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Scotland Homecoming, Part 2: Edinburgh and the Kingdom of Fife

Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh
Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh

By Monique Burns
Searching for my great-grandfather’s legacy during the Scotland Homecoming 2014, I took a sleek, modern ScotRail train on a 50-minute journey from Glasgow east to the capital of Edinburgh. There I was delighted to find my hotel, The Balmoral, directly above Waverley Station. An entire block of gray-stone turrets and gables, The Balmoral has all the five-star amenities. Along with Number One, a Michelin-starred restaurant, there’s the brasserie Hadrian’s, a tartan-clad bar with over 400 malt whiskeys, and a Palm Court where afternoon tea (or coffee) is served in an elegant sun-filled room with flowered wallpaper and upholstered settees.

The Balmoral also has what few hotels, if any, have, and that’s a Tartan Butler. Senior concierge Andy Fraser, a hale and hearty Scotsman, with a thatch of strawberry-blond hair, guides guests to the ScotlandsPeople Centre directly across the street, where you can tap into computerized national records. The Tartan Butler can do just about anything to help trace your family tree, including arrange outings to your family seat and set up fittings with Edinburgh’s finest kiltmakers.

As it was already late, I headed to my room, spacious, thickly carpeted, and well-appointed with a down duvet on the king-sized bed, burnished wood furniture, a large-screen TV, a well-stocked minibar and a large marble bath. Several windows looked out toward Edinburgh Castle, glowing pale purple on its rocky hilltop each evening.

A busker in Highland Dress on Princes Street, Edinburgh. Photo: Monique Burns
A busker in Highland Dress on Princes Street, Edinburgh. Photo: Monique Burns

The next day, I climbed aboard a red double-decker “hop on, hop off” Edinburgh Sightseeing bus to explore the city’s foremost attraction—The Royal Mile—stretching from Edinburgh Castle east to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. A 3,000-year-old fortress, Edinburgh Castle is the site, each August, of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Part of the annual Edinburgh Festival, the Tattoo presents elaborate military displays, band and bagpipe concerts, and fireworks. At other times, the big attraction is the Crown Jewels, including the Stone of Destiny, a 336-pound chunk of red sandstone used in Scottish coronations. Wrenched away from the Scots in 1296 and taken to England, it was finally returned to Scotland in 1996.

The castle’s crowning glory might well be the Scottish National War Memorial, built in 1927 to honor Scotland’s fallen World War I soldiers and now dedicated to fallen servicemen of all wars. Hauntingly beautiful, the vast sandstone hall is a treasury of stone monuments and stained glass, with hand-written Books of Remembrance listing the dead. Even animals who served, like elephants, camels, horses, dogs and carrier pigeons, are remembered with carved cameos. Decorating the five-sided shrine are bronze friezes of war scenes, stained-glass windows depicting angels embracing fallen soldiers and a larger-than-life statue of the Archangel Michael carved from ruddy Scottish oak.

As affable as they are, the Scots have never shied away from a good fight. In both World Wars, Scotland’s contribution of soldiers deployed, injured and killed has been disproportionately large compared to its population. During World War II, Hitler scoffed at the kilted warriors, calling them “ladies in skirts,” but after a few hard-fought battles, he probably changed his tune.

What accounts for the Scots’ boldness and bravery? Perhaps it’s the blood of the ancient Picts, who tattooed or painted themselves blue, scaring off the well-trained Roman legions. Or the blood of the Celts who vanquished much of Europe. Perhaps it’s the blood of the Vikings, who sailed to Scotland in their longboats, conquered the Orkney Islands and other northern realms, then formed dynastic marriages with the Celts, Picts and Normans. Gazing at my great-grandfather’s photograph, I’d noted his steely gaze, the determined set of his mouth and the proud tilt of his chin. Somehow I knew that my great-grandfather’s victories in America, like mine, had been hard fought and hard won.

 The Burns Monument, Edinburgh PHOTO Monique Burns.

The Burns Monument, Edinburgh PHOTO Monique Burns.

In Edinburgh’s East End, below the green prow-like cliff known as Arthur’s Seat, the contemporary, glass-fronted Scottish Parliament stares directly at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Queen Elizabeth II’s official Scottish residence and the site where Knights of the Thistle are installed. See changing exhibits at The Queen’s Gallery, take a tour of the historic gardens, and visit the ruined abbey, which King David I founded in 1128 after seeing a vision of a stag with a cross between its antlers. Here, too, are the State Apartments of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots with her needlework and perfume pomander. Steps away, at the domed Burns Monument, I paid homage to Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet and, quite possibly, an ancestor.

Edinburgh is a convenient jumping-off point for excursions to the Kingdom of Fife, along Scotland’s east coast. A major Pictish province in the 7th and 8th-centuries, and later the seat of the powerful Earls of Fife, today it’s a seaside resort of sandy beaches and fishing villages, historic castles and cathedrals, and world-renowned golf courses.

On a day trip with Rabbie’s Trail Burners, I’d visit, among other spots, St. Andrews, birthplace of golf, and the site of 15th-century St. Andrews University, Scotland’s oldest and the third-oldest in the English-speaking world, after Cambridge and Oxford. It’s also where Britain’s Prince William met and romanced Kate Middleton, future Duchess of Cambridge.

Six of us, mostly young and old couples, headed up the coast in Rabbie’s svelte, white, Mercedes-Benz minivan. Crossing the Firth of Forth, we passed that great red erector set of a bridge, the Forth Rail Bridge. We continued northeast, paralleling roughly two-thirds of the 117-mile-long Fife Coastal Path, a walker’s delight stretching from Kincardine to Newburgh. Our journey would focus on the Fife Peninsula, which separates the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Tay, and juts into the North Sea.

Rounding the Firth of Forth, we skirted the former Scottish capital of Dunfermline, site of the palace where Malcolm III, the model for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, ruled, and the abbey where generations of Scottish monarchs are buried, including Robert the Bruce. There’s also a museum in the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie, the great steel tycoon, born in 1865.

We motored past seaside towns like Burntisland, whose pristine sand beach is one of only five in Scotland to achieve the coveted Blue Flag status. We passed Kirkcaldy, the “Lang Toun,” with its four-mile-long main street, and the birthplace of two illustrious 18th-century Scots: neoclassical architect Robert Adam, and economist Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations. Continuing to the East Neuk, the peninsula’s southeast corner, we saw signs for Lower Largo, birthplace of Andrew Selkirk, whose four years as a castaway on a desert island inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Then we skirted the seaside resort of Elie, with its gold-sand beach, two fine golf courses, and 17th-century historic sites like The Lady Tower, built for Lady Janet Anstruther. Elie is also the birthplace of James Braid, five-time winner of the British Open Golf Championship.

The harbor at Anstruther. Photo Monique Burns
The harbor at Anstruther. Photo Monique Burns

Soon after passing St. Monans, where a stone windmill recalls the town’s 18th-century salt industry, we reached the quaint town of Anstruther on the North Sea. Lined with whitewashed pubs and fish-and-chips shops, its single main street faces a lighthouse and boat-filled harbor. The Scottish Fisheries Museum, with 66,000 objects from across Scotland, as well as several 16th-century buildings, 15 historic boats and a tea room, is also right on the main drag.

Twenty minutes later, we pulled up at the south end of St. Andrews, near the first hole of the famed Old Course. Just beyond stretched the West Sands, where Cambridge University runners trained for the 1924 Olympics in the 1981 film, “Chariots of Fire.” For a couple of hours, we strolled the town’s three main streets—South Street, Market Street and North Street—passing students and professors hurrying between the university’s old stone buildings, and to nearby eateries like the Northpoint Café where Prince William and Kate Middleton often shared coffee.

At the far end of North Street, facing the sea, rise the ruined stone walls of 12th-century St Andrews Cathedral, once Scotland’s largest. You can see a carved, 8th-century Pictish sarcophagus, as well as a stone effigy of a Master Mason, in the museum, and climb a spiral staircase to the top of St. Rule’s Tower for panoramic views of the sea and surrounding countryside.

Memorial to Young Tom Morris, youngest golfer ever to win the British Open, in churchyard of St. Andrews Cathedral. Photo: Monique Burn
Memorial to “Young Tom” Morris, youngest golfer ever to win the British Open, in churchyard of St. Andrews Cathedral. Photo: Monique Burns

Littered with centuries-old headstones, the cathedral graveyard has a large memorial with a bas-relief of a curly-haired young man wearing a tam-o’-shanter and leaning over a golf ball, club in hand. It’s dedicated to golf prodigy “Young Tom” Morris, who died in 1875 at age 24, but not before becoming, at age 17, the youngest golfer ever to win the British Open.

Heading back to Edinburgh, we detoured inland, about 25 miles west of Anstruther, to 16th-century Falkland Palace, where Mary, Queen of Scots once lived, and early Stuart monarchs hunted deer and wild boar in the surrounding woods. Painted ceilings, elaborately carved wood furniture and 17th-century Flemish tapestries adorn various public rooms. There’s also a physic garden, with medicinal and culinary herbs, and an indoor tennis court, built in 1539 for James V and the oldest still in use.

Back in Edinburgh that evening, I realized that visiting the Kingdom of Fife hadn’t shed any direct light on my Scottish great-grandfather. But it had given me greater insight into Scotland’s history as well as the game of golf. I hadn’t inherited top-of-the-line golf genes, but some part of my inner Scot did enjoy the challenge and precision of the game as well as the beauty of the tree-lined fairways. As for my great-grandfather, he probably never found time to play. But he must have seen or heard of the game. After all, it’s been played on Scotland’s meadows and moors for at least six centuries.

IF YOU GO

For five-star luxury, choose The Balmoral Hotel, with 188 rooms, a Michelin-starred restaurant, a brasserie, an elegant Palm Court, a Scotch whisky bar, a full-service spa—and a Tartan Butler. Address: 1 Princes St., Edinburgh, EH2 2EQ Scotland; (44) 131-556-2414. www.roccofortehotels.com
The one-day “St. Andrews & The Fishing Villages of Fife Day” tour is offered daily, year round, by Rabbie’s Trail Burners Ltd. The adult cost is £36-42 (about $62-$72). Address: 6 Waterloo Pl., Edinburgh, EH1 3EG Scotland; 44 (0) 131-226-3133. www.rabbies.com

Log on to www.homecomingscotland.com and www.visitscotland.com.

 

Continue to Scotland Homecoming Part 3

 

Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents.  A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia.  After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.
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