Scotland Sightseeing National
City of The Dead Tour (Edinburgh)
===A weekend off=== In January of this year we (my partner Allan and I) had decided to take a short weekend break in Edinburgh. We also dragged Allan's cousin Sloan along for good measure. As part of my drive to try new things, I decided it might be fun to do a couple of the tours that are everywhere in Edinburgh. Everything ... was booked and off we went, eager to see the dark side of the beautiful city's history.
=== Double up or you'll die===
After a good search online we decided on a two different tours. One of them was from City of the Dead tours and looked to be offering the best tour in the form of the Double Dead Walk. They do tours to both the South Bridge Vaults and to Greyfriar's Graveyard but the Double Dead Walk includes them both as well as the company having the keys for the Covenanters Prison section of the graveyard. At time of writing, unfortunately their website (www.cityofthedeadtours.com) is somewhat lacking in updates since around about 2011 but you can still book tickets through it. Oddly, the site says you don't get a booking confirmation email, but I did. I did overhear someone else on the night of the tour saying they didn't get a confirmation email though, so the system must be a little touch and go. All they require for the tour, however, is the booking reference so as long as you have a pen and paper you'll be fine.
The Double Dead Walk has two time slots; 7:30pm and 9:30pm. We went for the earlier one as we'd knew we'd be exploring the city from about dinner time onwards. As it was January it was full dark before the tour began. The tour starts off from the side of St Giles Cathedral on The Royal Mile, right across from another main attraction "The Real Mary King Close" which we went to see earlier in the day. Busses and taxi's will happily take you to princes street which is about a ten minute walk away from the Cathedral and if you plan a little more you can probably get a lot closer via public transport. You might even be able to find a parking space nearby if you don't want to walk too far, but that would be complete luck if you did. Also if you can't handle a bit of walking I'd say this is not the tour for you.
There wasn't any particular order to proceedings and no queues to deal with tickets. We spotted a frantic looking woman with short curly black hair in a leather trench coat taking codes from people and assumed we should be near her. Looking around I could see other tours from other companies nearby where the guides were in fancy dress so I was a little disappointed that our guide was in her normal clothes. Eventually she shouted out to see if there was anyone who she'd missed and went from there. We were all given a laminated playing card with the island of Corfu on the back as a ticket which was a little odd. Top tip: don't put it away somewhere you'll have to rake for as you don't keep them. You'll be asked for them later in the tour, I assume as a way to prove you should actually be on the tour and are not just tagging along for free as a couple of people tried to do! I hadn't realised and had shoved it between the million other cards in my wallet and Sloan's was floating around her bag. Joy.
===Run for your life===
The tour began with the tour guide introducing herself (Rebecca if I recall correctly) and then telling us a little bit about people who had left the tour with scratches and reeling off a few disclaimers about attacks by ghosts then being quite flippant about taking them to court over a ghost attack if we wanted to be laughed at. An interesting but eye roll worthy way to begin I thought. We were all shuffled off to an area round the back of the Cathedral where we were given a few bare bones of history, with the mention that the car park next to us was also a graveyard. We'd been on a tour with another company earlier in the day who gave a lot more information, some of it really interesting and gory that wasn't even touched on. Mostly Rebecca talked more about previous tours who had people come out scratched. Joy.
After about two minutes, Rebecca pulled out a starter's pistol and started a race. At least that's what it felt like. The south vaults are about a five minute brisk walk from the cathedral and Rebecca urged everyone to please keep up before running off down a side street. Sloan, Allan and I are all 30 and under and we found it hard to keep up. After finding myself whistling the theme tune from The Crystal Maze all the way down the street, I actually felt really terrible for the older people in the group who were genuinely almost left behind to a point where they showed up behind us about 3 minutes into Rebecca's next bit of spiel about the vaults. Instantly I'm taking a star off for that, as those people paid just as much money as we did for the tour and they really should have been looked after better than that.
The entrance to the vaults is, quite unfortunately, right behind a pub. The pub also has a door and a corridor that they use in the vaults. This means that you can hear the music from the pub and smell the food. We were even lucky enough to be stood right next to the door they use when a staff member needed out. Clearly the vaults were so scary that the staff from the pub... walk around in them. Unharmed. Hmm. A bit of atmosphere ruined there but not so much the tour companies fault.
One thing that DID ruin the atmosphere was the sheer amount of people they had booked for the tour. There must have been about 30 to 40 people on our tour which meant that we were simply crowded into the vaults and left to stand while Rebecca regaled us of yet more tales about how people had left the tours with scratches. At this point I was getting really bored of this story. Thanks to the sheer amount of people that were packed in, you couldn't really get a decent look at the vaults. As well as that, the constant camera flashes lit the place up quite regularly, totally draining any spooky atmosphere that there might otherwise have been. I have to take a star off for this overcrowding as I really couldn't see much at all for all the people. Tour groups of smaller numbers would easily make the whole experience more fun as you can't really feel worried in the middle of a tight packed group for thirty/upwards people.
===Do you believe in Santa Claws?===
Something else that really detracted from the tour of the vaults was that they had a few really tacky decorations kicking about hiding in corners. A couple of giant fake looking rats peeked out from gaps in the bricks but worst of all was the fake skeleton huddled under a set of stairs. It simply wasn't required. Throw in that it was dressed as Santa at the end of January and it just made the tour laughable.
===Bright Lights and Chaos===
Another area of the vaults and the stories of scratches were still being told, though now a new element was brought in with people (from the tours) being knocked out or passing out. There were jokes about how the tour guides love having knockouts on the tours but again this told me not to take anything seriously and totally flattened any atmosphere that had built. Rebecca in an effort to scare occasionally shouted or stamped her feet but mostly it was all expected. She also had a bit of a habit of playing with a candle under her face and blowing it out and re-lighting it which was quite distracting.
Talking of lighting, I would suggest having something to hand that can help you see in the dark. Both the vaults and the graveyard are quite dark, uneven and slippy so walking around without a torch is treacherous. I'd also suggest turning it off if you aren't moving from place to place as lighting up the place while you're on a ghost tour is ridiculous. I used the light on my phone when moving between places but that became a bit annoying due to wearing gloves and having to unlock my phone to turn it on and off. Unlike other tours we went on, the guide didn't really point out any uneven or slippy areas and didn't hold a torch on it for those who didn't have anything to light their way which was a bit poor. It really was everyone for themselves! I have to take a star off for this as it should be really easy to make sure everyone gets in and out safely.
Once we were done with the vaults, there was another bit of a dash up to the graveyard, though this one wasn't quite as fast. We arrived at the gates and Rebecca told us about how the boss got the keys to the place and made out like we'd be the only tour with access to the graveyard. That isn't really the case as the graveyard is open to the public. We just managed to get in through a locked gate at the back. We were given a short bit of history on the graveyard and told stories about how tour groups have regularly found bones poking up through the mud, which I had to roll my eyes at. These tours are apparently quite eventful when I'm not on them! Another traipse through the graveyard and we were told a little about the Covenanters Prison though if I'm being honest it wasn't really explained all too greatly with Rebecca, instead of focusing on the clearly already gory history, focusing on the scratches and knockouts of recent tour groups. She also mentioned the "Mackenzie poltergeist" which is supposedly the ghost of a terrible man who was responsible for the mistreatment and death of thousands of Covenanters. It was implied we'd be going inside his tomb when we entered the next set of locked gates that the company are the only ones to hold the keys to.
The tomb we went into, it later transpired, wasn't that of George MacKenzie. In fact, we were left a little baffled as to what it was. We decided that it was probably the Covenanters Prison and we had simply not had it explained very clearly.
There was a bit of a fright set up in that area which was good: finally I felt scared if only for a split second. A few more stories of scratches and knock outs and cold spots (oh my) and then we left and were led to the actual tomb of George MacKenzie where a lot of people looked round at each other muttering "I thought that's where we just were??". This tomb is in the main graveyard area and we stopped there for no more than one minute before being led round to the Greyfriar's Bobby memorial stone which ended the tour on far too light a note to leave you feeling scared by anything.
===Time for your close-up===
Any good tour should leave you with plenty photo opportunities. Alas due to being so jam packed I was almost glad I left my camera at home. Even when everyone was done in the area you were in, you couldn't hang around to take photos or you'd get separated from the group. That didn't stop people trying, however. So many other people were taking flash photos right in the guide's face which on top of killing the atmosphere was quite rude. I don't imagine it's easy to keep your concentration in a dark room with people pointing flashbulbs at you. Give Rebecca her due though, she didn't seem phased by it at all.
For the Double Dead Walk you'll pay £13 each and £9 for children. For the amount of actual information you get, it's not really that good at all. In fact, there are free walking tours situated on the Royal Mile that give you a lot more information about the gory history of the place. If you're going in for the scares then you'll probably be completely disappointed. I was looking forward to having the absolute pants scared off of me but a relaxing cup of tea would have probably scared me more than this tour. I don't think it was worth it at all and it's £13 that I'd quite like to get back.
After running about and almost losing the group only to be in the worlds most boring episode of Most Haunted and not even getting to meet Yvette Fielding, I was less than impressed. Allan and Sloan felt the exact same. The guide, while nice enough, didn't really have enough material passed "have I told you about the people who left with scratches or who got knocked out" to make it interesting or scary. I've actually read other reviews where people were told about witch trials and other things that weren't even mentioned on our tour. Let's count up then. One star off for dashing off. Another off for overcrowding. Yet another for not being very safety conscious. The confusion between the tombs takes another star off leaving one star. I'm also taking a star off for the price of the tour vs. the quality of the tour. The locations themselves were great and it would be worth it if the presentation was up to scratch with enough room to look around. It's just a shame that it wasn't. Zero stars out of five (though obviously I have to mark it as 1 star to post the review) from all three of us and I'd recommend going with a different tour.
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Castle Fraser (Grampian)
Recently we spent a lovely holiday on Royal Deeside in Scotland and one of the places we visited was the beautiful Castle Fraser. This is owned and run by the National Trust for Scotland and as members of the national trust we were able to get in for free. Where is it *********** We found it easy to find as it is ... just 4 miles North of Dunecht and only 16 miles away from Aberdeen. There were plenty of brown signs as we approached. There is a good amount of car parking there you do have to pay a parking fee of £2 if you are not a Trust member displaying a badge in your car so make sure you have your car badge with you if you are a member of the change handy. There is some disabled parking next to the Castle itself as it is a bit of a walk down a steep hill to the castle and grounds. We had our trusty pushchair with us and it coped well with the terrain but be warned it is a push back up the hill.
The grounds are quite extensive and there are several walks around it one of which my husband and eldest son did which was a mile long walk in the woods which they really enjoyed and seeing all the autumnal colours. As this walk wasn't really suitable for a pushchair I looked round the walled garden with my youngest son. The walled garden you can actually visit without going to the castle and in the glory of summer I think it would be magnificent. In the autumn however there was little to see really bar some of the planting that they do and some of the herbs and winter vegetables. There are lots of fruit trees here to and I imagine that the many seats in the garden are often occupied in the better weather as it had a lovely relaxing atmosphere. Some of the park land around the castle was suitable for walking with a pushchair and there were plenty of grassy slopes for our 5 year old to roll down which he loved.
We decide to treat ourselves to a hot sandwich and soup in the café. This was table service which would have been great if it wasn't for a surly waiter who appeared to disapprove of everyone in the café disturbing his peace. He barely stayed at the table to take the order which meant we had to ask him several times for things he didn't wait for. The food when it did arrive was delicious and lovely and hot. The homemade cakes that we had for pudding were absolutely amazing and I would recommend them. As well as the surly waiter the other issue with the café was you had to leave a pushchair outside and inside there was only one chair suitable for a young child and this was a booster style seat attached to a chair rather than a highchair so you got the feeling that they really were discouraging families from eating there. It also would be impossible I think for a wheelchair user to get in there was a back entrance from the castle to the café rather than the main café entrance but I think it may be a tight squeeze to get through.
This is frankly amazing there are lots to see in the castle and with its turrets and tower with battlements it fitted my 5 year olds view of how a castle should look like. The member of staff at the door was friendly which after experience in the café was a welcome change to see. The castle is not accessible above the ground floor to wheelchairs or pushchairs but they were more than happy for us to leave our pushchair in the lobby. There is a children's trail to do and find birds around the castle which our son enjoyed. There are lots of twisting spiral staircases to go but they are definitely worth climbing as a lot of the rooms a filled with lots of interesting pictures and items. Some of the rooms have being modernised a bit and one of the rooms was given over to the family and their history in the war. There were several standout bits for us as a family. Both boys loved the lairds Lug which was a hidey hole where the laird would listen to people in the main hall. This closet in a bedroom was something that they loved walking in and out of and to try to see if they could hear people. The other bit was the peep hole that the laird would use to spy on people in the great hall. Again they both loved peering down it and there was a bit of pushing and shoving as they both tried to get a view. In the library we got talking to a lovely lady who was in charge of the room as she told our 5 year about the laird who had being shot in the head and leg in a battle but had survived and had a wooden leg for riding and another cork leg for dancing. He had kept his hat with the hole in for them to see which she pointed out to them. The guide was really friendly and answered his questions with patience and her telling of the story really gripped my son and she was one of the best guides we have met in a property. You can get out on to the top of the tower to see the views but having two curious boys we decide against this! But they did love going past the door which said quite for the bats.
The adventure playground
We were expecting a climbing and swing style adventure playground but this wasn't the case. It was a secret garden really with a large wooden glockenspiel and things carved out of wooden and a large wigwam. These amused our 5 year old greatly but held no interest for our 18 month old at all bar wandering in and out of the wigwam so I think if you have really little ones this isn't the best playground for them but school age children I think would love exploring some of the bits there.
There are toilets in the courtyard these were lovely and clean and the baby changing facilities were great nice and clean with plenty of room and warmth and a nice big bin for dirty nappies.
This is a great castle to visit there are lots of things to do in the grounds with various walks and the walled garden. The castle itself is full of history and the guides are friendly and informative to talk to and can answer questions from adults or children well. The only disappointment for us was the poor service in the restaurant despite good food and because of this I am reducing the stars from 5 to 4. If you are up in the area it is well worth a look.
Opening times can be found on the national trust website at the following address
Prices are as follows
1 Parent £17.50
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The Scottish Crannog Centre (Scotland)
The Scottish Crannog Centre Kenmore, Loch Tay Highland Perthshire PH15 2HY 01887 830583 Prior to staying in Kenmore I had never come across the term Crannog and certainly would have had absolutely no idea what one was. Before we go anywhere on holiday we do quite a lot of research and we discovered that the ... centre for Scottish Crannogs was on Loch Tay just near where we were staying and so that went down on the list of things to do once we arrived.
A Crannog is an Iron Age settlement or house on a very small island close to the shores of a Loch. Today they look like tiny islands with a clump of trees growing on them. In Loch Tay they have found eighteen of these Crannogs and one particular one they have studied and investigated thoroughly in order to learn about Crannogs and recreate the Crannog which is a major part of the Crannog Centre.
There are two very obvious remains of Crannogs within sight of the centre and one very close which was visited by Queen Victoria on her Honey moon when she came to visit Taymouth Castle. She apparently was 'very amused' by her Crannog picnic which made me smile, I could picture the scene and fuss getting her over onto the tiny island and really there is nothing there except trees but I bet tables and all sorts were set up for her.
The price was £6 per adult, £5.50 for concessions and there was a family price of £ 23 so it would have to be a big family to make it worthwhile. It is open from 10am till 5.30 daily but the last tour is an hour before closing time. The centre closes during winter as it is too cold and unsafe for visitors so if visiting after October 31st and before April 1st I think you will be unlucky although it does sometimes open for special events. On the brochure it says opening times and prices vary which saves money re printing brochures should they need to change anything!
It is not a huge museum with many multi sensory activities but they have made very good use of what they have. The small shop is where you buy your ticket and then every half hour or so you are allowed into the self guided exhibition.
SELF GUIDED EXHIBITION
In here they have exhibited some of the items found at the Crannog on the Loch. The first exhibit shows a small aquarium and tells you there are nine things to find in there. We found only two things that looked of any interest and the rest looked just like the bottom of any pond might look! There are original Crannog supporting timbers in wet tanks but again had I seen these I would have thought that they were just logs in water. There was also a recreated cut out log boat and finally dressing up clothes for children and adults with a painting of the Loch and Crannog to pose in front of. The exhibit ended finally with a loom showing how the fabric was made. It was small and you had fifteen minutes in there which was plenty of time really.
We were then met by our guide in costume who took us onto the Crannog. You walk across a bridge of logs laid horizontally but not fixed. The guide warned us to ensure all small items like mobile phones were safely away as if they fell through that was them gone into the loch.
Inside the Crannog the floor was the same only they have covered the logs with bracken and wool and straw so it was insulated and easier to walk on. The guide aid it was unlikely that the Iron Age residents would have used wool as it was too precious but the bracken and straw was pretty authentic. The Crannog was round and thatched probably with bracken and straw again as bracken is plentiful in the region. On this replica they had used reeds as they were given them as a donation and didn't want to waste the donation as they are run on donations only.
It reminded me a bit of being inside a Basuto hut the Rwandan village hut or an Indian tipi as it was round and had a conical roof. This had no smoke hole unlike a tipi. The reason being partly the wet weather and partly because they kept the fire going all the time and if there was a smoke hole there was more chance of the roof catching fire from glowing sparks flying around. The atmosphere inside must have been a bit like inside a smokehouse and indeed they did hang fish and meat high in the roof to be smoked. I bet they all had an air of kipper about them!
They built these houses just off the shore yet they farmed on the land. They have found evidence of wheat and other crops. They have also found evidence of them owning sheep, goats and cows but he didn't mention chickens and I didn't think to ask about them. The animals they believe came onto the Crannog at night and certainly in the winter and were kept on the outer platform just near the front entrance and possible just inside when the weather was really bad. The Crannog had a platform around the outside and the wooden pillars holding it up formed three circles, one large one around the outer edge, an inner circle holding the 'walls' and roof and then a third supporting the inner part of the house. The walls were a double layer of woven willow and they believe that between the two woven panels the owners were fill with straw and grass and whatever else to form insulation and also store fodder for winter for the animals.
Inside the Crannog in the centre was the fore platform which held various cooking pots. The fire was kept going at all times so presumably there must have been a layer of stones under the fire to keep it from burning through the logs. Around the outer area but inside the 'walls were divided areas with wooden raised platforms. They believe underneath was used as storage while the people slept on the platforms. They think that around twenty people lived in each Crannog and it would be an extended family.
Why did they build their houses on the water? The guide suggested it could be for security as the bridge could have the logs removed and a gap left so that invaders or wild animals couldn't get to them of their animal. He also suggested that it could be a status thing and that these homes could be clearly seen from around the loch and it was saying I am wealthy as I have this big house.
EXPERIENCING IRON AGE CRAFTS
Once you have had the Crannog explained inside the Crannog you then come back to the mainland and the guide demonstrated the various tools. First he showed us three different lathes and how they used them to turn wood and make bowl and cups etc. You could try all these yourself afterward too. The next craft was how to make holes in stones, they found a lot of these stones with holes in them which they think were used to weigh down fishing nets, weigh down wooden drill, looms and even anchor the boat. There were two methods, one using a wooden stick and a drill and the other using a hard stone and 'pecking' at a softer large stone. The great thing about showing visitors and the telling them they could have a try is that they got more stones with holes for their displays and demonstrations too.
After demonstration a drop loom the guide then made fire from two sticks. This was very clever in that he had a soft piece of wood placed on top of a piece of leather. The second piece of wood was in a spindle with he turned using a bow. After some time smoke began to appear and the soft base wood had a hole with smoking embers fallen through onto the leather. These embers he then placed in a small trough full of wood shavings of three kinds. He then blew gently on the embers until the shavings caught fire. It was pretty impressive but I think a match is a great and simple invention.
In this area were several displays of crops grown and local plants used for food and medicine which I found fascinating and made me wonder why we don't forage more these days.
There is a small café with log seats and tables, the shop and toilet and parking is free opposite the centre. There assisted disabled access and a bus stop nearby.
It doesn't look much from outside but I found it fascinating and extremely well done, very much worth a visit and worth the money for the entrance.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same username.
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Scotland Sightseeing National
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