I was fully recovered from the previous day’s ailments, but Shannon’s injured toe was paying the price for the long J.K. Rowling walk. She would opt out of this morning’s activity — a cross-country hike to the coastal town of North Berwick, about two miles away.
Unlike in the Cotswolds, there was no detailed hiking map. We knew the general direction, but it would be mostly guesswork. No grey skies or fog this morning, we were back into California temperatures. I was already running with sweat with Fenton Tower still in sight behind us. A few twists and turns along seemingly endless vistas of barley fields brought us to a long gravel driveway leading to a ranch-style property with several outbuildings. We headed hesitantly up it, and were soon overtaken by a silver Mercedes kicking up plumes of dust behind it. The tinted window rolled down, and Bret recognized the driver as the person with whom he discussed arrangements at Fenton Tower when we first arrived (the rest of us were busy scouting out rooms). It turned out he actually owns Fenton Tower. And the ranch we were now on. And everything currently visible to the naked eye. He gave us a few pointers for the remainder of the walk.
“I hope we won’t be trespassing on anyone’s property,” Karen said.
“Nah,” said Mr. Fenton (I didn’t catch his real name) with a wave of his hand. “Everything is mine until the town limits. Have a nice walk.” He roared off up the drive.
We did have to hop a barbed wire fence with uncertain footing on the other side, but the rest of the hike passed uneventfully.
North Berwick was originally established as a ferry port, shuttling passengers across the Forth of Firth to St. Andrews or Kirkcaldy as long ago as the 1100s. A series of witch trials were held on Berwick Green in the 1590s. Nowadays, the small seaside town caters to vacationers, and especially golfers attracted to the many historic Scottish links courses that dot the area.
We nosed around the town, and clambered out onto the rocky cliffs near the little harbor. Other rock islets further offshore serve as a habitat for a variety of seabirds, such as puffins and gannets. On the North Berwick beach, a crowd of young swimmers paddled around a safe shallow area enclosed by a rock wall. The water was a suspiciously cloudy pale yellow color and wouldn’t be my choice for a refreshing dip, but to each their own.
News reports were calling today the hottest day in Scotland since 1990. We had a trattoria-style lunch at the Zitto Italian Wine Bar. Some of us decided to hike back at that point. Sheila, Karen, and the kids wanted to explore the town shops some more, and would return via taxi.
By the time we returned to Fenton Tower, my clothes were wringing wet with perspiration. Restored by a cool shower and fresh garments, I was ready for that afternoon’s big activity — touring the Glenkinchie single malt Scotch distillery just south of the village of Pencaitland.
One of only six distilleries in the Lowlands, Glenkinchie was established in 1837. Although they stopped malting their own grain in 1969, and recently outsourced their aging cellars, it was still a fascinating look at an insanely complex process that I could barely wrap my head around. Since I didn’t carry my notebook around, and was mostly anticipating the tasting at the end, most of the technical details I am unable to report back to you with any degree of accuracy.
Our guide, Kay, walked us through the various rooms in the distillery (some of which were searingly hot on a day like today) and explained the process and the history of the company in her warm Scottish burr.
We ended up in the tasting room with pens, notepads, eyedroppers of water, and six glasses in front of each of us, each glass with a splash of Scotch. Five varieties were from Glenkinchie, the sixth was a smokier peat-flavored Scotch from another distillery for purposes of comparison. (Glenkinchie specializes in very smooth, non-peaty flavors, perfect for a Scotch newbie.) We noted color, body, nose, taste, and finish. No one liked the peaty Scotch (except me, I liked it just fine), but we all agreed #2 and #5 were the best.
#5 was, naturally, the most expensive Scotch Glenkinchie offered, at several hundred dollars a bottle. #2 was a nice, mid-priced option. Bret bought us all a bottle as we exited, slightly woozy, through the gift shop.
For our final night in Fenton Tower, the kitchen staff outdid themselves with a three-course dinner. After dinner, we watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail in anticipation of our visit to Doune Castle in the morning.
Before the sun came up, Bret, Karen, the nanny and the kids were already gone, in a taxi to Edinburgh Airport and winging their way home. The final full day in Scotland would just be me, Shannon, Cam and Shannon’s parents.
This was originally an open day on the calendar at the start of the trip, but Shannon and I decided we couldn’t be this close to one of the most iconic locations in Monty Python history and not pay it a visit. Doune Castle, near Stirling, is only about 45 minutes northwest of Edinburgh. So we lobbied to have it included on the itinerary, and were indulged.
Our driver was a voluble Scot named Andrew (of course), who seemed jolly enough, but there was a certain intensity about him that gave the impression there was coiled volcanic fury just beneath the surface. He nattered on about the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, the Jacobite Revolution, current real estate prices in Edinburgh, the cultural and social differences between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the state of the greens at the Callandar Golf Club, the architecture of Stirling Castle, climate change, and about a dozen other topics. He hadn’t heard about Monty Python’s connection to Doune Castle, and seemed pleased to have another nugget of trivia to add to his litany of driver’s patter. We made it the entire ride without having to say more than “Oh?” “Is that right?” and “How about that.”
I know I’ve gone on at length about the beauty of Highgate, the Cotswolds, the Lake District, etc., but I think the village of Doune and its surrounding area has them all beat. We’d saved the best for last. The waters of the River Teith literally sparkled as it passed under the village’s ancient stone-arch bridge, and a light breeze ruffled the trees that grow so close to the river their branches dip into the water. It is no surprise that local folklore is rife with fairies, and a small portion of the residents still speak Scottish Gaelic. But none of that was the reason we were here.
We were here because of the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Some background for those who may not know…
Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a groundbreaking sketch comedy show written and performed by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. It aired three full seasons on the BBC from 1969 to 1972 (and a truncated fourth season without Cleese in 1974). They re-shot some of their better-known sketches for a 1971 cinematic feature called And Now For Something Completely Different, directed by their TV director. They weren’t very proud of it, and didn’t feel much ownership of the final product. They decided they would take total control of their next feature film, and over several drafts, crafted a King Arthur story set in early medieval Britain. They secured funding (mostly from rock bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, who saw it as a handy tax write-off), and began putting together a production crew.
It was important to the Python team that their outrageous comedy played out in a world that looked absolutely authentic. To that end, the film’s co-directors, Gilliam and Jones, did a lengthy location scout among the many castles that dotted the Scottish Highlands. They selected several suitable-looking ones, and headed back to London to continue pre-production, very pleased with themselves. Then, just before cameras rolled in late April of 1974, the team received a notice from the National Trust of Scotland, denying them the use of every castle they chose, haughtily claiming that the castles’ use in a comedy film “would be inconsistent with the dignity of the fabric of the buildings.” (Terry Jones has told this story several times in various interviews, and still remembers the exact wording of the Trust’s pompous refusal. Gilliam remarked that the castles used to be used for torture and disemboweling, and didn’t see much “dignity” in that.)
In a mad, last-minute scramble, the team managed to secure two privately-owned castles. Castle Stalker, perched on a small tidal islet in coastal Argyll, was only available for a few days and would appear as “Castle Aaargh” at the film’s conclusion. Every other castle, exterior and interior, encountered by King Arthur and his knights would have to be Doune Castle. They had to get very creative with camera angles and set dressing to make one castle seem like several. (Some castles seen in long shots were actually painted cardboard cutouts stuck on distant hills.)
Anyway, the film came out in the spring of 1975, was a huge success in both Britain and the U.S., and is now regarded as one of the greatest comedy films of all time.
The area now occupied by Doune Castle was granted to Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, in 1361. It was the location of at least a few previous fortifications, including a Roman outpost. Construction on the currently existing castle was probably begun in the 1370s-80s. Like many castles in late-medieval Scotland, it was simultaneously a residence, a military stronghold, and an administrative center for local government. The Duke of Albany (c.1340-1420) was one of the many sons of Scottish king Robert II. At three different times through his life, Albany was named “regent” of Scotland, essentially ruling the country as an uncrowned king during periods when the actual king was too young, ill, or incapacitated to do so. Like England’s Richard III, Albany was an cunning warrior and an able administrator, but his reputation was tarnished when he was associated with the death of a young nephew in order to preserve his own power. He had the use of several castles, but Doune seemed to be a favorite, and became his primary residence in his later years.
Upon Albany’s death, Doune Castle was taken over by the Scottish Crown, and was used by the royal family as a country retreat and hunting-lodge. When not occupied, it was administered by a series of “royal keepers,” and its upkeep was paid for by income from its associated farms, mills, and salmon fishing in the Teith. During the civil war following the de-throning of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1567, the castle was in the possession of Mary’s loyalists, but was taken after a three-day siege. During the Jacobite rebellions of 1689 and 1745, it was alternately occupied by pro- and anti-Crown factions, and was briefly the headquarters of “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” At that time, it held prisoners taken at the Battle of Falkirk. A few of the prisoners escaped from an upper window by tying blankets together. (One of the escapees, John Witherspoon, emigrated to the American colonies twenty years later and ended up signing the Declaration of Independence.)
After 1745, Doune Castle fell into disuse, and was in ruins by the 1800s. At that point, the property was privately owned by George Stuart, the 14th Duke of Moray, who began restoration work in the 1880s.
In 1974, the 20th Duke, Douglas Stuart, kindly came to the Pythons’ rescue and allowed them to use the castle as their primary location for Holy Grail.
In 1984, the duke donated the property to the Historic Scotland organization, who then opened it to the public. The audio tour is narrated by Terry Jones, and coconut halves are available in the gift shop if you want to clop around the courtyard.
To our surprise, Doune Castle did not just attract history buffs and Python fans. Evidently in recent years it has been one of the primary filming locations for the soapy fantasy-romance series Outlander. So now, awkward, nerdy Python fanboys in their forties who have had a possessive interest in Doune since it first opened to the public now have to jostle for space with lonely, multiple cat-owning women in their forties who are flooding into the castle without ever having heard of Monty Python. I guess we’ll have to share.
Driver Andrew had us back in Edinburgh before noon. Attempting to park and unload our luggage on the very confined Cockburn Street in Old Town Edinburgh, we finally got to see Andrew’s amiable facade drop as he yelled at other drivers blocking his attempts at parallel parking an SUV on a cobblestone street twelve feet wide. We were already outside the vehicle on the sidewalk, but we could hear him screaming “Ya fookin’ PONCE!!” from behind the rolled-up windows.
We checked in to our final hotel of the trip, the Inn Place, the facade of which was a comically narrow storefront, but a series of elevators and staircases led us to an expansive modern interior, carved out of multiple adjacent (and well-hidden) buildings. The lobby staff was, as at the Radisson Blu in Bloomsbury, a series of eerily similar-looking and very tall young women from somewhere on the Continent. Our request for an ice bucket for the room was met with a puzzled blink. (I think they gave us a large mixing bowl from the kitchen.) Our request for a 5 AM taxi the following morning also had to be carefully explained, and went down several conversational cul-de-sacs.
With the rooms and luggage finally secure, we headed out for our last full day in Europe. To bookend the trip, our last lunch (steak-and-ale pie for me) was at another Greene King pub. We decided to spend the afternoon at the National Museum of Scotland.
The National Museum is actually two buildings. The Royal Museum building (built between 1861 and 1888) has a massive, airy Grand Gallery, and houses a Smithsonian-like hodgepodge of exhibits based around loose themes like “Discoveries,” “Natural World,” “Art, Design, and Fashion” and the like, all in some way connected to Scotland.
The newer building, known as the Museum of Scotland building (1998), is connected to the Royal Museum building, but they were considered separate entities until a 2006 merger. The exhibits in the newer building are much closer in spirit and technique to the British Museum and the Museum of London — each artifact well-lit and attractively mounted, a map in or near the display case showing where it was found, and a helpful timeline dating it. In this manner, the entire history of Scotland was laid out in meticulous fashion over four gallery floors.
The heat wave was finally winding down, and after a fine sunny morning out at Doune Castle, the skies grew grey and blustery. One thing I noted about Edinburgh is that the bridges that criss-cross the city center often don’t look like bridges. They cross lower-level roads rather than bodies of water, and buildings are built right up next to them, making them appear as a regular city street. The South Bridge, completed in 1788, is a typical example, and the vaulted arches underneath it have become a tourist attraction in their own right. We scheduled a tour of them for 4:00 that afternoon.
The so-called Edinburgh Vaults have gained notoriety in recent years as one of the “most haunted places in the world,” to paraphrase the “Week In Weird” website. The subterranean arches were once an extension of the businesses lining the bridge at street level, housing workshops and storage areas, even taverns and lodgings. But as time went on, more and more illicit activities began taking place there. The vaults became homeless encampments and hideaways for street gangs. Bodysnatchers were said to stash their corpses there. They were finally sealed off sometime in the mid-1800s, only to be rediscovered by a famous rugby player, Norrie Rowan, idly digging around in the cellar of a property he bought on South Bridge in the 1980s. Rowan and his associates hand-excavated tons of rubble over the course of a decade, and several companies now offer private tours of the vaults. One of the tours on offer they day we were there was a “ghost tour,” the other was a “history tour.” Being practical-minded, down-to-earth people, we chose the history tour, which may have been a mistake. Our tour guide did not seem to be a natural showman, and the set of vaults we explored was small and all pretty much identical (masonry walls and ceilings, dirt floors, very dark — repeat six or seven times.) Any colorful story about them was debunked — no Burke & Hare — or described as “doubtful.” We did not have rocks thrown at us by the ghostly “Mr. Boots.” And no photos allowed.
Dinner was at an Indian restaurant called Shri Bheemas near the South Bridge. The food was fine, but the atmosphere was a little melancholy because we knew it was our last night.
Shannon and I turned in early, but were blasted awake in the middle of the night by the violently explosive sounds of the Edinburgh pubs closing and turning their patrons loose into the streets. Even through closed windows, it sounded like a crowd of thousands exiting a football stadium after a particularly exciting match.
Just after pink-streaked dawn, a taxi deposited us at Edinburgh airport. The departure lobby was seething, pulsating zoo of humanity. Hundreds of people each with seemingly six suitcases apiece pushed and shoved their way towards the ticketing counters. We stared, slack-jawed, for a moment. Then we realized it was all for the budget airlines getting people off on summer package tours to Ibiza or similar places. The sedate, welcoming British Airways counter was on the far side of the building, and conveniently almost empty.
However expedited our check-in process was, it was offset by the fact that our plane to London couldn’t quite make it to the gate. Therefore, we were herded into buses and driven across the tarmac to where an empty back-up plane awaited us in a neglected maintenance corner. We clambered up the porta-stairs and discovered they had a limited amount of pre-made breakfasts ready to serve. They ran out right as they got to me. As a reward for my having to wait for my breakfast to cook, I was given double helpings of bacon and eggs by Tom. Tom was the chief flight attendant and the possessor of the first truly posh accent I had heard the entire trip. He looked a bit like Ian McKellan with a carroty coif, or Conan O’Brien after being dehydrated and vacuum-sealed, and if I may flatter myself, it seemed he fancied me.
The delay meant there wasn’t much time to make our connecting flight from Heathrow to San Francisco. There was however, enough time for me to be pulled out of our boarding line and subjected to an extra security screening. After swabbing my hands, belt, pants, cuffs, and laptop, I was deemed to be a non-terrorist and explosive-free, and allowed to proceed.
A 10-hour flight followed, gaining 8 hours back to give us a super-long June 30. We “cleared” another totally abandoned customs inspection center, and emerged into the blowtorch heat of a northern California summer. Luckily, we were in the cool embrace of an Uber heading homeward within moments. The British heat wave finally broke on our last day, but as we unlocked our own front door, the thermometer read 105, and was unlikely to dip too far below that until September.
Good to be back.