Posts Tagged With: castles

Finding Magic in Scotland

Scotland. The land of thick accents, plaid kilts and the Loch Ness Monster — the three main attractions that flitted through my thoughts on my 4 a.m. flight to Edinburgh. After four days in the land of the Scots, my three main attractions shifted drastically.

Main Attraction Number One — Magic.

Quite possibly the best realization I had while on this trip was Scotland’s connection to Harry Potter, and by default, magic. I had no idea that many of the scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed in Scotland or that the “Birthplace of Harry Potter” was in Edinburgh. What are the odds of my first international weekend trip being so closely related to Harry Potter? It was a dream come true!

We first went to Edinburgh Castle, which sits on top of a rocky mountain high in the sky overlooking the city below. Oh, and there’s a train station that runs just below it. It’s basically Hogwarts. As we went through the castle and saw the places where canons had once been shot off, where nobles had once sat, argued and played, and where horses once trotted along cobblestone streets. I think it’s safe to say I let my imagination run wild, and who wouldn’t in such an inspirational and magical place?

After visiting the castle, we made our way back down the intensely steep hill (one of many in Edinburgh) to a cafe called The Elephant House, which also known as “The Birthplace of Harry Potter.” Why, you may ask, has this cafe been given such a grand title? Well, this little cafe, with its walls covered in Asian art and its chairs in the shape of elephants, was the same cafe where J.K. Rowling began writing the Harry Potter series on just a napkin.

It was an amazing feeling to think that I could have been sitting right where she sat when she started the Harry Potter series. The nerd in me had a little freak out session, especially when we were seated right beside a window facing Edinburgh Castle. The view we had from our table made it look even more like Hogwarts than from any other angle. That view explained all of the inspiration for Hogwarts Castle in just a window view.

The Harry Potter attractions and references didn’t end in the coffee shop though. Oh no, they continued everywhere we went in Scotland. The three girls I traveled with and myself booked a Highlands tour for the Saturday and Sunday that we were there, and the magic just seemed to ooze from the countryside as we drove around Scotland. The views were absolutely breathtaking and our tour guide, Craig, was a hoot. He even had a “wand” that he carried around when we would stop at different places. He explained to us how he was indeed magical because it would rain most of the time we were traveling, but whenever we would stop, the sun would come out and the wind would stop, if only momentarily. He told us that he controlled the weather with his “wand” and I believed him.

Craig was great, full of stories and jokes, and he was all about the magic, so when we had some extra time left on the first day of our tour, he decided to throw in a surprise visit to a very magical place. He took us to the Harry Potter Train Bridge where the Hogwarts Express actually drove over the tracks and where they filmed the movies for a few months out of the year. It was amazing and I recognized the place instantly from the movies. Craig even waved his wand toward the stone bridge just for the fun of it and when he did, no joke, a train popped through the tunnel and made its way across the tracks. It was magical.

Once we arrived at our hostel that night, we decided to play Monopoly, but being in Scotland, it was a little different than the Monopoly we grew up with. The names were all different and very British and the pieces were a little off, but the best difference was the fact that one of the railroads was Kings Cross, where platform 9 and 3/4 is in Harry Potter. I was beside myself and had to buy it, no matter what the cost was.

Main Attraction Number Two — Movie Sets and Castles

On our tour, we had the chance to visit a number of castles including the castle where scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail were filmed and scenery where Skyfall was filmed. All of this on top of seeing where some of the scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed added up to a wonderful cinematic atmosphere.

We also visited Dunne Castle, which is one of the few living castles still in existence. What makes it a living castle? Well, the family who owns the castle and has owned it for a very long time, still lives in the castle. As we walked through it, there were portraits of older family members, then large paintings, old black and white photographs, Polaroids, and finally, normal, modern printed photographs of the family who currently lives in the castle. The parts of the castle that are open for visitors were well preserved to fit their ancient background, but it was so cool to imagine growing up there as a child in modern day. It would be like living in a fairytale, especially considering the fact that this particular castle was situated on a Loch and was surrounded by absolutely stunning mountains.

As we drove through the countryside on the tour, Craig began to tell us stories of battles that took place in the hills we passed and warriors who gave their lives for their homeland. One such story was connected to William Wallace, the protagonist in the movie Braveheart. He told us the real story of William Wallace, how the royals of the time had burned down his house in retaliation to Wallace’s defiance. The soldiers didn’t realize that his wife was inside the house at the time.

Wallace took out his revenge by finding the nobleman who looked after his village and murdered him. The people in surrounding villages heard of this and joined Wallace in a raid against all noblemen in the country, attacking and murdering them one by one. Not too long after, Wallace was captured and the rebellion ceased. Wallace was tortured and given the most drawn out death imaginable.

Craig also told us the story of where the name “Braveheart” comes from. It has nothing to do with William Wallace at all. It is instead associated with a different warrior. The story goes that on his death bed, all this warrior wanted was to go on a pilgrimage, so he asked his best mate to cut out his heart, place it in a tiny silver coffin to hang around his neck, and take his heart on a pilgrimage.

The best mate obliged and carried his heart across the land until he was met with an opposing tribe. The best mate took off the coffin with the heart tucked inside, swung it around his head and into the battlefield and said to his men, “Follow the brave heart into battle!” This coffin necklace was discovered around the 19th century and is now on display in a museum in the U.K. Craig told us that human remains were found in this tiny coffin dating back to the time of this warrior, so they believe it to be the same “brave heart.”

Main Attraction Number Three — A Writer’s Dream

We continued our journey through the highlands, taking in the most gorgeous mountain views. There was inspiration all around us as we walked and climbed around the highland sites. Before arriving in Scotland, I was expecting it to be the same as Ireland, but it was so unique, so different than the Irish countryside I had grown used to in the past two months.

We even stopped at an overlook spot where there were hundreds of rock stacks situated to overlook the mountains and the loch below, so many that it was hard to walk without knocking one over. It reminded me so much of a friend of mine’s dad who used to make those same rock stacks in the Swannanoa River behind her house when we were little.

Those sights combined with the old feel of Edinburgh and our hostel that was once a church made Scotland an inspiration playground, a writer’s dream. Our hostel had such a cool atmosphere and the way it was set up was amazing. There were rooms set up throughout the main part of the old church and in each room there was a skylight, so you could see the top of the church from your room. It was magical.

And, on our last day in Scotland, I had the chance to visit the Writer’s Museum. It was amazing to see all of the Scottish writers and their works on display in such a cool location. It was especially cool to see the old printing press used to publish works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Scotland was a magical place, and I can’t wait to go back sometime in the near future.

Edinburgh Castle

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The Elephant House

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The Hogwarts Express Bridge

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Scenery from the Bridge

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Kings Cross Monopoly

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The Monty Python Castle

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Skyfall Exhibit

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Dunne Castle

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William Wallace Statue

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The Amazing Views

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The Rock Stacks

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The Old Feel of Edinburgh

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The Church Turned Hostel

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Loch Ness

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Categories: Ireland 2013 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kissing the Blarney Stone

Last Tuesday I made my way to the good old town of Blarney once again, full of interesting people, gorgeous landscapes, and a one of a kind musical atmosphere. This Tuesday though was not just spent at the Blarney Castle pub listening to Irish trad music and having a jolly old time. It was so much more.

This time, we went a lot earlier than we normally do so that we could see the castle, explore the grounds, and of course, kiss the Blarney Stone. Before going in, I was expecting to just see a castle and a few fields with the only attraction being kissing the Blarney Stone. Oh, how I was wrong.

The place was huge and full of exciting and gorgeous landscapes, gardens, houses, caves, castles, towers, and so much more. As we began exploring the massive grounds, we came across all of these different stone structures, some of them being remains of houses or remnants of sacrificial altars, some of them being witches’ kitchens and wishing steps.

The Wishing Steps are a set of crumbling stone steps. The legend goes that if you walk up and down the steps with your eyes closed, thinking only of one wish and nothing else, then your wish will come true within a year. I, being one of tradition and folklore, had to take my turn on these Wishing Steps. It was very difficult to go up and down without seeing because the steps are not the sturdiest and each step is a different length and width. But, I am proud to say that I thought of my wish and only my wish while walking the steps.

We wandered around a bit after that, finding ourselves climbing up rock hills, skipping across ancient bridges, and ducking through cave dungeons. We were enchanted by the sparkling rivers and glistening ponds littered with green and the eerie low hum of a thousand bees above us as we walked through forests in dead silence.

After a few hours of exploration, we finally came across the focal point of our journey, Blarney Castle, home of the Blarney Stone. We made our way through the castle, admiring its antiquity as we climbed the stone spiral staircase. When we reached the top, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the gorgeous Irish landscapes and the amazing view of the old battlefield just in front of the castle.

We walked in a circle around the top of the castle, marking our progress in the line to kiss the Blarney Stone by the square cutouts that used to house protectors and warriors, ready to fight any trespasser who came for a visit. As we got closer to the Blarney Stone, we realized the exact procedure of how we were to kiss it.

We watched as the crowd went before us, each person laying flat on the ground while a man helped them lean back into a grated hole. We watched as one by one their heads disappeared and their bodies slipped just a few inches closer to the ground hundreds of feet below. It looked as if they were losing their heads or sipping into oblivion, but each one somehow made their way back to the surface with huge smiles on their faces.

I couldn’t help but make the connection to a baptism as a I watched this old man lower each person’s head into a hole in the castle’s roof, each person coming up from kissing the stone with huge smiles on their faces and an unforgettable experience to share.

As we moved closer and closer to the stone, it was finally my turn. I sat down, laying flat, placed my hands on the bars behind me, and lowered my head and then my body lower and lower until I could see the blur of the green ground hundreds of feet below me. That was the moment I came face to face with a small dark stone, and I leaned forward and gave it a kiss for good luck. Only a few seconds later, I was being shimmied back to the surface, just having had an unforgettable experience.

After taking a few good pictures, we decided to head back down through the castle and spend a few more hours to explore because we still hadn’t seen everything yet. Not even close.

We made our way to the Blarney House and admired its grandeur, passing large gardens full of gorgeous plants and even more beautiful views of the Cork countryside. As we continued our survey of the grounds, snapping pictures every once in a while, we came back toward the castle where we discovered the Poison Garden and the old battle trenches, along with a few towers and pigeonries along the way. The Poison Garden was definitely something to see. All of the plants in that garden were poisonous, making for a very strange and eerie walk along the cobbled pathways that were laced with plants that could literally kill us.

Apart from the poisonous nature of the grounds, Blarney Castle and all of the surrounding land reminded me a lot of the Biltmore House back home, the castle of the South as I like to call it. Blarney held the same awe and beauty of the Biltmore but with a history from a few more centuries back in time.

After all was seen and frolicked through on the Blarney grounds, we all headed over to the Blarney Castle Hotel pub where we enjoyed the friendly Irish atmosphere and the beautiful and lively trad music that comes along with being in Blarney on a Tuesday night.

The Grounds

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Blarney Castle and Views from the Top

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The Old Battlefield

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Kissing the Blarney Stone

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The Wishing Steps

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Witches’ Kitchen

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Battle Trench Site

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Pigeonry

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Blarney House

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Categories: Ireland 2013 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Potholes, Squibs and Other Tales

This past weekend my folklore class went on a field trip to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park to learn more about Irish culture and to really experience what Irish life was like back in the day. The folk park is a lot like colonial Williamsburg in the sense that the entire park is full of houses and fields made in the traditional way with workers that are dressed to mimic the times, making things like apple tart the old fashioned way, pulling potatoes, and tending to the fire.

While we were walking from house to house, listening to our professor relate things we had learned that week in class to things all around us like settle benches, dressers, and cattle posts, a few lessons really stood out.

One such lesson was about the origin of the word “pothole.” My professor was teaching us about how you can tell where a house was built and how wealthy the people were who lived there by looking at their floor. Floors with large slates as their base meant wealthier families lived there, while floors that were uneven and “blotchy” meant poorer people lived there.

He told us all about how when a new house was built with a “blotchy” floor, it started off soft and to pack it all in to complete the floor, people held housewarming parties. At these parties everyone danced to pack in the floor and smoosh everything down. There were dances made just for this purpose.

But while everyone was dancing, one person was always hunched over in one corner of the house with their hands wrist-deep in the mushy floor. Why, you may ask? They were building the “pothole.” There was always a hole in one corner of the house that was a shallow circle with three deeper holes around it, basically the imprint of a three-legged pot. The reason every household had these holes was because when they wanted to mash anything, like potatoes, the bottom of the pot wasn’t strong enough to take the mashing. So, they would put the pot into the hole so the ground would absorb the mashing instead of the pot, not breaking the pot.

And that’s where the term “pothole” comes from.

We also keep learning about the multifunctional nature of the Irish culture. Everything the made had more than one purpose, always. So, when we learned about the blacksmith’s house, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Evidently, the blacksmith’s house was the hub of the town — It was where teenagers would go to make out because it was the warmest place to go. It served as the dentist because that’s where the pliers were. It was where all surgeries took place because all of the tools were there and they could cauterize the wounds easily. It was everything, the hangout, the doctor, and of course, the blacksmith.

But our adventure didn’t stop at the houses. We went all over the park, petting animals, eating the most delicious apple tart, hopping over streams, and of course, climbing up the castle.

The Bunratty Castle was amazing. It was so cool to see the old cannons out front and then to walk in through a sort of drawbridge, but it was even cooler seeing the old artifacts in rooms throughout the castle, seeing the great hall all set up with tapestries and long tables, and getting to climb to the top of the castle on the smallest, most challenging stone steps ever made. The view from the top was amazing, the green countryside, the misty river, all seen through the old turrets where arrows were once placed to keep away enemies.

Being at the top just made me want to go back to my childhood and play dungeons and dragons with knights and princesses and exciting adventures. After we went to the top, we then traveled down the tiny spiral stone staircase to the dungeons, which was pretty cool to see.

On our journey to Bunratty, before the castle and the folk park, we made a few stops to see castle ruins and old abbeys that had long been abandoned. Seeing the ruins was amazing, but walking through them, on them and in them was even cooler. As we were exploring the stone sight, my professor gathered us together and told us about the abbey and the castle ruins we were poking around in.

As he explained the architecture, small holes in the walls that were meant to be there to hold scaffolding so if the castle ever needed to be repaired, they could simply stick some wood up there and fix it quickly. As he spoke, he began pointing at things with his large red umbrella, clicking it along the stone wall with every word. My Harry Potter mind couldn’t help but make the connection to Hagrid using his umbrella to open the gateway to Diagon Alley, especially when my professor was speaking in an Irish accent.

The Harry Potter references didn’t stop there though. After he was finished explaining the castle ruins, he then instructed all of us to climb over the stone wall by walking on these large stones that poked out of the wall like steps. We all climbed over and my 34-person class crammed into one of the towers nearby. The inside of the tower was full of square holes, and my professor started to explain that this was a pigeonry, just like an owlery at Hogwarts. He also explained that the people liked to keep squabs in the pigeonry, which are pigeons who never learned how to fly or didn’t have the ability to fly. My mind flew straight to “squibs” in Harry Potter, the wizards who come from magic, but can’t actually perform magic.

The Harry Potter references were everywhere and in a place like Ireland, you can’t blame me for making so many connections.

The coolest part about the field trip and my folklore class is the emphasis on living tradition rather than artifacts and material objects. My professor stresses the importance and vitality of living tradition every chance he gets, saying that the proper way to learn about a culture is through living traditions, visiting places like Bunratty, experiencing the food, inhaling the turf smoke, building currachs (traditional Irish boats) and just living through tradition. I’ve already learned so much along these lines and I can’t wait to learn more.

Bunratty Folk Park

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Bunratty Castle

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Top of the Castle

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Delicious Apple Tart

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Ruins

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My Professor and His Umbrella

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Categories: Ireland 2013 | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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