Edinburgh’s High Street (Royal Mile) reflects the history of its centuries old past. It stretches from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace, once the official residence of visiting British royalty. Historic buildings ,including Tron Kirk, the country’s former main church, border its cobblestone streets.
The 1,000-plus-year-old Edinburgh Castle dominates the city’s landscape. Inside the former fortress and royal residence are the Scottish Crown Jewels and the room where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to James I. His birth united Scotland with England. Oliver Cromwell used the Great Hall as a garrison during an invasion of Scotland in 1650. Edinburgh is a city of museums. The National Museum of Scotland displays everything from diverse cultures to a giant T-Rex. Other museums include City Art Centre and The People’s Story Museum which celebrates ordinary people.
Edinburgh may be historic, but Glasgow is hip. With a swinging night life, arts and culture, the Scottish Opera and the Scottish Ballet call it home. The Glasgow School of Art highlights architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Art Nouveau style. The Lighthouse is the country’s national design and architecture center.
But to really enjoy Scotland, discover its natural beauty. The John Muir Way stretches 130 hilly miles across Scotland between Helensburgh and Dunbar, John Muir’s birthplace. It would probably take seven to ten days by foot, but half that time by bike.
Rather walk the links than the trails? It is said that the first golf games were played at the Old Course at St. Andrews in the early 15th century. It sits southeast of Dundee on a plateau of vertical cliffs that drop 50 feet into the North Sea.
Even older than St. Andrews (7,000 B.C.), is a Scottish jewel, the Isle of Skye. Tucked off Scotland’s northwest tip, it is a land of jagged mountains and gentle slopes, sandy beaches and quaint villages, a picturesque harbor and old castles. Trek the Cuillin Hills and revel in its jaw dropping scenery. Gaelic is still spoken here.
Across from Scotland’s Isle of Staffa in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim sits Giant’s Causeway. Scenes from the Game of Thrones were filmed around this amazing volcanic collection of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns that resemble huge vertical slabs of lumber. Legend has it that two giants, the Irish Finn McCool and the Scottish Benandonner clashed. When Benandonner came across, he saw McCool disguised as a gargantuan baby, and imagined that Finn himself must be ginormous. So, Benandonner hightailed it back to the Isle of Staffa, destroying the columns that stretched across the sea to the Isle of Staffa. Interestingly, Staffa has identical basalt columns.
But one cannot visit the Emerald isle without a stop in Dublin. Authors Johnathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Bram Stoker (Dracula) and James Joyce (Ulysses), frequented its narrow cobblestone streets, elegant squares, pubs and bridges over the River Liffey. Be forewarned: exploring the city can be difficult and confusing. Street names keep changing, and the numbers can be 1, 2, 3, 4, on one side and 75, 76, 77 on the other.
Some of the city’s main attractions include St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College and Dublin Castle. Built in the 13th century, the huge fortress/castle with a looming Record Tower, Great Courtyard and many buildings sprawls across eleven acres. It served as the UK’s main Irish administration building until 1922. Today, it houses Irish government offices, a Revenue Museum, State Apartments, Medieval Undercroft and Chapel Royal. Tours are available.
Traveling south between Counties Wexford and Waterford sits the 400-plus-year-old, quaint village of Kilkenny. Dominated by Kilkenny Castle, find old pubs, churches, historic buildings and lots
The famous Blarney Stone by Blarney Castle’s Tower is farther south near Cork. To kiss the stone and get the “gift of gab,” lay on your back and hang backwards. Putting your lips to a rock that thousands of other have is not for germophobes.
Perhaps it is best to skip the Blarney Stone and explore the eastern countryside like the Ring of Kerry. With rock formations sculpted from the last Ice Age and Atlantic waves pounding its shore, the 111-mile journey to or from Killarney and Killorglin offers untamed beauty. Sandy beaches like Rossbeigh arc its shorelines. It’s a place to discover quaint hamlets and ancient castles.
Like the Ring of Kerry and just north of it, the Dingle Peninsula’s coastline is awash with sandy coves and gentle sea, and also places where wild surf thunders upon rocks. It is a labyrinth of country lanes, ghost villages, old churches and forts. Lovely.
Even more so is County Clare’s Cliffs of Mohr. Stretching five miles along the Atlantic coast, it soars and vertically plunges 702 feet into turbulent Atlantic. Its beauty served as a backdrop for movies like The Guns of Navarone and Ryan’s Daughter. On a clear day, look north and see Galway and the Aran Islands from its highest point.
The three Aran Islands - Inishmore (the largest), Inisheer, and Inishmaan are a 35-minute plane ride from Galway. Barren and rocky, islanders survive by farming and fishing. Most visitors come to see early Christian, prehistoric remains and purchase the famous Aran knits.
Ireland and Scotland have their differences and similarities. They are both so beautiful, you won’t want to miss either country.