Scotland 2: Exploring the Northeast of Edinburgh

No part of the United Kingdom is more than 70 miles from the sea. It's no surprise to find the country remembers its mariner heroes – from those who won glory in maritime warfare to those who gained fame in seafaring exploration.

No part of the United Kingdom is more than 70 miles from the sea. It’s no surprise to find the country remembers its mariner heroes — from those who won glory in maritime warfare to those who gained fame in seafaring exploration. Schoolchildren learn in their history classes of Sir Francis Drake who was playing bowls in 1588 with friends on a cliff above Plymouth when they noticed warning fires were blazing to the west to warn the Spanish Armada was entering the English Channel. Drake famously replied they had time to finish the game.

Several documents such as this (in what for some may be excruciating detail) cover this episode:

On 19th July 1588 Captain Thomas Fleming in the Golden Hinde, glimpsed the Armada through the swirling morning mist off the Lizard and raced for Plymouth, Lord Howard’s home port. Fleming came up the channel into Plymouth with the afternoon tide to find Sir Francis Drake playing bowls with his officers on the Ho, high above the harbour. On hearing of Fleming’s sighting Drake insisted on continuing with the game.

In school the children would also hear that Lord Nelson was warned by the Admiralty in flag messages from shore in 1801 to return and not engage the Danish fleet at Copenhagen. Sure of success, he placed his blind eye to the end of his telescope and told his staff he saw no such signal. The resulting battle, another of Nelson’s great victories, 4 years before he was killed by a French sniper at Trafalgar added pride to how his nation remembered him.

Nelson’s ship at Trafalgar was called HMS Victory and we know history is written by the victors. But there is a seafaring hero who is remembered though his event was not a triumph. Robert Falcon Scott set out in his ship the RRS Discovery to be the first to reach the South Pole. And failed.

His ship was built in Dundee, Scotland, your current destination.

The Royal Research Ship Discovery was built in Dundee 55 miles to the northeast of Edinburgh on the other side of the Firth of Forth. The ship made it back to Dundee although Scott’s South Pole subgroup did not. Scott died in 1912.

Dundee is Scotland’s fourth largest city after Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen. Burlap manufacture, newspaper publishing and preserves production have long given it the jingle “jute, journalism and jam.” It was again in the news in 1879 when the Edinburgh-Dundee Tay Bridge, built over 2 miles in 1872-1878 collapsed a year later in a freak storm.

If you drive over the new bridge, cautiously perhaps, you will note the iconic red-painted Forth Rail Bridge across the Forth, built in 1882 over eight years to become, until 1917, when the Quebec Bridge was completed, the longest single cantilever bridge in the world.

Scott, an experience Polar explorer, considered ponies and dogs as possible animals to pull his sleds but thought the men in the small group pushing to be the first to reach the South Pole might well be adequate to drag the sleds on their journey. It’s a long story and any search engine will give the details. But his arrangements broke down and the group became dispirited when they reached the Pole to find Roald Amundsen had been there 5 weeks before. They died heroically as they struggled back in a storm. Images Top: courtesy Capt. R.F. Scott; Middle: courtesy NOAA. Lower images of advertisements may have been contrived later by artists: The classified advertisement has been attributed to both Scott and Shackleton but the original has never been found despite enthusiastic searches.

Images courtesy Dundee Heritage Trust.

The RRS Discovery was the last traditional wooden 3-masted ship to be built in Britain. She was launched in March 1901, set sail in August 1901 and reached Antarctica in January 1902 on her first expedition which included Ernest Shackleton with whom Scott had later disputes. In 1910 the Discovery went back to Antarctica with Scott and 30 men as the Terra Nova Expedition. After Scott’s death in 1912, she became a cargo ship for the Hudson’s Bay Company, then carried munitions to Russia during the Great War. She then was used after a refit for whale research then as training ship for Boy Scouts, She came home to Dundee in 1986 amid controversies about Scott’s competence.

The ship did everything expected of it and has already survived into the start of her second century. Although power could be provided by coal, the sails were used most of the time to conserve fuel.

The crew were prepared for Antarctica with the warmest clothing of the day but it was still going to be cold. The interior of the ship would be comfortable but cramped for the total of 49 persons.

Those in the land party returning from the South Pole ultimately knew they were going to die in their tent in the storm. They were only 11 miles from the provisions depot they had created on their way out but could not get to it in the blizzard. The last days of the 5 who were in the group for the Pole are documented in Scott’s diary. Author photo courtesy Dundee Heritage Trust.

The 3 explorers who had almost made it home were found by the search party in their tent. Scott had taken care for his diary to be found with his body. Author photo courtesy Dundee Heritage Trust.

Back in your car you will find, 12 miles to the north, Glamis Castle, the birthplace of the late Queen Mother (the mother of Queen Elizabeth II who died aged 101 in 2002). She was a popular queen in her day and endeared herself to the public in 1942 during WWII when she was asked if — like many wealthy persons in Britain at the time – she was going to take the children to Canada for safety until the war was over. She replied: "The children will not leave unless I do. I shall not leave unless their father does; and the King will not leave the country in any circumstances."

A tour guide tells us Glamis Castle is haunted. “It has many ghosts but the haunting is from a card game the lord wanted to continue even though the Saturday had dragged into the Sabbath. As the players all left, he swore at them whereupon a man in black arrived at the door and said he would play but for the Lord’s soul. He left with the soul, and the room was then permanently bricked up. Its window can be seen from outside but the room has no entry.

Near the castle is the Angus Folk Museum and close by the simple home where the author J.M. Barrie was born. The now wealthy author of Peter Pan had no children but one day he called relatives into his home to tell them of a decision: he was leaving all the royalties from Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. The contract began in 1929 and when Barrie died in 1937 the copyright ran till 2007 then was extended under the US Copyright Extension Act through 2023. Film makers have respected those dates but not the Walt Disney Company which has challenged them and declined to pay royalties.

On the drive back to Edinburgh you can stop over in its port of Leith and visit another popular tourist attraction: The Royal Yacht Britannia.

The British Monarchy traveled more comfortably than Scott on his Discovery. Britannia was launched in 1953 and for 44 years served the Royal Family, the only ship in the world that had an Admiral as its captain.

Says guide, “With Britannia playing such a major role in the Queen's life, it is clear why the Royal Yacht's decommissioning was so sad.” It wasn’t sad for left wing politicians who, realistically enough, thought the continuing expense was prohibitive and the need unproven in modern times.

Indeed times have changed.

You can now stay the night at Glamis Castle and have tea on the Britannia Royal Deck Tea Room at any of its 35 tables. But, as you sip from a bone china cup, remember to stick out your little finger in a proppah Queen-like manner — and please ask the boys, young and old, to remove their baseball caps as they sit in such splendor.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.