Brudder Scotch: Scotland with Kids: June 2016

I read somewhere once that, “you’ve never been to England unless you’ve been to York” and I wanted to see if it was true. I’ve also read that if your son pees on the English/Scottish border, a kilt-wearing genie comes out of the sea and grants your every wish. I wanted to see if that was true, too. But even if it’s not, I’d still be seeing the beauty of Scotland, which is reward enough.

Day 7: June 18 - York, England to Edinburgh, Scotland

After exploring with our Littles in London for six days, it was time for Scotland. I wanted to drive from London to Edinburgh, instead of taking the train or flying, partly for the flexibility. I imagined pulling off the side of the road at a glance of some forgotten castle and running through a field of green, past a flock of sheep, to the stone and mortar treasure. Sappy, I know. But my dreams didn’t happen. Not even close. Truth be told, it’s kind of hard to see the charming shires of England from the M-1 because of all of the lush overgrowth.

The other reason for driving was to visit the city of York. I read somewhere once that, “You’ve never been to England unless you’ve been to York” and I wanted to see if it was true. As much as my field-frolicking-castle dreams didn’t come true, York met my every expectation.

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We arrived in York very late in the evening after our five-hour Harry Potter experience, a four-hour drive and a dinner stop. The next morning we awoke with urgency to see what we could of the mid-evil stronghold by mid-day so we could continue on to Scotland at a decent hour.

York Minster, walking the famous remains of the city walls and visiting Clifford’s Tower were our hot list items; we were able to do all three in four hours plus a little walk through The Shambles Market. We first climbed the wall at Micklegate and headed left, walking a large section of the old wall across Lendal Bridge and almost all the way to York Minster. Sunday services were just letting out at a Catholic Church a stone’s throw from the Minster and it’s chiming bells made it’s neighbor, the Minster and it’s intricate spire work, all the more impressive.

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From the Minster, we walked along High Petergate, birthplace of the Gunpowder Plot Conspirator, Guy Fawkes, with its colored storefronts and many chocolate shops (York has a rich chocolate history) to the Shambles Market.

Each member of my family commented independently about the sagging stonework and crooked leanings of many of the buildings, some of which dated back to the 1500 and 1600’s; they looked like things out of fairytales.

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Clifford’s Tower sits atop a lovely, green hill at the western edge of the city. It took every ounce of self-control for my boys not to climb it. I was very proud of them for resisting the siren’s song and instead climbing the less intriguing staircase to the top. For a fee, we were able to explore around the ruins and climb to the top of what’s left of the tower for a killer view of the city.

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We caught another section of the York City Wall just over the River Ouse and walked it back maybe a kilometer to where we started at Micklegate feeling satisfied with our taste of the city. But if we ever return to the UK, another stop in York is definitely on the agenda.

The drive up to Edinburgh (pronounced Ed-in-burough) was relatively uneventful now that we were more experienced with the roundabouts (and there were seemingly less of them than before). I pulled off the road at the Scottish boarder to properly mark the entrance into the homeland of my great-grandfather with a photo. And because I was the driver, no one could argue. My youngest boy did, however, take it upon himself to promptly drop his pants and pee on the border as if to mark his territory. My relatives, the Macfarlane Clan, just might have been proud. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

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We returned the car to the Edinburgh airport (because it was the latest return station in the city) and took the tram to York Place, which was just blocks away from our next Kid & Coe rental. A gorgeous Georgian row home with a tall, blue door greeted us once we rounded Nelson Street and seemed to say, “Cheers! You’re going to like it here.” And it was right.

TRAVEL TIP: The tram is a great way to get from the airport into town. It took us about thirty-five minutes to get to the York Station, which is the end of the line. If you will be leaving Edinburgh via the airport, approximately £30 will get you round-trip passes for a family of 5 (£8.50/adult and £4.50/child ages 5-150). Just remember to keep the tickets somewhere they won’t get lost, like with your passport(s).

Day 8: June 19 - Hike to Arthur’s Seat and The Royal Mile

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Our Nelson Street Kid & Coe host suggested a great local brunch spot called Urban Angel. We headed there after a quiet morning at the kid-friendly flat filled (which was filled with games like “Operation” and lots of storage nooks to keep all of their newly acquired Harry Potter wands) to fill our bellies before hiking to Arthur’s Seat, where the promise of a three hundred and sixty degree of Edinburgh awaited.

After brunch, we caught the bus on Hanover Street, just up from the restaurant, and got off at the stop near Holyrood Park. From there, the mountain was obvious. (There are several trailheads from here so be mindful about scouting out which one you want to take.) We took the first path on the right, which turned out to be the “blue route,” and went up along the Salisbury Crags.

The Salisbury route up was gorgeous, but is not the most direct route to Arthur’s Seat. After you hit the Crags, you must go down the backside of the hill and then up a series of switchbacks to the Arthur’s hill. Or, if you are one or all of the boys in my family, you’d feel compelled to scale the face of some of the lower crags and hike down the ridge to the switchbacks.

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The legend behind Arthur’s Seat is a little uncertain: it’s said to either be the site of Camelot (there isn’t really proof of this) or the body of a sleeping dragon that once tormented Edinburgh (there is slightly less proof of this than of the Camelot option). Regardless of the facts, imagining either legend adds great adventure to the ascent.

Prepare for an incredible view of the city and Firth of Forth (the estuary that flows into the North Sea) once you reach the top. On a clear day, which we had, you can see for miles. On a cloudy day, they say you can only see Edinburgh Castle and it looks like it’s floating above the cloud line.

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Also, prepare for the wind. Although it didn’t hit us until nearly the summit, when it did it was fierce. Couple that with the slick rock at the very top and even the adults had to lean in a bit to walk and take caution. The kids mostly flapped their jackets in the wind, pretending to be birds (or maybe dragons), and hardly seemed to notice.

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After taking in the glutinous visual feast for a good measure, we headed back down the mountain via the “red route,” which is less of a hike and more of a sloped meander. This is the way most people go both up and down the mountain and it’s a lovely option. On this path, you also get to explore the ruins of St. Anthony’s Chapel, which is about two-thirds of the way down the mountain (or one-third of the way up the mountain if you’re looking at it that way.)

We hopped back on the bus at Holyrood (mostly because we had tired kids from the hike) and rode the opposite direction two stops to the Royal Mile. That stop landed us mid-way through the Mile, which was fine by all the kids, and almost right in front of a vintage kid’s museum (with free admission and also fine with the kids). A total tourist spot, the Royal Mile is still charming with its cobble stone streets, churches and little shops. If you follow it up the hill all the way to its end, you’ll wind up at Edinburgh Castle.

Gelato, then dinner at an amazing cafeteria-style Indian restaurant called Mosque Kitchen, rounded out our first day in Edinburgh.

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TRAVEL TIP: Parking is tricky and expensive anywhere near the city center so leave the car and take the bus instead. Download the EdinBus app before you go. It shows all the bus routes through the city and will help you easily navigate the public transportation. Although they don’t have re-usable cards available (like the Oyster in London), you can buy daily unlimited ride family passes.

Day 9: June 20 - Day trip to Stirling

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Lured by the promise of William Wallace, we rented a car for the day and drove just under an hour northwest of Edinburgh to Stirling. Before we even made it out of the information area/gift shop at the Wallace Monument, two of my three boys were deep into costume and sword play; I couldn’t resist buying them matching hand-knit beanies with chin-straps made to look like knight’s armor.

With knitted armor firmly fitted on their heads and sticks collected from the woods near the Monument path, they were already channeling their inner warriors as we headed up the hill. You can walk around the Monument for free, which is pretty stunning in its own right, but if you want to go in and learn more about Wallace, the battle that made him famous and see the legendary Wallace Sword, you must pay admission.

Once in the Monument, there are also some hands-on exhibits for the kids, like a giant floor puzzle and blocks to make a replica Monument tower, as well as a really great view of the city and of the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

We lunched in the city and then headed up the hill on foot to Stirling Castle, once home of James V of Scotland and birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. We arrived an hour and a half before closing and nearly had the palace to ourselves. This, like the Wallace Monument, had some specific exhibits just for kids. Those, plus the canons and the elaborate (and some devishly funny) statues built along the east wall of the castle, made for a really fun time for all.

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From the castle we spied an interesting grass area nearby that looked almost like a maze; my boys and our friends’ boys were determined to find it after closing time. Called “King’s Knob” for the great elevated bump in the center, we found it by car and quickly turned it into a kick-the-can field. The boys and dads could have played there forever. The moms too, until we were the subjects of a mutinous, but playful, all-boy attack that exhausted all.

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TRAVEL TIP: If you plan on visiting Edinburgh and Stirling Castles (or Edinburgh and any of the other major sites not including the Wallace Monument), buy the “Explorer” pass for families. £60 will get you into both castles for much less than two separate admissions – and gets you in an expedited admission line. It is valid for five days and can be purchased at any of the participating castles/Scottish heritage sites.

Day 10: June 21 - Edinburgh Castle, Mary’s Milk Bar, the Scottish Museum and Kid & Coe Park

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We took the bus to Market Street and walked up a section of the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. Thanks to our Explorer Pass, we skipped the ticket line and went straight inside. The castle grounds were really beautiful, but what interested me most was the history within. Maybe it’s my family hertiage, but I loved learning about how Scots used to crown their kings and queens with a ceremony that included sitting on a “Stone of Destiny” before Scotland got permission from the Pope to use Christian coronation rites. It was also fascinating to see the rest of the Scottish Crown Jewels, of which the Stone of Destiny is one, and compare them to the British collection we saw earlier at the Tower of London. Hint: one of them is less ornate than the other.

My boys, on the other hand, probably liked the castle prison the most. It showed how Scottish prisoners of war, like the five-year-old drummer boy captured at Trafalgar in 1805, lived while imprisoned at Edinburgh Castle. My boys especially liked trying to make out the prisoner carvings on two old doors displayed in the prison replica and also all of the real hand-crafted contraband items, including an incredible model ship prisoners made out of seemingly nothing.

On a hunt for some highly recommended gelato, we made a sharp right after exiting the castle complex and then down a few flights of stairs to Grassmarket. Not only did we find several cute lunch spots in the Grassmarket plaza, but also the gelato shop we were after: Mary’s Milk Bar. This special gelato, which we had originally promised as a reward for hiking the long route to Arthur’s Seat but couldn’t deliver because of the shop hours, was everything it had been promised and more. And on top of the hand-made gelato being incredibly delicious, we got a stunning view of the Edinburbgh Castle out of the shop windows as we gorged on our milky treats.

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We then hustled from Grassmarket back up the stairs towards the Castle and down the Royal Mile, then off to the left towards The Mound to make a visit to the Scottish National Gallery (free admission) before it closed. While we were only there for less than an hour, the art was definitely worth the visit. And the price was unbeatable!

The boys needed some serious greenspace after our mostly castle and museum day. Thankfully we had a secret hook-up because of our lovely Kid & Coe flat: access to two private parks in the middle of the city. After a quick stop back at the flat to grab the keys, we walked a block up Nelson Street to one of the parks and unlocked some insider fun. The boys ran, climbed trees, played with Scottish kids, and re-visited their game of kick-the-can. For that hour or two of park play, we almost felt like locals – and definitely felt like we had the space to process all of our Scottish adventures a little better away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Back at the flat as the freshly showered boys played quietly with house toys while the adults did laundry, we all realized how important that wind-down at the park really was.

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Travel Tip: After visiting Edinburgh Castle, treat yourself to a different perspective of the Castle and some amazing, hand-made gelato at Mary’s Milk Bar on Grassmarket. But make sure you bring cash and get there early enough in the day because they can sell out. (If you are lucky enough to visit on a Friday I hear you can get a something called a “donut oyster” that involves donuts + gelato.) And then make sure you are renting the Kid & Coe flat on Nelson Street so you have access to a private city park where they kids can work off their sugar spike and un-wind after all of the Edinburgh sightseeing.

Day 11: June 22 - Travel day from Edinburgh, Scotland

When we purchased flights on Ryanair to get ourselves from Scotland to France (the whole family flew two segments for about $200), we knew we were getting a great deal. But we didn’t know we’d have to find a way to print boarding passes before the flights, twenty in total, or pay a forty euro per ticket fee. Yikes! When I reached out to our Kid & Coe host for a printing suggestion, she quickly offered to save the day by printing AND delivering the boarding tickets to us before we rushed off to the airport. It was like having a go-to friend in Edinburgh. And it was a life saver. I didn’t expect the carefully-curated home rentals from Kid & Coe to be beautiful and so helpful.

Another short tram ride from the York Place station back to the airport using our pre-paid return ticket and we were off to Normandy without a problem, except that we were already starting to miss bonnie Scotland.

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Travel Tip: Ryanair is a cheap and fantastic way to fly around Europe. Just make sure you follow all of their terms and conditions, like checking in at least four hours before a flight and printing boarding passes before you go to the airport, or you’ll end up paying for it. Literally. And don’t expect any frills in-flight, like food and beverage service, although you can buy lotto tickets! Do pay the few dollars extra to pick your seats – it’s totally worth it with kids. And do have a friend in Scotland (thanks Jo of Kid & Coe’s Nelson Street house) like we did to help you print those boarding passes.

Follow along as we continue to Normandy, France & Paris.

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