Humor, food, music - even rain - help make Scotland memorable

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The only kilts in sight were worn by bagpipers at Edinburgh Castle and our CIE Tours coach driver. The food was surprisingly delicious, even the haggis, which we sampled twice. And the fresh-baked scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream have no calories - if you believe Scottish guides.

After checking in at the Glasgow Hilton, we browsed through the nearby botanical gardens to shake off jet lag. Following dinner, in search of some liturgical music, Celtic style, we ventured into an 18th century church across the street. It turned out to be a converted pub. As we toasted Scotland with a glass of Blackfriar Scottish Ale, we experienced a new kind of spiritual high.

It was the first of many serendipitous excuses to toast the delightful Scottish salts and their self-deprecating humor. "When you are constantly invaded by the likes of Picts, Celts, Vikings and Normans (not necessarily in that order), you learn to laugh a lot," said our jovial guide as we left Glasgow the next morning to visit Stirling Castle. Perched on a rocky crag overlooking the Forth River Valley, the 900-year-old castle is the site of Mary Queen of Scots' crowning in 1543.

An award-winning bagpipe band rehearsed in the castle's courtyard, and we lingered to listen. But soon our group melded into a patchwork quilt of colorful umbrellas as the skies opened up during our tour of the castle grounds. It was the beginning of an entire week of rain. No wonder the Scots have acquired such a sense of humor, probably on the theory that it's better to laugh than cry.

Even their reputation for frugality was confirmed with a witticism:

"Yes, we laugh a lot," admitted Colin, our bus driver. "After all, it's free."

Perhaps it's all this laughing at themselves that makes the Scots slow to anger and remarkably tolerant not only of rain but of gawking tourists. Screeching brakes are common as motorists try to avoid hitting visitors who cross the streets without looking to the right where drivers barrel down on the "wrong" side of the road.

Also, political correctness is alive and well here.

Remember Gypsies, the colorful bands of roaming nomads who have been the subject of so much children's lore? In Scotland they have been given the bland title of "traveling people." You still see these families camped in groups around the countryside, but now they commune in a row of shiny motor homes and their children attend local schools with some matriculating to college. These once-fanciful Gypsy kings and fortunetellers have faded into the world of commerce. Dressed in jeans, they operate entrepreneurial souvenir stands.

We headed down the coast to Oban and stayed on the bus during a short ferry ride to the Isle of Mull, the second-largest island of the Inner Hebrides. We visited Duart Castle, home to the chief of Clan Maclean. As the rain increased we stopped for lunch at the Isle's charming town of Tobermory.

With dozens of bright red, yellow, blue and green houses lining the harbor, we could have been on a Greek isle. In Tobermory we had the best fish and chips of the trip, along with our de rigueur pint of ale.

Along with their allegiance to local beer, the Scots have a fierce loyalty to Highland heroes. Even after 700 years, many still are devoted to Robert the Bruce (of "Braveheart" fame), who was crowned king of Scotland in 1306 at Scone Palace. He is idolized in stories and songs along with other heroes. At the slightest urging, guides will regale tourists with their favorite tales or ditties.

By Day 5, we finally had our chance to search for the famous monster at Loch Ness, an incredibly scenic lake (loch).

"Uh, there was a sighting just the other day," our leader deadpanned in a lilting brogue.

As a reward for traveling the country on a packed 47-person coach, we were rewarded with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. With sweeping Highland glens covered with yellow bracken and purple heather and views of sapphire lakes and bubbling streams, we soon overworked all the adjectives for beautiful. Within days we fell in love with all things Scottish - plaids, Celtic crosses, castles and their individual ghosts. We became immersed in the saga of Glen Coe where the MacDonald clan was massacred in 1692 by the Campbells after the MacDonalds generously offered them shelter, food and wine during a freezing blizzard. We exchanged Scottish names from the depths of our family genealogy to discover distant "cousins" among our fellow travelers. Within a couple days we spoke with a Scottish lilt and incorporated the word "wee" into every phrase, as in "I'll have a wee dram of whisky, please."

We learned the derivative of other Scottish-inspired nomenclature. The term "powder room," for example, was the area of the castle in which gentlemen powdered their wigs. It had nothing to do with women powering their noses. And the term "top drawer" comes from the Scots who typically kept all their clothes in seven-drawer chests, with the top drawer being reserved for their Sunday best.

For all the Maggies, Marjories and Peggies in the world, the Scots hold a special reverence. If your name is any form of Margaret, you can become a card-carrying member of the Society of Margaret, a group of devotees to this particular saint.

As with castles, Scotland has its historic battlefields. Near the town of Inverness, we stopped at Culloden Battlefield, where during the rebellion of 1745, "Bonnie" Prince Charles Edward Stuart's uprising was slaughtered by government forces led by the Duke of Cumberland. Stuart's men who fought in this civil war were outnumbered, ill-equipped and exhausted after marching all night. Yet they went into battle with courage that has passed into legend. Scots revere their bravery today.

The Spey Valley is where most whisky distilleries are located due to the purity of the water. During a tour of one of the larger distilleries, we watched malted barley and water combine to make whisky, which the Scots call "the water of life."

However Ian, our guide, refuted his countrymen's reputation for imbibing with his personal collection of hundreds of bottles of unopened Scotch whisky. He collects them only for the labels. At the distillery, the heat and heady aroma of scotch soon drove us outdoors where we took a self-guided tour of the distillery's lovely estate gardens before departing for our hotel. Known as the Ardoe House in Blairs near Aberdeen, this 19th century-inspired mansion was our favorite hotel on tour.

The next day we visited an Aberdeen Angus cattle ranch, where the owner regaled us with stories of cattle breeding while we sampled fresh scones, berries and clotted cream. After stopping in the charming town of Ballater to dine in a pub and watch the locals participate in Scottish games and bagpiping competitions, we left to tour the beautifully restored Crathes Castle. This fairyland fortress was built in 1323 and is one of the most attractive castles preserved by the National Trust for Scotland. We learned about the resident ghost that haunts the Green Room, and as a wee patch of sunlight brightened our afternoon, we toured the castle gardens and discovered a giant sequoia tree with a plaque indicating it was a gift from California in the 1930s. The following day we visited the multi-spired and turreted Glamis Castle, the childhood home of Princess Margaret and the legendary setting for Shakespeare's "Macbeth." This picturesque, fairy-tale castle was the childhood home of Great Britain's Queen Mother.

While the castles are spectacular, no trip to Scotland is complete without a visit to the birthplace of golf, St. Andrews Golf Club, which for my avid golfer husband was a religious experience. Without a tee time (or a handicap low enough to get one), we walked around the Old Course, where the game supposedly was played 100 years before Columbus reached America. It was some consolation to visit the British Golf Museum and browse through the town poised on an inlet of the North Sea. Steeped in history, St. Andrews is the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, and it was here that much of the drama of the Reformation was enacted.

On this particular tour, however, the best was saved for last - a visit to Edinburgh Castle for the world-famous, annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo. This musical extravaganza began in 1950 as a modest marching of the pipes and drums across the castle esplanade. Today it has grown into one of the world's greatest spectacles featuring dozens of military bands from all over the world.

The 21-day annual production is staged during the Edinburgh International Festival every August, when the entire city burgeons with tourists. Tickets to the Tattoo, which is held outdoors in the castle's massive courtyard, typically are sold out by May.

En route to the 7:30 p.m. performance, a crowd inched up the Royal Mile toward the castle, strolling 50 abreast across the posh, pedestrian street. As the masses approached a security check, the crowd narrowed to pairs of two as police searched for weapons. Inside the castle courtyard, stadium-style seating ensured no bad views and the rain had stopped, although foul weather never has canceled a single performance in the Tattoo's 54-year history.

At one point fireworks exploded in the sky and precisely on cue, two phantom Scottish Air Force jets roared low across the courtyard. The thundering streaks propelled the 1356 castle 649 years into the present.

From the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards to the RAF Queen's Color Squadron that performs flawless drill movements without any word of command, the music soars high above the castle - marches, jazz and Scottish favorites.

The Tattoo ended with the entire 1,000-strong cast playing and audience singing "Auld Lang Syne," before the lowering of the flags on the castle. Then, as the lights dimmed to pitch black came the spine-tingling notes of a lone piper silhouetted against the castle wall.

By now, there wasn't a dry eye in the house, especially on the part of the patriotic Scots and their loyal descendants who may reside elsewhere, but who still think of Scotland as home. Tattoo fans purposely book their visits to Scotland not only for the Tattoo, but to revisit Edinburgh Castle itself, which is the second-most popular tourist attraction in Great Britain. Situated at the top of a treacherously jagged hill, this mighty fortress is steeped in Scottish history and home to the crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny. This Scottish icon is the stone seat upon which the Scottish kings had been enthroned for centuries.

While the Tattoo and all its pageantry is definitely worth enduring the festival crowds to see, we were surprised at the country's incredibly unspoiled natural beauty, its engaging, delightful people and its food from kippers and Arbroath Smokies (haddock smoked over wood) to lobsters, prawns, oysters and mussels that are exported around the world.

Then there's the wonderful Aberdeen Angus beef and Border lamb, both world famous. Also, there are great local cheeses, and haggis is really very good, especially if you don't know its contents - (heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, suet, oatmeal and onion).

We definitely hope to return to Scotland one day. There are a few ghosts that are waiting to make our acquaintance, along with Nessie of Loch Ness. And who knows, maybe with a decade's practice we'll qualify to play at St. Andrews.

Meredith Grenier is a staff writer for the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif.

© Copley News Service

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