Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline of Edinburgh, Scotland, perched above the town on the aptly named, Castle Rock. A fortress since the Iron Age (2nd century AD), this castle has existed in different forms and structures but exist it has, populated by Scots. It was a royal residence from the time of King David (12th century) until 1633.

I visited this wondrous place and found it filled with history and real treasures, among them the Scottish Crown Jewels (not allowed to be photographed), but take my word, they were glorious.
I will take you through the castle and revisit my time there with pictures. I'll start in the oldest part of the castle, St. Margaret's Chapel that has existed since the 12th century. Somehow it escaped the artillery bombardment that destroyed most of the castle in the 16th century.

The chapel is very small but quietly beautiful. According to history, in March 1314 the castle was captured by Robert the Bruce. He destroyed all the buildings in the castle, except for the little chapel.

The Great Hall was added in the early 16th century and is filled with swords, dirks, pikes, armor, and other priceless artifacts. The Great Hall was built as a place of royal ceremony for King James IV. It has a wooden roof made from wood that was shipped from Norway.

One of the places I most wanted to see was the room where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son who became James VI and I. He was King of Scotland as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the Scottish and English crowns on 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625. The tiny room looked barely big enough to hold a bed.

Queen Mary's rooms were a good bit bigger and more regal, befitting a queen. However, Mary's life was rife with unpopular marriages and tragedy. In 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son. She turned to the one person for help, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, that was instead her enemy. Elizabeth imprisoned Mary because she had once claimed Elizabeth's throne. For 18 and a half years, she moved Mary around from castles to manor houses before beheading her for treason.

There were many other things to see in the castle. Here are some pictures:

Outside the castle there are more places to explore. One of the most interesting to me was the dog cemetery, with headstones.

And this wee Scot who seemed to need a bit of help with that cannon ball.

Perhaps the grandest part of the castle is the view. The entire city of Edinburgh lies at feet of Castle Rock.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween in Scotland and Ireland

HAPPY HALLOWEEN! In Scottish Gaelic, the autumn festival is called Samhuinn. In Ireland where the tradition began, it is called Samhain. 

To the ancient Celts, this pagan celebration was about the turning of the seasons. The Sam in the Scottish Samhuinn and Irish Samhain means summer. Summer was over and the harvest was done. It was now the time of the year when the nights grew long. To the Celts, the 1st of November, Samhain, was the Celtic New Year, and the celebrations began at sunset of the day before its Eve.

For Celts, Samhain was a spiritual time. There was evil afoot on Sanhaim because that was one of the few times the veil between this world and the other-world lifted, allowing spirits to walk the earth. That included puka, banshees, fairies, and other spirits - some of them evil. That is where fire comes in - fire was used to ward off these spirits and was an important element in the celebration. Huge bonfires were lit and people wore ugly masks and disguises to confuse the spirits and stop the dead identifying individuals who they had disliked during their own lifetime. All inside fires had to be extinguished in order to be relit at Sanhaim with kindling from the bonfire.

The origin of the pumpkin jack-o-lantern is found in Celtic Ireland and has always been wrapped up in Halloween. The Celts used turnips for the first jack-o-lanterns, carving menacing faces on them and then lighting them and placing them at their door to ward off evil spirits and the like. Here's the story of how it came to be called a "Jack" o lantern:

"According to legend, the origin of the Halloween lantern can be found in the tale of a young blacksmith called Jack O'Lantern who made a pact with the Devil during a gambling session. He managed to thwart the Devil and extracted a promise from him that he would never take his soul.
When he eventually died, Jack was refused entry to heaven on account of his drunken, lewd and miserly ways. The Devil, remembering his earlier promise, also refused to allow him into hell. So Jack was condemned to roam the dark hills and lanes of Ireland for eternity.
His only possessions were a turnip with a gouged out centre and a burning coal, thrown to him by the Devil. He put the coal inside the turnip to light his way through the dark countryside where he still wanders......"

The tradition of trick-or-treat comes from a Druid tradition of collecting nuts, eggs, and apples from the people on Sanhaim. The Druids were the religious leaders of the people and if they felt the people were being stingy with their offerings, they may have played a "mild trick" on them.

If you'd like to learn more about the origins of Halloween, University College Dublin, has published a free booklet for Halloween. It explains the origins of Halloween and explores old Irish tales, legends and customs.You can download it free at

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Scotland Blog IV

Part II The Birthplace of Harry Potter, Edinburgh, Scotland

You only have to walk the streets of old Edinburgh to see and feel where J. K. Rowling got inspiration for the Harry Potter series. From the back windows of The Elephant House, Rowling could see in the distance, Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriars Kirkyard while she wrote the stories that would be loved my children and adults around the world.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle
Just down the road from The Elephant House cafe is Greyfriars Kirkyard, a cemetery where you can find the grave of William McGonagall, a Scottish poet and weaver, believed to be Rowling's inspiration for the name of Professor McGonagall. There is also the grave of Elizabeth Moodie, perhaps where Rowling got the name for Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody (even though Rowling has never confirmed this rumor). And what about the name - Tom Riddle, found on this tombstone?
Thomas Riddell headstone

Greyfriars Kirk
Rowling has said she often took walks through the cemetery that was close to The Elephant House and Spoon, the two places I talked about in Part I of this blog. Greyfriars is more famous for the statue of Bobby, the Skye terrier who is said to have held vigil by his owners grave until his death - 14 years later.
Rowling also found inspiration for Hogwarts school in Edinburgh. There's no doubt Edinburgh Castle was inspirational, but there is also a school nearby called George Heriot's School. Built in 1623, it is still a functioning and prestigious school that has four wings and four "houses" Castle, Lauriston, Raeburn, and Greyfriars like Hogwart's: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin.
George Heriot School
In my mind's eye, I see J. K. Rowling standing at Edinburgh Castle looking down at the city of Edinburgh spread before her.

View of Edinburgh from Edinburgh Castle
It was also in the city itself that Rowling found more inspiration for Harry Potter. As I walked the part of the city called Old Edinburgh, I traversed the streets that make up the Royal Mile, the medieval part of the city that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Many places along the Royal Mile reminded me of scenes from a Harry Potter movie, but it wasn't until I hit Victoria Street that I knew I had found Diagon Alley! The street curves and you can walk up to the top and look down on the shops that line both sides of the street.
Victoria Street/Diagon Alley

In the midst of Victoria Street is Diagon House - a Harry Potter store that is presented as “purveyors of all things Potter”. It was night by the time I got to go in the store, which only added to the magic! Stepping through that door was like stepping into the movie and if ever I get back to Scotland, I hope it's still there!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Birthplace of Harry Potter

Scotland Blog III

The Birthplace of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series! PART I.

Edinburgh is the capital and largest city in Scotland, so there's endless historic places to visit. I loved everything I visited in Edinburgh, but my absolute favorite was two coffee/tea shops where the creator of Harry Potter actually sat and wrote the first two books! But first a little background.

British born Joanne Rowling is the perfect rags to riches story. She thought of the Harry Potter story while waiting on a stalled train, and in the seven years between that day and publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, she lost her mother, married, had a daughter, divorced and slipped into poverty. She moved to Edinburgh because her sister was there, and it was at the cafe owned by her brother-in-law that she wrote parts of Harry Potter.
The cafe was at that time called Spoon, but it is now called Black Medicine Coffee Co. This plaque is on the wall on the outside of the building.
I explored the inside of the cafe and was enchanted by the different rooms and furnishings. It was easy to imagine Rowling hard at work here, her baby daughter asleep in her pram, next to her.

Not far from this cafe is The Elephant House. Rowling also wrote Harry Potter here. She was still writing here when the first book was published, but with her growing fame, it was soon impossible to write without being interrupted.

Inside the Elephant House are pictures of Rowling actually writing in the cafe,
but the biggest surprise was the bathroom! The walls, and every available inch of space, are covered in messages thanking Rowling for writing Harry Potter! They are written in different colored magic markers and say things like, "Thank you for making my childhood wonderful."

 I can honestly say, I've never taken pictures of bathroom graffiti