Feathered Men Don’t Fly

Royal births, gruesome deaths, elegant banquets and bloody sieges. It’s hard to imagine that the calm grounds where the tourists  now stroll was once home to such events.  As I walk through the stone arch entrance of Stirling Castle, I enter a small courtyard area. To my left is the Great Hall with a warm yellow exterior and a surprisingly simple facade. Ahead is the sloping stone path to the royal kitchens. However, my eye is on the incline tucked away between the Royal Palace and the archway.  I make my way up the slight hill to the relatively flat look out area.

Photo Taken By Jill Crotty

Photo Taken By Jill Crotty

It is one of the castle workers who is flapping his arms, and pointing towards one of the castle’s ledges that catches my attention.  I move toward the group that’s listening intently.  I’m instantly intrigued.  The story goes like this:

James IV, was one of Scotland’s great kings, who was known for his incredible abilities. He spoke six languages fluently, and amazed his people with his knowledge of everything from literature to dentistry. The idea of alchemy, or turning basic metals into gold,  sparked this young king’s interest as well. Meanwhile  John Damian, a foreign alchemist, was looking for funding for his research.  It was a perfect match. James eagerly invited Damian to work  at Stirling Castle. Damian accepted the invitation that included funding and plenty of whisky.

 However Damian’s interest turned from precious metals to the secrets of flight.  One day Damian strapped chicken feathers on himself with the intent to fly to France.  He launched himself off the rampart… and then fell. Fortunately, he only suffered a broken thigh. Damian later explained that the problem was the hen’s feathers. Hens don’t fly so eagle feathers should have been used Damian concluded after his failed attempt.

As I walk towards the Great Hall, I consider mankind’s stories of flight. From Icarus’s flight to close to the sun to  Leonardo Da Vinci’s brilliant drawings to Damian’s attempt at Stirling Castle, the idea of flight simply makes our hearts flutter.





The Falkirk Wheel

The locals knew what I was talking about.

For the small town of Falkirk  the wheel has become a heavily discussed topic. And it’s obvious why. The Falkirk Wheel is a miraculous feat of mechanics. Engineers based the wheel’s design on the Celtic double headed axe. It’s pretty slick, and surprisingly modern looking for a structure that resembles an ancient weapon of war. When I first saw the structure I felt that it would have fit well into the movie Stargate. This is no movie prop though, it’s a massive rotating boat lift. The Falkirk Wheel is said to be as high as eight double decker buses on top of one another.  The half moon shaped visitor center seems relatively small in comparison.

Picture taken by Jill Crotty

Picture taken by Jill Crotty

After purchasing my ticket at the visitor center, I snap a few pictures before the boarding the boat.  The barge slowly makes its way onto the gondola. Our very cheerful guide tells us that the wheel is able to rotate using minimal power because of Archimedes principle, which states that floating objects displace their own weight in water. Basically, the water leaving one gondola is equal to the boat’s weight.  Both gondolas, the one with only water and one with the boat, are then equal in weight.

Incredibly, this enormous wheel only takes the power of eight boiling kettles. Quite impressive. Even to an American who has never come close to putting on the kettle. Our guide continues to answer questions about the mechanics. I glance up at the clear ceiling of the barge. I can see the little droplets of water that bead off the plastic tarp and run down the window.  As we go up the view of the snow capped mountains comes into sight.  The rest of the ride is smooth. Before I know it the boat is sliding back into the gondola. The water level is adjusted, the arms turn, and we are against the small wooden dock.

I grab my backpack and exit with the other passengers.  It truly is awe-inspiring.

Authentic Scottish Experiences

The rhythmic beat of stomping feet and clapping hands fills the hall. I’m at ceilidh, or a traditional Scottish dance.  Ceilidhs have been around for decades, but the experience hasn’t changed a bit. It’s all about dancing the night away, and having an excellent time while doing so.  Many of the dances are quite simple, just grab a partner (or two), link arms and swirl as the locals do. Others are significantly more complex.  Although I enjoy dancing, watching the more advanced dancers is mesmerizing. Particularly their fancy footwork.

Apart from attending ceilidhs, my second favorite  experience in Scotland is Burn’s Night.  Burn’s night celebrates the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. He’s particularly famous for his “Address to a Haggis.” Haggis is a sausage like food made with sheep’s heart liver and lungs along with oatmeal and spices.  When I first tried haggis with tatties (potatoes) it reminded me of ground beef. Honestly, it’s pretty good.  Below is a snippet of Burn’s poem.

Burns writes in Scots:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The rough translation in English is:

Fair and full is your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.


Scotland: Beyond the Sheep

1. Transportation by Bus or Broom

Okay, so you cannot truly get around Edinburgh by broom (unless you’re on the University Quidditch Team), but transportation in Scotland is incredible.  The buses will get you anywhere in Edinburgh and trains run regularly up to the highlands. Taxi’s can be hailed at just about any hour and new trams in the city centre are being tested this month.

 2. Not a Wee Town

Scotland may conjuncture up idyllic country sides with grazing sheep; however Edinburgh is an international city.   About a third of the student population is international students.  I think I’ve eaten more Indian takeout food, than Scottish cooking.   In my dorm there are students from all around Western Europe, Asia and North America. The diversity was initially surprising, but I feel it adds a unique atmosphere to the city.

 3. Pints of Knowledge

 Across campuses in America, public safety officers futilely try to confiscate alcohol.   In the University of Edinburgh students can grab a pint at any of the multiple bars on campus.  During the recent student presidential election, candidates made promises of one pound shots.  They won’t prevent the flu, but you’re sure to forget about that sore throat.

 4. Beautiful Grime

 Look up and you’ll see the fantastical building of Teviot, the oldest student union center at the University of Edinburgh.  Its triangular slopping roof, beautifully constructed towers and Gothic architecture makes one think longingly of Hogwarts.

Look down and you’ll see the city street splattered with gum.  Cigarette butts embedded into the cracks of the concrete.  Glass bottles broken and shattered across grey sidewalks.  Forgotten bus receipts drift around.

Beautiful grime is what happens when ancient and modern collide.

Opening New Doors (Literally and otherwise)

The taxi has dropped me off in front of a weathered grey, two story building.  Multiple green trash cans and a brightly painted blue door contrast sharply with the bleak looking dorm. I pull my suitcase up the front steps and rummage for the keys I received. I put the first key in. I twist and jiggle the knob.

Come on I mumble pleadingly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the black taxi cab speed off down the road.   The second key goes into the lock smoothly.  I hear an audible click. Breathing a sigh of relief, I push the door open my hand gripping my rolling suitcase.

There’s another door, which leads into a small area with a staircase on the left. Slightly further, I see I can turn either left or right.  I choose right. I  peek into the kitchen area with bright red walls.  I continue, listening to the sound of my suitcase wheels on the tiled floor.  Looking around I don’t see anyone.  The numbers on the doors are going up, I know I must be close to my room.

Another flight of stairs.  My suitcase is too heavy to pick up. The wheels hit every step on the way up.  Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.

I stop, breathing heavily, then continue.

Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk Clunk. Clunk.

I make it to the second floor. Groaning, at the sight of more stairs I check the number  on my envelop. I look at the door to my right. A match. I pull out my keys again.  The struggle between myself and the door continues.  A guy comes down the upper flight of stairs. I introduce myself and wonder how many people heard my elephant like thundering. He pushes against the door and it opens.  I thank him and we talk for a couple minutes before he leaves.  I fling my backpack on the open bed.

Then it hits me. I’m actually in Scotland.  Let the adventure begin.

Circles and Connections

Ten hours later I’m racing through the labyrinth of London Gatwick. I’ve made it off the airplane in record speed.  Ahead of the pack and breathing heavy, I run down the deserted hallways.  It’s only about 7:45 am in London and the day’s travelers haven’t arrived.

Further and further.  The stitch in my side growing.

At last I spot an information desk where three ladies sit. They don’t see me at first; they’re busy spinning out a long conversation. I raise my voice slightly and ask about immigration. They gesture ahead towards a few glass booths across the room.  It must have been good fate because there’s not a single person in line in immigration. I hand over my letter from the University of Edinburgh and identification.  The woman with the thick rimmed glasses, and plum colored lipstick takes her time. She consults another lady about student visitor visas. Finally, she stamps my passport. I jam it in my bag.

She points to her left and says “You go down the stairs, exit and up two floors” when I ask about departures.

It’s not until twenty minutes later, that I realize I have no idea where I’m going. I’ve passed the currency exchange place twice.  Circles. I’m going in circles.

I spot a bunch of passengers heading through a doorway. After a moment’s hesitation I follow.  Through more hallways then I notice an escalator. The ride up brings me to an open area where tired travelers wait in security lines.   After a minute explanation, a short grey haired women in an official vest leads me through.  Fingers crossed, I fervently hope I can make my flight.  Past security, with my belongs pressed to my chest, I find the departure board. I stare up at it to find my flight.  In glowing red I read “closed.”

Initiate Plan B.

Gate 80

Jet planes are the industrial dragons that soar through our modern skies.  I soon will be in the belly of one of these beasts as I head to Edinburgh, Scotland. I am sitting at gate 80 trying (and failing) not to worry about my 55 minute connecting flight in London.  To distract myself I glance around at the other passengers.

To my left are two families both with young girls. The girls inspect each other’s Orlando souvenirs—a bright pink light up Disney wand, tiaras and jewelry. The tired parents look on, relieved for the distraction.  Across from me sits two ladies. One wears pumps, a black dress, panty hoes and a shimmering silver scarf. The other in a black shirt and dark pants, along with Crocs and socks. A man with thinning hair, talks with a thick English accent into his illuminated iPad. Behind  him a young mother’s hair matches her fiery temper.

At the counter a British Airways employee announces they will begin boarding. I flip through my unstamped passport as  I watch the other passengers stand up and heave duffle bags onto their shoulders.  Gradually, the seats clear until the lady with the shimmering scarf, myself and a few others remain.

Then we are called.

Backpack secured and passport in hand , my boarding pass is scanned.  Cautiously, I make my way down the worn maroon carpet  and into the dimly lit cabin.