From the moment I got accepted to Scotland; there was no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be traveling. Being able to explore first hand many of the places I had read about in books and learned of in countless history lectures was a goal of mine and one of the main reasons for studying abroad. It’s quite one thing to look at a photograph of Stirling Castle where the kings and queens of Scotland dined and ruled or Arbroath Abbey when in 1320, Scotland’s equivalent of “The Declaration of Independence” was signed; but quite another to be there first hand, in the actual dining halls, palace rooms and cloisters-feeling the weathered stones and admiring the beauty of a room that has seen some of the most pivotal moments of a nation’s history played out within its walls.
Traveling through Scotland and the United Kingdom requires a great deal of planning and coordination; spontaneity is a liability but patience is an asset. At home we’re used to busses running regular hours 24 hours a day or have the luxury of owning a car or some knowledge of how to get from one place to another; so in the United States we can in essence-travel anywhere, anytime we want. However in the United Kingdom, this model is flipped on its head. For example, you don’t have a car or license, the busses may run at different hours depending on the schedule for that day and unless you’ve been to Scotland previously and studied plenty of road maps before arrival; you will have only the vaguest idea of where your destination is. However if you make a list of the places you want to visit and research local bus and train stations and airports, you can enjoy your travels in comfort and ease.
Being a city, Dundee has easy access to transportation; the local bus and train stations are close to campus (roughly a 20 minute walk) and run services to towns and cities throughout Scotland, Wales and England. The bus station runs services from Dundee to Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London; as well as smaller towns and villages such as St. Andrews. Scheduling a bus trip depends on the length of the journey. For example, one of the first trips we took was to St. Andrews; a town roughly 30 minutes from Dundee known for the University of Saint Andrews and it’s world renowned golf courses. Our Scottish friend Liam; a friend of Andy and Katie’s who had studied in the United States, was kind enough to show us around our first week in Scotland. The trip required little planning on our parts as it was done during orientation week and the bus from Dundee to St. Andrews was a regular “hop on/hop off” that ran at regular intervals. We bought the tickets on the bus; which only cost us 3.75 GBP (5-6 USD) but we needed exact change in order to purchase them. It took us a half hour to reach our destination; however it was a fairly easy ride with no bumps or problems to complain. With Liam as our tour guide we got to see some wonderful sites without spending a pound!
Our first stop was the legendary St. Andrew’s Castle. First constructed in the 12th Century C.E, it was home of the Bishops and Cardinals of nearby St. Andrew’s Cathedral until the 16th Century. Sitting on the eastern coast of Scotland, St. Andrews was a thriving port for trade with Scandinavia and continental Europe. The closeness of the castle and cathedral to the coast demonstrate their pre-eminence of the Catholic Church and their political and monetary power. During the Reformation, St. Andrews was embroiled in religious upheaval as Scottish Reformer George Wishart was imprisoned at the Castle of St. Andrews shortly before he was burned at the stake near the castle gates. For his part in the imprisonment and execution of Wishart, Cardinal Beaton (the current resident of the castle), was murdered by the local lairds who stormed the castle through guile. The Castle and Cathedral would eventually continue to be maintained but by the late 17th century had fallen into ruin and were abandoned. Today one can still visit the castle and cathedral (which has since been turned into a cemetery and a host to 18th and 19th century graves). The Castle does give regular tours between 5 and 6 GBP but we walked around it and took pictures. You can still admire the battlements and stonework from a distance and the interpretive signs give you a good idea of the importance of the Castle to the region and to history. The Cathedral is free but closes at dusk. Many of the columns and arches still survive and the hollowness rendered by the ruins give it and the Castle an eerie but magical look at dusk.
We spent the rest of the evening walking along the cobblestone streets and admiring the old walls and buildings. Before leaving we went to a local “Chip Shop” where I got an order of Fish and Chips with “IRN-BRU”; an orange soft drink that tastes like a cross between cream and orange soda. The fish was loaded with salt, vinegar and breadcrumbs. The shop was like visiting a small burger shop so the food was cheap and fast. We then got on the bus and headed back to Dundee; arriving shortly before 8pm. Our first trip was a success; we got a small taste of the bus service and travelled outside the borders of the city and campus, but we had bigger travel plans which required more than exact change and free time to spend.
Inspired by our first trip out; we decided to call a meeting the following week to discuss travel plans and arrange reservations for busses, planes, trains and hostels. Aside from several smaller trips in and around Dundee (including Stirling, Broughty Castle and Discovery Point), some of us were going to Italy, Denmark, Paris, London and Dublin. First we agreed that if there was a trip we all wished to take, we would do it together as travelling in a large group would be safe, fun and cheap if we all pitched in on expenses. We also had to look through our class schedules to ensure none of our travel dates interfered with assignments and exams. Our first major trip would be to London: October 22nd to the 25, followed by Edinburgh: November 12-15 and Dublin and Paris towards the end of the semester in December.
After deciding where we wanted to go, we next had to book transportation and a hostel. As I mentioned before, there is a bus station that runs out of Dundee, but booking bus tickets can be a stressful experience. For the trip to St. Andrews, we only needed a basic bus that ran on a daily cycle; however for intercity travel to Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Glasgow, a large coach bus is needed. Booking for an “Inter-City” or “Mega-Bus” should be done at least a week in advance, otherwise the bus could fill up or you will have to pay high ticket costs. I found this out the hard way when planning our first trip to Stirling to see the site of the famous Battle of Stirling and Stirling Castle. Several days before I noticed that the price of a ticket from Dundee to Stirling was 4.50 GBP, and the return trip to be 5.50 GBP. Not a bad deal, but I decided to wait till the next day when we had enough people confirmed for the trip. That day I noticed ticket prices went up considerably to 6-7 GBP and I decided we re-schedule for the next week and book the tickets that day. We used www.megabus.com to get our tickets and by using a debit or credit card, you can get your tickets electronically within minutes of booking. The total cost of the tickets was 10.50 GBP and for that we got a large coach bus with padded seating for a comfortable ride. We were ready then for our first planned trip in the UK.
The bus ride was nerve-wracking to say the least. The fact that you’re in a foreign country does not help as you don’t know where the bus is going (ours was to make stops at Perth and several smaller towns before we reached our destination) and the small roads we travelled through seemed too small to fit a single car. An hour and a half later we reached Stirling. I planned the trip so we got tickets for the 9:30 bus from Dundee so we could arrive at our destination by 11:00. Julie and I booked our tickets just before the bus filled up, leaving the rest of our party to choose the 10:30 bus. While waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, we set about exploring the town and visiting Stirling Bridge. The Battle of Stirling has been forever immortalized in the movie “Braveheart” where William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) utter’s his famous speech ending in the dramatic battle cry of “Freedom!” However the movie could not be further from the truth; in fact in the movie, there is no Stirling Bridge. But in 1297, William Wallace did fight in the battle which resulted in the routing of a large force of English soldiers led by Edward I, leading to the creation of the nation of Scotland. Nearby lies the Wallace Monument; this rises out of the ground and is visible from the surrounding countryside. Inside is an interpretive center that talks about the life and death of William Wallace as well as the Battle of Stirling. Unfortunately we were unable to go as time constraints and walking distance dictated we schedule a separate trip. In the meantime we met up with our group who had just arrived and had McDonald’s for lunch.
I know what you’re thinking “Does it taste the same as home?” and the answer is no. Government imposed dietary regulations have resulted in smaller hamburgers, fries and soft drinks. To put this in perspective, what we in the US would consider a “small” is a UK “medium”. The beef and chicken are raised in the UK as well so the meat is not from the same cows that are raised in the United States. Also because of exchange rates, a Macdonald’s medium double cheeseburger, fries and a coke in the UK costs around 7-8 US dollars. It wasn’t very filling and for the same price you can go to a traditional Scottish pub and order something unique to the area that is also filling (more on that in my next posting). After lunch we began our trek uphill to the site of Stirling Castle; one of the most extensive and beautiful castles in Scotland. Built around 1107, the castle was strategically built on a large plateau overlooking the town of Stirling. This strategic location made it an important asset to the Scots during their war for independence. Both the Battles of Stirling (1297) and Bannockburn (1314) would not have occurred if Stirling Castle had not been built. The Castle has also played host to many famous Scottish Royals; including Alexander I, James V and Mary Queen of Scots. The Castle was added onto well into the early 18th century and was used as a fortress and barracks for the 93rd Sutherland Highlander Regiment until the 1890’s. The Castle was amazing in that the various halls, chapels and palaces made one feel like they were in a medieval maze. It was easy to get lost when focusing on the gargoyles outside the Royal Palace, the intricately weaved textiles hanging in the Chapel Royale or gazing at the lush green Scottish countryside from the 18th century battlements. We spent at least 2 hours wandering around the castle grounds and could have easily spent more as there was also the Duke of Argyll’s lodging and a textile demonstration, but we wanted to see one last thing before leaving. Towards the center of town lies the “Old Stirling Town Jail”; a relic from the Victorian Age that gives a glimpse into what it was like to be a prisoner in Scotland during the mid 19th century. The Jail is well preserved and the creepy noises of miserable prisoners given off by the surround sound system made the tour all the more impressive. Our guide was an actor of the highest character and extremely talented. Within minutes he switched roles from hangman, to warden, to prison guard and prison escapee without losing his audience; keeping us well entertained with a mix of melodrama and historic fact. The cells also contained life-like mannequins of prisoners that demonstrated daily life in the prison; such as getting inspected by the doctor, doing punishment and getting into fights. The tour was 20 minutes in length and a wonderful way to cap off the day. The site also gives ghost tours every Friday night at 8pm given by the same gentleman, we will certainly go back to Stirling again. We got a quick coffee before heading back on the bus home which arrived in Dundee by 6:30 PM.
Overall our trip was a success and cheap considering the amount of things we were able to do. The bus was 10.50 GBP, Stirling Castle was 9.50 GBP, and the Jail gave a special concession for students which amounted to 4.30 GBP. Feeling more confident we awaited our next trip to Glamis Castle and Arbroath Abbey, more on that in Part II of my Travel Log!