What does the word 'Scotland' conjure up for you? I came to London in January from Midwest America to study and complete an internship at the New Statesman. I have yet to explore the UK beyond England, so ahead of getting on a train I decided to embark on a virtual trip around Scotland.
I begin my tour in the seaside town of Ayr about 36 miles from Glasgow. Ayr was formerly home to Scotland's main west coast port. With a street plan dating back to the 1200s, the town began as a settlement serving the castle of William I, which was built in 1197. Formerly, Ayr was known as St. John's Town of Ayr or Inverayr.
Today, nothing remains of William's castle, demolished by Cromwell's forces in 1664 to make room for the citadel they used to this country. But I discover plenty of historical sights to keep me busy – for example there’s the bridge, built in 1470, still standing over the River Auld.
After sightseeing, I escape to Ayr's beautiful garden of Belleisle to tee up for a game at the world-renowned golf course designed by James Braid in 1927. Certainly way over par, I console myself with a hike through the fields and woodlands at the 98-acre Rozelle Estate. In the old Rozelle House, I sip a drink at the coffee shop and wander around the Ayrshire Yeomanry Museum and Rozelle Craft House.
Next I drop in at the village of Alloway. Here is where the world-famous poet Robert (Rabbie) Burns' home is located, known as the Auld Clay Biggin'.
Born in 1759, Burns is regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is the author of, among many other pieces, the popular New Years song “Auld Lang Syne.” I even get a look at the song's original manuscript, displayed at the museum.
In need of a city fix, I decide to explore Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city. It’s dominated the banks of the River Clyde since becoming Scotland's second largest bishopric in the 12th century. The city grew around the Gothic-style Glasgow Cathedral,the only mainland medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland – it’s also known as the High Kirk of Glasgow, or St. Mungo after the saint who built it and whose tomb can be visited here.
Then I join the throngs of people visiting Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Since opening in 1901, Kelvingrove has become the most visited museum in the UK outside of London. Financed by the 1888 International Exhibition, one story goes that it was mistakenly built back to front, and the architect committed suicide when he learned of the error.
Heading out of the bustling city to Pollok Country Park, I find myself gazing at European paintings from the likes of Degas, Rembrandt and Cézanne at the Burrell Collection of Fine Art. A gift to the city from Sir Walter Burrell in 1944, the Burrell Collection opened in 1983. Burrell's only stipulation when he gave £450,000 to build the gallery was it be situated out of the city surrounded by nature. Following his wishes, the museum was eventually located in a park about three miles from the city centre. With over 9,000 items, it's impossible to digest everything at the Burrell in one go, but I hit up some of the highlights in collections from ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Next I head for the hills. Getting off the plane in Inverness, home of the Loch Ness Monster, it's easy to see the Scottish Highlands offer a completely different view of the country. Secretly hoping for a Nessie sighting, I am unable to resist spending some time searching for mysterious ripples in the waters of Loch Ness. Finally, I give up and separate myself from droves of tourists to head further up the coast.
It is in these more remote areas of the country that Scottish culture of today and yesterday collide. I take in the impressive castles that occupy Scotland's rugged coastline, from the Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness to the Dunvegan Castle and the Eilean Donan Castle on the Isle of Skye. Looking out across the ocean in the northern Highlands, it doesn't seem possible that a beautiful place could have such a violent history. However, Viking war galleys once roved the waters, and, later, in the 15th century, Gaelic clans capable of threatening Scottish kings occupied the region.
But it's not until I pay a visit to the Calanis standing stones at the Isle of Arran that I feel I am on truly ancient ground. The 50 stones have withstood the tests of time. Arranged in the shape of a cross, they are are over 5000 years old and were only excavated during the early 1980s. The tallest of the stones towers a couple meters above me at a height of about 4 meters.
Although the stones' main intended purpose will likely remain unknown, it's been theorised they were erected as a calendar system based on moon placement.
Taking off to Scotland's east coast, I find myself in the Athens of the North: Edinburgh and Scotland's capital since 1437. My gaze immediately falls on the fortress constructed on a massive piece of volcanic rock, dominating the city's skyline.
Edinburgh Castle existed first as a fort during the Iron Age, and it wasn't until the reign of David II in the mid 1300s that the castle began to appear as it does today. Wandering around within the castle walls, I come across the city's oldest building; St. Margaret's Chapel, built by David I in the 1100s, is dedicated to his mother, Margaret, who died in the castle in 1093.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, farther down the street, is the Queen's official Scottish residence. Built in 1498 by James IV, Mary, Queen of Scots, lived and was crowned in the palace, and her Italian secretary David Rizzio was stabbed within the walls. Holyrood has survived its dark past, though, and is used today for mostly State ceremonies and entertaining royal guests.
I don't miss visiting some of Edinburgh's main religious icons. First, I go to St. Giles Cathedral, founded in the 1120s when the royal family was attempting to spread the Catholic religion throughout the lowlands. The church's over two hundred memorials honouring distinguished Scots and Scottish soldiers bring into perspective who shaped Scotland into what it is today.
I also get a look at the Rosslyn Chapel, made famous by the Da Vinci Code. Before Dan Brown mentioned it in his best-selling book, the Chapel was a quiet place of worship, founded in 1446 by Sir William St. Clair. Then, after the book and movie were released, it suddenly became a prime tourist attraction. Although still a beautiful structure, Rosslyn's celebrity status attracts numerous tourists every day and threatens to lessen its charm.
The museum selection in Edinburgh is impressive, and I find two huge museums stand out above the rest. The National Gallery of Scotland had its founding stone laid by Prince Albert in 1850 and was opened to the public in 1859. Having undergone a major restoration, the museum was reopened in 2003 and has since held many prominent exhibitions. Browsing through the museum's many galleries, I realise I'm seeing the largest collection of European paintings in the country and the most Scottish paintings in the world.
Another museum that I need more than a day to fully explore is the Museum of Scotland, with its vast collections, high roof over the main hall and seventh-floor roof terrace that looks out across the city to Edinburgh Castle.
There I find out more about the Scottish people, culture and land than I ever knew existed. Opened in 1998, the museum contains items from the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland and the Royal Museum. I travel through Scotland's geological history, which tells the story of Scotland's people and their achievements to create a bridge from the country's beginning into the 21st century.
My quick online excursion was a nice break from reality and offered further insight into Scotland, which I formerly knew just as the home of plaid kilts and the legend of Nessie. What it really did, though, was make me want to visit the country on foot rather than simply through a computer screen. Hopefully I'll be able to do so before heading home in May, and then maybe I'll be able to form a first-hand opinion of what Scotland means to me.