Just in case you have ever wanted a 6 year old to give you a 7 minute tour of a private castle, here you go!
One of the FABULOUS things about Dublin is the cabbies. We leaned all about Brian Boru this week in a cab, the first time I had ever heard of him and now I could give a lecture. We’ve learned that more than 30% of the people of Ireland don’t want to Pope to visit, that the Hart family comes from Cork, that the best family records in Europe come from Scotland, that most poultry is free range and therefore more white in color, that doughnuts have replaced cupcakes in the race for sweet in-thing in the foodie community.
And the bus drivers… we had one who’s uncle was the last cooper at Guinness, one that sang Elvis when driving over the cobblestones, one that quoted Oscar Wilde at least a dozen times, one that gave me at least six new facts about James Joyce and at least three that made reference to murder… specifically, the murder of the Irish Accent by Tom Cruise in “Far and Away.” It made enough of an impression I want to watch the movie again.
It’s the 100 year anniversary of the 1916 revolt, and we learned much about that this trip. And we’ve been asked – with sincere concern – about Trump daily. We’ve laughed again and again every single day because the Irish have such a great sense of humor. I wonder how that will change, as we see have overheard so many, many Americans say so many, many dumb things. I remember coming here 16 years ago solo and everyone was just so warm, but there weren’t a ton of American tourists then. We’ve had to listen to Americans boast about their walk in closets, discuss (without prompt) their great-great grandfather (“He was from Mayo, maybe you know the family name?”) talk about how much money they make and make rude comments about potatoes.
On to the day’s adventure. We are in our rhythm: We can have a leisurely breakfast, get everything together for the day, head out to one museum, see something small, grab a sit down lunch, head to another museum, do a little shopping, have dinner, head back. That’s about 8 – 10 hours. If we try to make it to three big attractions, we have to have lunch on the go and no shopping or stopping anywhere.
Our two adventures today for were all about the little guy. He’s pooped. He’s done. He’s tired. So we arranged a day where he picked food, he bought a treat for himself, he picked the museums.
Up first was Dublinia! I have a soft spot for cheesy historical displays and was excited that Little was ALL over this one. The first floor is about the Vikings – displays on how they lived, their religion and food and houses and families and jobs and most of all, the first winter they spent in Dublin. The second floor was about Medieval Dublin, the plague and fairs and merchant life and the quays. Finally, on the top, there was a great display on archaeology including real bodies and artifacts that were dug up. So cool.
After a pizza lunch (again) we decided not to bus but walked the 20 minutes across the Ha’penny bridge to the Museum of Natural History. We weren’t sure what to expect but our family loves Natural History, so we were delighted after we left the somewhat limited Irish Animal floor (the ground level) and headed upstairs to see three additional floors of every kind of animal imaginable. If you have been to the Museum of Natural History in NYC, you know that animal collection – this was 10x that!
And for dinner? Well, little picked. Ben and I didn’t partake because he picked Burger King. He wanted the How To Train Your Dragon toy and the special santa crown and it was his day. He wore the crown back home to the castle, the little king for today. He’s been such a trooper for the last 20 days. It warms my heart to see him discover the world – today he gave me a huge hug and said “I just love history so much!”
We woke up in Clontarf Castle and it was luxurious. We have had hot water, water pressure, heat and appropriate toilet flushing but never more than two at a time. Last night, we had all four. Plus washcloths and fluffy heated towels. Additionally, the breakfast here is awesome. Back to Ireland, we had the full Irish as an option and all the breakfast cheeses and drinking chocolates again!
We caught one of the hop-on-hop-off double decker city buses that leaves from our hotel. The truth is, as cheesy as they are, they hit 28 of the major city stops and we planned on going to many of them, so this is just easy. Honestly, it’s good sense. We would have just taken the bus to take it, and figuring it all out would have been a headache. It’s also great when you don’t know what you want to see – you can drive all the way around the city in an hour or two and look at all your options.
We started out by visiting Dublin castle and it’s amazing history. It’s been active since the 1200’s and is still active today – many of the buildings are still being used for official government yet it also houses a Viking excavation site. After the castle, we took a quick walk over to Christchurch Cathedral which is pretty simple as far as cathedrals go and has amazing crypts that shouldn’t be missed.
Farther down the street from Christchurch is St. Patrick’s cathedral, supposedly near the site where St. Patrick baptized people 1500 years ago (the stone is in the church with a celtic cross on it.) It’s a much more popular spot, as it holds many famous graves and has a number of war memorials there. This one was an interesting spot as far as family goes – The place was full of the name Butler so I took pics and sent them to my Butler cousin – and we found a whole page of war heroes with the last name of Hart. It was just Hart – every name on the page.
I’ve been to Dublin before, about 16 years ago. It’s funny how old cities don’t much change. Ha’penny bridge, Dublin castle, all looks just like it did then and I remembered my way around. But when we found Molly Malone I had to do a double take. She wasn’t near the pub I remembered and I certainly couldn’t have seen her from a bus as I recalled doing so at one point. Turns out the city moved Molly two years ago. That hasn’t kept people from being handsy with her, as evidenced by where the finish has come off.
We also went to the National Gallery of Ireland so I could check another Vermeer off the list. This one was one of his later paintings and quite a juxtaposition from the one we checked out just last week in Scotland.
We met a couple of hubby’s friends at a pub called O’Neil’s and had a pint. It was a blast and we managed to get a few tips from them, which is always great. We finished with dinner at another pub. Little announced at dinner that he didn’t want to leave Ireland. We just have to move all of our things here, he said. Dinner every night at a pub and drinking chocolate every morning – I totally get where he is coming from. And the evening ended with our cabbie giving us an incredible history lesson on Clontarf and the Vikings and my hubby’s family – apparently, we need to go to Cork to meet them. Can I start planning our next trip?
Our little flat in Edinburgh along the King’s Stables road was a wonderful place to wake up in – we made some drinking chocolate (that’s what Liam is calling hot cocoa now), instant coffee (won’t miss it) and some oranges and bananas we still had left over from the castle. We headed out in search of real coffee, a more substantial breakfast for hubby, the Elephant House, Grayfriar’s, Grayfriar’s Bobby and a mail box to send a few postcards away.
(I had a dream last night that I contacted the flat owner and asked to rent the little place for the entire month of August, and little and I spent a month there with me working remotely. This is a crazy idea but I should check it into my brain’s “future crazy ideas” file for contemplation later, because it MIGHT just work out some time!)
We weren’t leaving to catch our flight until 1 so we had some time to wander around Old Town. I mentioned we were staying at the Grasslawn Market area – I hope you had a moment to click on the link and read about it. The history is fascinating! It’s at the edge of Candlemaker’s Row and the Merchant’s row, and the Cowgate is at the end. It’s names Grasslawn because there were grassy areas after Cowgate where sheep, cows and horses would graze before coming to market. The area itself is thick with old pubs, as these Inns would be where people would stay after driving the livestock in for sale. It also happens to be where – until the late 1700’s – most of the hangings took place. Many of the pub names are reflective of that time. One was particularly cool – the White Hart, celebrating 500 years this year!
We made the trek to the Elephant House, hoping to have some brekkie in the café that Rowling wrote Harry Potter in. No such luck, the line was worse than a Seattle artisanal biscuit café wait in Ballard on a Sunday morning! Instead we snapped a few shots and headed down to Grayfriar’s. Hubby and I have had a running joke about how EVERY corner you turn in Edinburgh (in old town at least) has someone busker playing bagpipes, so it feels like the whole town is set to bag pipe music. Across the street was an elderly gent playing religious tunes on the pipes, welcoming people into the church for services. I went over to record him and he stopped and invited Little to try playing! What a cool, sincere moment. Little made a little “squeak!” using ALL of his breath. We ended up popping into the very first place where we could find a Latte and I am so glad we did – the Grassmarket project served a fabulous breakfast and the best latte we have had in Europe for an excellent cause.
We finished our Grassmarket tour by grabbing our stuff and heading to a Tony Singh spot for more Indian food. The Indian food we have had in Edinburgh is hands down the best I have had anywhere. I’m sure this has to do with colonization but we will take it gladly. Hubby and I had watch a Chef Abroad BBC episode featuring Singh going to Punjabi and were excited to try his food – Indian with a Scottish produce focus. It was great.
From there, we were able to catch the tram from Princes street to the airport and catch our flight to Dublin, a quick hour hop over the water. We are tucked in tonight at the Clontarf Castle Hotel. It’s a hoot – a castle built in the 1100’s that was remodeled and used for carbaret until the late 90’s. It has the awesome old stone feel all decorated beautiful for Christmas, with wacky purple chairs and pop art. I will have to post some pictures tomorrow to try and do it justice. Our current plan for tomorrow is to do a double-decker hop on hop off tour and meet some of hubby’s friends for dinner – we will see what adventures we have!
We had zero energy yesterday to do much and I think my post yesterday reflected that. We decided to leave the castle and the highlands a day early; there was so much we wanted to do in Edinburgh. Plus, it was freezing. You could see your own breath in the main turret stairs and we were hauling space heaters and blankets around to different rooms to keep warm. Honestly, what did we expect?! It’s a 1598 castle in the Scottish Highlands in late November. And it was charming and perfect and wonderful and just what we wanted – but we were ready to move on. We had tried to find cool kid things and struck out around every corner up there – no kids at the parks (because it was freezing!), no kids near the castle, even the Landmark park was closed. The only thing near “kid encounter” we had was at the café at the Forest Visitor Center the day we went to see the reindeer – little guy had a small girl come up and sit with him at a puzzle table. Turns out the puzzle was an omen – neither one of them could understand a word each other said. As funny as it was, it was time to hit civilization again.
We quickly packed up the castle yesterday morning and drove the three hours into Edinburgh. I had found at the last minute a townhome right by St. Mary’s Cathedral in the Dean Gardens/Theater district. We had no problem finding it or parking. I covered most of this yesterday but a few things I want to discuss again:
THAT HOUSE. On Chester Street. I should post pictures later. The house was owned by an artist/young father who had art and antique mirrors everywhere. Antique chairs, 16’ ceilings, the stairs that just went up and up and up, the shabby chic carpet and furniture, juxtaposed with modern bathrooms. I swear, If I ever win the lottery that would be the place I would buy. It needed love but I felt like I was in a Bronte novel.
But let’s be honest – a house that big isn’t easy to heat. And after a week of the cold castle, we were all disappointed to find ourselves again raiding rooms for extra duvets, looking for space heaters, trying to figure out ancient plumbing.
And we had a “weird” AirBnB moment. I had one in NYC a couple years ago so I guess my time was up again. At 9 AM, someone furiously rang the buzzer again and again – it turned out to be about a dozen rowdy Scotsmen (one dressed as a clown) ready to occupy the house and begin the party. Problem was, their check in time was noon. We ended up having to unplug the buzzer and notify the owner. Kind of ruined the morning mood but I will still have fond memories of the place.
We packed up and headed out around 10 AM after African coffee. Our journey today was to see the Rosslyn Chapel, made famous in the book The DaVinci Code but really, Hubby and I had watched an amazing PBS documentary and he asked that we try to fit it in. It’s really a marvel. It’s medieval and has a history involving the Bruce family (of Robert the Bruce), numerous artists and poets who were attracted to it. And mystery; it was said to have been a sacred place of the Knights Templar and also has these amazing corn/maize carvings that predate Columbus by 40 years. The chapel did not disappoint. We spend almost 2 hours in the tiny, gorgeous place.
We headed back into town to land at our respective AirBnBs (new ones tonight) and my brother suggested we park and walk to lunch. We went to a wonderful Indian place (Tuk Tuk) that served Tiffin lunches; an entrée, two mains and a rice or naan. Oh. Em. Gee. It was better than ANY Indian food I have ever had in the states.
We emptied our suitcases into the AirBnB, which is right off Kings Stable Road, under the great Edinburgh castle. Out host, Martin, was so super friendly, full of stories and tips. And his apartment is the cutest. It’s the smallest place we have been at to date and that means – THE WARMEST. It’s also delightfully efficient. It’s right off the Grassmarket so there is plenty for us to do and see.
Our first stop after unpacking was to meet our travel buddies at Mary King’s Close, the Edinburgh Underground tour. We were so sad to learn that the tours were sold out for the next 24 hours. It just gives us a reason to come back again!
Instead, we headed down the close to the Edinburgh Christmas Market. I wasn’t expecting it to be so huge and crazy. It was elbow to elbow. We managed to pick up a little gluhwein but passed the booths of pretzels and sausages and brotkartofflen (sigh) because everything was just too busy and crazy. Little was in his element – finally, there were KIDS! Tons of them! Kids rides to rideith kids on, kids to talk to in line. He was elated.
We did a few easy rides like the flying elephants and a reindeer roller coaster and a cars ride – but from there, he saw the jackpot. A faux-ice wall. For climbing. It was about 20 feet tall and there was a line of little boys just waiting to take a try at climbing all the way up to hit a buzzer. He had to do it.
We were certain he couldn’t. He’s never climbed before and he’s afraid of heights. My brother leaned over to him while he was waiting and told him he would buy little a stuffie if he made it to the top. The thing is, the kid loves LOVES stuffies and has been begging for one this whole trip. We don’t buy things like that and for two weeks, his hints have been unanswered. But this was his chance!
Up he went, down he went. The guy running the wall told him to try again and always make sure his feet were solid and taken care of first. He made a second attempt and —- made it all the way up. We were cheering like crazy and had the folks around us cheering too. An elderly woman behind us grabbed my brother and asked if the little guy was his – what a show he had put on! I can’t make this up. Or the next part:
The stuffie. He knew EXACTLY what he wanted. We walked up to the main street and he took off, leading us to a store a few blocks down across from the cathedral. He was driven. He was dialed in. He picked up a little highland cow stuffed animal from a display and handed it to my brother. We had entered this store hours earlier to buy tickets for the underground tour and I didn’t even know they had stuffed animals for sale. He knew where to go and what he wanted. And he earned it. We said goodbye to my brother and Maggie – they will pick us up in a few day’s time when we return home. Right now, we have a last morning in Scotland before we head to Ireland in the afternoon for the last few days of our vacation.
We were scheduled to spend the entire week in the highlands and leave Saturday but our list of things to see and do in Edinburgh was just too long and compelling. The Gray family was leaving us on Friday to head back to Seattle via London. There was still much to do and see around the Castle but the truth is that Edinburgh called and I was It watired of seeing my own breath inside. Did I mention I think the castle is haunted?
We checked for last minute deals after confirming the change with my brother and his beautiful partner, our travel buddies through Sunday. We ended up finding an amazing situation: a GIANT elegant townhome in a posh neighborhood in Edinburgh that was available at a steep discount Friday night only. Huzzah! A plan was in place!
We spent a few hours cleaning up after out 6 nights of being quite settled in, checking every nook and doing all the things one last time. I drew a bath in the clawfoot tub in the Laird’s room and the other guests spent the morning cobbling together Thanksgiving leftovers for breakfast and eating as much as we could to clean out the fridge.
The townhome is amazing. It has 7 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms over four floors, 16 foot ceilings in most rooms except the stairs, where it goes up at least 30 feet to a glass ceiling. Posh isn’t even the right work – this house is amazing. A dream house. I would never leave if I lived here. It’s so perfectly lovely, on a corner so there are giant windows in all the rooms.
It’s right around the block from the wonderful St. Mary’s Cathedral, so we wandered over there and caught the last of a high school concert. We wandered around after the last song and again lit a candle for a loved one.
We are in the West end by Dean’s Park and we were able to walk three blocks to hit a retail and restaurant area. We let little pick a lovely place; Pizza Express.
It was actually a perfect pick, they had a 3-course “bambino” dinner that he ordered, complete with a tiny cup of drinking chocolate served with dessert. Once home, little played foosball with his uncle and picked which ever bed and bedroom he wanted; and fell asleep so quickly as soon as his head hit the pillow!
We plan on heading out to see Rosslyn Chapel in the morning, the Edinburgh Underground tour in the afternoon and the Christmas Market in the evening. It should prove to be another long but fulfilling day that we are all looking forward to.
Our group was looking forward to Thanksgiving in the Castle. Once in a lifetime opportunity, right?
We started the morning splitting up: The Grays and Hubby went on a distillery tour. Did you know that if you are driving (or not drinking) and you go on such a tour, they give you all the samples in adorable little beakers to enjoy later?
My brother, myself and little opted to head to the kid-friendly Landmark Forest Park. We were surprised to find that it was closed due to ice after seeing it advertised many times as “open all year.” There was one fun indoor activity open – the Bamboolzeleum. It was full of camera obscuras, optical illusions, etc.
We were home by noon and ready to begin our feast. The Grays had procured a turkey and my brother had managed to find some great vegan options for his partner to cook up. (I kid – kind of.) We had a great feast and enjoyed each other’s company in the vaulted kitchen of a castle built in 1598. Adulting success!
After dessert and dinner 2.0, the girls decided to walk up to Muckrach Country House to enjoy the lodge, which was dolled up in the most beautiful Christmas gear and had special holiday bevvies to serve. I don’t normally enjoy scotch but on this occasion I had a Scotch Hot Chocolate – perfect to warm me up before the long walk back to the castle in the cold and under the stars.
We are taking a little break from our regular format to talk about the amazing place we are staying this week. Little just filmed a video tour to share with his friends and although I will need to edit it before we publish it here, we thought we would spend a little time writing about Muckrach Castle!
Muckrach was given to on of the Grant Laird’s sons in 1583 and was completed in 1598. There is a stone above the entryway dated 1598. In the 1700’s another Laird Grant built the nearby town on Granton (Granton-on-Spey) to provide for the locals, to build an economy on hunting and fishing and lodges after crop failure and famine. The Grants held a number of castles in the area.
Muckrach Castle is a 16th century tower house, heavily fortified. It was originally constructed as a square keep with a courtyard. The keep had a vaulted basement, which serves as the kitchen. The great hall is on the first floor and there were two further floors above accessed by spiral staircases in the turrets. Between the two floors of bedrooms above the great hall is another bedroom with twin bunk beds built into the walls on each floor. Each bedroom has the remnants of the old fireplaces that would have kept the castle warm in this cold weather.
The castle is located three miles from Granton and a half mile from the tiny town of Dunlian Bridge; and right next to the Muckrach Country House, a very fancy hotel with a restaurant we are looking forward to visiting soon.
I’m not going to lie. Renting an entire castle in the middle of nowhere can feel a little like a Scooby Doo episode. I still haven’t seen the caretaker yet I’ve been frightened more times than I would like to count. Ghost stories in the guest book, voices, lights turning off, doors unlocking. We have a couple bedrooms not being used because my brave 6 year old couldn’t last a night in his own room, even though he begged to have it. But it also has it’s rewards; this is a way to really learn about the highlands and experience them in a way no one I know has. We haven’t met any other Americans in our adventures as of late.
We really love finding unique places to stay; this trip includes the Pub in Dingle and another castle in Dublin, which is much larger and will be a much different experience. Muckrach has felt a little more like a lodge in the woods; our visitors have been mostly the local sheep and a friendly Highlands Cow that greets us as we come in and out.
We weren’t moving fast this morning. Some of the electricity went out in the castle so we were without lights in the main bathroom and hallways. An electrician was on the way, but it seemed a great time to do some kid-friendly stuff and hit the local grocery for the last things on our Thanksgiving shopping list in preparation for the great feast tomorrow.
The roads were icy, even at 11 AM when we hit the road, even with the sun glaring down on us. We headed to Cairngorm National Park, where it was cold and clear. Our destination was the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre, where the only free-ranging herd of reindeer are in the UK. Little’s grandparents live very close to the Reindeer Farm in Palmer, Alaska and we enjoy visiting it so little guy was excited to meet more Reindeer! There was even a post box for Santa, Liam wrote his letter in the Reindeer stall and made sure to drop it in the box before we left.
After visiting a few big guys from the herd in the paddocks, we headed over to the Forest Visitor Centre for hot cocoa, coffee, treats and planning – we were heading to Aviemore to shop for the big Thanksgiving feast in the castle tomorrow. Aviemore is only about 15 miles from the castle so it makes a great stop. Tomorrow will be a quiet day of cooking and listening to music with our friends and family that have travelled here to celebrate together. Looking forward to posting the pics!
Up early and out the door for a full day (sans Hubby or Little, who slept in at the castle) on the Isle of Skye! We left before dawn, stars in the sky, knowing it would be a very long day of driving. Little and hubby stayed behind because it would be tough for the kid to spend the day driving as long as we planned to do, so it was an adult adventure and the day was met with a brief snowstorm that made us contemplate turning back.
Historically, the Isle of Sky has been occupied by the Norse, the Scots, the Gaelic and the Romans even spoke of it. It’s geography is sparse and desolate, with more sheep than people. As we approached the Isle, we first stopped at the lovely Castle Eilean Donan, the iconic castle on the loch that you see in so many pictures. It was stunning and lovely. The McRae clan had rebuilt the castle for residency in the 1930’s and it was awesome to tour the inside, where the tour guide pointed out secret chambers and spyholes through the great room.
From there, we traveled of the Skye Bridge and onto the island for the next few hours. On the agenda were Kilt Rock with it’s 350’ cliffs, the Old Man of Storr, the Quiraing and other geologic wonders. The entire trip took just under 10 hours round trip from our space in Granton-on-Spey. During that time it rained, snowed, rained sideways, hailed and sun shined on us at different times. We stopped at a little chippy for a quick “take away” in order to maximize our time on the road, only to find out that everything was fried in beef fat. The fish, the chips, the everything and without apology.
Once we were back at the castle, the stars were bright and back out, and I was excited to see my guys so we headed back out for a relaxing dinner. We found the Craig Pub, a delightful RAF-themed pub with a wonderful owner and even better pies. I had a goat cheese, sweet potato and spinach pie as suggested by the owner (mmmmmmm!) and Ben enjoyed a steak and Guinness pie with a pint of Guinness. Little guy picked out chicken nuggets and fried – well, he enjoyed and I can’t hold it against him. I wish he would be a bit more adventurous in his eating but I’m thrilled he’s up for the adventure we are on, no matter what.