Let’s face it, I’m really not a group tour kind of person.
However, there’s no better way to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time than on a bus tour – which is why I joined a day trip in Edinburgh to “St. Andrews and the Fishing Villages of Fife.”
The group consisted of a retired couple from Florida, a reclusive woman from New Zealand, a gay couple (one man reserved, the other demonstrative) from New York, a young couple from Amsterdam, a quiet family from Germany, and a pair of “active senior” couples from Palm Springs that were traveling together.
The bus held exactly sixteen people, and the Palm Springs foursome were the last to board. When the first of the women stepped onto the bus, she looked around and declared indignantly,
“THERE’S NO SEATS!”
Everyone turned to look. There was one empty pair of seats, a single seat at the back and another single seat in the front. The bus driver / tour guide pointed this out, and a discussion ensued, led by the disgruntled woman .
Should the two ladies sit together and the men separately, or should one of the couples split up? Finally the ladies sat down together, leaving the husbands to sit in the two remaining single seats, which should have been the end of it, but the woman did not stop talking about it – for the entire day.
“Are you sure you and your husband don’t want to sit together? We can switch and take turns at the next stop.”
True to her word, at each and every stop, the woman, a control freak operating under the guise of concern, persistently tried to convince the other three to change seats. However, it was soon evident that separating this woman and her husband was for the best – because every time they got off the bus, they shot daggers at each other with their eyes, and bickered viciously under their breath. (I pitied the couple traveling with them.)
We stopped for a photo op of the c. 1890 Firth of Forth bridge. The fabulously designed bright red bridge is over a mile and a half long, and, until recently, was the longest cantilever bridge in the world.
Everyone piled back onto the bus, and into their previously chosen seats.
The driver-slash-tour guide was a thirty-something, long-haired, groovy kind of guy who was extremely animated – singing traditional Scottish songs at the top of his lungs and dramatically telling stories of the history of Scotland. He was the life of the party, such as it was.
We stopped in the charming harbor town of Queensferry, whose namesake is the 11th century Queen Margaret, who dedicated her life to changing the social welfare of the people. (She provided a ferry from Edinburgh so people could get across the Firth of Forth to get to the churches that were there, hence the name “Queensferry.”.)
From here, we drove through the Kingdom of Fife countryside, where vast fields were dotted with tidy cylinders of hay.
With the exception of our high-spirited storytelling driver, no one said a word. His historical stories took a turn when he went off on a political tangent, vehemently defending the reasons for Scotland to declare independence from England. There will be a vote next fall, and it was quite obvious to us which way his vote would be cast. He was clearly not a fan of the English.
I had a few questions for him on the subject, but seeing his reaction to an inquiry from the Florida man, I kept my mouth shut. Our driver evidently did not welcome interruptions to his monologue.
As we drove into the fishing village of Anstruther (pronounced “Enster” by the locals) our driver told a remarkably melodramatic story about 17th century witchcraft, involving hangings and drownings and burnings at stakes. He turned a corner and pointed out an extraordinary house that had been intricately decorated with shells, declaring ominously that the reason for the shells was “to protect the house from the witches.”
STOP THE BUS. I. NEED. TO. TAKE. A. PICTURE.
He passed by the house so quickly, I didn’t actually get the words out, but I knew we were stopping in the village so I desperately tried to memorize the twisting and turning roads into the village harbor, where we finally came to a stop. A charming town if ever there was one, but I had only one thing on my mind…
This was a fifteen minute pit stop. I asked our driver if he thought I could make it to the “shell house” and back.
His reply was, “Depends upon how fast you can walk.”
Those are fighting words.
I retraced the route, even finding a quaint back alley short cut.
I turned a corner, crossed a bridge, rounded a curve, and there it was, in all its glory. The Shell House.
The detail really was quite stunning.
Here’s the thing, though: I just did some research.
The house was, indeed, built in the 17th century, but I wasn’t able to find any historical evidence that the shells had anything to do with witchcraft. In fact, what I discovered is that the shells were not affixed to the house until several centuries later – when eccentric plasterer, Alex Batchelor, began his craft project in 1840’s. The shells weren’t limited to the exterior – he also reportedly embellished the inside walls and ceilings with shells.
The best part of the story? Mr. Batchelor decorated his own (future) coffin with shells and got people to pay to come inside and see it!
I got my pictures and turned to run back to the bus. On the way, I spotted another house that was adorned with a shell pattern of hearts and diamonds. (A copycat or more of Mr. Batchelor’s handiwork?)
Have to take just one more photo…
You’ll have to wait until Part Two to see if I made it back to the bus!