Having the right guide can add immeasurably to the quality of a tour, and on a recent bus tour to get acquainted with Scotland, my wife Lillian and I were fortunate to have the experienced, knowledgeable Margery Tibbs in charge. Not only was she immensely informative at every stage of the trip, but she was able to give us insights into Scotland beyond the usual tourist attractions, was extremely personable with a bright sense of humor and made a point of diligently looking after our contingent to make certain everything was going smoothly.
Although we usually travel on our own, this time we wanted to do it the easy way for our first trip to Scotland, and we looked over various tours on the internet. We settled on a nine-day “Bonnie Scotland” tour with Globus through the Vacations to Go agency (vacationstogo.com). It encompassed most of what we wanted and expected, and we hooked up with the tour after making our way by train from London to Glasgow following a week in London seeing theater.
We arrived a day early in Glasgow so we could explore the city on our own, staying at a Novotel, from which the tour was to begin. That first afternoon we went to see the renowned Burrell Collection, eclectic art consisting of some 9000 works given to the City of Glasgow by Sir William Burrell and housed in a museum on the Polk Estate. It’s an attraction not to be missed. We also did quite a bit of walking in the heart of Glasgow and were impressed by the way boutiques and restaurants are housed in brownstone-type buildings, and also by the architecture one sees. The city has several examples of the work by world renowned architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
When the tour itself began, as luck would have it, there were only about 20 people on our large, comfortable bus. Most were representatives of travel agencies taking the trip to learn about what Scotland has to offer. It turned out to be a congenial group. We also had a first-rate, experienced driver, Sean Slattery, who handled the bus with skill no matter what the roads or the maneuvers required, and was friendly and cooperative throughout.
The only disappointing stop on the tour was the initial one, a visit to Loch Ness. Instead of spending time wandering around the beautiful lake we were shepherded into a corny tourist attraction. There was a silly film couched in the form of a romantic legend connected to the area, and a Disney-type multi-media show at the level very young children might enjoy. By the time these so-called attractions were over and the souvenir shopping completed, there was almost no additional time left. We managed to take a bit of a walk along the shore and then off we went.
What was the rest of the trip going to be like? Fortunately, this was the only misfire. Our over-all impression of Scotland certainly lived up to its reputation. We also found people friendly, and at recommended restaurants that we tried during out free time, we found that the food could be excellent. Of course, this was just an introductory visit, but we experienced so much more than can be covered in one article.
As we rode around under Margery’s care, mostly in two-to-three hour jaunts, we were enchanted by the scenery, whether rolling hills or lovely countryside. We were fortunate to see much heather along the way, many cows and sheep (Are there more cows and sheep in Scotland than people?) and occasionally horses. It was easy so see why so many visitors speak of Scotland’s beauty.
There were so many highlights during the trip, and we were lucky with the weather. The dire weather we were warned about never materialized—it was the end of July and early August, 2004—and we experienced only a few brief doses of light rain. One major stop, of course, was a visit to the Isle of Skye, which has the magical aura of a quiet retreat. We also went to Inverness and we visited the Inverewe Gardens, where one could see a striking collection of subtropical plants, although we had to use insect spray to ward off the tiny midges that you can’t see but can feel.
What would a trip to Scotland be without visiting a whisky distillery? Our stop was at the Glenlivet distillery, and although it was not functioning at that moment, the tour through the facilities was fascinating. At the end we were rewarded with samplings of 12-year-old and 18-year-old whisky. Only four of us indulged. The rest passed. What a wasted opportunity! The non-drinkers seemed more interested in snapping up souvenirs at various stops, including flavored condoms from a machine in the women's room at one of the hotels.
We visited the famous battlefield at Culloden, where in 1746 the English troops under the Duke of Cumberland defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders in a bloody slaughter, which put an end to the Jacobite uprising. We explored Blair Castle, where we were able to get an idea of what life was like for the generations who lived there. A stop of special historical interest to us was the New Lanark cotton mill village that has been developed in the 1800s by advanced social thinker Robert Owen, who believed that workers should have a decent life. He proceeded to put his pioneering ideas about decent facilities, good sanitation and worthy schools into practice. We saw the quarters in which the workers lived, comparatively comfortable in comparison with the lot of others who worked other mills. Lillian, who grew up in London, had studied Owen’s achievements in school and the stop had special meaning for her.
In Edinburgh we accepted an optional add-on for a visit to the Royal Yacht Britannia, which Queen Elizabeth decided to abandon, the official reason being the cost of maintaining it. The yacht is now moored as a museum, and it took several hours to wander about its quarters. The engine room was spotless, and the living area was well-furnished in modest taste as the queen apparently did not want it to be ostentatious. The guest bedroom, where international notables including Bill and Hillary Clinton had slept, was equipped with a double bed. But strangely, the adjoining rooms of Queen Elizabeth and Philip each had only a single bed.
One day Margery turned us over to guide Alan Swinton for the city of Edinburgh tour. He is a jovial fellow, who wore a kilt, and he has an amusing, well-practiced line of patter. “What’s worn under the kilt?” he was asked. “Nothing is worn” he replied. “Everything is in perfect working order.” He added, “The only crown jewels you are going to see today are at the Palace.” Off we went to the Palace and the Edinburgh Castle, which are must stops in the beautiful city.
Edinburgh retains its old-world charm. In fact, after the tour ended with a return to Glasgow, we doubled back to Edinburgh for a few days on our own. The hotels on the tour were adequate, but for the final days we chose to go upscale and stop at the Balmoral Hotel. We couldn’t attend events at the Fringe Festival, one of the city’s annual cultural attractions which was on during our stay, as we were due back in London.
But before departing we had an unexpected adventure. The National Galleries of Scotland, showing off its recent renovation, celebrated the occasion with the opening of an exhibition titled “The Age of Titian” in the Royal Scottish Academy Building. On the day we were scheduled to leave at noon for London, the official opening to the public was set for 10 a.m. All packed, we hurried over to get in as soon as the doors opened. There was a huge banner strung in front of the entrance. Suddenly, I was approached and asked that, as the first in line, would I do the honor of cutting the banner for the opening ceremony. I did, as the flashbulbs popped, and I was also asked to pose for pictures with the various gallery officials.
Then we went inside to the truly outstanding exhibit, hurried back to the Balmoral to pick up our luggage, and off we went on the train, cherishing our memories of a great visit that made us want to return.