In my last post, I had mentioned planning trips on your own in Scotland; which gives you a lot of freedom as to what you can do; but there are other alternatives that take the hassle out of coordinating busses and trains and will even save you money! International Programs, International Café and different clubs (or “Societies”) also sponsor sightseeing trips in and around Scotland and the United Kingdom.
Like New Paltz, Dundee has an International Programs center located on campus that helps cater to the needs of foreign students who either have a hard time adjusting or wish to find out more about things to do and see during their academic stay at the university. After attending an international student mixer at The Union, we were told by the program heads that there was a sponsored trip to Arbroath Abbey and Glamis Castle; followed by an afternoon tea at the home of one of the university professors. The trip cost only £10.00 for the bus and admission into both attractions; which saved plenty of money for grabbing lunch and a couple of souvenirs! The only setback with the system is it was done on a “First Come, First Serve” basis; meaning that if you didn’t get your tickets early, you would have to be put on the waiting list if someone happened to cancel. Luckily for us we got our tickets in time and had a wonderful time out!
Our first stop was Arbroath Abbey; where in 1320, 100 Scottish nobles signed “The Declaration of Arbroath”, which established Scotland as a nation independent from England. This was the culmination of William Wallace’s and Robert the Bruce’s battles against the English at Stirling Bridge and Falkirk. The Abbey was first founded in 1178 by a religious order known as the “Tironesians”. The striking red color of the abbey and its outbuildings is a result of the use of red sandstone; fairly common in the Northeast of Scotland. The Abbey was used until the Reformation when the last abbot of the church; Cardinal Beaton, succeeded to the rank of Archbishop of St. Andrews in 1522 where in 1546 he was murdered by local nobles after burning a popular reformer at near the castle grounds. What remains is the shell of the cathedral, an enclosed area where the monks put on their ceremonial robes, the cloisters and Abbot’s House. The tour was excellent and despite years ofweathering, many of the original carvings and details can still be seen in the ancient walls of this hallowed site in Scottish history. What I found most amazing was the fact that the feet to the large support columns that held the large roof of the Cathedral were still visible and; by climbing up the bell tower above the entrance gate, can imagine what this spectacular church would have looked like in its heyday.
From St. Andrews we travelled to Glamis Castle; a 11th century estate that was the home to many of the great Lairds of Scotland as well as the birthplace of Queen Elizabeth II. Sitting in the picturesque countryside of Forfar, Glamis looks like a fairytale castle with tall rounded towers and Italian gardens. Inside a series of secret passages leading to dank armories, opulent dining rooms and gilded bedrooms guides the visitor and does not cease to disappoint. My favorite part about Glamis was the fact that I got to see and hear about people I was learning about in my Scottish History course! It was helpful in that I now had an image of who these people were and the lifestyles they led. I highly recommend going here!
Before leaving for our next stop, we sat down to have a quick bite to eat; and this is when I met my good friend Haggis. First off, I wasn’t intending on trying haggis at Glamis; as I had already packed a bag lunch and wanted to have it at a traditional pub. However, because Jen had ordered it, tried it, decided it wasn’t for her (I can’t understand why) and I decided to try it. Haggis is essentially a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onions and various spices and cooked in sheep’s stomach for 3 hours. When done properly it resembles meatloaf and has a nice flavor to it; but again it isn’t for everyone. In retrospect, I don’t see what all the fuss is over this dish and made me wonder about some of the foods we consider “delicious” in the United States. Hot Dogs for example are nothing but “Meat Slurry” stuffed in a pig’s intestine; which doesn’t sound appetizing in the least bit. If you ever find yourself in Scotland and are offered Haggis, ask for a small piece and see if you like it; it’s at least worth a try!
Our final stop took us to the home of one of the professor’s at Dundee several minutes from Glamis where we were given homemade cookies and tea. It was somewhat strange to visit a stranger’s home; especially with 50 other students! But our hosts informed us that if we wished to visit with a local family for dinner or a day out, we could do so through the International Programs office. The idea intrigued me and I am currently thinking of signing up for the host family program in the near future. It is a good way to learn about the local culture, family life and where the best places to eat, shop and visit are. From tea, we went directly to Dundee and arrived at 6 pm. Considering the bus left the University at 10 am, we had a pretty busy day, but for my travelling companions and I, it was far from over!
The university is not the only place that offers group trips at cheap rates. International Café; located at St. John’s Church Hall off Blackness Road, not only gives international students a chance to interact and make connections with locals, it also hosts a variety of events and trips geared towards making foreign students feel at home and welcome. After we got back to our flat, my friends and I went to the St. Johns where we heard of a trip to Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye from November 6-8 for internationals was being planned by the church and café. Although the trip would cost us £50.00, it would include transportation, a weekend stay at Ratagan Hostel near Loch Ness, and meals at the Hostel. Overall it was a good deal and we’re looking forward to visiting two areas of Scotland known for their beauty and folklore. However if you wish to visit sites that cater to your special interests, there is another option available.
As I mentioned in another post, the campus is host to a variety of clubs and associations that range from rucksaking (backpacking) to Forensic Anthropology to History etc. Many sponsor trips to areas throughout Scotland and the UK for members to participate in. For example, if you are the type that is into hiking and seeing the beauty of natural Scotland, the Rucksack Club is for you; but if you prefer seeing castles and historic sites, History Society would be better suited. I joined History Society after hearing my professor mention it in class and saying how several trips to Edinburgh, St. Andrews and possibly Fort George or Culloden Battlefield had been done by the society in the past. Intrigued I signed up for the society and within days got my first invitation to a trip to Falkland Palace and St. Andrew’s Castle. It would be a great opportunity to meet other people with similar academic and career goals, as well as visit some wonderful historic sites.
For the amount of things we were going to see, the trip was relatively cheap. For the bus and Falkland Palace, the total came to £15.00 and we gained free admission into St. Andrews Castle (normally costing around £5.00). Our bus left Dundee at 10am and by 10:30 we had arrived at Falkland Palace in Fife. First built in the 14th century, Falkland went from private home to royal hunting lodge over the course of a century. Here many of Scotland’s most notable monarchs stayed as they travelled throughout the realm (most notably Mary, Queen of Scots, James I (IV), Charles I and Charles II). The Royal apartments of the palace were sadly destroyed by fire in the 1650’s, however the Gatekeeper’s house (converted into royal living space), the Chapel Royal, kitchens and gardens have survived to give one an idea of the opulence and grandeur of the Scottish Royal court. Every room is a treasure and the staff help guide you through the long and interesting history of this residence which is still owned by the crown. My personal favorite of the palace was the library; containing wall to wall books in a room where you can imagine a rich laird curling up in front of the fire with a good read after walking through the secret bookshelf passageway. Also notice the ceilings which have been painted with the coats of arms of the previous gate keepers and the copy of Mary Queen of Scots death mask hanging above one of the bedrooms. There is so much to see at Falkland you will not be disappointed!
Shortly after leaving Falkland, we visited St. Andrews Castle. I didn’t see the inside the first time I visited, however this time I was in for a real surprise! The visitor’s center tells the story of the construction of the castle and abbey from the 12th century to the Reformation and mannequins hiding behind blind spots in the exhibit make the story of St. Andrews come to life and very entertaining. We then got to go in the castle ruins; which I likened to a “Playground for Historians”. You could climb up towers, go over draw bridges and visit dungeons. One of the more memorable experiences of St. Andrews Castle was crawling through the mine and counter-mine dug by the attackers and defenders of the castle during a siege in the middle ages. When attackers hoped to undermine the castle to weaken the structure of the walls; causing them to collapse, the defenders heard their picking and digging from within the castle and began to dig a counter-mine in order to attack them before their plan could be completed. Both groups eventually met; resulting in hand to hand fighting, the defenders emerging victorious. When you visit the mine, you cannot imagine what these soldiers went through. The floors being 3.5 feet wide and about 4 foot in height, it would be very awkward to do any sort of fighting in such cramped quarters. It gives you a true appreciation for what these men went through and it is a must if you plan to visit! After returning to campus around 4:30, we went to a pub for drinks and chatted about upcoming programs and trips. It was a very productive and enjoyable day!
Joining a club, visiting the International Office and International Café are three great ways to see Scotland without needing to worry about booking tickets and hostels. Most importantly they get you to socialize and meet different people; which are a vital part of the experience of being a study abroad student! All of these trips involved busses, but there are other means of seeing Scotland without the discomfort of travelling down a winding road in a small bus. In my next post I’ll be discussing visiting the UK by rail!
International Office (Dundee)