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Scotland the Brave: A trip through living history

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Disney Pixar’s 2012 offering, Brave, had everything a movie about a princess should have – an ancient castle, an overbearing mother, an enchanted spell and a defiant heroine. One thing is conspicuously absent though – a prince. The requisite romance has been replaced by a love story between parent and child (more specifically, mother and daughter).

At 16, Merida becomes eligible to be wed into one of the three other clans. A competition by some bumbling suitors ensues, but Merida will have none of it. In a teenage fit of pique, she races on her trusty steed into the forest and follows the strangely alluring willo-the-wisps to a witch’s cottage. To change her fate, she asks the witch to change her mother and discovers just how over “bearing” her mother really could be. And mom learns a lesson, too, that she can’t control her daughter’s every move, even if she is the queen.

Though Pixar is famous for creating incredibly detailed environments, the attention to landscape and history in Brave is like no other Pixar outing. The film’s directors visited all corners of Scotland gathering inspiration for the sweeping landscapes, castles and ancient stone structures. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that the country is the newest Adventures by Disney destination.

It’s easy to see why the Disney Pixar animators chose Scotland as the setting for Brave. It’s loaded with legend and lore that informs all fairytales. True, it’s purely fictional, but the story does borrow heavily from Scotland’s history. Take King Fergus for example. He loses his leg in the opening scenes to a massive bear known as Mor’du. (Granted, there are no bears currently in Scotland, but who’s to say there weren’t any in medieval times?)

It’s not dissimilar to the story of Columba, who traveled from Ireland to Scotland in 563 AD, and while spreading Christianity is credited with the first sighting of the famous Loch Ness monster. I learned this tidbit while traveling with our guide, Charles Hunter, who, like so many Scots, is unabashedly proud of his country and pleased to tell me everything he knows.

An introduction to Brave can start at the National Museum of Scotland, found in the country’s enchanting capital city, Edinburgh. Recently reopened after a spectacular renovation, families will appreciate the free admission and variety of exhibits. But start with the section focusing on Scottish heritage. It includes an ancient chessboard, known as the Lewis Chessmen, that Queen Elinor uses to tell the story of the clans to Merida.

Royal mile scotland - scotland the brave: a trip through living historyScotland is still teeming with castles today. The impressive Edinburgh Castle brings Scottish history to life at one end of Princes Street; the lavish more updated Holyrood Palace, where the Queen stays while in Edinburgh, sits at the other end. Nicknamed the Royal Mile, the cobble-stoned street linking the two castles is lined with shops selling every tartan you could imagine to tourists wanting to take home a wee strand of Caledonian heritage. Incidentally, as of 2011, Canadians of Scottish ancestry were the third largest ethnic group in Canada.

However, Brave is not set in the historic city of Edinburgh, which is a Unesco World Heritage site, but rather, out in the rolling, verdant hills and old growth forests that fill the Scottish countryside.

At the beautifully restored Stirling Castle in the county of Perth, weavers work on a tapestry that evokes the wall-hanging in Queen Elinor’s bedroom. But it was Dunnottar Castle that sits high atop a rocky cliff near the third largest city of Aberdeen, that was used as the model for DunBrock in the film. The Callandish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis were also the inspiration for the circle of imposing stones in the final scenes of Brave. And the area known as Glen Affric, just 15 miles from Loch Ness, inspired the wild environment experienced by Merida on her horse, Angus.

Merida is a whiz with a bow and arrow, and archery is still a common leisure activity in Scotland. The centuries-old Royal Company of Archers is the Queen’s official bodyguard while in Scotland. The Dunkeld Hilton in the town of Dunkeld, Perth (about an hour from Edinburgh) offers archery lessons at its outdoor activity centre, as well as an indoor pool that is popular with families.

A tale of two cities

While Edinburgh and Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, are both loaded with history, Glasgow is decidedly more modern. A visit to the almost new Riverside Museum of Transportation (admission free) is a great way for children to get a sense of the city’s modern history through its transportation. There is fantastic shopping along the pedestrian mall of Buchanan Street, and the strong Canadian dollar is a nice change from decades ago.

Edinburgh feels a little like the preserved city of Old Quebec, except imagine that preserved feeling extending through the entire city, not just one contained area. Street after street is filled with grey stone buildings topped with slate rooves. It might seem monotonous were it not for the colourful characters and warm people.

The area known as New Town is anything but new, dating back to 1765. But its grid pattern of streets and fenced squares are modern compared to the winding and hilly streets of the Old Town. It’s no wonder that J.K. Rowling drew inspiration from the streets and spires when she wrote the first Harry Potter book while sitting in the Elephant House, just steps away from the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle. The nearby Heriot’s School is reportedly the inspiration for Hogwart’s. Potter fans can take a free walking tour to view more sites.

Rowling is one of a long line of literary figures that have called Edinburgh home. But the photo in the café window is decidedly less grand than the Scott Monument for Sir Walter Scott (credited with inventing the historical novel) that overlooks the city, or the Burns Monument for Scotland’s favourite son, Robbie Burns. Or the Deacon Brodie Tavern, a centuries old pub named for the city councillor who helped govern the city by day and burgled it by night. His dual nature was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (for which, coincidentally, there is also a pub named). Edinburgh is also the birthplace of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and across from a statue of the creator of Sherlock Holmes is, you guessed it, the Conan Doyle pub. You can learn all about this rich history at an evening pub tour that combines literature and drama.

Adding to the spooky mystique of the Old Town are the many “closes” or winding laneways that extend down from the main streets into areas known as enclosures. One such close near the base of Edinburgh Castle leads to The Witchery, a restaurant so named for its proximity to the site where in the 16th century, suspected witches were dunked into a manmade lake. There are also several nightly ghost tours available for kids who are into spooky stuff.

For families more interested in the music and dancing side of Scottish culture, the Taste of Scotland offers a lively cabaret show and dinner filled with fiddles, pipes and kilted dancers. You can book a show and dinner or show only.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have hop-on hop-off bus tours around the city that offer an affordable and convenient way to tour. There is regular train service between the two cities, which costs about £12 each way for a 45-minute ride.

Where to stay

Edinburgh: For a unique hotel experience check out The Scotsman, formerly the headquarters of The Scotsman newspaper. No two suites are alike in this 60-room hotel conveniently located next to the train station and main tourist information centre.

Glasgow: The Hotel du Vin’s intimate boutique setting (a collection of three-story walk-ups) make it feel more like a lavish five-star B&B. Located further from the city’s core, but a short walk from the Glasgow Botanic Gardens, a mecca for nature lovers. Admission is free.

a man carrying two children

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