By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
One year ago, I was feverishly planning for a spring sabbatical to Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. Delighted as I am to be back in Vermont, my mind wanders back to those cobbled streets and cozy cafés. I invite you to take a stroll with me.
Edinburgh offered adventures, sprinkled—and sometimes doused—with wind-driven rain. The Scots told us ours was an unusually cold, wet and rainy spring. We arrived in March and left in May. I wore gloves every day. My winter jacket was never too far away.
My husband and I took time from our workaday lives to learn, reflect, volunteer and connect. Enchanting Scottish landscapes and a rich history invited exploration. Volunteering enhanced my sense of purpose. A writing class yielded a “draft with potential”; it’s hiding out on my computer’s hard drive.
We hiked more miles than I can count, exploring the North Sea’s Fife Coastal Walk, the Penthills and the snowy Lothian Mountains. Each jaunt concluded at a pub for a pint or pot of tea.
A trek in the Scottish Highlands forced my husband and me to stare down bitter, biting, wind-driven rain for 12 of our 35 miles along the Great Glen Way. We befriended and commiserated with equally wet and muddy fellow walkers from England and Sweden. We encountered an elaborate fairy forest—really—tucked among majestic conifers.
Sharing a communal kitchen in a hostel in the tiny town of South Laggan, I befriended Mark, recently retired school principal from England. We compared notes on pressures placed on schools to raise standardized test scores. Mark’s school was in a less affluent district and many of his students arrived at school too stressed to be able to focus on learning. I made a mental note, as I’m sure this is true for some of our kids whose potential is distracted by issues at home.
We were picked up, mid-hike, by a Scottish Forestry Service crew. A “tree-felling operation” rendered part of the trail unsafe. We were ferried through the danger zone past stacks of enormous spruce trees.
Edinburgh has a population of 500,000. Vibrant cultural activity bursts forth among the stone edifices. From film to theater to music to art to history, it’s all there.
The Filmhouse and Cameo Theaters offered foreign, independent and classic films on the big screen. I viewed more foreign films in eight weeks than I do in a typical year in Vermont. I know, I know…there’s Netflix. I prefer theaters and appreciate the communal aspect of going to the cinema. We saw Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, “The Seventh Seal,” in a packed screening, part of a festival honoring the Swedish filmmaker. These theaters host in-house cafés, providing places to catch a light meal or sip a local brew while discussing a film.
Edinburgh’s theater scene is vivid, diverse and very much alive. The city is known for robust—and sometimes bleeding-edge—drama.
Traverse Theater proved our favorite theatrical venue. Why? It focused on contemporary and experimental theater. We attended inexpensive performances and staged readings of new works. We even got to participate—alternating in roles as activists and noisy English Parliamentarians—in a new play based on the Occupy London protests.
Did I mention that most of the museums are free? If you want to understand the history of Scotland, beginning with its geological formation and following a timeline spanning industrial and cultural developments, the Scottish National Museum is the way to go. I studied Pictish—a pre-Christian tribe—death slabs with ornate Celtic designs and learned about the 14th century Declaration of Abroath whereby Scottish leaders said they’d rather DIE than be subjected to English rule.
Edinburgh also hosts museums of art, architecture and social history. The People’s Story is an exceptional social history museum, focusing on the lives of everyday citizens. A walk through graveyards, some dating from the 1600s, reveals names of Scottish luminaries whose legacies are preserved in the intricately carved stones.
The cafes are too numerous to name. Let’s just say you can catch a steaming cup of breakfast tea and fruited scone with jam on nearly every street corner or tucked away alcove. The Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling famously penned much of “Harry Potter,” inspired me to bring my journal and write while sipping tea.
We spent time in used bookstores poring over titles familiar and not so familiar. On a particularly cold day, I perched near a coal-burning stove at the back of a shop, not wanting to leave. Blackwells on Nicholson Street and Waterstones on Princes Street offer new tomes and with plenty of shelf space dedicated to Scottish writers.
As I reflect, I am reminded that taking time is so important. Longer days and a bit more sun tell me it’s time to start planning another adventure. My backpack stands at the ready. What about yours?