Chapter Eight – In Search Of The Holy Grail

MaiTaiTom Gets The Royal Treatment…Two Weeks Exploring London and Scotland

Chapter Eight – In Search Of The Holy Grail

DAY NINE – Mirror Mirror, Sterling Stirling, I Thought We Were On The English Tour, More Unicorns, The Full Monty, Your Mother Was A Hamster And Your Father Smelled Of Elderberries, Coo-Coo For Coconuts, Always Good To Have A Paper Map, Monumental Find, Boating In The Rain, Idyllic Island, Gorgeous Grounds, Change Of Plans, Callander Girl, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, I’ll Take Manhattan & The Loudest Peacock On The Planet

After bidding goodbye to Louise (and those wonderful breakfasts at Millers64), Edinburgh would soon be in the rear view mirror, and as we got to our rental car, we realized we were lucky to have one.  The car parked immediately in front of our Nissan SUV had apparently been sideswiped during the night, and the car’s side-view mirror was in a shambles on the street.

In a little less than an hour and without too much driving drama (ok, maybe there was a little when the GPS malfunctioned about one minute into the journey), we arrived at our first destination of the day, Stirling Castle.  Stirling Castle is situated 250 feet above the plain on an extinct volcano (at least we hoped so) and it became the strategic military key to the kingdom during the 13th and 14th century Wars of Independence. Mary Queen of Scots spent her childhood in the castle. At the ripe, old age of nine months, her coronation took place on September 9, 1543, making her perhaps one of the only queens to wet her pants at her own coronation.

It was £4 to park and the line of cars moved very slowly. As we strolled through the castle esplanade we were greeted by the statue of Robert The Bruce.

Our Scotland Explorer Pass was good here, and upon entering a docent inquired, “Would you like to take the free guided tour? There’s an English tour starting in a couple of minutes.”  We scurried over to the assembled group, and as we settled in, the guide started the tour.

As our affable guide gave his spiel, we all gazed quizzically at one other, realizing we were only understanding about 25% of his Scottish brogue. Kim turned to me and whispered, “I thought we were on the English tour.”

In any event, whenever the crowd laughed (some story about Humpty Dumpty had them roaring), we laughed with them and now it was time to visit the interior of the castle.  Luckily there was some signage to help us figure out where we were as we sauntered through the castle.

Entering the Great Hall, we were told (at least I think that is what he said) that this is the largest Great Hall ever constructed in Scotland.


The Great Hall has undergone extensive renovations throughout the centuries. Near the end of the 18th century the original Hammerbeam roof was removed, and it was replaced in 1999 during the restoration efforts.


In the 1590s James VI (aka James I) hosted a banquet here for the baptism of his son Prince Henry.  It’s said that the fish course was so large it was served from an enormous model wooden ship complete with cannons that actually fired.  Holy mackerel!

The Royal Palace had been the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots before she was betrothed at five years of age (an arranged marriage) to the French Dauphin (Francis) and shipped off to France for the remainder of her childhood.  The Dauphin (Francis) was only three, so I can only assume he was attracted to older women.

Speaking of Prince Henry, the Chapel Royal was constructed for his baptism.  It only took seven months to build.


The fireplace in the King’s Outer Chamber caught my eye.

You had to really be somebody to get further than the outer chamber. A sign read, “Only people of some social standing were allowed into this room to wait for a possible audience with the king. Staff then decided who might be given the privilege of petitioning or conferring with the monarch. The chosen few were invited to enter the King’s Inner Hall.”


Luckily, we were among the “chosen few,” although by now the castle was so crowded the number neared nearly 50.  Once inside the Inner Chamber, people had the opportunity to meet the Monarch.  This fireplace features the Royal Arms of Scotland.

There are recreations of the Stirling Heads on the ceiling, who we found out are not long lost relatives of the Talking Heads.


Pick a room, and you can be sure to be greeted by a unicorn, the royal symbol of purity and strength. These are found in the King’s Bedchamber.


It’s in Mary of Guise’s (Mary Queen of Scots’ mum who served as Regent of Scotland from 1554 to 1560) Inner Hall that we gazed upon some very familiar tapestries.

That’s because Tracy and I were fortunate enough to have seen the originals, now housed at The Cloisters, a must-see museum in New York City. The Unicorn Tapestries (aka The Hunt of the Unicorn) are a series of seven tapestries that date from the late 15th to early 16th centuries. They originated in France and were purchased by John D. Rockefeller in 1922 (photos below from our 2015 visit to The Cloisters).


Early in the 21st century, Historic Scotland commissioned a set of seven hand-made tapestries for Stirling Castle.


For the next 13 years “18 weavers interpreted the originals using medieval weaving techniques.”  Cost was estimated at £2 million.  These seven now hang here. There is a museum at the end of the tour that contains a seven-minute film on the painstaking process that is well worth your time to watch.


Finally, we walked through The Great Kitchens.  This is where giant feasts were prepared. All it did was remind me that I was hungry.


We walked the outer defenses for a bit…


…including the French spur with its cannons ready to protect us.

The day was brisk, and the vistas gorgeous.

We stopped by the Boer War South African War Memorial.

Before leaving we could see a nearby cemetery and the Church of Rude. We wouldn’t actually be rude for about another half hour.

About 20 minute ride from Stirling Castle is Doune Castle, a spot where my cohorts worried even further about my sanity. Exiting the car, I suddenly shouted, “I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”


Yes, Doune Castle is where they filmed a lot of the greatest movie ever made, Monty Python and The Holy Grail. I had told everyone that I didn’t care what we saw in Scotland (well, I sort of fibbed) as long as we stopped here to check out the castle. I did promise we would not not have to construct a Giant Rabbit to enter.


The mightiest feature of Albany’s fortress was the rectangular gatehouse, which originally stood 95 feet high.  Of course, nobody could attack because they were adept at sending flying cows to crush their opponents (I might be mixing up history with the movie).  Doune Castle, built in the 14th century, is also part of the Explorer Pass, however I did empty my pockets of £5 in the gift shop to purchase (much to my traveling companions chagrin) a set of coconut shells (just call me Patsy).

I asked whether they had been transported by European or African swallows, but our hosts were unable to judge the air/speed velocity.

The free audio guide here is priceless. First, it is narrated by Python’s own Terry Gilliam. Not only does Gilliam offer up the castle’s interesting history (it really was an important castle), but he also throws in numerous Python anecdotes. There is also audio from many of those scenes.

Digression: Gilliam is the only Python born outside of Britain (Minnesota). He became a naturalized citizen of Britain in 1968.

Before entering the castle, I, of course, had to put those coconuts together and prance around the inner courtyard.  I received some dubious looks along with a few laughs (I’m sure they were laughing with and not at me).

Some of the interior highlights:

As we entered the Great Hall, I broke into a rousing version of “Knights Of The Round Table.”


By now, visitors were scattering to other parts of the castle.

The Lord’s Room has been restored to its former glory. It has a carved oak screen, musicians’ gallery and double fireplace.


As we searched for Zoot (“wicked, bad, naughty, evil Zoot”) at Castle Anthax…


…the rooms evoked memories of the movie, and the audio guide reinforced them.


Our entire tour of Doune Castle lasted more than hour. The castle also is where a TV show called Outlander is filmed, but it’s not as funny.


The tour can be done quicker if you don’t stop to recite lines from the movie throughout.

And yes, it was one of my highlights of Scotland.  Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!

As we drove in the countryside near Doune Castle…

…stands a large statue of a man.

We stopped for a few minutes at the David Stirling Memorial, who was a British mountaineer and an Army officer during World War II. He was the founder of the Special Air Service (SAS). Stirling “was captured by the Italians in January 1943. He escaped four times before being sent by the Germans to Colditz Castle, where he was to spend the rest of the war.” He was knighted in 1990 (the year he also died) and this statue was erected in 2002.

Although I had promised Kim I would not taunt him a second time, I had to give him a mini-taunt. We were headed to our next destination, but I could tell by our paper map he was headed in the wrong direction.  Sure enough, he continued to follow the directions of his erroneous GPS and soon we were back in Stirling. I only gave him a mini-taunt.

Finally, we reached our next destination, Inchmahome Priory.  Well, actually we were at the dock waiting for a boat to take us to Inchmahome Priory, which arrived in just a few minutes.  The boat holds a maximum of 12 people and takes seven minutes to travel out to the island, where once again the Explorer Passgained us free admittance.

As soon as we departed the shore onto the Lake of Monteith, the skies opened up.  We crossed the lake and soon found ourselves in a peaceful, if not wet, oasis. It was founded in 1238 and much of the 13th century building remains.


Our guide, Brian, said this was the only “true lake” in Scotland. It was raining and he was in control of the boat, so we believed him.


“Idyllic setting” certainly describes this island.


Before checking out the abbey, the four of us traversed the island in a Scotch mist (no, we were not drinking).  It was here that Mary Queen of Scots, with her life being threatened, was brought for a few weeks to take refuge.  Robert the Bruce also sought solace on this island.

There was gorgeous path…


…after gorgeous path.


We were told beforehand that the island would be the perfect place to have a picnic, although today was not the day to do that.


The abbey ruins were our next stop…

…where we wandered for a bit.


We entered the Chapter House where we saw the statue of the last embrace of Walter Stewart and his wife Mary, along with others.


This would be a peaceful place to spend much more time…


…but the Scotch Mist had by now become more than a mist…

…so Brian sped us back across the Lake of Menteith (you can tell Kim and Mary are more accustomed to the rain than we are).

It was about 3:30, so we decided we’d grab a little bite when we reached Roman Camp, which was our hotel for the night and not a place to hang out with Julius Caesar and his troops.


Roman Camp Country House Hotel was built in 1625 for The Dukes of Perth. It has 20 acres of gardens (more on those shortly), and, as you can see, the interior’s not too shabby either.

After depositing our luggage in the room, we headed to the Whyte Bar (we are equipped with detectors for all of our establishments), complete with an antique grand piano and coal burning fireplace.


Walking through the hotel there are some sweet public places to make you feel at home..


After a quick bite to eat and freshening up, we took a walk through one of the lushest gardens we’ve seen on our many trips, including Tracy’s favorites…rhododendrons.

As we made our way through the flora, we heard a deafening sound that was coming from a nearby fence. There stood the loudest peacock on the planet; a peacock who definitely believes he is king of the hotel. This beautiful boy was blessed with vocal chords that could wake the dead. He was great!


As were the colorful and abundant flowers.


We wandered down to the River Tieth, full of beautiful plants…




…trails and even horses.


We then made our way into Callander, known as “The Gateway To The Highlands.”


This touristic little town’s main drag contains restaurants, shops and bakeries.

Armed with reservations, we arrived at the Riverside Inn at 7:30. There were two problems; the menu looked nothing like the one I had seen online, and the ambiance was pretty non-existent. We offered our apologies and moved on. Life’s too short to eat at a restaurant you don’t want to dine.  However, unbeknownst to us was the fact that most of Callander’s restaurants were full up on this Monday night.  We attempted to get in Callander Meadows (menu looked great), but it was packed.

Kim and Mary decided to head across the street to Mhor Fish, probably because Mary always needs more fish. They thoroughly enjoyed their fish and chips, and some chowder along with a salt and pepper calamari fried in beef fat.

Since Tracy and I hadn’t dined on Italian food since the previous evening, we scooped up the last table at Ciro’s.  This was an excellent choice, although a couple of days after our visit, we learned that fire swept through some flats above Ciro’s, and water damage has closed the restaurant for the time being. If it opens back up, I highly recommend it.

The service and atmosphere was wonderful as was our meal. My “Wow” Steak Florentine made with Scottish beef in a mustard, mushroom cream sauce was divine.

Tracy enjoyed her pasta with zucchini and chicken in a turmeric cream sauce. We chatted with the chef, who is from Sicily, and moved to Scotland with his Scottish wife. They had just celebrated ten years in the location, and I hope they are able to reopen.

I guess we talked a lot, because we were among the last to leave this charming spot.

As we slowly walked through town back to the hotel, a rainbow appeared…

…before we got back to the hotel for a few more photos since it apparently never gets dark in Scotland.


Perhaps it was the wine, but being in this town, I just had to to sing to Tracy, “You’re my Callander Girl.”  Somewhere Neil Sedaka cringed.

In the walled garden, Tracy told me these were Blue Himalayan poppies, and since she is my occasional sherpa on these trips, I didn’t doubt her (I hope she skips this chapter).


She also found herself in Rhododendron heaven.


Our friendly peacock had made his way to the top of the hotel, and his lungs weren’t tired. A hotel worker told us that peacocks can live up to 40 years, adding that during mating season about 15 peacocks come strutting their stuff on the grounds.  He said it makes for an amazing sight.  So did these flowers.  What a property!


The gentleman said some idiot had started poisoning the peacocks, but he has since been arrested and prosecuted. I hope they pipe peacock yells into his cell so he can’t sleep.

Since it was still light outside, Tracy and I relaxed in the pretty bar with a nightcap of Manhattans. We heard our friendly peacock let out one more cry, but we didn’t hear from him again until we departed the following morning.  Our room was nothing extra special, but the location, grounds and interior of the hotel made this an exceptional place to stay.

I would round up the troops for an early departure the following morning because tomorrow would be our biggest driving day of the trip.

Our route begged us to stop every mile for photos (with a detour to hang out with some red deer), check out loch after loch, have lunch in Fort William, take the scenic Road To The Isles, climb a trail to get a glimpse of a famous train line, and head past the white sands to a ferry that would take us to the Isle of Skye.

Once on Skye, we’d drive an hour to another unbelievable hotel; this one with a million dollar view of our new home town of Portree.

Next: DAY 10 – Mhor Bread Please, Seeing Red, Which Mountain is Which, Are We On The Moon, Scenic Drive, Bonnie Prince Charlie & Harry Potter, White Sands, We Make It Through The Sleat, The Skye’s The Limit, We’ll Check It Out On The Way Back, Colorful Town, Our Restaurant Makes A Great Comeback, A Short Walk Becomes Longer and I’ll Buy This One



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