Thursday, January 12, 2023

Kingfishers and Joy in Edinburgh and Glasgow

On our first full day in Scotland, we walked along the Leith in Edinburgh and a man stopped us: "There is a kingfisher about 250 meters ahead," he said. My heart leapt. A kingfisher! I had never seen one before, but how many times had I read the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem? So many times—I work at a Jesuit institution, after all. 

A few paces further, the iridescent turquoise of the small bird caught my eye. It was much smaller than I expected, but it swooped off its branch to dive, so quickly!, into the surface of the river, and flashed metallic in teal and orange, as if it really did catch fire. I smiled so hard and I didn't stop smiling for over a week.

We had decided to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary with a trip to Scotland, in the middle of the winter, the darkest, wettest time. Though the weather was dreary, the people were warm; the stone buildings damp and grey, the art vivid and thought-provoking; the trees leafless, the history present in every inch. Scott experienced food poisoning, and we walked about 8 miles a day. I wanted to gorge myself in every space and vista, so much so that sometimes it was hard for me to spend the time needed to absorb what I was seeing and learning. But Scott was the best companion, slowing us down with questions and reflection so that what I was walking through and reading about and seeing had even more meaning.

Here are a few highlights from our trip, starting in Edinburgh, to Glasgow, and back to Edinburgh.

The Dunstane Houses

We splurged for the Christmas package at the Dunstane Houses, which included special meals, Christmas stockings and crackers, and general good cheer. But, whether we had splurged for a special package or not at The Dunstane Houses, we would have received the warmest hospitality. Not only was our room beautiful and comfortable, the whole place smelled so good. When we asked about how good it smelled, we were told it was a proprietary scent. It was impossible to even buy that scent, a scent of pine and whiskey and age and leather and spice.

When Scott came down with food poisoning early in our stay, the staff worked to still help him feel like he was having a special experience, even though he couldn't feast. The refrain of the staff was "no worries," and they certainly helped us feel as if we had none.

We loved our stay here and would recommend it to anyone. Also, the Scottish breakfast? The best we had on the whole trip. The haggis is rich with black pepper and excellent smeared on brown toast.


The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Scott and I walked here easily from The Dunstane Houses. Here, I learned about Eduardo Paolozzi, the Future Library, and so much more. Scott and I were both moved and delighted by the collection, and we are still talking about it. 

Scott has a friend who backpacked with his brother through Europe and ended up here on his trip, and was so struck by it (and by the time with his brother) that he wants his ashes sprinkled in the pond out front. It's that kind of of museum. We didn't spend enough time here. We couldn't have.

The national museums in Scotland are free. 


The Water of Leith Walkway

We found ourselves using The Water of Leith Walkway to move between different parts of the city. It's a beautiful, peaceful walk. It's where we saw the kingfisher and many other birds and animals. It's where we saw many, many of the dogs of Edinburgh out with their people. It's also how we walked through Dean Village, a gold-toned mill town that Edinburgh swallowed, and how we got a sense of how both the mill and maritime industries fed Edinburgh.


Walking everywhere in both Edinburgh and Glasgow

We are walkers, and there's no better way to feel a place. On our walks through both cities, we experienced surprise, awe, longing, and joy. We heard and felt the textures of voice and cobblestone. We stopped for good coffee when we were tired, and everywhere encountered gracious people. During our whole trip, we did not hear one horn honk, one person curse in anger at another, or any expression of impatience.


Kelvinbridge Museum

We stopped in Kelvinbridge in Glasgow and saw some amazing things. But it is so much and all mashed together so there's hardly a breath between exploring Scottish wildlife and the Spitfire and Art Nouveau architecture and classical sculpture. We enjoyed what we saw, but if we were to go again, we would have chosen a wing or a section on which to focus and maybe made a couple visits, with a different focus each time.

Also, Scott decided this was a prime photobomb location.


Mixed Up Records

On a mega-walking day in Glasgow, we stopped in an art gallery and talked to the owners for a bit. One of them had been a DJ in the 80s and had been a very present part of the 80s Glasgow scene. His wife said to us, "You're from San Francisco. When I think of San Francisco, I think of its moment as the Summer of Love. Glasgow's moment was 80s punk." Scott, a former punk rocker, found his people with this couple. The man gave us a list of record shops that still existed—his focus was on the past, and he mourned the loss of so much that no longer existed. But he did mention a new shop, Mixed Up Records, that happened to be just off our walking path for the day. 

It was pouring outside and rain dripped off the jackets of those inside. It was warm. It seemed like people came in pairs or small groups; each entrance or exit was more than one person, and quite frequently, the group was multigenerational.

There, the pickings were good. Scott found records he couldn't find in the US. 


Riverside Museum

This was an unexpected delight. We learned so much about the history of Scottish culture through interactive, transportation-focus of the museum. We learned about Glasgow's tram workers, who volunteered together to fight World War I, and Dorothée Pullinger, who started a car company, hired women engineers, and when she couldn't find women engineers, trained women to be engineers. She was also a race car driver and general badass. We learned about how the UK has struggled to meet the transportation needs of their disabled population, and we learned that some cars might just be too cute to survive. This museum is great for little kids who can enjoy crawling in the tram cars and walking through the reconstructed city street, but it's also great for adults, because the stories are poignant and the combination of art and science beautiful. And the building? I've never been in anything like it.


Clydeside Distillery

We didn't do the tour here because we didn't have time, but I'm sure it would be fascinating. But, we stopped for lunch on our last day in Glasgow—the best lunch on our trip—and I tasted both the whiskeys the distillery produced on site.

Clydeside COP26 single malt. Delicious.


The Best Airbnb Ever

Yes, we had to carry our luggage up four flights of stairs through a dingy hallway, but once we were there, heaven. An art filled space with a view of Arthur's Seat, a fully stocked kitchen, a comfortable bed, and a feeling of a new experience in a very old space. The host, Carrie, was incredibly responsive and her recommendations were great. We wished we could have spent another day here. I wanted to stop in at the butcher down the block and imagine that we really lived in the Leith neighborhood of Edinburgh.


The Leith Collective

On the day we spent exploring Leith, our last full day in Scotland, both of us were a little grumpy. The day started out beautiful and sunny, but got wet fast and we weren't sure what we were looking for. We were disappointed by The Roseleaf Cafe for lunch—we had such high expectations—and didn't know where we should spend our last waning minutes. We were in a limbo: looking forward to going to our own home, bed, and dog, but also trying to grasp the last Scotland specific pleasures available to us. Luckily, when I was desperate to find a bathroom, we entered the Ocean Terminal mall to use the facilities. And while there, we discovered The Leith Collective, a shop that sold local art and used records. We could have easily purchased half the store, but we would have had to carry it all home. Scott found more record treasures that he is happy to have brought back with him. I eyed some art that I'm still thinking about.


How do you leave a place that you've barely made a dent in and may never make it back to without feeling a sense of loss? I hope we get to go back some day, perhaps during the long days of summer in which we can explore the highlands and visit islands. I hope we get to walk through the narrow, ancient passageways of Edinburgh again. Before then, however, there are many other places to see and feel. 

But right now, my own bed is feeling mighty fine.

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