The editors of Budget Travel magazine help a reader take her dream vacation to her grandfather's homeland.
The Central Florida Highland Games is a big annual celebration of Scottish heritage, with piper bands, lots of plaid, and competitions like the caber toss (throwing a telephone pole--like log end over end).
And Connie Kimsey of Melbourne, Fla., has attended every year since 1979--except once, when her uncle got married. "I've dragged along most of my family at one time or another," she said.
The festival was always fun, but Connie yearned to see the real Scotland. Her grandfather, William Downs, was born there but left as a teenager for the U.S. around 1930. Connecting with her family's homeland was something Connie had dreamed about for decades--especially after her grandfather passed away 12 years ago. Even though Connie knew that the exchange rate was terrible, she and her husband, Grant, were finally going to follow through on their plans to visit.
After years of socializing with Scotophiles and hearing endless stories about Edinburgh, Connie wanted to spend most of their 10-day trip in that lovely, mysterious city. She had made hotel reservations but needed help with flights and sightseeing.
She also asked us to figure out how to get to Uddingston (pronounced OOH-dingston), her grandfather's hometown, and how to find Bothwell Castle, where his family picnicked. The Kimseys planned on a tour of the Scottish Highlands, too. "We don't want to drive because of the left-hand side of the road issue," said Connie. "We'd rather be able to look around than worry about looking out,' if you know what I mean."
The best round-trip fare between Orlando and Scotland in late May or early June was $651 for an Icelandair flight into Glasgow (via Reykjavík). But because they weren't all that interested in Glasgow, we decided it was smarter to pay a bit more ($714) for a British Airways itinerary that connected in London.
"We want to experience some of Edinburgh's great pubs and avoid the tourist traps," Connie said. In the New Town section of Edinburgh, where the Kimseys had already found a hotel, we recommended the Cumberland Bar, a traditional pub with real ale pumps, a beer garden, and decent prices, and the historic Café Royal, where it's worth putting up with the crowds to soak up the Victorian atmosphere. As for sightseeing, the Kimseys didn't have anything specific in mind, so we steered them to the Royal Mile, the famous stretch of museums, shops, and historic homes that's bookended by two palaces: Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse.
A century ago, the people of Uddingston made a living in the coal mines and steel and cotton factories around Glasgow. "My grandfather said he remembered a lot of fun and carousing in his youth," said Connie. "There was not much adult supervision due to all the men off fighting in World War I and the women working at temporary war-related jobs." When the war ended, Scotland found itself with more men than jobs, prompting Downs and others to leave. These days, Uddingston is a middle-class commuter town (population 5,000) on the ScotRail line between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Getting there would take a little over an hour.
Connie wanted to look up her grandfather's old address, so instead of them wandering the streets of Uddingston willy-nilly, we suggested she print out maps and directions from streetmap.co.uk/ or theaa.com/. These sources also led us to discover that the Kimseys could walk a mile from town to where the Downs family had picnicked and played cricket years ago: Bothwell Castle, a massive medieval structure with most of its brick walls still standing.
Another site, ancestralscotland.com/, is loaded with info on libraries, historical museums, and archive centers, should Connie want to do more research. The General Register Office in Edinburgh, accessible via the Web, has indexed records of every birth, death, and marriage in Scotland since 1855.
Finally, after looking at several tours with Connie, we settled on a two-day trip with Timberbush Tours. For $108 per person, the Kimseys could cruise along in a small bus to must-sees such as Loch Ness and the rugged terrain of Glen Nevis, where scenes from Braveheart and Rob Roy were filmed. Enjoy Scotland, Connie!