With our ship docked in Greenock, my tour group left the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond bound for Stirling Castle. After a drive through the beautiful Scottish countryside, we glimpsed the magnificent castle perched high on volcanic rock, visible for miles in every direction. If you like castles where the course of history was changed, as I do, I highly recommend Stirling.
Near the castle is the towering William Wallace Monument. Most Americans know William Wallace as the heroic character portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart, a commoner who fought for Scotland's freedom from England after much of the Scottish nobility had been bribed into collaboration. His lifelong enemy was King Edward I, the very same monarch who conquered Wales and built Conwy Castle, mentioned in part two of this series.
Wallace was a larger-than-life character, and as you gaze out at the enormous Monument from the walls of Stirling Castle, the site of his most famous victory, you begin to understand that his legend not only endures across the ages, but continues to inspire a nation.
Back on board, we sailed for Kirkwall, in the far northern Orkney Islands. On our day at sea, we met two German warships, passing close enough to see sailors waving from the decks. That evening at dinner, we watched in amazement as we caught and slowly passed a German submarine, decks partially obscured by the waves. It took nearly an hour to disappear from sight.
The next day, outside of Kirkwall, we stood on the banks of Scapa Flow, a sheltered, open lagoon surrounded by islands. At the end of World War I, a total of 74 ships of the German High Seas Fleet were ordered sunk here, by their own commanders, to keep them from falling into allied hands. And in 1939, at the beginning of World War II, a German U-boat torpedoed a Royal Navy battleship in a surprise attack, sending the ship to the bottom, with more than 800 of its crew.
Today that rusting hulk rests in the murky darkness, with only those German warships that were not salvaged to keep her company.
The next port was Invergordon, where we opted for a shore excursion to Loch Ness. While keeping an eye out for Nessie, we combed the ruins of Urquhart Castle and toured the Loch Ness Monster visitor center. Their audio/visual presentation was quite interesting, an even-handed account of all the monster "sightings", stories, photos, and scientific quests for the truth.
The final port we visited was Dundee, near Edinburgh. I had heard so many interesting things about Edinburgh and its attractions -- Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, the Palace of Holyroodhouse -- that I didn't think a single day of touring would be enough. Since the cruise had only one day at sea remaining, we left the ship in Dundee, took a car to Edinburgh and spent 4 days exploring the city at length.
I don't recommend leaving a cruise early -- you don't get a break in the price and it simply is not allowed on many cruises -- but it does make sense to consider side trips before and after any cruise that entails a long airline flight. In this case, I knew it would be difficult to get back to Edinburgh and I wanted to see everything and just be there. It turned out to be an excellent city to visit, and an easy one to get around on foot.
From Edinburgh, we took the train to London, my favorite big city in all the world. On the last day of our vacation, we saw the Tower of London, where Edward I had William Wallace imprisoned, hung, drawn and quartered. We passed the site of the medieval London Bridge, where Wallace's head was impaled on a pole and left as a reminder to others who sought freedom for Scotland. And we stood in Westminster Abbey, in front of Edwards' 700-year-old remains.
Edward won his personal battle with Wallace, but he died a failure in his own mind. Wallace's torture and execution hardened Scottish resolve, and led to another uprising and the crowning of a new Scottish King, Robert The Bruce. Edward died on his way to fight Bruce, having failed to bring Scotland to its knees. The "Hammer of the Scots" was so obsessed with total victory that he ordered that he should not be buried properly until Scotland was conquered. And that's why he remains, to this day, entombed in a plain lead casket.
Wallace was not there to see it, but 23 years after his death, and 21 years after the death of Edward I, Scotland won its independence from England.
Vacations To Go