When my cousin Deb’s husband, Dan, took a one-year sabbatical, he chose a post at the University of Edinburgh. Deb packed their household into seven suitcases, rented a “flat,” enrolled their two kids in school and moved — with a bit of apprehension and a lot of checklists — to Scotland.
They found a spacious, Victorian-era fourth-floor “fully furnished” walk-up with ancient furniture, 25 electric tea kettles and no clothes dryer. At first, they thought the flat, which once neighbored Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1880’s-era rental, was haunted. Sinister cackling echoed down the chimney each evening.
But they discovered with relief the culprit was a seagull, not the ghost of Moriarty. To my surprise, my pragmatic cousin was utterly charmed by all of it. “You have to visit,” she would tell me on our calls. “There’s a unicorn statue right out my window. I love my unicorn.”
Scotland, it seemed, had turned my smart, checklist-making cousin into a romantic. Despite having a short travel window, my husband, Kevin, our 14-year-old son, Max, and I seized the opportunity to visit.
Edinburgh is a city of nearly 500,000 people, and the hilly, cobbled streets and alleyways (or “closes”) of Old Town wind through its ancient heart. Because the city was spared some of the worst World War II bombings, buildings that stood for centuries remain as they were.
From Deb and Dan’s Old Town flat, Dan could walk to work at the university and Deb could walk the kids, Jason and Julie to their school, a centrally located private school that, Deb told me, inspired J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books. How do you know this? I asked Deb.
Rowling lives here and wrote some of the Harry Potter books here, Deb explained. The books base some landmarks and characters on Edinburgh locales and people.
“And,” Deb added reluctantly, “rumor has it, Rowling has been seen in the building.”
She lobbed this bombshell softly, gently, hoping it wouldn’t ignite trouble-making ideas. But the idea had already whooshed into my head like a Dementor.
Then Deb named the first and only condition of our visit: “Be. Cool.”
Cool? Had she met me? I promised to try but secretly plotted to sneak into Hogwarts with my niece and nephew, meet J.K. Rowling, and, as I took a selfie with her, quietly hum “Weasley Is My King.”
But first, I had sights to see and castles to conquer.
We didn’t need Rowling to start our own Harry Potter tour of Edinburgh. The Elephant House, overlooking the school, is the coffee shop where Rowling wrote some of the books. I wanted to find out if their coffee would inspire us to create the next iconic series of children’s books, movies and theme parks.
But the entrance to the shop was packed five-deep with tourists taking selfies, so we moved on. Victoria Street, with its brightly painted storefronts and double-decker sidewalk, allegedly served as Rowling’s inspiration for Diagon Alley, and nearby Greyfriars churchyard holds the grave of a real-life Tom Riddle, known to readers as Voldemort’s boyhood name. This real-world map of Rowling’s wizarding world lay within a 10-minute walk of the Royal Mile.
The Royal Mile winds downhill from Edinburgh’s imposing castle to Holyrood Palace. It takes just a few steps down the cobblestones to develop a theory that Scotland is a country with more sheep than people. Cashmere and wool in every incarnation imaginable is sold in every shop, and it’s all dyed to represent the tartans, or plaids, of the clans.
If you have Scottish roots, you can look up your ancestral clan name to find your tartan, crest and/or clan motto in most of the shops along the mile. My clan, the lawless Cranstouns, counted themselves among the dozen “reiver” (or raider) clans in the 16th century.
Strolling the mile, it was easy to distinguish locals from tourists. With April temperatures hovering in the high 50s, Scots enjoyed the rare burst of “summer” weather in T-shirts. I had to buy a cashmere Cranstoun-tartan scarf to cope with the chill.
Bagpiping buskers lined the street. We told our son, who requested a set of “starter” bagpipes, that recent trade revisions forbade the export of bagpipes to the U.S. “Blame Brexit,” I shrugged. He did not and sulked the rest of the way to Holyrood Palace.
“You trip over a castle every five feet in Scotland,” Dan told us. “We’ll take you to the good ones.”
There’s difference between a palace and a castle, Deb explained. Castles are generally ancient and ruined, while palaces are homes and/or museums.
Within palaces you’ll find untouchable furniture and, according to Julie, strict rules against running and playing hide-and-seek. Palaces bored Julie to
her 8-year-old core.
Despite my intention to visit every castle in Scotland, particularly the ones the Cranstouns had inhabited (or, more likely, burned down), we had to prioritize, beginning with the structures that bookended the Royal Mile: Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. Holyrood, a still-used royal house, is a must-see for history buffs, or royal family fans. I got goosebumps walking into the small room where Mary Queen of Scots’ secretary, David Rizzio, was murdered in front of her in 1566. Kevin was more impressed learning Queen Elizabeth’s spot at the long dining table and walking through the eerie ruins of the adjoining abbey.
Edinburgh Castle perches atop an ancient volcano, looming over the city for nearly a thousand years, resisting all sieges. The stones beneath it reveal a fortress dating back to the Bronze Age. Today, you can tour the dungeons, the army museum, the thousand-year-old chapel and the Scottish crown jewels.
The Scottish crown jewels are extra- ordinary not for their extravagance, but for their age. Next to them lies, under the same security glass, the fabled Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny. Only the Scots — who named an estuary the Firth of Forth and whose national animal is imaginary — could bequeath such a poetic name to an unremarkable slab of sandstone. “Look, Max! The Stone of Destiny!” I told my son. Max regarded the grey lump. “If you say so,” he replied.
Also in Edinburgh is Her Majesty’s yacht, Britannia, a floating palace and a must-see for fans of Netflix’s “The Crown.” The retired royal yacht can be accessed, strangely, through the third floor of a declining shopping mall. Deb and I loved Britannia’s extensive collection of royal family memorabilia. Kevin and Max just loved the boat.
On Monday of our visit, Jason and Julie returned to school after “spring holiday.” Just like its fictional counterpart, their school “sorts” kids into “houses.” (Per Julie, no magical talking hat was involved.) Jason and Julie were placed in Castle House. If I had to guess their fictionalized corresponding house, I’d peg them as Ravenclaws, the smarties. The teachers, Deb told us, wore robes, but only to assemblies. The movies fairly copied the uniforms, right down to the long, striped scarves.
But the school isn’t open to the public, and security was no joke. Unless … Kevin and I happened to be parents of students. Jason wanted no part of this scheme. Julie was enthusiastically on board.
We walked to school, joining tributaries of identically uniformed students that converged into a river of students at the school entrance. Julie confidently took our hands, smiled at the guards and swept us in through the iron gates. As we rounded the school building on the garden path, Julie saw a friend and took off, leaving us in a sea of moving students without an escort or cover story.
We saw a few other adults who were presumably parents, but no recognizable children’s book authors. Wandering unchaperoned into the school’s stone courtyard, Kevin, un-parent-like, started taking pictures. It was here that Julie bounced up to us, unfazed at losing us. “Let’s go to my classroom!” she said, grabbing our hands and leading us into the building. As we passed the carpool drive, Kevin and I subtly scanned the drivers. “Come on!” Julie urged.
Inside her classroom, Julie’s teacher knew us immediately for the imposters we were. “These are my cousins,” Julie explained. She needn’t have. The teacher knew exactly what, and who, these Americans were trying to glimpse. The teacher smiled and conversed with us enthusiastically as she edged us closer and closer to the door. “Where’s Baltimore?” she asked. She didn’t care.
“Oh! Near Washington, D.C. That’s nice!” A few more niceties, then our plan crashed as she signaled to a security guard, who escorted us out of the building.
With five days to explore the eastern Lowlands in and around Edinburgh, we had to plan carefully to see everything we wanted to see, and we missed a few sights, like the zoo where the penguins go on parade every day, waddling down the main drag. If we had had more time, we would have hit Glasgow by train, rented a car and set off into the Highlands and islands to wander for another week. Instead, we bid goodbye to Deb and Dan, to Hogwarts students Jason and Julie, to haggis and wool, to castles and palaces, to bagpipes and Deb’s beloved unicorn statue. In just five days, I had been charmed by its magic, too.
If You Go
Transportation: Public transportation is excellent in Edinburgh. Passes can be purchased from your phone. You don’t need to rent a car if you’re staying in town or taking day trips to Glasgow, Stirling or Rosslyn. To explore the western islands and the Highlands, you’ll need to rent a car or take one of the many bus tours available. Scots drive on the left side of the road and can navigate roundabouts.
Connection: There’s free Wi-Fi in the city, on trains and buses and in nearly every restaurant and museum. Check your provider for data rates in Europe.
Weather: Scotland can be wet, windy and cold by mid-Atlantic standards, and it can be damp and chilly even in summer. You may have to buy a cashmere scarf.
Shopping: When you get tired of buying cashmere, the place to shop is along Princes Street in tony New Town. There you’ll find Marks & Spencer, Zara, Primark, and nearby, a mysteriously popular retail chain called FatFace. The Lululemon of Scotland is Sweaty Betty. Royal wedding kitsch is best found at thrift stores, known as “charity shops.”