Thanksgiving at Auchinleck House

Auchinleck House!

Last year we spent Thanksgiving with good friends Matt, Lauren, and Elco at Saddell House, near Campeltown, on the West Coast of Scotland. To say this was a popular idea with folks both in the States and here in the UK is quite an understatement. This was one of the most talked about blog posts we had since moving here, and we received a lot of interest from friends wondering if we were going to do it again. Absolutely. The scouting for our next Thanksgiving destination began, like it will every year, with Lauren and Sara each spending time scouring the listings of available manor homes, castles, estates, and properties for hire.

They make a short list, they check it twice. They call around to get the best price. And after they’ve narrowed their list to a few, they announce the options for the rest to review. We gather together, hearts all a flutter and peruse the pictures with an “ah” and a mutter.

OK, I’ll stop this now.

Due to the popularity of last year’s adventure, all of us had friends who were plotting how to find their way across the Atlantic to spend Thanksgiving with us. We were told the house had no affect on their plans – they were just coming to see us of course. But we all knew better.

In the end, we were delighted to welcome members of John’s family from Indianapolis, Lauren’s sister from Atlanta, and our great friends the Martins, also from Atlanta. We added friends from Edinburgh and Elco’s girlfriend (recently returned from anthropological adventures on the subcontinent) to the retinue, and our group was set.

Study

The house we chose this year was Auchinleck House, built between 1755 and 1760 by Alexander Boswell, the 8th Laird of Auchinleck who is better known as being the father of James Boswell, the author of what is called perhaps the greatest biography ever written in the English language.

Lord Auchinleck may have built the house to celebrate his appointment to the Scottish Court of Session, (the Scottish Supreme Court) and it’s notable that he was one of the majority who voted that Sir John Wedderburn of Ballindean could not force his slave Joseph Knight to remain in his service in 1788. This trial was essentially the death knell for slavery in Scotland, and was the logical conclusion of the prevailing teachings held by almost ever Scottish Enlightenment thinker of the day.

These were some of Lord Auchinleck’s words during the trial:

“Although in the plantations they have laid hold of the poor blacks, and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to our Christian religion. Is a man a slave because he is black? No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not of our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and child, let him remain there.”

While our last adventure found us driving several hours to the north, braving lashing rain and flooded roads until we turned down a Western peninsula, Auchinleck house is just a bit south of Glasgow in Ayrshire, which befits its intent as a retreat from Edinburgh for her builder.

The eastern view

It’s located in a very rural area, and accessing the house means driving down a few small unmarked roads, the last being gravel, but as you cross a stone bridge over a roaring stream, the house appears before you in all her grandeur. She can sleep up to 13 people and includes a massive dining room, breakfast room, study, huge kitchen, rooms for laundry, ping pong, and games in the basement, and a massive great room and library on the first (Americans: second) floor.

Half of the library

This year we came armed with several improvements – we didn’t carry as much food from Edinburgh as Sara had scouted the area and found a large Tesco grocery close by. We brought a projection screen for our projector. Two of us brought our bikes. We also stayed for seven days this year, up from four last year.

Some of us arrived by rental car, some by train, and some were delivered direct from the Glasgow airport by hired car and driver. All of us had a grand time exploring the area on foot and by bike, eating too much, watching movies, and building roaring fires.

Thanksgiving diners

Thanksgiving dinner was an outrageous feast, prepared by Sara, with all of her classic touches. A pre-dinner cocktail, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, yeast rolls, sweet potato casserole, green beans, dressing made with mushrooms and leeks, and of course the turkey.  A free range bird, it was specially ordered from Crombies, one of the best butchers in Britain located on the street we used to live on. Sadly, it wasn’t fresh – you can’t get a fresh turkey in the UK prior to Christmas, of course.

After a day of feasting, the group split up and departed back to Edinburgh. We arrived Friday afternoon and had our Christmas tree delivered the very next day. We’d highly recommend staying at Auchinleck House in the future, and if you’re reading this and find yourself dreaming about spending Thanksgiving in Scotland, let us know! We’d love to have you!

Check out more photos (all taken by Sara) on our Flickr page.

Thanksgiving at Saddell House in Scotland

Thanksgiving is a big deal for us as it combines several of Sara’s favorite things: hosting, cooking, and the beginning of Christmas.  This was our second Thanksgiving in Scotland, the first being two days after we arrived from America.   With our possessions in tow, we went on a whirlwind apartment tour throughout Edinburgh, and celebrated the day with Mexican food and a concert by friend Brigid Kaelin.

Determined not to repeat the Saddest Thanksgiving Ever (no offence Brigid, the concert was great) as Sara has now named that particular holiday, we went on the hunt for options in the spring.  Sara quickly discovered the Landmark Trust which is a not-for-profit body operating across the United Kingdom that maintains and rents out a magnificent host of castles, towers, and manor homes as vacation properties.  They take care to preserve the original character and tone of each property and seemed to have great reviews along with very expensive prices, particularly for the summer and Christmas seasons.  Exceptions were the cold wintery non-holiday months, including the non-(British)holiday of Thanksgiving!

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Flipping through the properties, Saddell House quickly caught our eye.  Situated fairly on the west coast of Scotland, it also has a castle on the property, overlooks a private beach and bay, and looked like it had a massive kitchen.  We managed to persuade good friends Matt and Lauren to join us and made a deposit, not really knowing what to expect.

Our trip out to Saddell House involved renting a car and transporting four days worth of food and our turkey which had to be special ordered from Crombies, our fantastic neighborhood butchers.  Fresh turkeys aren’t available in Scotland this far ahead of Christmas, but we were assured that we’d receive the best frozen, free range, organic bird available.  And we did – born and raised on a farm in a little town called Peebles.

We upgraded two sizes of car on the rental to make sure we had enough space for ourselves and supplies (our friends drove separately) and this meant we received a manual transmission, diesel car about the size of a Yaris or Honda Fit.  Americans always ask and so we’ll tell you – the gearshift is on your left in the UK, but the pedals are the same configuration.  Although only about a hundred miles away as the crow flies, the trip would be roughly 170 miles across the Central Belt to Glasgow, then north alongside Loch Lomond, then down a peninsula to Campbeltown with the Isle of Arran to the east of us and and islands of Jura and Islay to the west.

The M8 between Edinburgh and Glasgow is what an American driver would expect – a four lane divided Interstate-style highway with on-ramps and no lights.  From Glasgow onwards the roads become very un-American.  They are only two lane and are extremely narrow for American standards, involve a lot of roundabouts while still in populated areas, and then quickly narrow even further and lack a shoulder as you begin climbing into the very sparsely populated highlands.

To give a bit of perspective – the population of the United Kingdom is roughly 63 million people, and of that total, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland combine for 58 million.  This means that only about 5 million people live in Scotland, which has half of its population living in the Central Belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh, a 75 mile strip.  In other words, the highlands are empty.  Extremely empty, even for American West standards.

While making the trip out, it was raining heavily which added massive hydroplane-inducing puddles to the list of obstacles we had to navigate. Since most transportation to these remote towns in the highlands is done by car or truck we were sharing the road with some very large vehicles in surprisingly heavy traffic as we made our way north around the banks of Loch Lomond.

As we approached our turn south we found our road had been closed by a landslide, and we had to divert north about an hour out of our way towards Oban.  While a bit of a nuisance it did afford some spectacular views of the scenery as we were in and out of rain, dark clouds, bright sunlight, and we passed by snow-capped mountains.  We also managed to see a bit of sunset over the ocean as we drove for a while along the western coastline, before crossing back over to the east side of the peninsula where Saddell House is located.

Sundown is at roughly 4PM during this time of year which means we arrived in darkness to find the house ready and nestled between the trees and the ocean.  There was also total darkness with zero light pollution but we could hear the ocean even if we couldn’t see it.  Saddell House started first as a castle built in 1508 which still stands about a quarter mile down the road.  The house we were staying in was built in 1774, burned down in 1899, was rebuilt almost at once and was privately owned until after World War II when many of the great houses found themselves in financial difficulty.  The Landmark Trust rescued many of these houses by purchasing them, giving their occupants the chance to live out their life in their property, and later renovating them and opening the properties to the public.  In Saddell House’s case, the last owner was a widow who died in 1998.

The mansion itself is massive.  It sleeps thirteen, but this is simply because Landmark closed five rooms on the top floor, and didn’t renovate the basement which originally housed servants quarters and the great kitchen.  The basement would easily have enough space for another 5-7 rooms.

A number of changes were made to the property – the great entrance hall was made into a dining room, and the smoking room and library were made into bedrooms on the ground floor.  The dining room was turned into a massive kitchen, and the butler’s serving room (adjacent to the kitchen) was renovated into a second kitchen, which while tiny compared to the main kitchen, is still twice the size of our kitchen in Edinburgh.  Fireplaces are present in every room and we dined in the company of at least a dozen mounted deer heads and horns, and even some kind of killer fish.

The next morning we awoke to the stunning views of the ocean and coastline we’d be enjoying the entire stay.  Surrounded by trees on one side, the house looks over Saddell Bay and a curved white sand beach that’s bracketed by rugged rocks and shoreline one either side.  Our English friend Elco treated us to cheese toasties (later he’d be taught how to make a proper grilled cheese as repayment) which consisted of toast topped with a fried egg and melted cheese.  Over the three full days we had we went for walks along the deserted beach, admired the castle and ruins of Saddell Abbey which were both close by, played Nintendo Wii games courtesy of a projector we brought, lit fires, and ate and ate and ate.  We also played many rounds of ping pong on a table set up in the original great kitchen in the basement.  Two of our group decided they’d go for a swim in the icy ocean water which was over almost as soon as it began, the brave two making a beeline back for hot showers immediately after the plunge.

Our Thanksgiving day feast included all the hallmarks of a traditional celebration hosted by Sara, which many have experienced over the years – a magnificent, perfectly cooked bird (despite an overeager oven), mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes (this year with marshmallow topping on half just for Lauren), fresh cranberry sauce (NOT canned), green beans, and an unbelievable dressing which improves every year.  We had glasses of cinnamon-scented water, champagne, and after dinner, Thanksgiving-themed cocktails made from pear cider and other secret ingredients.

We ate dinner around 4:30 which meant we ate a second dinner around 8:30 and then dove into pies (pumpkin and pecan) around midnight.  Our English friend who was experiencing his first Thanksgiving dinner spent about 30 minutes laying on the dining room floor in front of the fire between Second Dinner and Pies.

Immediately after First Dinner, the Christmas music began playing, and we enjoyed several rounds of video games and movies.

Our drive home was sans-detour and meant we got to sample some amazing fish and chips and traditional Scottish coal-fired pizza in Inveraray, a tiny village which overlooks the cold ocean water towards the snow capped peaks of the Argyll Forest Park.  The drive north and west from Iveraray was absolutely breathtaking with water, mountains, dark clouds, bright sunlight, and snow capped peaks all filling the view as we trundled along a deserted two lane road seemingly at the end of the world.

Despite no internet or connection with the outside world, we all agreed the days flew by during our stay and we wanted to stay even longer.  In the end it was a very thankful, very full group headed home to Edinburgh.

Fort William, Mallaig, and Harry Potter

We’re fans of Harry Potter.  Not “massive” fans as they’d say here, but we really like the books and movies.  We’re massive fans of trains.  In that last sentence, when I say “we”, I mean I love trains and Sara tolerates them.  It works well.

This weekend we combined our loves and headed for the highlands to ride the Jacobite, a steam train that’s now known as “the Harry Potter train”, as the route from Fort William to Mallaig and its locomotives and equipment were what was used in filming the movies.

The Jacobite, even before Harry Potter, is known as one of the top railway journeys in the world as it runs through some fantastic highland scenery, including the iconic stone viaduct you can see in the Harry Potter films as they head towards Hogwarts.  The line was built in 1901, is single tracked most of the way, and ends at the sleepy little town of Mallaig, population 797.

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Getting to Fort William is an incredibly scenic train trip in its own right, as you crawl alongside Loch Lomand on your way from Glasgow heading north into the highlands.  Our train pulled out of Glasgow about at around 6pm which meant we arrived in daylight three hours later and had pretty good weather the majority of the trip.

The weather has been really really wet the last three weeks in Edinburgh, even for Scottish standards, with flooding and landslides playing havoc to transportation networks, and we were prepared to have the entire weekend dominated by rain.  Good weather out of Glasgow turned into amazing weather the entire day Saturday.  In good Scottish fashion we began complaining about our lack of sunglasses!

The Jacobite experience is really neat.  Pulled by one of three different steam locomotives, the train leaves daily from Fort William station and on weekdays during the summer, they run two trains to keep up with demand.  This means that Glenfinnan station hosts the only meeting of two steam trains in the modern era of the British rail network.  The Jacobite shares the rails with normal passenger services, so if you’re not as into the steam locomotive and antique coaches you can still enjoy the route via normal ScotRail trains.

Arriving a bit early, we had plenty of time to take pictures and they let you climb in and inspect the cab of the locomotive.  It has been fitted with modern signalling equipment including the deadmans switch which is standard in Britain and requires operator acknowledgment when passing any yellow or red signal, as well as radio.  A big surprise to me is the fact that it’s shovel-fed (as opposed to a conveyer-fed locomotive which is a bit more common in the USA) and even an hour before we departed the cabin was already north of 90 degrees.

The journey to Mallaig passes over the aforementioned viaduct and includes a ten minute stop at Glenfinnan which is the only passing spot on the 41 mile route.  The scenery of the journey is absolutely stunning and you really get to see the highlands as the train winds and works its way north.  There are some fairly steep grades on this line and you can really hear, smell, and see the smoke from the engine as you climb up the mountains.

When you arrive in Mallaig, the engine pauses for pictures, then runs around the train and proceeds tender-first back to Fort William as there is no turntable in Mallaig.  We had about an hour and a half for lunch in Mallaig and we enjoyed fish and chips outdoors at “The Tea Room” which overlooks the small harbor, just a block from the train stration.

The ride back was equally enjoyable and we took a walk down the High Street at Fort William before retiring to the very nice and very new MacLean House for some pizza and movie-watching.

If you want to see some amazing highland scenery in a stress-free environment that’s out of the ordinary, I’d highly recommend taking a ride on the Jacobite, but book early – weekend tickets are now pretty much sold out for the summer!

The Sheep Heid Inn, Established 1360

This weekend we got the opportunity to celebrate a friend’s birthday at the Sheep Heid Inn (pronounced “heed”) in Edinburgh.  Established in 1360, it’s Edinburgh’s and Scotland’s oldest surviving public house, which is where the abbreviation of pub comes from.  It’s not every day you can boast on your website about having served your customers for more than six hundred years. Located on the southeast side of Arthur’s Seat, it’s nestled within a small village across the street from the Duddingston Kirk.

The pub is really large for Edinburgh standards and includes an outdoor garden with tables and a skittles lane.  Not to be confused with my favorite candy, skittles is a bowling variant that uses a smaller and lighter ball without finger holes.  The Inn was frequented by Mary Queen of Scots and her son James VI enjoyed playing skittles there so much he gave the innkeeper an embellished ram’s head snuff box.  The lanes are decorated with pictures of Edinburgh from throughout its history as well as skittles players and clubs from the 1920s and before.

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Not having an automatic return, after your rolls, you walk down, reset the pins yourself, and roll the ball down a middle trough to return.  Pistachio nuts and ale are both consumed by the pint, and it’s really a fun experience.

After dinner (ribeye for me and lamb roast for Sara) we walked to the Kirk and took a look at the graveyard and church building, which dates from the 1200s.  The last picture is part of a graveston and depicts a ship on a stormy sea.  

Great food, unique atmosphere, and skittles all combine to make the Sheip Heid Inn a great place to visit.

The Olympics in Scotland

The London 2012 Olympcs are quickly approaching, and we’re super excited that we get to be here for that.  While Scotland isn’t hosting that many events, it still featured heavily in the torch marathon and there will be events played in Glasgow.

The general consensus seems to be that most British citizens think the entire thing is a total waste and a vague embarassment.  Part of this is due to the current economic condition of England (Scotland’s economy is growing faster and unemployment here is lower) and part of it is due to the annoyance of having to be the first country to go after Beijing.  For Edinburgh, the entire city is focused each August on the Fringe and International Festival, and therefore the Olympics are viewed as somewhat of an upstage on the Scottish capital’s time to shine.

We’re big Olympics fans – Sara and I love watching both the Winter and Summer games, and we’re ordering TV service just for the Olympics this year.  Growing up abroad the Olympics was always one of the rare times you could connect with the United States and it was always universally available to some degree on television so I can clearly remember each of the games from my childhood.

In 2008, we were fortunate enough to be able to attend the Olympics in Beijing and it was there that Sara discovered her one true sporting passion: handball.  We’re not sure if it was the blonde Scandinavians, the uniformity of their last names (all ending with -son), or the quick pace, but she hasn’t stopped talking of it since. Tickets for the London games were already far into the allocation process when we moved here, but we did manage to score handball tickets in London and a soccer (football) match in Glasgow.  If anyone reading this wants tickets the best way to obtain them is to sign up the notificaiton mailing list and then buy like mad when they release new allotments (usually in batches of 50,000).  I was on the train and saw the sweet confirmation of handball ticket glory go through just seconds before entering the Queen Street station tunnel where my internet signal would be terminated.  

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When the Olympic torch came through Edinburgh, we made sure we could see it.  Even with the prevailing attitude of apathy, there was a great turnout for the torch relay and we had a perfect view having arrived at the route about 30 minutes prior.  We stationed ourselves on the George IV bridge just south of the Royal Mile and were lucky to have an actual handoff happen right in front of us.  Security was pretty tight – you can see the gray shirted guys kneeling down in a outward facing formation while the handoff was conducted.  Right after the handoff I managed to call out to the torch bearer where Sara proceeded to take one of the most unflattering pictures ever managed of me expressing the Olympic spirit with my tired torchbearing compatriot.  Lets just say there were a copious amount of chins.  We won’t be posting that one.  She contends that events conspired to make it an impossible shot.  We’ll let close friends view the photo in-person and they can judge.  Tired torchbearers were then scooped up by a yellow bus and the entire procession continued on its way.

There was some contoversy around the LOCOG’s desire to place Olympic rings on the castle in Edinburgh.  Their request was flatly denied by Historic Scotland, and instead the rings were placed on the Mound in Edinburgh and in George Square in Glasgow.

Another bit of weirdness is the UK’s official team name – “Team GB” for Team Great Britain.  Even though Northern Ireland competes as part of Team GB, the moniker of United Kingdom isn’t used due the fact that “Team GB” its shorter, catchier, and easier to market.  The Good Friday Agreement stipulates that all Irish can choose to be UK citizens, Irish citizens, or both, and as such they can choose which country to represent.  

Great Britain is one of only three countries who have never missed an Olympics since 1896, and this will be the third time London has hosted the games.  This would have been the fourth time, but the 1944 games were canceled due to World War II.

 

St. Giles Cathedral and David Hume

It was a really nice sunny day on Saturday so I took a stroll up the Royal Mile with the camera.  This is a shot of St. Giles Cathedral and a statue of the Scottish philosopher David Hume.

Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. – David Hume

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A Trip to Peebles and the Scottish Borders

A great thing about living in Scotland is nobody mispronounces or misspells our last name.  Our family name, Peebles, is shared with a town in the Scottish Borders (similar to a county in the United States).  Our family name isn’t some vague homage to the old country either.  We’ve managed to trace our lineage directly back to a certain Abraham Peebles who came from the town and landed in South Carolina on June 1st, 1767.

The Scottish Borders is a relatively new (late seventies) administrative concept.  Peebles used to be located within Peeblesshire, and along with other southern counties of Scotland historically bore the brunt of the ever present conflict with the English.  It’s located on the River Tweed, one of the best salmon rivers in Scotland, boasts of a river walk that’s well liked by many in Edinburgh, and is roughly thirty minutes by car or an hour by bus due South from the capital.

A few weeks ago we set out to visit Peebles on a short day trip.  A short walk to the Edinburgh bus station and we boarded the 62A bound for Peebles by way of Ikea, and we promptly sat in the front row of the upper deck, excited about seeing the sights from our ten foot perch.  As we crawled across the North Bridge a few minutes into the journey, we realised our mistake.  The sun is at quite a severe angle in Scotland in the winter, and even though it was eleven in the morning, while heading south we were looking straight into a blindingly beautiful day.

Retinas sufficiently scorched, we arrived in Peebles and walked down the High Street towards the Old Parish Church.  The High Street is like many in small Scottish towns with a post office, candy store, a few tourist shops, iron monger (hardware store), a few pubs, and more.  The road ends at the church and you can either head south and cross the fast moving River Tweed or north towards the rest of the town.  The bridge over the Tweed has stood for centuries, although it was widened in the eighteen hundreds by subscription, according to a plaque proudly affixed to the middle of the crossing.

We ate lunch at the very nice Italian restuarant adjacent to the Old Parish Church which overlooks the river, then headed west towards Neidpath Castle, built around 1390.  According to Sir Walter Scott, it is haunted by the “Maid of Neidpath” who was forbidden to marry her true love due to his being beneath her station.  The castle was constructed by a member of the Hay clan, which is the Peebles family tartan.

The first stop along the way was in the Old Parish Church, which was open yet deserted.  Like many Scottish churches, this one had plaques commemorating soldiers from the world wars and older.  Gifts from wealthy patrons and former clergymen were also noted.  

Our second stop was a very large graveyard (complete with its own tower) that sits opposite a Rugby field.  We were hoping to find some dead Peebles, but instead we observed a father and his two girls, one of whom was learning to ride a bike in between the tombstones.  For some reason this didn’t seem out of place at all – just another moment of childhood woven between the legacies of past residents.

Neidpath castle, despite being used in several films, isn’t much to look at, but it does have a wonderful view of the river.  It was closed to visitors with a “Keep Out” sign and a gate, but we just continued walking along the road until we found a footpath that led down to the castle.  Another couple and their dog tresspassed with us and we got to see Neidpath castle up close and personal.  Along the mile or so walk to the castle, the road had been steadily rising and by the time you come to the castle, you’re several hundred feet up from the river, which winds it’s way through the hills of the borders.  It’s remarkable how much this area looks like Appalachia, and one wonders if old Abraham Peebles was surprised when he arrived to a landscape not much different than the one he left.

A few pictures later we walked back to town, enjoyed a coffee along the way, and popped into the visitors center where we mailed some postcards.  Upon learning our name, we were asked to sign a guestbook filled with names and business cards of those who had visited and shared their name with the town.

Some glances at the remaining stores and then we were back on the bus (only single decked this time) and heading back to Edinburgh.  Probably not a place we’ll take most visitors but for those who want to see where they’ve come from, Peebles isn’t a bad place at all to see.

Stockbridge and St. Bernard’s Well

A couple of weekends ago we visited the Stockbridge Farmers’ Market.  When asking for advice on where to live in Edinburgh, one of the places many people recommended was the Stockbridge area, and while we liked it and even viewed some places there, it would have been quite a hike to the train station so we ultimately passed.  It’s situated on the northwest edge of New Town and it’s a wonderful area with lots of shops and restaurants, as well as a Sunday farmers’ market.

We’ve been to the farmers’ market that’s held just west of the Edinburgh castle, and the Stockbridge variant is possibly a little smaller, but had a great variety of foods for sale.  There were stands with vegetables, cheeses, hand made soaps, grilled burgers, cupcakes, a fishmonger, a butcher, flowers, and more.  They even had an outpost of Artisan Roast, our neighborhood coffee shop, brewing excellent coffees from within their 1970’s Volkswagon Van.

After we’d looked around, Sara mentioned we should walk alongside the Waters of Leith which is the river that the “stock bridge”, which was built in 1801, spans, so along we went.  Walking along the river is surreal as it is surrounded on both sides by very tall hills and it’s hard to believe you’re still in a city setting.  This is also where St. Bernard’s well is, a mineral water well that was revered in the late 1700s for its medicinal virtues.  A wealthy judge who believed he’d benefitted from the waters paid for the construction of a new well house complete with a statue to the greek goddess of Hygieia.

The Stockbridge farmers’ market and a stroll alongside the waters of Leith is definitely something we’d recommend.  Below is a quick iPhone photo we snapped along with a Wikipedia-supplied sketch of the well in 1800.

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Calton Hill at Sunset

Sunset is getting later and later here, adding daylight at a rate of about 4 minutes a day now.  We decided to go for a short walk up Calton Hill a couple of weekends ago and due to a late start arrived at almost the perfect time – sunset at 4:15PM!  It is just a few minutes from our home and a really nice spot to visit and see the city.

Calton Hill is the headquarters of the Scottish government with St. Andrew’s house on the south side of the mountain and the Scottish Parliament building and Holyrood Palace at the foot of the hill.  It was used in ancient times as a place for public executions and has collected quite a few monuments over the last several hundred years.

We can see Calton Hill from our apartment and it’s an extremely popular place to photograph Edinburgh from – we had to carefully pick our way around tripods and other photographers to grab a few iPhone shots.

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In these pictures you can see the monument to Dugald Stewart, a Scottish philosopher. The taller structure is Nelson’s Monument which honor’s Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson for his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (during which he also died) which is designed to look like an upturned telescope.  In the background of the setting sun you can see Edinburgh castle and the Scott monument in the distance on Prince’s street.

A Chip and a PIN

Last week we talked about getting a bank account, and this week we’ll spend a few minutes talking about the Chip and PIN system that’s the standard for European debit and credit card transactions.  Credit cards here look just like those in the States except for the fact that they have a small metallic chip embedded on the left side of the card that is made of metal and is an exposed contact surface.  Instead of swiping a credit or debit card here, you insert the chipped end of the card into a reader, wait a few seconds, then enter your PIN number.  Every card present transaction requires a PIN and it doesn’t require a signature.  

This is a greatly enhanced security position from that of US cards, and I find it really odd that we haven’t rolled this type of system out widely, particularly since initial trials in the UK cut fraud by 80%.  If your card is stolen, a thief doesn’t just have to forge the signature on the back of the card, they have to know your PIN, and if you get it wrong three times, the card gets locked, only to be unlocked at a bank branch.

The main downside to the Chip and PIN system is it makes the restaurant tipping experience highly awkward.  When paying for your meal, your waiter or waitress has to bring the wireless terminal to you, where you key in how much of a tip (if any) you’d like to leave, then your pin, then the receipt prints right there.  This could be a clue as to why we haven’t rolled this out in America.  Tipping here is nonexistent in bars, and restaurant tips are generally no more than 10% if they happen at all, so it’s not quite as uncomfortable as it would be in the States, but it is a little strange.