it last erupted about 350 million years ago - providing an excellent vantage point on the city and creating a natural defense against invaders.

The Castle's entrance
At the Castle, you can visit the 12th-century St. Margaret's chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh), the Royal Palace, Great Hall, National War Memorial, and many other structures, including the building that holds the Royal Honours of Scotland (the crown jewels!).  

The One O'Clock Gun
At the Castle sits the One O'Clock Gun.  Used everyday, it fires at precisely 1:00 pm to serve as a time signal for the city as well as ships at the harbor of Leith and those in the Firth of Forth.  An audible signal was preferred as it's often so foggy in Edinburgh that trying to see the time on the face of a clock could be troublesome.  And why fire at 1:00? Why not at noon?  Well, Scots are known for penny-pinching, and they decided it would be less costly to fire a single shot at 1:00 versus 12 shots at 12:00...  

The Dragoon Museum
Buildings at the Castle also house the regimental museum for the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (aka bagpipers!), and you can go in to listen to bagpipe music from different centuries and admire the crazy kilts and other outfits that these royal musicians wear.

Staring down a cannon into the city
Some of the Royal Armor collection
Many exhibits showcase Scottish military history, displaying royal armor, medals of honor, weapons and other sorts of military paraphernalia, such as Mons Meg, the Castle's infamous cannon.  Dating from the 15th century, the cannon weighs over 7 tons and has a 20" caliber, making it one of the largest cannons in the world.  First used in sieges, the cannon later was only used for ceremonial occasions until its barrel burst in 1680, permanently retiring the bombard.

Mons Meg can fire cannonballs weighing 330 lbs!
The Scottish flag waving over the city
The theme of our next day in Edinburgh was rather sinister: we visited Mary King's Close and the Edinburgh Dungeon....

Inside Mary King's Close
What's a "close," anyway?  In British English, a close is a narrow street along which you'll find private houses or apartments and little shops. Who was Mary King?  She was the daughter of Alexander King, a 17th century lawyer who owned multiple properties along the close - closes were usually named after a prominent resident or had something to do with the purpose of the street (ex: Fleshmarket Close was named after the meat market in Edinburgh and the close led to the city's slaughterhouse).  Today, Mary King's Close is, quite literally, closed in - parts of the close's buildings were razed to make way for the Royal Exchange and City Chambers which were built on top of it.  This close was originally 7 stories tall, and the picture above illustrates just how narrow it was - back in the Middle Ages, I don't think you'd be seeing much sunlight down at the bottom!  

The Plague Doctor and his raven-like costume
Due to various factors, closes became quite unsanitary places to live.  Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions (people shouting "gardyloo!" would ritualistically empty their chamber pots into the streets twice a day), vermin infestations and lack of clean air helped turn the closes into prime breeding grounds for the plague. 

Originally thought to have been caused by "bad air," the plague was actually spread by fleas tagging along on rats who lived alongside the people in the closes.  The fleas would jump off the rats and bite the humans, infecting them with one of two types of the plague: pneumonic (in the lungs) or bubonic (in the lymph nodes). Medicine during the Middle Ages wasn't quite as advanced as it is today, and consequently the chance you'd survive the plague once infected wasn't very high.  Plague Doctors would treat the sick, dressed in a raven-like costume made of a floor-length leather robe and beaked mask (full of aromatic herbs thought to purify the air they breathed).  They believed that this get-up would keep the "bad air" away from them and thus lessen the likelihood of them getting sick.  Interestingly enough, it did protect them - from the fleas, not the air! In addition, if your family was sent off to quarantine once infected, a "foul clegner" (or "plague cleaner") would come to your home and burn your belongings in the center of a room, in hopes of cleansing the air and eradicating the sickness.  Curiously, the smoke from the fire would make the rats (and their piggy-backing fleas) vacate the area, thus taking the source of the sickness with them. Two interesting instances of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons!

Gardyloo! comes from the French garde à l'eau meaning "look out for the water"
The tour through Mary King's Close gives an interesting look at how people lived on this street between the 16th and 19th centuries - you can check out some small homes and workshops to see just how cramped the people who lived here must have been! But visitor beware: the close is supposedly haunted - our tour guide shared some local legends and spooky locales within the street.

Next stop: the Edinburgh Dungeon! Over the course of an 80-minute tour of a haunted house-like attraction, live actors in period costume lead you through 1000 years of Scottish legend and lore. Each room of the tour has a different theme, from a medieval courtroom to cannibalistic swampland, torture chamber (where I was picked to be locked in a cage!) to anatomy lab. It's really a visit for all the senses: there are rank smells diffused to match the different surroundings, startling sound effects, total darkness, water jets and more. We got quite the education on William Wallace, the body snatchers Burke & Hare, and Half-Hangit Maggie, just to name a few. I won't give away all the surprises - if you're in the city you should check it out yourself!

A print showing witch hangings in Edinburgh during the 16th century
To continue on the same gruesome wave, much like the famous Witch Trials that occurred in Salem back home in Massachusetts, Edinburgh got quite wrapped-up in the 16th century Witch Hunts as well.  Many women accused of sorcery were given unfair trials and ultimately sentenced to death: by hanging, being burnt at the stake or drowning in the Nor Loch.  In an effort to be "fair," the judges decided that they'd let the Nor Loch decide your fate: the witch's thumbs would be bound to her toes and she'd be thrown into the lake. If she sank, congratulations - you're not a witch! But you're also dead.  If she floated, she must be a witch, so they'd burn her at the stake instead. Needless to say, Edinburgh has loads of ghost stories and haunted locations, for those who wish to believe...

Daffodils pepper the hillsides of Edinburgh's Princes Street Garden
The following day, we departed Edinburgh and headed up to the Scottish highlands on our bus.  We had a very informative guide named Helen with us for the day, and she imparted much useful - and some useless! - knowledge on me (she must have known I have a penchant for that!). I always find the story behind word origins fascinating, and now I can quickly share two with you:

  • Blackmail: The infamous 17th century cattle driver Rob Roy MacGregor was essentially the Scottish Robin Hood - he stole cattle from some people and protected the cows of others.  Farmers would pay Rob Roy tribute money (like with mob bosses) in order to protect their herds, usually composed of black cows - if they failed to pay, he'd be back to steal the cows in the night.
  • Posh: The story goes that rich passengers on ships travelling from England to India would write a special request on their ticket - P.O.S.H., short for port out, starboard home. They wanted a cabin on the port (left) side of the ship on their way to their destination, and a room on the starboard (right) side on their return trip in order to stay out of the heat of the sun. And now you know!

Our ultimate destination that day was Loch Lomond, where we were headed to take a picturesque cruise of the lake, but to break up the long drive through the Trossachs National Park, we stopped by the Famous Grouse Whiskey Distillery for an education on the infamous Scottish libation. The particular distillery we visited produces Glenturret Highland Single Malt Whiskey (meaning what's in the bottle came directly from this one place) in addition to supplying spirits for The Famous Grouse Blended Whiskey (whose mixture of whiskeys comes from various distilleries).

Casks of whiskey aging outside the blending room
Not being a huge fan of whiskey, I didn't really have any idea how it was made.  I had been on the Heineken Brewery tour in Amsterdam, though, and found that the process of making whiskey was similar to beer-making.  The tour brings you through various buildings where the different steps in the distillation process take place, and we had a great guide to explain it all to our group.  Unfortunately for our students, he sometimes used complicated words and his Scottish accent somewhat hindered their understanding.  English teachers to the rescue!  I took turns with another teacher interpreting what our guide had just explained in English and conveying the message to the students in French.  Yes, I've been trained to be a medical interpreter, so the principle is the same, but no, I didn't brush up on my bilingual whiskey distillery vocabulary before I came!  It was a little stressful at times (when you're not quite sure what some of the fancy terms mean in English, it can be difficult to accurately explain it in a second language!), but all in all I felt confident and am fairly certain the kids at least understood what I was saying more clearly than when our guide spoke!

Towser, the Distillery Cat and Mouse Hunting World Champ
There was a cool statue I saw on the way out of the distillery which payed tribute to Towser the cat.  Living to the ripe old age of 24, this cat lived here in the Glenturret distillery where she was on mouse patrol - all the stores of barley which were needed to make the whiskey were very inviting to mice!  She's credited as the World's Best Mouser after catching a whopping 28,899 mice during her career and is even mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Haymish the Highland Bull
Speaking of animals, we took a couple stops during our voyage to Loch Lomond and there happened to be Scottish critters at each rest stop.  Besides the omnipresent sheep, we saw the bizarre long-haired, curly-horned Highland cows, sheep dogs and Shetland ponies - I guess we got quite the Scottish farm experience!

A Shetland pony
After one heck of a twisty drive through forested roads in the Trossachs National Park, we finally reached Loch Lomond. Yes, it's that famous Scottish lake from the only Scottish song anyone ever knows (see below)....although why we had to learn it in 3rd grade music class is still beyond me! And no, there's no monster living in this one, unless Nessie came here for spring break too (Loch Ness is about 3 hours further north). A few Scots words that I learned during my travels - and which also appear in the song: loch = lake, bonnie = pretty, attractive or good; braes = hills or small mountains, ben = mountain (ex: Ben Lomond), and gloaming = dusk/twilight. 

We made a pit-stop in the town of Luss to get a nice view of the lake before we continued down the shore to hop on our cruise...

Loch Lomond
Quaint cottages line the streets in Luss
After a quick group photo, we finally made it to the boat and set off for our relaxing cruise - the lake was beautiful, despite the overcast weather!

The kids I had the pleasure of teaching and travelling with
Cruising on Loch Lomond
After taking in all the delightful scenery on the lake, we drove all the way back down to Edinburgh for our last night in Scotland.  We had a couple hours in the morning the next day to do some souvenir shopping (I was overjoyed to find some Cadbury caramel eggs in a local supermarket, as Easter was coming and I had resigned myself to missing out this year - thankfully I was mistaken!) and even made it over to the National Museum of Scotland, home to Dolly the Cloned (and taxidermied) Sheep.

An exhibit hall in the National Museum of Scotland
Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell
A statue of the terrier named Greyfriars Bobby, who loyally stood watch over his master's grave in the adjacent churchyard for 14 years
After a whirlwind zip through the museum - and a delicious pulled pork sandwich from a restaurant called Oink! for lunch - we packed back into the bus bound for Newcastle where we'd take the ferry overnight again to get back home.  By this point we were all exhausted - it had been a very busy trip - and our journey back to Forbach seemed to drag.  Ok, it did drag: we left Edinburgh at noon, our ferry left the harbor at 5pm, we docked in the Netherlands at 9am the next morning and didn't make it back to good old Forbach til 6:30pm - over 30 hours after we had left Edinburgh! 

Sunrise over the North Sea
We arrived back in Forbach on Good Friday, but it didn't seem much like Easter weekend here by myself.  Meike had moved back to Germany to continue her studies earlier in the month, so it's been rather quiet around here lately!  I took advantage of the time to catch up on my sleep and begin the arduous task of packing.  I only have one week (read: two days) left to work, and then I'm off to Paris to see my friends Lisa and Sam who are coming to visit for a week before we all fly back to the US. I can't believe it's been 8 months already - on one hand, it seems like I've been away from home forever, but on the other I feel like I've just gotten here! In any case, I'm really looking forward to seeing them and highly anticipating my return back home in just under 2 weeks; it's crazy how time flies!

Edinburgh's Memorial to Scottish novelist, playwright and poet Sir Walter Scott

No comments:

Post a Comment