Three families with a single free day in Scotland and too much to see.
EDINBURGH, Scotland — We were overmatched.
We were three families with a single free day in Scotland. Scotland had highlands, lowlands, lochs, firths, castles and abbeys by the dozen, haggis and bagpipes, tweeds and sheep, golf and the ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Scotland had too much.
So we kept it simple. With the help of Ian Byers of Stravaigin Scotland tours, we built a day around just three buildings — one at the heart of Edinburgh, two on its fringes — and hoped they would click with five parents and their four offspring.
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Our plan went sideways, but it was for a good reason: We wanted more time everywhere.
The big draw in Roslin — to the annoyance of copy editors everywhere — is Rosslyn Chapel. It’s unclear how those spellings went separate ways, but authorities agree that wealthy William St. Clair started building the chapel in 1446. It’s been on a stately yet crazy ride ever since.
It’s not a big chapel — about 40 feet by 70 feet, no taller than two stories at its tallest point. But it has flying buttresses, Gothic pinnacles and all sorts of carvings. Those figures include your basic biblical characters, dragons, gargoyles, waltzing skeletons, bagpipe-playing angels, the seven deadly sins, an elephant, a two-humped camel and more.
We happened to arrive on a half-cloudy day. Moment to moment, the stained glass shone, then dimmed, while the shadows sharpened, then faded — perfect effects for a property with a checkered history.
Guide Neal Hamilton explained how, for nearly 40 years, the site’s stonemasons chiseled confounding details into this structure. In fact, they were still at work when their patron died.
That stopped the project. And then came the Protestant Reformation, bearing waves of anti-Catholic violence and vandalism.
By 1600 the chapel’s altars had been destroyed, and the building was no longer operating as a church. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the overgrown, weather-ravaged building was a tourist attraction.
By the 1860s, the building had been reborn as an Episcopal church. Along the way, many old carvings were lost. A lot of stained glass was gained. And then came rumors of Christian skulduggery — the idea that the Masons, or some other secret society, had hidden something priceless, and perhaps theologically inconvenient, in the vaults beneath the chapel.
Is there evidence? No. But in 2003 a little-known author named Dan Brown made the chapel a key location in his novel “The Da Vinci Code.” The rest is publishing history, with about 80 million copies sold worldwide. Tom Hanks starred in the 2006 film, part of it shot on location at the chapel (which, by the way, the St. Clair family still owns).
Edinburgh Castle is the one place in Edinburgh that every visitor should stroll through, for the history within and the panorama below, with the Firth of Forth (a body of water) on the horizon.
Historians think the volcanic rock beneath the castle has been a gathering place for perhaps three millenniums. We filed quickly through the oldest building within the castle walls, St. Margaret’s Chapel (about 1130), before lingering much longer in the castle.
After all, the Royal Palace (15th century) is where visitors can enter the Crown Room and gawk at the Honours of Scotland (Scotland’s crown jewels, including a crown, scepter and sword more than 450 years old) and the Stone of Destiny, a breadbox-sized seat upon which monarchs were enthroned for many generations.
Be sure to give yourself two or three hours to do the castle, and three hours or more to meander down the Royal Mile, which runs from the castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
And leave time to pause at Greyfriars Kirkyard cemetery, where author and Edinburgh resident J.K. Rowling often walked while writing early volumes in her “Harry Potter” series.
Sheep Heid Inn
We were supposed to have lunch at the Sheep Heid Inn. It’s a pub and restaurant in the village of Duddingston, on the edge of Edinburgh, and by the time we approached it was nearly sunset.
While we ordered and ate, guide Ian Byers explained that the Sheep Heid may be the oldest licensed pub in Scotland, with historical references dating to 1360. (It was significantly revamped in 2011.)
As Byers spoke, however, I heard strange, chaotic sounds drifting across the pub’s courtyard.
It was bowling. More specifically, it was skittles, a predecessor of the bowling Americans know. It turns out that the Sheep Heid has been hosting skittles matches for centuries, and its two-lane skittles alley dates to about 1880.
For 20 pounds, about $29, you can take over both lanes for an hour, but you’ll be rolling balls without finger holes, setting your own pins and keeping your own score, because this is basically a 19th century operation.
By the time we had finished dinner, the lanes were open. It was a no-brainer. For kids (and parents) who had spent hours traveling by minibus, hearing about ancient history and keeping relatively quiet, this was joyous release.