Scotland, Kilts & 1,000 Pubs

I am writing this a tad later than I had originally planned, as I’ve honed my procrastination skills quite well over the years. I even set a cell phone alarm for myself that was titled:

“You need to write your blog RIGHT NOW!! :-)”

Sometimes, you just have to yell at yourself when you know that nobody else will. At least I ended it with a smiley face. The power of positive thinking…

A couple weeks ago, Katie and I got home from my very first trip to Scotland. Katie’s entire extended family is from the UK, and her cousin was getting married in Edinburgh and was awesome enough to invite me. This would be the first time that I would be meeting a whole room full of cousins, aunts and uncles (yikes!). Might as well jump in all at once, right? At least, as I was told (warned), there would be a lot of beer…little did I know just how much.

We chose to fly the red-eye out on a Wednesday night because we only had the vacation time to stay until Monday. As crazy as that time slot sounds to most travelers, we’ve grown quite used to only staying in one place for a short period of time. In fact, when we went around Europe last year, we didn’t stay in any single place for longer than 2 ½ days, so 4 nights in one city seemed pretty feasible. Since we needed to ensure that we slept as much as possible on our overnight flight (only 6 hours), we sipped our way through a couple of glasses of cheap airline Cabernet before succumbing to a brief and rocky sleep. When we arrived, we shook off the exhaustion and began the process of adjusting to the 5-hour time difference. We quickly got directions to the tram service that conveniently ran from the airport straight into the middle of the city, dodging the rain shower and shivering in our not-UK-weather-appropriate-jackets. For those of you who haven’t been…pack an umbrella, and a sweater. If you see the sunshine during your entire stay, take a long and scrumptious moment to appreciate it, because it doesn’t happen often.

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After a quick snafu while trying to purchase our tram tickets from the credit card machine, we were napping on board and chugging into town. The tram let us out just a few blocks from our hotel, the Royal Scots Club. Normally, we would not be staying somewhere even marginally as nice as this place, but it was a popular choice among the wedding-goers and we wanted to stay close to the group. Once we realized that the hotel had a strict dress code for entering the dining room; however, we became concerned that we weren’t exactly the “target” customer. We met up with Katie’s mom (who had arrived earlier) and before we knew it, we were getting pedicures and sipping prosecco by 10am local time (5am ours), as if we weren’t already woozy enough. After, despite our desperate interest in exploring the city, we grabbed a quick pub lunch of cheddar & caramelized onion sandwiches and then turned into our hotel for a few hours of catch-up rest.

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Finally, we were beginning to feel a (little) more normal. We got ourselves ready and met Katie’s parents in the hotel bar for a pre-dinner libation. We were off to meet up with the family…the whole family. I’m surprised I only had one drink before! We left to meet everybody at the pub, which required a long and winding walk throughout the streets of Edinburgh. The walk really gave me my first glimpse into the style of this unique city. The streets were lined with slick cobblestones, with tiny, narrow alleyways (called a “close”) jutting off in different directions. The buildings all looked old and historic, with unique and detailed architecture. I was highly distracted by all the different bits and pieces of the city’s personality as I was led up and down stone staircases and around steep corners by my entourage. The streets had a serene and mystical feel in the crisp, quiet evening air.

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We stepped into the pub, which was selected because it was one of the only ones in the area with a large enough sitting area to hold the family. Most pubs are smaller and cozier, and definitely fall in line with what you’d expect from old-style Scotland brew joints. I was hit with a whirlwind of hugs and greetings, and a cold pint in my hand before I even got to the table. I spent the night chatting with everybody as much as possible and munching down some various pub grub to ensure that my jet-lagged brain could stay alert. Everybody was frighteningly welcoming and nice, and meeting so many new faces at once proved to be much less overwhelming than I had thought. At one point, a bar staff brought over free Bailey’s shots with whipped cream and various styles of sprinkles to decorate our own “cake shots” with. If you think that a room full of adults (of whom I was the second youngest) wasn’t completely enamored by the idea of do-it-yourself sprinkles…they were. You’d think they had brought us bags of money.

After a boozy evening of cold brews, tasty food and a few extra stops at other local pubs on the walk home (they were on the way home), we poured ourselves into bed like a pool of melted butter. I don’t even remember if I took my shoes off first.

Friday was the day of the wedding, but we rose early enough to take a walk around town beforehand. Our “activity” of the day was to find a small brass statue of a dog called “Greyfriar’s Bobby”, which stands to honor a 19th century dog that supposedly guarded his owner’s grave for 14 years until he passed. A quirky story, yes…but we figured it was a good excuse to peruse the streets. We came to find that the statue itself is pretty anti-climactic. It’s super tiny and would be easily missed if you weren’t looking. We rubbed its nose for good luck (as we were instructed) and decided that the pub behind it that bore its name looked more interesting than the “monument” itself. We made a quick stop on the way home at the graveyard where the dog was buried, which echoed with the laughter of children at the nearby school. This made me feel way too much like I was in a Steven King movie.

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We were informed that the drinking would begin around noon (the wedding began at 1:30pm) and received several disapproving sighs when we mentioned that we may be a little late. I was quickly learning that being late to pub-time in Scotland was synonymous to being late to a holiday or birthday. After braving the frigid air and unforgiving cobblestone hills in heels and a weather-inappropriate dress, we arrived in time to swig down a quick beer before they gathered us for the ceremony. The wedding was held at The George Hotel, which was really gorgeous. The reception chairs were decorated in whimsical white and blue, and the ceremony was brief, sentimental and did contain a kilt-bearing, drum-beating entourage which reminded me where I was. Afterward, we entered the American version of cocktail hour, but in Scotland, the scheduling goes a bit differently. Cocktail “hour” lasted from about 2pm until 4:30pm at which time we entered for dinner (frequently eaten early). After that, there would be a 1-hour break before the dancing and partying began (makeup check? Give up on those high heels?). The occasion becomes much closer to a full-day commitment and allows one to become fully engulfed in the wedding festivities. At one point during the cocktail hour, the bar actually ran out of champagne. No kidding.

The dinner tables came decorated with multiple wine glasses per person (shocking) and my first course was a local favorite, Haggis. I had been both warned about and encouraged to try this dish. It’s a combination of minced sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs), onions and various tangy spices. This is then formed into a patty, sort of similar to a pate, and surrounded by thin filo and covered in a creamy whiskey sauce. Surprisingly, I loved it. If you can manage to stop focusing on exactly what kind of meat you are consuming, the dish is bursting with flavor and mild spiciness. The sauce was hearty and complimented the light crunch of the filo. Success! My main course was a stuffed chicken breast and dessert was an absurdly rich sliver of chocolate tart with homemade salty caramel ice cream. So. Stuffed. We had to go back to our hotel over the post-dinner break just to digest and prepare for more drinking (so as to not be teased by the parents).

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The reception buzzed late into the evening with a whirlwind of spice girls music montages, enthusiastic dance parties and about 100 trips to the giant photo booth. Some attendees neglected to remove their photo booth costumes before heading back to the dance floor. It’s all good. What happens at the wedding stays at the wedding.

The next morning, I was feeling rough. I don’t have the resilience of my college years when it comes to day-long drinking escapades, so we searched the streets for a fruit smoothie, which felt like the elixir of life. By about 2pm, we received a text from Katie’s dad stating that everybody was already at the pub and that we were late. I almost tripped over a cobblestone. After some woozy walking and snapping some pics at the top of a large hill, we meandered towards the group, who had rented out a downstairs room at the pub for the family to spend the day in. We ordered some crispy fish ‘n chips, and I made the mistake of selecting water as my first beverage. You’d think that I had killed somebody’s puppy with the uproar of taunting I received. I quickly had a glass of champagne thrust into my hand in order to restore my dignity, and a casual afternoon with the family quickly turned into a 7-hour hangout and many more beers and plates of food. Nobody really knows where the time went or how we made it that long, but something about the smell of the rustic wood walls that cradled our boozy bodies was comforting and nostalgic. Pubs here really are in a world of their own. We don’t have much in the US that is as charming, welcoming and homey in such an authentic way. While part of me felt like I missed a day of site-seeing, a bigger part of me felt like I had really just spent a day immersed in local culture in the best way possible 🙂

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By Sunday, I woke with determination to see as much as I could before we left for home the next day. We started the day off by catching the Remembrance Ceremony in the center of town, which is equivalent to the American version of Veterans Day, and pays tribute to fallen soldiers. Afterwards, we took a walk up towards the castle, a local icon. It stands atop a steep hill and overlooks the entire city. The 11th century castle (and we think our historic monuments are old) houses the famous Crown Jewels and served as a former home for royalty, as well as a prison. We spent several hours exploring the aging structures and peering down long corridors and taking in the sites. The beauty of the view from the castle is that you can see the buildings of the city to one side, and the mystical expanse of mountains to the other. It’s a surreal “in-between” area that reminds me a bit of the Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence, Italy.

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After a few more hours covering as much of the city on foot as possible, we headed back towards our hotel for dinner. We decided to fancy it up a bit and got cocktails and dinner at The Dome, which was adorned with elaborate Christmas decorations and had an extra-classy feel. I chose a fresh mango salad for an appetizer and leg of lamb as my main. The lamb was absurd. I could easily cut it with a fork…the meat falling from the bone in a pool of juicy broth. It was complimented by savory caramelized onions, whipped potatoes and a generous scoop of tart mint sauce. The plate was about the size of my head, but I ate as much as I could squeeze into my belly, hoping to remember that flavor for the foreseeable future.

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It was hard to accept that our last night had come so soon, but at the same time, our short escape felt much longer than it really was. This has become standard for me. As we made the sleep-deprived journey back home and settled into our empty apartment by midday Monday, I sat and thought about the overwhelming sense of calm that I had experienced while I was away. The mindset of the people abroad—the kindness and genuine happiness—is surreal to experience for those of us who have not traveled extensively outside of the US. It puts so much into perspective. I always try to hold onto that calm as I tumble back into my daily chaos…hold it inside of me until the peace is a constant.

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4 thoughts on “Scotland, Kilts & 1,000 Pubs

  1. camillemae says:

    Scotland looks magical! How lovely to experience this destination, even if only for a short while. I am guilty of associating Scotland with Harry Potter (terribly uncultured, I know) so this excites me even more because I’m picturing Hogsmeade and such.

    Where are you from originally? Love this post!!

    Like

    • saraelena says:

      Thank you!! Not uncultured at all 🙂 the style of the city is like a different world…I could have gotten lost on those streets forever. I am from Manhattan originally and live there now, but I spent a few years in NJ and PA, so I have both big city and small town experiences to draw from…Just trying to see as much of the world as possible!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrew says:

    You neglected to inform your readers how the mother of the bride and her nephew kept the party going until 7 am and STILL had a pint in hand before you. 😛

    Like

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