Travel logs
2016 Scotland with Edinburgh Festival
August 9, 2016
“Fresh” off the plane, on a beautiful Tuesday morning, we headed to Hopetoun House – Scotland’s finest stately mansion, the family home of the earls of Hopetoun (who later became Marquesses of Linlithgow). Situated on the shores of the Firth of Forth, the 18th-century house enchants the visitor with its classical details, ornate gilding, paintings, and tapestries. Many of us climbed the 92 steps to the rooftop, which offered superb views across the park to the Firth of Forth and its three bridges. We were able to admire the grand cantilever rail bridge (1890) across over the Firth of Forth from another angle from South Queensferry where we stopped for lunch. Upon arrival in Glasgow, we visited St. Mungo Cathedral and drove through the main square and along the River Clyde to our hotel. Welcome dinner at Two Fat Ladies was exceptional: an impossible choice of delectable dishes, from sliced oak-smoked salmon to king prawns or sea bream, from sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce to homemade brandy basket with fruit coulis and ice cream.
August 10, 2016
Today was dedicated to two exceptional Glasgow art museums: the Hunterian and the Kelvingrove. The oldest museum in Scotland, the Hunterian is an intimate space, giving an in-depth overview of Scottish art, from the rustic-naturalist realism of the Glasgow Boys, through the Scottish colorists influenced by Parisian avant-garde, to expressionist and figurative post-war Scottish art. The other gem of the Hunterian (part of the University of Glasgow) is the reassembled rooms of the Glasgow home of architect, designer, and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald.  The innovative design and décor of the interiors (click for images) is a total work of art, displaying Mackintosh and Macdonald’s attention to the minutest detail, whether in the design of the furniture, fabrics, light fixtures or metalwork. Interesting to discover were Margaret Macdonald’s exquisite metal art pieces. Next on the program was the Glasgow International Piping Festival. We attended a lunchtime concert by Willie McCallum, a superstar bagpiper at the National Piping Center. After a wonderful lunch near the Kelvingrove Art Museum, we discovered the treasures of that museum’s rich collections on our own.


August 11, 2016
 Drumlanrig Castle (click for images)
was our first stop today: home of the chiefs of the Douglas clan, who later became dukes of Queensberry, “keepers of the heart of Robert Bruce.” The family crest features a crowned heart with wings, immortalizing Sir James Douglas, who died taking Bruce's heart on a crusade to the Holy Land. Our jolly, enthusiastic, and very witty guide took us through the rooms of the “pink palace,” as the castle is known, telling us, with great humor, historical facts, intrigues, and intimate details from the lives of the Douglases. The interiors left us in awe: the walls were covered in paintings by Holbein, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt and other masters while every available space was filled with exquisite collections of Louis XIV and XV French furniture and decorative art (more than a few pieces created specifically for those French kings) and priceless as books (including the first edition of the Samuel Johnson’s iconic Dictionary of the English Language). After stopping in a village inn nearby for a hearty lunch, we visited Dumfries House (click for images), an 18th-century, Palladian mansion saved from being sold at auction in 2007, by Prince Charles’s intervention.  The house boasts beautifully restored rococo Chippendale furniture – most made especially for the house – and the finest surviving collection of carved Scottish rococo furniture by Edinburgh furniture makers Alexander Peter, William Mathie and Francis Brodie. After the visit, we drove a short distance to the village of Prestwick for a night’s rest before tomorrow’s adventures.
August 12, 2016
On a misty, drizzly, but relatively warm morning, we took a ferry to Arran Island. Our first stop was Brodick Castle, a hunting lodge turned into a summer home, formerly the property of the Hamilton family.  Next was the local cheese shop, where we tasted some very unusually flavored cheddars: mustard, chili pepper, and claret. After lunch, we headed to the Arran Distillery for a visit and tasting. While sipping the 14-year-old, single-malt whiskey, we watched a video about the history of the 21-year-old distillery; we then toured the premises with commentary on the process of whiskey making. At the end, we tasted another signature brand of the micro distillery: Arran Gold, a cream liquor made with aged single malt whiskey. Needless to say, this was a hit with most of us – several rushed to the distillery’s shop to get a bottle or two. We spent the night on the shores of the island, overlooking the Firth of Clyde.
August 13, 2016
We took a scenic drive across Arran Island to the northwest side, to catch a much smaller ferry (our coach barely fit, taking the space of six cars, much to the chagrin of those in queue behind us) to the mainland, the mull of Kintyre – immortalized in a famous song by Paul McCartney, who has owned a farm there since 1966. After a quick bite in Lochgilphead, we drove a short distance to Arduaine Garden, located on the southern slope of a hilly peninsula that projects from mid-Argyll into Loch Melfort.  Well-known in rhododendron circles for its wonderful collection of species and hybrids, the garden boasts a great variety of flowering shrubs, trees, bamboos, ferns, and perennials. On our way to our hotel, we also saw some “cairns,” human-made piles of stones erected on high ground: burial mounds from the Neolithic period.
August 14, 2016
Picture-perfect scenery was in store for us today, as we traveled tortuous roads along sea lochs to Oban. We took a glimpse of the ruined Kilchurn Castle, romantically shrouded in the morning mist, as well as Cruachan hydroelectric plant. We boarded the ferry to the Island of Mull, bus and all, enjoying the vistas of the one-hour ride. The island boasts over 150 bird species, an amazing sea life, and over 2,000 species of plants. To our disappointment, we didn’t see otters or golden eagles as we made our way across the island on the single track road, but we took in the beautiful scenery with dramatic peaks, including Ben More – an island “munro” (an peak higher than 3,000 ft) and the only one in Scotland you need a ferry to get to. As we awaited our second ferry to the island of Iona (no space for a bus here!), we caught the sight of Staffa (location of Fingal’s Cave, which inspired Mendelssohn to compose The Hebrides overture) and the Isle of the Dutchman’s Cap. Iona is famous as the birthplace of Scottish Christianity, when Irish St. Columba came here with 12 monks, founding a monastery in 563 AD. Of course, none of the original structure remains today, but the current abbey church (13th-16th centuries) exhibited intricate Romanesque carvings of Biblical scenes, plant or zoomorphic motifs. The abbey went into disrepair following the Protestant Reformation in 1560, but today it is home to an ecumenical community of about 100. The abbey museum is a treasury of Celtic carved stones and crosses, the finest collection of its kind in Scotland.  We took the same route back to our hotel, but this time we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of frolicking harbor porpoises as we crossed back to Mull – some of us even got a photo or two!
August 15, 2016
This morning we visited Inveraray Castle, the ancestral seat of the Campbells and dukes of Argyll. It is immediately recognizable these days as the setting for the 2012 Christmas special of British period drama Downton Abbey, which was filmed on the premises. We learned about the history of the castle and the dukes of Argyll as we passed through the rooms, admiring the furniture, the French tapestries, family portraits and an impressive collection of china, silver and family heirlooms. We then wandered through the lush garden, at our own pace, briefly spotting the current duchess, bicycling with one of her children, before heading off to lunch at a nearby inn. A wide variety of thistles abounds in the garden, since the Duke is a member of the exclusive Order of the Thistle. Before reaching Edinburgh, we visited Hill House, built by Charlies Rennie Mackintosh for Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie and his family, overlooking the river Clyde. A pink rose motif dominates, giving it a romantic fairytale feeling, with every piece of furniture and lighting carefully designed especially for the space. Click here for images. Tonight many of us saw Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie at the King’s Theater, while others attended a concert version of Wagner’s Das Rheingold at Usher Hall.
August 16, 2016
A panoramic bus tour acquainted us with Edinburgh, nicknamed “the Athens of the North.” Invariably, we saw many neo-classical Georgian buildings in New Town, carefully laid out according to the plans of James Craig, who won the competition to design a new settlement to move the ever-rising population away from the cluttered and squalid medieval Old Town. Various 19th-century extensions were added, all the way to Leith and the harbor, where we saw the royal yacht “Britannia,” now permanently retired (to the displeasure of the Queen).  Next we drove along Holyrood Park, catching a glimpse of the eponymous palace and admiring the innovative new Scottish Parliament building, opened in 2004; afterwards, we went up the hill along  “the Royal Mile” through Old Town. Some had tickets to a matinee recital by clarinetist Andreas Ottensammer and the Kelemen quartet, who performed both the Mozart and the Brahms quintets, while others took advantage of some extra free time.  In the afternoon, we reconvened for a guided tour of St. Giles Cathedral, a very unusual church - with the altar in the middle. A highlight was the side chapel for the Knights of the Thistle, created by Robert Lorimer in 1910, displaying exquisite wood carvings and stained glass.  Afterwards, we walked down the hill into New Town, to get a feel for the life in an upper class Georgian household that had occupied one of the homes on Charlotte Square, just across from our hotel, itself comprised of a whole row of such former private residences.
August 17, 2016
Today we drove to South Queensferry again to visit Dalmeny house, a Tudor/Gothic revival mansion overlooking the Firth of Forth, home of the earls of Rosebery. Click for images.  The in-house guide treated us to coffee, tea and cookies in the library, as proper guests, and proceeded to tell story after story on the history of the house and its inhabitants. She entertained us for two hours without stopping, in an incredibly witty manner, showing us the magnificent art treasures of the house; she even went so far as to manipulate some of the priceless antiques, to show us their inventive structure and function. Archibald Philip Primrose, the 5th earl of Rosebery married into the Rotschild family, which explains how such an impressive French, Louis 14th-16th era, collection came into the possession of the Roseberys. He was also interested in Napoleon, so he collected all kinds of memorabilia, from paintings to etchings, from Napoleon’s throne as a consul to his desk and chair dating from the period of exile on St. Helena, even the pillow on which he died – the most impressive Napoleonic collection outside France. Lunch followed at a contemporary French style bistro near Holyrood Palace, which offered a very wide variety of locally sourced fresh food.  We ended the day at the palace, the Queen’s residence in Scotland. We admired the splendid stuccoed ceilings, furnishings and fine Brussels tapestries, as well as portraits of the monarchs of Scotland, all painted by Jacob de Wat, explaining why all have similar facial features. Of a “peculiar” interest was the alleged bloodstain on the floor where Mary Queen of Scots’s secretary and supposed lover, was murdered in 1566. 
A very full day was capped by an extraordinary piano recital by the young Russian virtuoso, Daniil Trifonov. The first half featured works demanding astonishing technical prowess, based on music for unaccompanied violin: Brahms’s arrangement for left hand alone of the massive Bach Chaconne and Liszt’s knuckle-busting fantasies on Caprices by Paganini. Following intermission, Trifonov plumbed the depths of Rachmaninoff’s seldom-heard First Sonata. Dazzling encores followed.
August 18, 2016
Everyone had the morning free to pursue their own interests. Some did the Scottish National Gallery, others the Scottish National Museum to take in a superb temporary exhibition on the Celts; three took in another piano recital, this one by Stephen Hough, while others had the opportunity to pop into the International Book Festival or watch a play at the Fringe Festival. We gathered in the afternoon for a tour of Edinburgh Castle – which, as we found out, was more of a military garrison than a defensive stronghold.  The only medieval building remaining on the premises is the 12th-century St. Margaret Chapel; everything else is from the 1500s onward into the 20th century. These edifices house the Scottish National War Memorial, the Scottish Crown Jewels, weapons and armor in the Great Hall, the residential rooms of Mary Queen of Scots, and more.
Our final evening was given over to a rather odd work by Hector Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette. Inspired by the Shakespeare, the “dramatic symphony,” as the composer called it, is more a rumination on the play’s moral implications than a retelling of the story. The core of the tale of the star-crossed lovers is evoked by purely instrumental music, with the vocal portions framing it. Bass John Relyea offered a commanding Friar Lawrence, admonishing the warring Montagues and Capulets for having pushed their beloved children to suicide and shaming them to swear to a future of peace instead of hatred. The choral finale was massive and inspiring.