July 10, 2009
This morning we had a bit of a crazy start. We’d planned the bus tour to Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel. We were to be picked up at 8:30 in front of the B&B. Everything was moving along smoothly; I was even up and ready early. The tele was on spouting the depressing news and I noticed that it said 8:15. I looked at our little wind up clock and had a cow because it said 7:45! We were screwed. Wendy and I raced around the room trying to gather everything we’d need for the day, praying we wouldn’t forget anything. As we were tearing out the door, flying past our breakfast, Martin stopped us and said that the driver was running about 25 minutes late. Phew! There still wasn’t time for breakfast so we grabbed a quick cup of tea and a piece of toast. Eventually, the huge grayline bus arrived and we were greeted by Graham Gordon, one of the funniest men I’ve met in my life.
We loaded on the bus, immediately met with the rolling “R’s” of the Scottish brogue. Graham pretended to be the angry Scottman, growling at the tourists, even bragging of hitting 118 last year alone with his bus. He turned out to be the best tour guide Wendy or I have ever had.
There were several stops along the way, picking up tourists from China, Australia, England, another American group and Italians. And boy was he unhappy about the Italians. I thought at first that he was exaggerating about their total lack of respect and rudeness but when the entire bus was basically empty and a woman in a group of Italian tourists insisted on sitting with me and my huge backpack, I was taken aback. Sure, we were near the front of the bus and maybe she needed to see out the main window, but it was the way it was done. The whole thing was so bizarre and uncomfortable. The rest of the group – about 12 or so- talked through Graham’s touring and also chatted on phones. I was utterly ashamed to call myself Italian at the pure rudeness of them.
Anyway, Graham was a font of historical information. One of the coolest facts he mentioned to us was the statue of Sir Walter Scott in the middle of Edinburgh on Princes Street. The white marble structure came from Genoa, Italy to sit beneath the towering metal ‘umbrella’ of the square. As they were removing it from the barge, it fell into the harbor in Genoa. There it sat for 3 years before they were able to pull it from the river, filled with algae and muck. I don’t think you hear about that in the history books.
We made our way out of the city with our tour group in tow, Graham filling our heads with more and more history. We sailed past Flodden Wall – the last part of old Edinburgh still standing – that’s over 500 years old! The tour was to take us to the Scottish Borders, further south than we had originally planned. He’d insisted that the southern part of Scotland was more beautiful than even the highlands. While we were ready to disagree, and still may after we see it, the south was magnificent. Graham was insistent on taking us on a side road to show us the rolling hills of hidden Scotland that’s not on his official tour route. The protected area was known as Tweed Valley Forest Park; a mostly deserted area that only the locals go through. Along the way, the bright green was speckled with roaming sheep, happily grazing away without a care in the world. We had a soundtrack by Capercaillie, the group that performed much of the music from Braveheart. It was beautiful and truly fitting as we wove our way around the tight roads. Graham informed us that at night he likes to toil over maps and found this route by accident. It was absolutely stunning.
All the little towns along the way held beautiful little cottages bursting with flowers and color. At one point, Graham was so overcome by the beauty of the area and the care of the potted flowers that he proclaimed, “If I was a bird, I’d nest in there!” which immediately made us burst out laughing. We tried to snap some photos along the way but the bus was moving too quickly. Thus was the nature of our trip.
The winding roads and tight traffic held our attention as we held our breath watching him weave through. Panic overtook us as we realized that we might be hitting buses head on through our own winding tours. And Graham was not shy about his views on tourists driving – especially female tourists. We took note and will make sure to heed his words.
The bus stopped briefly at Scott’s View – Sir Walter Scott’s favorite spot to sit and contemplate life. When he died, the horses in his funeral brigade stopped at the spot, thinking they were on their regular course. This stirred the emotions of all those in the funeral procession, saying the horses even paid their respect to their former master. Graham said, “They were two stupid horses that wanted a rest.” You see why we were so smitten with him.
Our first “official” stop on the tour was Melrose Abbey, an abandoned monastery founded in 1136 and destroyed in 1385 by Richard II. Upon approach, it’s just a stunning view. The square stones were pink and yellow hues stacked in arches of beauty surrounded by a strong wrought iron fence. Along the outside, grave stones dotted the flat landscape in deep grays. One of the highlights in the burial ground is the heart of Robert the Bruce, the real “Brave Heart.” I have not seen the movie, but apparently they misconstrued the actual history, making William Wallace the hero. Well, Graham, being the history aficionado he was, stated that Robert the Bruce was his hero, spurring on his love of history. He was angered by his portrayal in Brave Heart, touting the amazing feats of this man. I’ll find a link and let you read it if you’re interested.
The Abbey held a tiny, narrow staircase that we wandered up to get a panoramic view of the area. Honestly, it was really creepy trying to get up this dank, dreary stone, but the view of the top held much beauty. The outskirts of the territory were decorated with bright flowers of orange and yellow, trying to lighten up the sadness of this once-beautiful Abbey.
The tour was leaving soon (and we were the only ones that paid the admission to enter) so we quickly raced through grabbing a few more pictures to take home with us. I particularly loved the cemetery markers of Celtic design; crosses and circles. The visit was truly too short and I need to learn more of the history of the place, but it’s always amazing to me that something can still be in such amazing shape – especially after being attacked by Kings – after hundreds of years. Remember, the US didn’t even truly exist until the lat 1700’s. This Abbey was built 600 years prior!
Back on the bus we found a gleeful Graham after we told him we’d seen his hero’s heart. We wove our way through, noting that our stomachs were beginning to growl. Graham told us that we’d be stopping at Dobbie’s Garden Center, where of JK Rowling named the house elf from the second Harry Potter book. She’s spent some time there and liked the name enough. The food court was interesting and had the most important thing – food!
Graham took a quick sneak off the path again to see a hidden sculpture of William Wallace, at Graham’s insistance. The view in the surrounding area was gorgeous and filled with nature; but when nature attacks, it’s not fun!
I walked into some weeds and had rather thin pants on. Something felt like it had stung me, burning patches where the needles hit my skin. I looked down to see some evil plant with thorns on it. I immediately grabbed Graham and asked if I’d been poisoned and needed to go to hospital. He burst out laughing, telling me I’d walked into a Nettle bush. He leaned down under the pretense of assisting me, instead finding another thorny vine to throw at me, along with burrs. I continued to whine about the pain in my leg; it burned with every step and Wendy mocked me the whole way. A very lovely couple told me to use duck leaf to try and quell the discomfort. I’m not sure that it worked, but they were beyond cute and sweet to say anything else to him about the burning.
Our last stop on the tour was Rosslyn Chapel, the church featured in Dan Brown’s DaVinci code (so I’m told). What a beautiful little place of worship; unfortunately, it’s made of sandstone and is literally falling apart. Currently, it’s covered with a metal roof that engulfs the whole building. The idea is that after 8 years (according to Graham at least) the seepage from the water into the stone will dry out. They’ve coated it now in a cement lacquer that will preserve the church. Pictures are not allowed inside.
The inside of the chapel is now a stark gray from the coating, filling in the amazing, intricate carvings of the labor of love. The St. Clair family, wealthy folk in the region, began building their own chapel in 1446. They were Catholic and as the reformists came barreling through the area, portions of the chapel were destroyed. The interior is missing 220 statutes and it is believed that the family took them and hid them from destruction. What’s interesting is that in the carving you can clearly see corn and aloe vera plants chipped into the walls. If Columbus didn’t discover American until 1492, how were these indigenous plants of North America immortalized in the church, and why?
The entire church is dedicated to nature; flowers and leaves add their own kind of worship to the house of the Lord. Only later were religious artifacts added back into the church after the invasion. The thick columns of the interior were lined as the columns in front of the Parthenon, save for one. It’s called the Apprentice’s Pillar. The story states that the “master artist” needed inspiration to finish the final column in the church so he ran away to Italy, I believe, to be filled with the spirit. In the meantime, the artist’s apprentice received the word of God and carved the statue without his master. When the master returned two years later, he was furious that he had not thought of something so beautiful. And it is quite marvelous- a weaving in and out, candy cane column with elaborate designs of nature. It fits so well with the deep love for the rest of the building.
We were encouraged to climb the arched roof to get a closer look at the exterior of the building, so we did that. I was able to gather a few pictures of the faded detail of the once magnificent outer surface of the chapel. From this view, we were able to see the ruins of the castle nearby that we ended up getting to see up close! There was an artist there (who happened to be on our tour) who was doing quick water color paintings of the things he’d seen along the way. The story was that he’d forgotten his camera so he had to have a way to remember the areas he’s visited. I took video of him and also his email address hoping that when he made prints of his artwork, I could have a copy. Simply amazing how someone can produce such beautiful work so quickly.
Our tour was coming to an end which meant that our time with Graham was almost done. We let him know how very much we’d enjoyed his company and knowledge. He wished us well and dropped us downtown again where we ate a pasty for dinner and headed home for the evening.