Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle

Posted: May 3rd, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Adventures | Tags: , , | No Comments »

[Post 3/3 about our weekend in Inverness and the Highlands]

Of course, our trip would not have been complete without a visit to Loch Ness, the most touristy destination in all of Scotland.

Boat cruises are a popular (though expensive) way to check out the lake.  This was our boat.

Boat Cruise of Loch Ness

Loch Ness is HUGE!  Something like 23 miles long and about a mile wide.  It’s also pretty deep (over 700 ft).  According to our boat guide, you could drown the entire population of Earth (~7 billion people) in the loch three times over and still have room left.

Despite this potential, the lake still manages to be very easy on the eyes.

Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle stands guard on the shores of Loch Ness. Or at least, what’s left of it.

Urquhart Castle on Shores of Loch Ness

The castle ruins have been well-restored and offer a pretty cool view of the Loch from the tower.

Urquhart Castle Towers over Loch Ness

Here’s me pleased that the Scottish weather withheld rain for our entire visit to the Loch.

Mike at Urquhart Castle

Imagine trying to assault this Highland stronghold with one of these bad boys…

Trebuchet at Urquhart Castle

Wish we could have spent a bit more time at the castle.  But our tour quickly hustled us along to the the Loch Ness Visitor’s Center.  Definitely a hokey tourist trap centered on the legend of the monster that was not really worth taking photos of.   But overall a great day’s adventure.

Culloden Battlefield

Posted: May 2nd, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Right outside of Inverness, you can find a desolate moor where 300+ years ago Scottish Highlanders lost their last chance of independence from British authority.  The site is Culloden Battlefield, and it is a must see for anyone with even the slightest interest in military history.

Culloden Battlefield

The battlefield itself, while humbling to walk around in, doesn’t inspire much beyond feelings of isolation.  The real gem of the site is the newly built Visitor’s Centre (completed in 2007 or so), which does a fantastic job of illuminating the who, what, where, and why of the Battle of Culloden.    Visual and auditory exhibits craft a strong narrative that reveal the historical roots, fighting tactics, and eventual consequences of battle from both British and Scottish perspectives.  I wish I could relate all the juicy details I picked up along the way (I somehow still remember much about the place several weeks later… a very rare impact for a historical museum). But I don’t have the time or space.

So instead, here’s a sweet video to help you get a feel for what things must have been like in 1746.

embedded by Embedded Video

The Highland Charge as a Battle Tactic

The defining moment of the battle, as the video demonstrates, was the massive running assault by the Scots against the lines of British troops.  Until Culloden, the Scottish Highlanders fighting for the restoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie had defeated British forces at several smaller encounters.  While the English were better trained and had larger numbers, they could not survive the ferocity of the Highland charge.  Known to be fearless warriors, the Highlanders would run en masse headlong at the musket lines of the British army, usually succeeding in scattering/disorienting some soldiers and taking the rest in hand-to-hand combat.  However, by the time the two armies clashed on the fields of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland, the English commander, was prepared for the charge.  He trained his men to hold steady despite the charge and arranged grapeshot cannons to strike the surge of Highlanders as they stampeded across the open plain.  Somehow, his troops held their ground and the formerly impervious Highland charge became a massacre of Scotsmen.

If you want the full story, check out the Battlefield’s official site.

Mike Tries On A Kilt

Back at the visitor’s center, I learned how to put on a real 1700s Scottish kilt from one of the interpreters at the center.

Mike Observes Kilt Folding Technique

Here’s me folding the pleats one-by-one:

Mike Folding a Kilt

Check out the finished product.

Mike Wearing Kilt

Looks pretty sweet, doesn’t it?

Overall, I was duly  impressed by my visit to Culloden.  A very rich and authentic Scottish experience.

Weekend in Inverness

Posted: May 2nd, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , | No Comments »

[Apologies for the long delay in updates... I spent all of May travelling around Scotland and Europe, with just a little break for studying and exams. ]

After classes let out, there was basically a two week period before exams started.  The Scottish/British system intends this to be  a chance to review the semester’s work and cram for the upcoming exams.  Of course, my friends and I didn’t see it that way.  So we took off for a weekend in Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands and the effective home of Loch Ness.

For the unfamiliar, here’s a little map.


We arrived by train early Saturday morning, planning to spend the day in the city and visit Loch Ness on Sunday.  Walking around Inverness turned out to be sweet, since it’s very small (only 70,000 people) and centered on the River Ness.   Here’s a shot of the town castle, which towers over the river and overlooks the major commercial district.

Inverness Castle

Unfortunately, like most castles, this one never actually saw any military action.  It was built in 1836 and holds the major justice court of the city.  But the site itself has been home to several defense structures that saw action throughout the middle ages.

Read the rest of this entry »

BBQ on the Beach (of the North Sea)

Posted: April 22nd, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Scotland offers lots of scholarships to international students to entice them to come study here as undergraduates or grad students.  As a result, most of the people I’ve gotten to know here in Aberdeen are not locals. This makes getting together with friends terribly interesting, because we draw people from all over.

Right after classes wrapped up at the end of April, a bunch of us gathered on the beach to relax before the chaos of finals.  Yes, Aberdeen does have a nice stretch of sand (a few miles actually), but of course the North Sea is no balmy coast.  But the weather was nice enough that a bunch of us decided to grab supplies for a barbeque/picnic and make our way to the beach.

We had people from all over:  Germany, France, Poland, Russia, Spain, and definitely some others I’m forgetting at the moment.  We grilled burgers and sausages and chilled out for several hours.

Of course, we were soon interrupted by rain.  So we quickly built a shelter.


We got a nice fire blazing too.


Definitely one of the most resourceful group of people I’ve met.  I guess that’s what inclement weather does to you.

Turned out to be a great evening of swapping stories and sharing food.  George even baked a cake!

Skiing at Cairngorm

Posted: April 11th, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Adventures | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

I had planned to keep the weekend following spring break nice and quiet.  But when I found out RGU’s snowsports club was running a discounted skiing trip to a nearby resort, I abandoned all hopes of sleep and eagerly woke up at 5:30AM on Saturday morning to catch the bus.

Cairngorm Mountain is about 1.5 hours west of Aberdeen in the middle of Cairngorm National Park.  It’s a nice little ski hill, especially for beginners, but is quite small compared to most high profile resorts I’ve visited.

Of course, skiing in April means very little snow cover and lots of sun.  This makes for great views but means I look squinty in all the photos (note to self, bring good ski goggles next time).

Mike Skiing at Cairngorm

It was Heena’s first time on a real mountain, and she turned out to be a quick learner and very good at staying on her feet.

Heena learns to ski

She even managed to break out of the “wedge” method and keep skis parallel between turns.

Heena gets good at skiing

Overall a great day for skiing.  So glad I didn’t pass this up.

Mike and Heena Skiing

The bus ride home offered sweet views of the Cairngorm range behind some typical Scottish sheep pasture.

Sheep and Cairngorms

We even caught a nice rainbow to complete a great day.

Rainbow near Cairngorm National Park

Science Museum - SB Day 9

Posted: April 5th, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

[The final post on my Spring Break adventures in Ireland and London.  Such a good trip.]

The last day of Spring Break I met up with my friends Anand and Genie from my research program last summer at UCLA.  Both of them study/work in the London area, so we took the opportunity to catch up and explore the city.

Our first stop was the Science Museum, located right next door to the Natural History Museum in the South Kensington area of the city.  Like most of the museums here, it was completely free!

Most of the museum had very typical modern science exhibits.  Some life-size displays of race cars and space capsules.  Some explanatory text.  Not terribly exciting.

But then we discovered the Launchpad exhibit, which totally rocked.  It’s a completely hands-on section of the museum where kids of all ages can try out building bridges, wiring circuits, and other neat projects.

For example, here’s an activity where kids have to figure out how to connect a power source, motion detector, and several fans to make an automatic hand dryer.

Make a Hand Dryer - Science Museum Activity

Once you’ve mastered circuits, you can walk just a few feet away and discover why arches are so strong.

Of course, you don’t just read about it, you can actually build an arch out of blocks and then stand on it yourself.

Arch Strength Demo

In case you can’t tell, I really enjoy these kinds of activities.  But I’ll save you from going on and on…

We capped a day’s worth of museum-ing with a stroll in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

Here’s me and Anand gazing up at the magnificent Albert Memorial in the gardens.

Mike and Anand at Albert Memorial

Lots of fancy gold and ornate sculpture going on there.

We capped our last day in London with a nice meal out in Chinatown near Leicester Square.  Great kung pao!

Mike Anand and Genie

It was great to catch up with old friends and see London one last time.

Heena and I caught a late night bus back to Aberdeen.  We spent 12 hours cramped in the back.  But at only $25 each it was a cheap way to get back to the cold frigid north of Scotland.

Oxford University: SB Day 8

Posted: April 4th, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

[Part of a series of  posts highlighting my adventures on Spring Break trip to Ireland and London]

Saturday of Spring Break saw us catch a bus out of London to enjoy a day in the city of Oxford, home to the University of Oxford, the oldest higher education institution in the English speaking world and still one of the most prestigious.

The campus is full of gorgeous architecture. Here’s the spire at Christ Church College (I think that’s its name, anyway…).

Christ Church Spire at Oxford

The view of the “dreaming spires” from across a field near the river.

Oxford Skyline

Heena and I were joined on our visit by Olin alum Ryan (’07) and his girlfriend Megan, who studies at Oxford and acted as our tour guide.

We couldn’t believe the luck we had with the weather.  Which of course meant that we skipped most of the museums and went punting on the river!

Punting on the River

For the uninitiated, punting involves guiding a long, flat boat down the river by pushing against the river bottom with a big long pole.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to just watch others enjoy the nice weather.  We had to try it out ourselves.

Megan had punted several times before and served as our guide and tutor.  Here she is guiding us out of the rental facility.

Megan Punting

Next, it was my turn to give it a shot.  It’s actually a lot of work heaving that pole around (it’s like 10 feet long)!

Mike Punting while Heena Smiles

Punting turned out to be so much fun.  And I even managed to keep us on a (mostly) straight course the whole time, unlike several of the novices we saw on the river.  One group we watched managed to turn their boat completely sideways to block traffic at a narrow bend of the river, and later they ran themselves right into a tree growing off the bank and had to push out backwards by hand.

Overall an excellent use of a perfect English spring day. Plus I got a sweet hat to make me look real official.

Mike Enjoys Punting

Roller Disco: SB Day 7

Posted: April 3rd, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: | No Comments »

On Friday night, we celebrated the weekend in the big city with a night out on the town.

Our hosts recommended the roller disco at Renaissance Rooms, so we decided to check it out.

Rennaisance Rooms

The place was a little tough to find and felt a little sketchy at first.

But we stuck it out long enough to get inside, where we found a super-crowded but really fun time.

Roller Disco

Here I’m am pretending like I know what I’m doing on skates.

Mike at Roller Disco

What a blast!

London Adventures: SB Day 7

Posted: April 3rd, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | No Comments »

After visiting the Abbey, we spent the rest of our Friday walking across London checking out several landmarks.

A mandatory stop was one of the infamous red telephone booths.

London Telephone Booth

Here’s a shot of the street where Winston Churchill directed Britain’s World War II campaign from an underground bunker.

Churchill War Rooms

Moving on, we visited Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister lives.  Unfortunately, this is as close as we could get due to security restrictions.

Downing St

Walking along the River Thames, we found this curious Egyptian obelisk, which was taken from Alexandria and shipped in an iron cylinder to England.  After being abandoned in a storm along the way, it was later recovered and planted here in 1878.

Obelisk along the River Thames

Moving along, we stopped by St. Paul’s Cathedral for a brief photo op, though heavy traffic meant all of my shots had at least one vehicle blocking the view.  Oh well.

St. Paul's Cathedral

Here’s a better view up close of a really cool statue in the front plaza of the cathedral.

Statue in front of St. Paul's

Check out that sweet golden triton!

Next stop, the Tower of London.

Tower of London

Moving along, we crossed the magnificent Tower Bridge (which many tourists incorrectly think is the London Bridge).

Tower Bridge

Some great views from the bridge.

View from Tower Bridge

All that walking makes you really hungry.

Westminster Abbey: SB Day 7

Posted: April 3rd, 2009 | Author: mike | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: | No Comments »

On Friday we visited Westminster Abbey, the famed cathedral just a short (2 min) walk from Big Ben and the site of coronation and burial of England’s monarchs since time immemorial.

Westminster Abbey

Of course, if you think only one side of this building is ornate, you are gravely mistaken.

Westminster Abbey north side

Walking around the inside of the building was really humbling.  The main rooms are huge!

Unfortunately, the tour strictly prohibits all photography.  So I’ll have to resort to borrowing images from others to give some idea.

Here’s a view of the choir section of the cathedral.  Wow.

Image source: http://www.westminster-abbey.org/

Image source: http://www.westminster-abbey.org/

In addition to serving as a marvelous (and still very active) worship space for the Church of England, the Abbey is perhaps better known to tourists as a burial site for many English monarchs, statesmen, artists, writers, and scientists.

Unlike most graveyards, however, the monuments in the Abbey are not arranged in neat rows.  Instead, the memorial stones are haphazardly placed all around, seemingly wherever officials could find room.  Some are on the floor, some are set in the wall. It turns out to be really difficult to find a particular name you’re looking for, since there is no order and not even a conventional style.  Some names are set in big bold letters, some in miniscule writing.  Sometimes just the last name is listed, sometimes the stone has a detailed history of its namesake’s accomplishments…

Among the more unexpected graves and monuments we somehow managed to find were those commemorating literary legends like Charles Dickens,  William Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling (wrote the Jungle Book), and Jane Austen.

Additionally, several scientists have plaques or monuments, including Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, James Maxwell, and J. J. Thomson (discoverer of the electron).

Newton somehow snagged this super fancy memorial in the Nave of the Church.  It’s huge (about person height) and lies directly in the line of vision of anyone sitting in a pew here facing the forward.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure how one manages to upgrade from a tiny stone on an obscure side wall to such an ornate memorial, but it sounds expensive.

After viewing depressing graves for an hour, we needed some cheering up.  Luckily, there’s an ice cream stand right outside.

Mike Ice Cream at Westminster

You know, I think I’d rather spend my money on enjoying tasty treats in the sunshine than on some elaborate monument I’ll never be around to enjoy.