Hikers climb the summit of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Charis Hayward)

United Kingdom study abroad: Edinburgh

My time in Edinburgh, Scotland was the highlight of my study abroad. The three day trip didn’t get off to a splendid start, though. 

My class took two different trains to get from Nottingham to Edinburgh. Our first train ride was a pleasant affair that lasted about an hour. 

However, the second was an hours-long affair where, seated across the aisle, was a quartet of screaming children whose mother did absolutely nothing to reign them in. 

The pros and cons of starting a confrontation on a crowded train were scrolling through my mind when she pulled out cupcakes to give to the already-hyper children. I could have cried. 

When one of the kids scampered over to the seat behind me and let out a high-pitched shriek directly in my ear, the classmate next to me softly assured me that it was not worth the confrontation, yet I was not so sure. 

The possible chance of any level of ire from the mother would be worth it if there was even a sliver of a chance that she would get the children to settle down if I spoke to her.

Thankfully, that theory never had to be put to the test. 

The train came to a stop at the Edinburgh station a few minutes before I could completely lose my mind.

The first priority was getting everyone settled in their rooms at St. Christopher’s Hostel after getting grouped into rooms of four. 

The accommodations were perfectly reasonable, it was nothing fancy, but more or less what you would expect from a low-to-mid-priced hostel. 

My roommates, who may have been new to traveling on a budget, were horrified by the small, somewhat dirty bathroom and thin mattresses slotted into small sleeping spaces. 

One of them ended up paying for a hotel room rather than staying in the hostel, while the third never seemed to be in. The feeling of having a private room was a pleasant surprise.

Next on the to-do list was to go out for dinner with two of my classmates after everything was settled, but then we came across a red-haired bagpipe player wearing a kilt. 

His music was wonderful, but most of my delight stemmed from how quintessentially Scottish the image before me was. We stood and listened for an entire song, beaming smiles on our faces, before setting off again.

The Scottish bagpipe player during our search for dinner. (Photo by Charis Hayward)

The three of us ended up getting dinner at an authentic Scottish restaurant where we got different entrees, but the true delight came in the form of our shared appetizer, haggis. 

We had ordered it with nervous giggles and low expectations, however the humble spread of meat and oats before me did not look like some terrible thing brewed in a sheep’s stomach. 

The haggis looked like soft ground hamburger meat with oats. I tentatively took a bite and came upon an outstanding surprise, the haggis was wonderful! 

It had a pleasant texture, soft without being mushy, and was spiced with a smorgasbord of flavor that stopped just short of being too strong. Fans of more subtle tastes might want to avoid it, but as someone who enjoys strong flavors, it was heaven.

The class went on the Real Mary King’s Close tour that evening. It was a delightful affair where we learned what Edinburgh was like hundreds of years ago. 

A plague mask display at the Real Mary King’s Close. (Photo by Charis Hayward)

More of the conversation focused on toilets, or the lack thereof, than many of my classmates expected. 

As someone who already knew a fair amount about the plumbing woes of the olden days, the toilet talk felt somewhat routine, but absolutely hilarious due to how the guide presented it. 

The part of the tour that got to me the most was when we found out how Edinburgh handled the black plague. 

We like to think of ourselves as so much more advanced now than we were back then, but Edinburgh’s plague procedures bore a striking resemblance to how the United States handled the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a grim piece of education that gave me a lot to think about.

A plague doctor mural at the Real Mary King’s Close. (Photo by Charis Hayward)

I bought a plague rat puppet from the gift shop at the end of the tour and walked back to the hostel. The next two days started early in the morning, so getting to bed at a decent time was a priority.

My second day in Edinburgh started off with a tour of Holyrood Palace. It was big, beautiful, and filled to the brim with history pertaining to the royals. 

It was surely a marvelous visit for my classmates who were interested in such things.

However, I found myself wandering the palace, entertaining myself by taking pictures, as we waited for the bus to take us to the Museum of Scotland. 

A twist of fate prevented that from happening.

The cafe at Holyrood Palace served lunch, so the decision to eat was easy. 

Most of my classmates were still milling around, and I ate in a quiet corner separate from everyone else. 

Time passed quicker than expected, and my classmates gathered and left for the bus stop with me none the wiser. 

I tried to make it to the bus stop by myself, only to be foiled by my miserable sense of direction. My arrival would be met by the bus departing the rest of my group on board.

Upset would be an appropriate word to describe the emotions at the time. No one had thought to send me so much as a text message telling me the bus was leaving. It was hard not to feel as though they saw me as unimportant and forgettable.

On most days, it would only hurt for a little while before I could just brush it off. However, being surrounded by people for the past three days was having me at the end of my rope. 

Hurt mingled with the irritation and exhaustion that had been building over the course of the trip to create a fuming anger which lingered for the rest of the walk to the Museum of Scotland.

My stress and anger began to fade as the walk progressed. The walk was a little more than a mile, but that was shorter than my regular walks.. 

However, it was a much-needed chance to stretch my legs, get some fresh air, and clear my head. 

The anger waned as I approached the museum. 

My frustration did flare up again when none of my classmates were there to be found upon reaching it. I had to find and take pictures of myself by certain displays for class, veritable needles in a haystack in the giant museum, and it felt nigh impossible without anyone to help me. 

Yet, nothing is truly impossible if you set your mind to it. After about fifteen minutes of stressful wandering, the plan pivoted to working smarter, not harder.

A worker was able to help me after writing down a list of everything I needed to find at the museum.

It became fun after that. 

The scavenger hunt was completed in fifteen minutes, after which I went up to the museum’s roof, where there was a spectacular view of Scotland. 

Soon after the view was when one of my classmates and I came across each other. It was only at this moment did I know they had only just arrived.

The bus they took did a full route around the traffic-clogged city allowing me, on foot, to not only beat them to the museum, but also complete my assignment before they showed up.

Some alone time sounded much better than rejoining my classmates, so the rest of my day was spent trying to do something memorable.

My answer was to take another walk across the city and hike Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano overlooking the city. 

Fate was on my side that day. My attire was already suited for a hike, as the thought of doing so was always a possibility I was open to.

Two liter bottles of water were sold at a corner store on the way to my destination, and I briefly stopped by a loch at the foot of Arthur’s Seat to marvel at the flock of swans that called it home. 

They were incredibly bold, marching right up to myself and the scattering of other people who had come to look at them. Ten minutes passed before I began to climb.

Swans in St. Margaret’s Loch at the base of Arthur’s Seat. (Photo by Charis Hayward)

Arthur’s Seat seemed like an easy hike at first, but got harder the higher it went. 

The adrenaline coursing through my veins took over and did not let me stop or slow down, fearing my momentum would be lost if I let myself rest. That method got me almost all the way to the top. 

The final five hundred feet or so between myself and the summit were a very steep, very rocky climb. Looking at it made all of the exhaustion crash over me in a wave. 

A nearby rock was used as a seat in order to stare out over Scotland. Even though it was not quite at the summit, I could see rolling hills in the direction of Edinburgh straight ahead of me, and the sea beyond that. 

It was a sight that soothed the sting of defeat; a sting that became far less harsh when a  spontaneous realization occurred about what was wrong with me.

I had not had a single drop of water on my climb upward.

My dehydration made itself apparent the second some water touched my lips. It took all of my restraint not to chug the entire bottle on the spot. 

The break was about fifteen minutes, during which my strength returned to me.

It was not easy, though. 

Not only was the last stretch of rock challenging, but the summit was home to a swarm of winged, biting flies that got in my hair and nipped at any bit of exposed skin they could find. 

The breathtaking view from the very top of Arthur’s Seat made the battle worth it. Perhaps it was not so different from the sight 500 feet lower, but the knowledge that it was now from the summit had made it something magical.

The view of Edinburgh from the summit of Arthur’s Seat. (Photo by Charis Hayward)

There was still one day left in my trip to Scotland. The next morning, I would be getting up early to embark on a tour of the highlands. The past week was spent with excitement about standing at the top of an extinct volcano. The past, future, and everything else in the world were far from my mind.

I felt singularly, gloriously alive.

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