From Muckle Flugga To The Mull Of Galloway
by Mr Tattie Heid
This is my eighth annual trip to Scotland. During the past seven years, I have discovered the joys of single malt Scotch whisky, and visiting distilleries and whisky shops has become a significant part of my itinerary. And there’s nothing I like better of an evening than to enjoy a nice dinner, good pints of real ale, a few drams, and the company of friends, old or new, in a friendly pub. I have my favorites, to which I return year after year; and I’m always looking for new ones.
But the product of hard-working yeast is not my only reason for visiting Scotland, of course. I’m interested in the country’s history, and enjoy seeing sites ranging from the prehistoric, through the medieval, and on up to the early industrial. As a mildly serious amateur photographer, I like to document these, and also the amazing Scottish landscape. The amazing Scottish weather does not always cooperate! Traveling in September and October, when I can take time off from my job, I miss the nesting birds and the purple heather, and I get more than my share of rain. But I miss the coachloads of tourists, for the most part, and the midges, as well. There are always trade-offs.
This year’s trip begins under a cloud. My father, who has had several strokes, has recently gone into a nursing home, and is obviously declining. I consider canceling, but everything is booked, and there’s no telling how things will go, anyway. And I have finally convinced my good friends Bob and Ron to join me for a week in Edinburgh and Islay, and I don’t want to let them down. So I say goodbye to Dad and, hoping for the best, go on my way.
The trip is scheduled from 18 September to 25 October, 2005, and the planned stops include Shetland, Craigellachie, Plockton, Skye, Knoydart, Stirling, Edinburgh, Glen Coe, Islay, and Galloway, with a few loose days at the end in which I intend to visit northern England. There is a good mix of old and new, and I’m looking forward to all of it. I barely realized when I was planning that I would be seeing Scotland’s northernmost and southernmost extremes, Muckle Flugga in the first week and the Mull of Galloway in the last. The two points seem fitting bookends for a visit to Caledonia. Both have lighthouses on them, one built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father, the other by his grandfather. There is an awful lot to see in between, and in seven years, I’ve seen a great deal. But there’s always more....
Monday 19 September 2005
The Nineteen Malts Of Stonehaven
I arrive in Aberdeen on KLM after changing planes in Amsterdam. On the approach, the plane dips and weaves, and the landing is hard. "That's what we call a sporty landing," says the pilot, explaining that, in such conditions, he's mostly concerned with putting the plane in the middle of the runway, rather than trying for a soft landing. He did a fine job under the conditions, in my estimation.
I leave the bulk of my luggage at the airport and take the bus into town. At Ottakar's bookshop, I buy CAMRA's Good Beer Guide 2006 (the most important book in my touring arsenal) and a paper copy of Peat Smoke & Spirit, which I intend to use as a guide in Islay. A quick glance shows "Kildalton" spelled correctly throughout. There is an acknowledgment at the front to the many who helped with corrections, including a fellow named Harry Pulley.
Lunch is at the Prince of Wales, along with a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord, my favorite beer. After a year's wait, the pint I have isn't all that good. Ah, well, that's the nature of it. The Prince has only a small handful of malts. I've heard that the place is in receivership, so perhaps standards are a bit down at the moment. Too bad, it's a lovely pub; better days ahead, no doubt.
I take the train to Stonehaven, nodding off on the way. I dream I’m on the plane for Shetland, taxiing on the runway. Awake in a panic, not knowing whether I've missed my stop. I haven't.
My B&B is a short walk from the rail station, and I take a good solid nap. Then I have a walk through town and on the beach. Stonehaven has always struck me as a bit shabby, but it doesn't seem so bad today--still quite a few vacant storefronts, but perhaps it's looking up. The beach is nice, as is the old harbor, where the Marine Hotel stands.
The Marine has in the past had some pretty good and adventurous pub food, but that has disappeared the past couple years, and the meal I have now is rather ordinary. But the pint of Landlord is excellent, making up for the one at the Prince. There are nineteen malts in the Marine. I don't intend to make a list of all the malts in all the pubs I go to, but will do so here, to show how it's possible to have an interesting selection without too many bottles:
OB's: Dalwhinnie, Glendronach, Jura, Highland Park, Laphroaig, Dalmore, Scapa, Cragganmore, Glenkinchie; plus three Glenrothes, '79, '89, and '92.
MacPhail's Collection: Glenturret, Bunnahabhain, Glen Scotia.
Connoisseur's Choice: Clynelish, Strathmill, Glencadam, Littlemill.
Also: Grant's Ale and Sherry Casks, The Antiquary, The Century of Malts, Glen Calder, JW Black, Black Bush, Jameson, Grouse, and Jack Daniel's.
I try a few things; the one that really stands out is the Littlemill, which I order out of sheer perversity. It is indeed a unique experience. Imagine a fairly nice but undistinctive malt; add a few drops of turpentine. Now store the malt inside one of your car's tires and drive for a week or two in very hot weather. There you have it...the worst whisky I've ever had, by far. It ruins the subsequent Clynelish, as well, even with a pint in between.
Tuesday 20 September 2005
The landing at Sumburgh in Shetland is not quite so sporty as yesterday’s. I pick up my hire car and drive about a half a mile before stopping to consult my map, intending to go to the Ness of Burgi. Look up to see two people running toward me, waving. They turn out to be two pretty young Dutch women, Vera and Rinske, who have been visiting Jarlshof and have missed their bus. (To be quite plain, they are half my age or less.) "Are you going to Lerwick?" They ask. "Uh, sure," I answer; likely I would say the same if they asked to go to Mars. We start up the road, and I suggest that we visit Scatness Broch, which sits not far from the end of the airport runway. The girls walk up as I put my shoes on, but I don’t see them as I visit the site. It’s an active archeological dig, with blue tarps, sandbags, and tires all over. The half-hour visit ends at a reconstruction of a house and a talk with a costumed interpreter. I step back into the trailer-housed gift shop, and am surprised to find Vera and Rinske sitting with a cup of tea–I’d figured they’d have found themselves another ride by now. They had declined to pay the two pounds for admission, having just seen Jarlshof, anyway.
As we drive up the road, I ask them if they’ve seen the broch on Mousa. They answer no, and I suggest we take a walk to have a look. The ferry to the island has stopped running for the season–the second time I have just missed it–so we walk up on the Wart, a hill on the mainland side of the strait with a fine view over to Mousa, and then down to the shattered broch on the near shore, to get as close a look as we can at its nearly-complete counterpart across the water. The girls are lovely company, bright and cheerful; they are both medical students, Vera studying in Edinburgh, Rinske visiting from the Netherlands.
We arrive in Lerwick and I drop them near the Co-op, and tell them that there are sessions at the Douglas Arms tonight and at the Lounge Bar Wednesday. They seem interested and say they will try to come.
No one is in at my guest house, but there is a note for me on the door, written on a small envelope, with my room key inside. I guess it’s a little different here.
The Douglas Arms is a fairly handsome pub. The session is an informal gathering of locals, for the most part three fiddles and a guitar. Good beer is short on the ground here; there is a brewery up on Unst, the Valhalla Brewery, but very few places serve their product in the cask, and they've all stopped for the season. I'm doomed to a week of Belhaven Best and Tartan Special, which are okay. The Douglas has only a half a dozen ordinary malts, as well. The Dutch girls don't show. I'm not surprised.
I meet two older Canadian women (older than I am, anyway!) from Vancouver Island--Mary Ellen from Comox, Sue from a small island not far from there. We haven't been talking long when one says "You're the American who picked up the Dutch girls, aren't you?" News travels fast in a small place! It turns out they are all sharing a room in the local hostel. The girls were tired, they told me, else they'd have come. Likely they'll be at the Lounge Bar tomorrow.
Wednesday 21 September 2005
A short day--I'm pretty worn out myself. I spend a little time in Scalloway and the islands, accessible by causeway, south of it. I take a good nap in the afternoon, hoping to shake off the last of my jet lag.
The session in the Lounge Bar is a much more polished affair than the night before. I've never seen so many accordions in one place in my life! A Norwegian lad plays some Russian tunes on the violin; his grandfather joins the general jam with his button accordion. A local fiddler who has gained some national reputation (alas, I did not catch his name) causes a buzz when he arrives and sits in for a while. The Canadians and Dutch are there. It's a wonderful evening.
The Lounge Bar has two dozen or so malts. I'm trying to taste things I haven't had before, or not in a long time. Among the surprises for me are Tobermory 10–very cedary; I don't remember that at all--and BenRomach, which strikes me as a mild Ardbeg. I'll have to try them again later to see if my impression is the same.
The hostel has a curfew, so I say goodnight to the Canadians and goodbye to the Dutch--I am off to Unst tomorrow, and they will be gone when I get back. The Canucks are going to Unst as well, and I feel certain I will run into them there.
Thursday 22 September 2005
I leave Lerwick late in the morning for Unst. First take the ferry to Yell (which belongs in the place-name book next to Loudville and Bellows Falls, both near my home). Last time I was here, I gave Yell short shrift, so I spend a little time wandering about this time. The highlight is a lovely little beach called the Breckon Sands.
Run in to the Canadian ladies on the Unst ferry. I suggest that they might come up to the Baltasound Hotel in the evening, but the hostel where they are staying is not close by. In fact, this encounter is the last I will see of them.
I find my B&B in Baltasound; it is a working farm, and all the folks are out counting sheep or some such. How do they stay awake? But I check in and then drive up to Skaw, the most northerly house in Britain. The pavement ending there is the most northerly road in Britain. Everything around here is the most northerly whatever in Britain. There is a nice little beach nearby, and as I walk on it, I come across a bird sitting on the beach (I'll have to look up just what it is later). It does not move as I approach. It’s alert and has no obvious injury, but is very weak--it tries to stand at one point and flaps its wings, but falls flat on its beak. It’s covered with foam from the surf, so I pick it up from behind and leave it in a small stream where it might rinse itself off. But I don't think the foam is the problem, and regretfully I leave it to nature's whim.
I go to the Baltasound Hotel for dinner--it's the only game in town. It looks like a typical remote Scottish island hotel rather badly in need of renovation, but the lounge bar looks like a comfortable place for a meal. Unfortunately, it’s booked solid, and I have to make do in the somewhat shabby public bar. There are two handpumps with Valhalla clips on them, but they are not on. Dinner is good enough. There is a modest selection of malts available, nothing special. I have a couple and watch the locals blether amongst themselves before calling it a night.
Friday 23 September 2005
Up Against The Wall: Muckle Flugga
There is an older English couple in the B&B, and over breakfast we all discuss such Shetland issues as the all-time worst storms and the possibility of building a tunnel between Unst and Yell. I opine that one such tunnel in the Faroes, between Leirvik and Klaksvik, has eliminated the most beautiful ferry ride on earth, and is probably helping more people to move off the island it serves than to stay. Well, it's their island, I suppose. But I'll be surprised if anyone ponies up the cash to build a tunnel to serve 700 people. On the other hand, I can see housing estates going up outside Baltasound, so the island is perhaps growing. Apparently there are some residents commuting to Lerwick for work. It’s hard for me to understand this as a lifestyle choice; Mainland is not exactly urban, nor is real estate in short supply.
After poking around the island a bit, I head for the Herma Ness nature reserve. In the parking lot I find the English couple--or at least, the missus sitting in the car; the mister is just disappearing over the hill. She has (wisely) declined to join him, as the wind is blowing hard from the south, and the sky is not promising. Or rather, it is promising things we don't much care for. I get my shoes on and start on the trail. The stiff wind is at my back, which means of course that it will be in my face on the return.
The trail splits about a half-mile up, forming a sort of misshapen backwards P. The last time I was here, I went straight up over the hill and tried to return around the loop, opposite to what is recommended; I got lost and almost sank forever into a bog. This time I take the western loop. About halfway to the cliffs, rain begins to fall. No, it isn't falling, it's being driven horizontally by the wind, and stings even through the clothing. If I had any sense, I would turn around, but I don't, and I feel compelled to make it to the end, as my entire trip would otherwise feel incomplete. So on I go, and in a matter of minutes, my trousers are soaked through. I am not wearing waterproof ones for two reasons: one, I don't own any; and two, they are strongly recommended against, as a stumble on the steep slopes above the cliffs could result in a fatal slide. My shoes are waterproof, but after a while, water wicks down my socks, and my feet are as wet as though I'd gone into the bog again.
I reach the stunning cliffs and struggle to take a few photos. As I walk north along them, the prize comes into view: Muckle Flugga, the northernmost outpost of Britain, a jagged rock with a Stevenson lighthouse perched impossibly atop it. How could they possibly have built it without dropping the materials by helicopter? Despite the wind, it is very hazy, but I manage a couple photos, anyway. Before turning up the hill, I mark a waypoint on the GPS: N 60° 50' 23.7", W 0° 53' 43.7".
It is a hard slog back, directly into the wall of wind; the worst of it is not being able to look where I'm going. Fortunately the trail is fairly clear the whole way. It's about a five-mile hike in all, not normally a very tough one, but I'm beat when I get back to the parking lot. I'm relieved to find Mr and Mrs English sitting in their car, as I did not see the fellow the whole way; he'd gone straight over the hill and straight back. They are waiting for me to get back safely, bless their kind hearts. No one else has been foolish enough to go out on Herma Ness today.
Changed my clothes and zipped back to Lerwick via the two ferries. Near Weisdale, high on a hill with a lovely view (for it has now cleared), is a hotel with a bar serving cask ale, the only such in Shetland at the moment, I think. I stop and have a pint. Back in Lerwick, dinner is at the Queen's Hotel, and pints and (alas, unnoted) drams are at the Lounge Bar. I will sleep well.
Saturday 24 September 2005
The alarm wakes me out of deepest dreamland. I'm off to the south of Mainland today. First I visit a couple of ruined brochs. Most of these ancient stone towers were built on hilltops or on small islands, but the one at Clumlie is in the middle of pastureland, and is curiously surrounded by much more modern (but equally ruined) farm buildings.
At the far south of mainland, just past Sumburgh Airport, two headlands extend southward, parallel to one another. One is Sumburgh Head, which rises to a high knoll surrounded by cliffs, on which sits a lighthouse. The other headland is the Ness of Burgi, and that's where I'm headed. It is much lower, rolling land, and toward the end of it, there is a restored ancient "blockhouse". The walk out is pretty straightforward, except for a short stretch where the sea is steadily working at making the Ness an island; one must walk along a jagged ridge for a hundred feet or so, with sheer drops to either side. This is not quite as hairy as it sounds, for a chain handrail has been mounted through the worst of it. Still, it's pretty exciting.
The blockhouse is interesting enough, but the spot itself is just enchanting, and I hang around for half an hour or so, all alone, the sea crashing almost on all sides.
Back near the airport, Jarlshof is my next stop. This is a fascinating site--five different civilizations have built here, one atop the other. There are substantial ruins of Bronze Age houses, early Iron Age houses, an Iron Age broch with surrounding wheelhouses, Viking longhouses, and atop it all, Earl Patrick Stewart's medieval castle, its corner sitting atop the wall of the broch. This is one of Shetland's two great archeological treasures, the other being the nearly complete broch on Mousa.
Saturday night in Lerwick...much like Saturday night in any small town in Britain, much too noisy and rowdy for an old fogey like me. I have a few pints and drams and go to bed.
Sunday 25 September 2005
Stacks And Voes
Spend today driving around the north and west of Mainland. Lots of driving out to the end of roads, turning around, and coming back. Most of it not worth reporting, except to say that it is all very scenic.
Drive through part of Ronas Voe, a very rugged and beautiful fjord, on the way to Esha Ness, where relatively flat tableland ends in dramatic cliffs above the sea. It is very windy here and I do not linger long, but I do walk along the precipitous gash running a couple hundred yards inland from the water. The sea washes in and out. Offshore, bizarre stacks jut out of the ocean. One strange islet, Dore Holm, looks like an enormous horse drinking from the surf.
I take a walk to one of my favorite spots in Shetland, the broch at Culswick. There is no one on the mile-long farm track save the usual sheep and a friendly calico cat. At the end, high on a knoll, sits the shattered broch, overlooking the churning Gruting Voe. The last time I was here, it was a splendid sunny day; today it is overcast, but it's still a special place.
On the way back to Lerwick, I drive by the area where Blackwood Distillery is supposed to be built. There is a large, vaguely Scandinavian-looking structure going up by the road, but there is nothing to indicate whether it has anything to do with the enterprise or not. Nothing firm to report.
A quiet night in the Lounge Bar. Among other things, I revisit Tobermory. I can detect the cedar flavor I found so strong the other night, but the dram now tastes much more like the rather unpleasant malt I remember. What did I eat that night? No matter, I doubt I'll have another Tobermory for a good long while.
Monday 26 September 2005
I've done well--I've seen just about everything I wanted to in Shetland, save for a ruined broch here or there, and so when today turns out rainy and miserable, I am able to take a town day without regret. I spend most of the morning at the tourist office online, posting my pearls to you. I also manage to get laundry done for an exorbitant fee (worth it to me--few things I hate more than hanging around a laundromat). In the afternoon, I shop up and down the twisting main street of Lerwick, poking into virtually every shop; it doesn't take all that long. I buy some Shetland knitwear for Mom for Christmas, but the one souvenir I want to find is not to be had--a small Shetland flag, a white Scandinavian-style cross on an azure field.
The island of Bressay protects Lerwick's harbor and is a seven-minute ferry ride from the pier. At the other end, the tiny Maryfield House Hotel stands but yards from the landing. I've been planning to get over here all week, and this is my last chance. I'm a bit worried at the small and empty lounge bar when I arrive, but it's early, and the place livens up a bit later. The hotel is run by an expatriate South African, and my dinner of scallops is maybe the best one I've had in Shetland. The Pulteney that follows is smoky and sweet and just the thing after seafood. I fall in with a couple of lads, one local, the other a displaced Londoner, for several games of pool, under the peculiar local rules. Not having played in ages, I quite naturally shoot very well at first, but the more I think about what I'm doing, the more my play deteriorates. It's a fun evening nevertheless; I wish I'd thought to come over here on Saturday to escape the madness. Of course, the place may have been filled with crazed Bressay youth, as well.
Reluctantly, I catch the 9:30 ferry back to Lerwick, standing on the car deck, watching the lights of the town grow larger. A nightcap in the Lounge Bar caps off my Shetland sojourn.
Tuesday 27 September 2005
Land in Aberdeen and pick up my hire car. I usually get something on the order of a Renault Clio, but I have friends joining me in a couple weeks, so I have moved up to the "compact" class--a VW Golf Plus, and I love it. It's spacious enough for the three of us without being too big to drive on the narrow roads, and best of all, it has a reasonably glute-bootin' cd player. I am carrying mostly neotraditional music from Scotland, Ireland, England, Brittany, and Scandinavia--Battlefield Band, Old Blind Dogs, Alan Stivell, Annbjorg Lien–but I cannot resist blasting one of the late Martyn Bennett's bizarre works as I roll out into Aberdeenshire. It's techno stuff, which doesn't normally interest me, but it is blended with "found" vocals which are very traditional Scottish stuff; the end product is mind-blowing goosebump material. Not every day!
I've scouted out some ancient monuments to see along the way, but am disappointed to realize that I have seen three of the four of them in past visits, and the fourth is essentially a pile of dirt. However, the Tomnaverie Stone Circle is worth a revisit, as it was fenced off for restoration when I last saw it. It had nearly been destroyed by an adjacent quarrying operation.
Roll into Craigellachie in late afternoon. Settle into the B&B and step into the Highlander for dinner. I've never been here before, but there is a lot of talk about how the new management, in place for a few months, are doing good things. It's a nice pub, good pints of Cairngorm Trade Winds, lots of whisky-oriented folks to talk to. There are Germans, French, Japanese, and even a Scot or two (you can tell them because they ask for Bell's or Teacher's or Grouse). The malt selection is excellent, if not the largest, and I have quite a few this evening--a Craigellachie and a couple different Glenrothes for starters. I try the BenRiach Curiositas, which I find mildly smoky, but utterly lacking in any kind of body; it's like smoky water floating over my tongue. Then it's a Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Wow! Not sure I like it; it tastes of raw wood and salty prosciuto. It'll get another chance, though.
I stumble back to the B&B, glancing at the Craigellachie Hotel down the street. Tomorrow.
Wednesday 28 September 2005
Lost In Knockando
The library in Aberlour is open for exactly two hours on Wednesday, and I use it all to catch up on business online. Then I drive up to Glenfarclas for the 1:00pm tour.
It's a good, basic tour, no surprises, and a good refresher for what's coming tomorrow. There are half a dozen other folks taking the tour, and at least half of them are what you might call casuals--not real enthusiasts. This is my first tour in Speyside, and it occurs to me that one of the great things about Islay is that there are not likely to be many such people wandering through. Anyway, the guide is very knowledgeable and clear, and does a good job of explaining the basics to those who know little of the process, while answering the more arcane questions that come up (there aren't many) without hesitation. At the end, we are all given a dram of the 10. I discreetly produce the voucher I printed off the Glenfarclas website, which entitles me to a dram of the 25, as well. For some reason, both drams taste bitter to me; there's something enjoyable under there, but I can't pull it out. Just one of those things, I guess.
I've decided to go up to Elgin this afternoon to pay my respects to Mr Gordon and Mr MacPhail, but a map-reading error on an attempted shortcut leaves me wandering around forestry roads on the Knockando Estate. I don't mind at first--I quite enjoy getting lost sometimes--but after a bit I realize I'm going nowhere fast. Finally I descend to a point within sight of paved road, only to find a locked gate. I have no choice but to turn around, which is what I really hate to do. Eventually I make it back to the critical junction and go the other way. I watch as the little dotted lines on the GPS screen describe a wide loop and bring me to within yards of the other side of the gate. I've lost about an hour; had I taken the main roads, I'd have been in Elgin in twenty or thirty minutes.
I pass Dailuaine, charmingly nestled in a hollow on the south side of the Spey, and Imperial, a charmless and inactive factory on the north side. The latter is up for sale, for redevelopment.
Elgin itself is another matter. It's not a big city, and I've been there a few times before, but I am approaching from a new direction, and the access roads are a maddening maze of roundabouts. Eventually I find myself next to the ruined cathedral, which is in the care of Historic Scotland. I've become a Friend of Historic Scotland this year, so I can get free entry by showing my card. This I do, and spend an hour wandering around this splendid ruin, parts of which date to the early 13th century. Well worthwhile, and some good photos, too, I think.
Alas, it is now quite late in the day, and the Gordon & MacPhail shop is closed. I return to Craigellachie empty-handed.
I have a salmon double-header at the Highlander--smoked for starters, poached for the main course--and decide it's time to visit the Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel, which is but a couple hundred feet away. I'm surprised at how small the bar is, and how much whisky is wedged into it--over 700 bottles on shelves lining every wall. I sit in a leather chair and spend fifteen or twenty minutes perusing the list. I settle on an Old Malt Cask Brora, and it turns out to be a fine choice--a profound dram, similar in character to the current Clynelish 14 but ten times as intense. Tiny rivulets trickle over my tongue for the following forty-five minutes in the quiet of the bar. Several other patrons are equally lost in their own experiences; a pair whisper their thoughts to one another, but otherwise there is no conversation. I'm sure it is not always like this--during the Speyside Festival last week, it must have been quite a different scene. But just now it feels absolutely right--a house of worship.
On the table in front of me is a book of tasting notes. The top page is signed by one Jeroen Kloppenburg, who has preceded me by two weeks.
More than an hour has passed when I return to the Highlander, and they close early on weekdays--11:00pm. I have time for two pints and a dram, a Flora & Fauna Ben Rinnes, which is quite dark but very dry. I fall into conversation with Tom, an oilman from Houston who came to Aberdeen on a temporary assignment fifteen years ago and is still here. Shades of MacIntyre! He is friendly and generous, but Scotland, however much he loves it, has not changed his basic personal style. You can take the boy out of Texas, but you can't take Texas out of the boy. A real good guy.
Thursday 29 September 2005
It’s funny how a certain expression, saying, or even joke that you’ve never heard before, or not in a long time, will suddenly crop up several times in short order. Three or four times in the past few days, in both Shetland and in Craigellachie, I’ve heard someone ask someone else what the “best”, or their “favorite”, malt is, and the answer come back “a free one” or “one someone else buys”.
This morning I set out to visit Balvenie. The tour is reputed to be fairly intensive (for a £20 fee, it had better be!), and they suggest you arrange transportation to and from, rather than drive, so, at the suggestion of my landlady, I take the bus. Looking at the timetable, I note that the service is very good, and it would be easy to visit quite a few distilleries this way. Aberlour next year, I think.
I arrive at the Glenfiddich visitor center–Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and Kininvie are all on the same grounds–and we wait a bit for someone who called yesterday about the tour, but who does not show. It’s just Tom, the guide, and I, then. He drives me over to the Balvenie corner of the property and tells me something of the history of the company, which is independently owned by the Grant family. (The very same can be said of Glenfarclas, but they are different Grants.)
First, we visit the floor maltings. Upstairs are small mountains of Optic and Chalice, and at the end of the room are two steeping tanks end to end, maybe twelve or fifteen feet long, six or eight feet wide, and a couple feet deep. These are filled about a foot deep with grain, which is then covered to a depth of six inches or so with water at ambient temperature. In a couple days, the grain will have absorbed all of the water, and it will then be pushed through holes in the bottom of the tank to the floor below.
At one point, I get to thinking about how much land will produce how much whisky, and I ask Tom about yield per acre. He doesn’t know, but calls his father, a farmer, on his cell phone, and gets the answer. I wish I could remember, for your benefit, the math we worked out, and I hesitate to give a ballpark figure based on hazy recollection; I seem to recall a figure of four bottles or so an acre, but I can’t swear to it. Anyway, I was impressed by Tom’s efforts to satisfy my question.
Downstairs, we see the malt spread out on the floor, and chat with the two men who are charged with turning it to keep it from getting too warm. There is a machine that looks a bit like a snowblower for the job, and it is pulled along a cable, making their work far less back-breaking than the old method of using wooden shovels. Still, it is very labor-intensive. Malting is not done in the summer, as it is too warm, and Balvenie will not run tours in the summer months for that reason.
Next we saw the mash house, which houses two stainless steel mash tuns; the larger is Kininvie’s. Kininvie’s product is intended entirely for blending, and I suspect that one of the reasons for building it separate from Glenfiddich is to vat the product headed for the blenders so that none will end up in the hands of brokers and subsequently appear as IB’s of Glenfiddich (or Kininvie, for that matter). But I wonder, wouldn’t many of us be interested in an IB of vatted Glenfiddich/Kininvie, anyway? No matter, they are obviously very careful not to let this happen.
Then the stillhouse. This and the mash house are essentially like any stillhouse and mash house on any tour you’ve ever been on, but of course the stillhouse is, visually, the centerpiece of any tour. Tom remarks that everyone’s face lights up when they step into the room, and mine is no exception. I do my best to take some worthy photos, and will post them when I get the slides back. (It will be a while.)
Tom wants to get us through the cooperage before the workers there take their lunch break, so that’s next. Safety glasses are mandatory, as are ear plugs–it’s a very noisy place. It’s quite a large, one-room building, where I see barrels being broken down, others being reassembled, and all manner of repair work. A cooper pounds the barrel top into place, stuffs the cracks with a length of reed, and tightens the hoops. Another puts an old, tired cask on a machine that scrapes out the inside, then on another that rechars it with an alarming blast of flame. I am too slow to get a photo. I look inside the finished barrel; the new char looks more like a light toasting. It will be good for one, possibly two more fills.
Outside is a vast yard with endless stacks of empty bourbon barrels, sherry butts, port pipes, and no small number of unidentifiable oddball vessels of various dimensions. Tom tells me that Balvenie no longer rebuilds 200-litre bourbon barrels into 250-litre hogsheads.
Into the warehouse. We see barrels ranging in age from a few years old to forty and more. Tom pulls the bung on a barrel of 1967 vintage and invites me to stick my nose in it. It smells absolutely wonderful, but to be quite honest, if you have a bottle of 15yo Single Barrel, you can experience pretty much the same thing. Of course, you won’t be standing in a dark, damp Balvenie warehouse with your hands resting on a dusty barrel full of thirty-eight-year-old whisky, surrounded by hundreds of similar. Now, every time I open my bottle of the 15, I will be.
All that’s left is the tasting. Tom takes me to a room in a small building that was once the distillery manager’s office. There he pours us each full drams of the Founder’s Reserve 10, DoubleWood 12, Single Barrel 15, PortWood 21, and the Thirty, in Glencairn glasses. He confirms that the 10 has not sold well since the introduction of the 12, and is scheduled to be phased out. He puts his hand over the top of a glass and gives it a vigorous shake; I follow suit and note the exponential intensification of the nose (after licking the excess from my palm). He does not rush me, talks me through each dram, and gives me plenty of time to enjoy every last millilitre. I experiment a bit with water, but I’ve never really liked using it, and when it comes to the Thirty, I add not a drop. It is intense, deep, complex; Balvenie cubed. I linger over it for some time, and when I lament that I cannot afford a bottle of this sublime malt, Tom produces a 3cl mini of it for me to take home.
The tour started at 10:00, and it is well after 1:00 when Tom drops me at the distillery shop. I buy a few things, including a 3 x 20cl box of 10, 12, and 25. Buzzing warmly and wearing a wide grin, I walk ten minutes up the hill to Dufftown, where I have lunch, spend some time online at the library, and browse a few shops. Late in the afternoon, I catch the bus back to Craigellachie.
Dinner is at the Highlander. The Connoisseur’s Choice dram of Brora I have after seems watery and weak. Over at the Quaich Bar, I decide, perhaps unwisely, to have another dram of the OMC Brora I’d had the night before. It’s very nice, but doesn’t strike me as well as it did the first time. Back at the Highlander, I enjoy my last pints and drams in Craigellachie.
Oh, one other thing–for some reason, no one at Balvenie ever asked me for my £20, automatically making it my favorite distillery tour of all time! Well, you know, it was by far the best, anyway.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday
30 September, 1 & 2 October 2005
I spend a few minutes this morning photographing Thomas Telford’s bridge over the Spey near Craigellachie, and then light out for Elgin and the Gordon & MacPhail shop. They’d been in the process of expanding when I visited last year, and I have been keen to see the result. It’s marvelous, a real candy store for us oversized kids (but then, it always was). My budget is a little tight this year, so I reluctantly pass over the £120 Port Ellens and such, and settle for an Ardbeg Very Young and a handful of minis, including a 3 x 10cl set of Glenrothes ‘79, ‘89, and ‘92. Okay, two handfuls. Then I am off to Plockton, on the west coast, not far from the bridge to Skye.
When I first started coming to Scotland, I never booked anything in advance, preferring to let whim guide my travels. Four or five years ago, in midtrip, I found myself feeling a bit lost, and I called my good friend Elaine in Dunfermline. “Why don’t you go to Plockton?” she said, and I did. It’s a pretty little town on a picturesque crescent bay, a planned herring port from the 18th century now full of B&B’s and holiday cottages. I knocked on the door of a B&B along the main street, but was turned away. Down at the pier, I eyed a large stone house with a B&B sign out front, and immediately pegged it as too expensive. Up on the back street, I knocked on another door.
“No, I’m booked up, I’m sorry,” said the lady who answered, “but come in, I’ll make a phone call for you.” The call bore fruit, and she sent me back down to the house by the pier! And that is how it is that I have spent a few days every year since with Richard and Teresa Peach at Tigh-an-Fhaing. They are wonderful people, their house is lovely, and the prices, it turned out, are very reasonable. You may take that as an unqualified recommendation.
There are two good hotels with restaurants and bars along the main street, the Plockton Hotel looking over the bay, and the Plockton Inn a little up the hill. There is also an excellent restaurant up at the old train station (the Kyle of Lochalsh line itself is alive and well) called Off The Rails. Somehow, it has always seemed to be closed for a holiday when I visit, but I have a fine meal there tonight. Back in town, I pop into the Inn.
My preference for the Inn or the Hotel varies from year to year, and even from night to night. The Inn has a more pub-like atmosphere, and a good selection of a couple dozen or so malts–all basic distillery bottlings, but certainly something for everyone. Tonight, alas, is Quiz Night. Last year, I fell in with some gray-bearded locals on Quiz Night, and we did quite well, but I’m not up for it tonight; so down to the Hotel. Only a handful of malts here, but there is Deuchars IPA in the cask, one of my favorites. The Inn, for some reason, favors London Pride and other southern beers. I have a nice evening chatting with a young English couple who are on their way to Waternish; no doubt I will see them in the Stein Inn Monday night.
I take a total down day on Saturday, letting the car sit. In the afternoon I sit in Tigh-an-Fhaing’s very comfortable sitting room and nibble on cheese and crackers, sip on Glenrothes ‘92, peruse Whisky Magazine #50, and don’t watch golf. Dinner is at the Hotel, but later a wedding party spills into the bar. One of the happy couple is Dutch, and there are several very pretty Dutch women. Well, you know I’ve had quite enough of pretty Dutch women. Ha ha! Just kidding. But I don’t feel comfortable with the tuxedoed mob, and I retreat to the Inn. There, I fall in with another young English couple, architects named Claire and Murray, and have a grand time playing pool and socializing. I walk a crooked route home.
Sunday I drive to Glenelg, where stand two excellent brochs. I’ve been here before, of course, but I enjoy investigating them anew, and looking for different ways to photograph them. The weather doesn’t much cooperate, and indeed it has been fairly miserable on the west coast for some weeks. I do some noodling around in the car before returning to Plockton.
Back at the B&B, I ask the Peaches if I might spend some time online, and they leave me to it while they go out to dinner at Off The Rails. Thus it is that I hear the phone ring some time later, and the answering machine kick on. It is my brother’s voice I hear, and immediately I know that I must go home to bury my father.
Monday 3 October 2005
Bow Bar Or Bust
The Peaches are wonderful, letting me use the computer for hours to try to sort out flights and such, and offering whatever other support they can. I leave Plockton at about noon and drive five hours straight to Edinburgh, up beautiful and empty Glen Shiel, and then up achingly poignant Glencoe, veiled by sun-tinged mist. I gobble the last of my cheese and crackers as I pass over desolate Rannoch Moor, and am not hungry when I get to Edinburgh, so I skip dinner. I want very badly to go to the Bow Bar, especially since I don’t know if I’ll be back. I spend a quiet few hours there with pints of Landlord and a couple of stellar Cadenheads drams: a Clynelish that reminds me of the OMC Brora I’d had at the Quaich, taking just a few drops of water, delivering a hint of bubblegum; and an absolute killer Ardbeg that forces a smile to my lips. My flight is in the morning, at 10:20, and a long and sad journey is ahead; but tonight, just for a little while, I can sit in a familiar place and take some small comfort in a good dram.
4–8 October 2005
The trip home went exceptionally smoothly. Were I inclined to think that way, I’d say that God, or Fate, or Something, was watching over me. I won’t elaborate here on the events of the following days. Let me say only that what left us this past Sunday was but the last remnant of the man who was my father; we have mourned all through this past summer as he declined, and now feel mostly relief.
I will be returning to Scotland to meet Bob and Ron, whom I have been begging for years to join me on a trip. I am very glad not to have to leave them on their own; I’m supposed to be the guide! But I will only spend the eight days that they will be there before returning home again to help my mother get things in order. I’ve missed my scheduled visits to Skye, Knoydart, and Stirling, and will miss Bladnoch and the Mull of Galloway. There’s always next year.
As my trip was approaching this year, I gave a lot of thought to canceling, as my father was obviously failing. My mother said go, so I said goodbye to Dad and went. Not long ago, Bob told me of being in the same situation some years back–he took a trip to Germany with some misgivings, as his father was in poor health. In some town or other over there, he wandered into a shop full of beer steins, and decided to buy one for himself. He chose one he thought particularly handsome, and as the shopkeeper handed it to him for inspection, he noticed an inscription in German on it. “What does this say?” Bob asked, and the shopkeeper translated:
Live life while the lamp glows, and pluck the flower as it blooms.
Sunday 9 October 2005
Chutes And Ladders
I walk into the arrivals lounge at Glasgow Airport to find Ron and Bob waiting for me. Bob is holding a small, neatly printed sign that reads “MR TATTIE HEID”. They landed two hours ahead of me, and have spent much of that time trying to locate Ron’s luggage, which has declined to arrive. We have two nights in Edinburgh, and presume that will be plenty of time for the airline to find the errant bag and deliver it.
We set out for Falkirk to see the Falkirk Wheel, a modern engineering marvel. It replaces a flight of locks connecting two canals separated by an escarpment, not unlike the Niagara Escarpment, albeit considerably milder. These canals, like any other ones built in Europe or North America in the early nineteenth century, were a vital means of transport before the advent of railroads, but are now used for pleasure boating. The flight of locks took the better part of a day to traverse, and the Wheel takes fifteen minutes to make the same transit. I’ve seen the lift locks at Peterborough, Ontario, on the Trent-Severn Canal, and it’s an interesting comparison; the two achieve the same goal in different ways.
After inspecting this very recent work of man, designed to ease transport over a geographic obstacle, we visit a nearby site known as Rough Castle, which is actually a remnant of the 1,800-year-old Antonine Wall and an attendant Roman fort, which were built to impede, or at least regulate, traffic over the same territory. The wall was built and maintained for only about twenty years in the mid 2nd century, and again very briefly at the start of the 3rd. There is nothing left here but a good length of ditch and bits of earthworks, and the wall was built mainly of turf, anyway; so it is not as dramatic a site as Hadrian’s Wall in Northumbria. But I am actually pleasantly surprised by what there is to see, and the impression it gives.
We next intend to visit the Abbey and Palace at Dunfermline. We are forced to detour via Stirling and Alloa by roadworks in the vicinity of Kincardine Bridge. We stop for lunch at a small hotel along the A907, at which point we hit the jetlag wall. We decide to skip Dunfermline and get to our hotel in Edinburgh as soon as possible. At least, by coming this way, we get to cross the Forth Road Bridge and view the 19th century engineering marvel of the Forth Rail Bridge.
We arrive in due time at our hotel in the Georgian New Town, on the north side of Calton Hill, and promptly crash.
We get up in time to have dinner at the Standing Order, a Wetherspoon’s pub in a marvelous old bank building on George Street. They pour a decent pint of Deuchars IPA here, and serve passable food fairly quickly. We don’t want to waste time; we are headed for the Bow Bar.
The Bow sits just to the south of the Royal Mile, just above the Grassmarket. It’s a small but handsome room, without the distractions of television, music, or fruit machines, and pretty much embodies everything I think a pub ought to be. Nothing fancy, just the necessities. There are eight real ales on, but I must admit that the only one I care about is Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, a Yorkshire bitter that is quite possibly my favorite beer in the whole world. And there are about 125 bottles of malts, not the largest selection in town, certainly, but enough to keep one busy. Over the next two evenings, I will sample an OB Clynelish, a 14-year-old Glenrothes Provenance from a sherry cask, a Scapa 12, an Ardbeg Very Young, and fabulous Cadenheads bottlings of Clynelish, Ardbeg, and Laphroaig.
Alas, we have gotten out a bit late, and the Bow closes at 11:00. But the Standing Order is open until 1:00, and we take full advantage! We’ll be sorry tomorrow.
Monday 10 October 2005
We are indeed sorry this morning, and after breakfast, we decide to drag our sorry selves up to Arthur’s Seat, the pinnacle of a rugged volcanic formation that overlooks all of Edinburgh. Remarkably, after a little exertion, we all feel pretty good. Ron is twelve years younger than I, and Bob is older, but he skis all winter and bikes all summer; I have been meaning to ride the stationary bike at home all summer, but it has been too damn hot.... Well, that’s my excuse for lagging behind. Slow and steady. Slow, anyway.
The summit is only 825 feet above sea level, but the view is great. It’s also very windy, just as it had been at Herma Ness and Esha Ness. Maybe I should dub this the Mighty Wind tour. I find Ron and Bob huddled in the lee of a rock just a few feet from the crag atop which is perched an Ordnance Survey marker, set in a small concrete obelisk. We take turns virtually crawling up the crag in the stiff wind and hugging the obelisk for dear life, in fear of being blown off like Mallory on Everest.
Back on the low ground, we marvel at the hideous new Scottish Parliament building at the foot of the Royal Mile. Reputedly the interior is marvelous, beautiful and functional both, but the exterior is just formless and ugly. As well, it is pasted all over with a cryptic motif that looks to me like a Black & Decker cordless drill. We probably ought to go inside to see for ourselves the worthiness of the building, but we decide to catch a bus tour of the city instead. We peek briefly into the Cadenheads shop, not yet open for the day, on the lower Mile before getting on the bus.
The tour is not great, but it gives us a chance to see a fair bit of the core city while sitting down. As we pass by the parliament building again, the guide notes the peculiar motif, saying that it resembles a hand-held hair dryer, and no one knows what it is. The architect died before the building was completed, and the secret died with him.
We get off near the top of the mile and visit the Castle. I take the audio guide, but Bob and Ron are content just to look around. The last time I visited here, some years ago, the audio guide was obviously a sealed CD player; now it’s more of an iPod thingy. At every point of interest, there is a small number marker. Punch the number into the audio guide, and you hear all about the site. Usually there is an option to hear more in-depth information after that, sometimes three or four more units’ worth. We only stay an hour, but I’ll bet that, if you listened to everything on the guide, you’d be there all day.
In the gift shop, we are offered a taste of a G&M Mortlach 15. It’s a fine heavily-sherried dram, as good as any Macallan in my limited experience.
We have a very nice lunch in a little Italian café tucked into one of the many closes leading off the Mile, and shop idly along the street. There are tartan and tweed shops, and Royal Mile Whiskies, of course. I drag the lads down to the Coda music shop, a tiny place just crammed full of great folk music. I pick up four or five CD’s.
It’s not too late in the afternoon when we decide we’ve had enough, and retire to the Bow for a pre-dinner pint or two. We are just beginning to consider our evening meal when a gentleman in suit and tie leans over our table and says, “Are you Mr Tattie Heid?” To my delight, it is none other than the estimable Mr Nick Brown. I know Nick from Whisky Magazine’s online forums, where we have sparred over the merits, particularly, of Bruichladdich, and Nick’s perception of that distillery’s abuse of Gaelic and over-the-top marketing. I’ve posted my intended whereabouts on the forum, in the hope of meeting some of the participants. Nick promptly buys us a round; we are sticking to pints before dinner, but he has a dram. When it is my turn to reciprocate, I ask him what he wants, and he answers, “Surprise me.” I fiercely resist the temptation to get him a Bruichladdich–there isn’t a really good one here, anyway–and get him a Clynelish instead, which he professes to quite enjoy, never having had one before. We have a nice blether about Edinburgh, and whisky, and the forum, before shaking hands and parting ways. I am extremely pleased to have met Nick, and doubt I shall ever be able to direct a cross word at him again.
The Black Bull in the Grassmarket provides us with a decent pub meal, along with a pint of Deuchars, and it isn’t long before we are settled back in at the Bow. We have barely sat down with our pints when another fellow leans over the table and says, “Are you Tattie Heid?” This time it is Kenny, known to us on the forum as Crieftan. Now, Nick is from Kent, is slender, and has a refined and gentle manner; by contrast, Kenny is a true Scot, robustly built, and a real salt-of-the-earth type. He stays the rest of the evening with us, and we have a wonderful time with lots of laughter.
Cheers to Nick and Kenny both. Is this a cool forum or what?
Tuesday 11 October 2005
Ron calls the airport this morning to see if his bag has turned up; we could conceivably run back to Glasgow, if necessary, before going on our way. But it isn’t there, and he is given a number for the airline’s missing luggage tracker. We are astonished to learn that it is only available from noon to 5:00pm. How’s that for service? That’s USAirways, folks.
We drive northwest, past Falkirk and Stirling, and stop in Doune to see Doune Castle. In the parking lot, I inform the lads for the first time that the reason I have chosen to visit this particular castle is that it was the location for nearly all of the castle scenes in Monty Python And The Holy Grail. I am uncertain whether the Historic Scotland staff on site will be particularly cheerful about acknowledging this part of the castle’s history, but as it turns out, they are pretty used to it. The interpretive signs around the property are straightforward historical stuff, but in amongst the usual sort of souvenirs and books in the shop are books about the movie and ersatz coconut shells. The woman on duty cheerfully tells us where much of the taunting took place. We spend the better part of an hour trying to work out which parts of the building served as Camelot, Swamp Castle, and Castle Anthrax (while still appreciating the actual historical context of the place, of course). Then we go away before they taunt us a second time.
Up the A84, we stop in Callander, Gateway to the Trossachs, for lunch. Ron calls the airline about his luggage, and the fellow who answers is cheerful and chummy, until he does a bit of checking on the computer, at which point he clams up. No news, or nothing he wants to relay, anyway. I suggest to Ron that his bag left Seattle, not for Philadelphia, where he changed planes, but for the Philippines. The airline authorizes some expense money for Ron to buy necessities, so we go shopping. Alas, there are umpty outdoor clothing stores in Callander, but nowhere, apparently, to buy underwear.
There is an outlet of The Whisky Shop in town; they seem to have sprung up everywhere in the past few years. I browse for a bit, and buy a set of two Penderyn miniatures with a Glencairn glass. I also pop into a candy shop for a bit of World Famous Scottish Tablet.
Up the road we go, into the Highlands, through Crianlarich and on to the head of Loch Awe, where we plan to visit Kilchurn Castle. This is the stronghold of the Argyll Campbells. Ron and I both have Campbell ancestry, although we have no idea whether we are related to this branch of the clan. We rather hope not, as you will understand in a minute.
There are, or have been, two ways to visit Kilchurn, which sits on what used to be an island, now in the middle of a marsh. The first is a seasonally-operated boat that approaches from across the loch. We check on this to find, as we suspected, that it is done for the year. The second approach is a footpath through the marsh. This, alas, crosses a railtrack, and the railway operator has recently locked the gate permanently, citing liability issues. The Ramblers’ Association contends that the railroad has illegally blocked a longstanding public right-of-way. (The issue is covered in some depth on Undiscovered Scotland’s page on Kilchurn.) We quite naturally side with the Ramblers’ Association, and are planning to hop the gates. We lose our nerve, however, when we read a sign warning of £1,000 fines, and have to settle for a long-range view of the castle.
We drive up the minor road through Glen Orchy, which ends at the A82. There is a hotel near the junction, and we stop so that Ron can make another fruitless phone call to the airline. Then we are off across desolate Rannoch Moor, and soon enough into Glen Coe. I have in mind a short walk near the top of the glen, but the weather is not very good, and it’s getting rather late in the afternoon, anyway. Bob, an avid skier, asks to have a look at the ski lodge sitting not far off the main road, and has a short blether with someone there who tells him that last season was a bit of a washout.
We descend the glen, which is awesome in any weather. The Three Sisters loom over us. History looms large here, as well, and the centuries-long feud between the Glen Coe MacDonalds and the Argyll Campbells. This seemed to have come to a close in 1692, when the MacDonald finally swore fealty to the Crown. The oath was taken five days after the deadline, however, and the king was looking for someone to make an example of. He sent troops into Glen Coe under the command of a Campbell, and for ten days they were amicably billeted with the MacDonalds. Then the command was given early in the morning to slaughter every MacDonald under the age of 70. Many escaped the sword to the hills, only to die of starvation or exposure. This is certainly the most notorious incident in Scottish history, and it is the breach of hospitality that has long been considered the most heinous and treacherous aspect of the massacre. After all, murder and mayhem were pretty much routine in the clan warfare of that era. It is perhaps not relevant to note that the cattle-thieving MacDonalds were not particularly nice people themselves. In any case, the name Campbell has been mud in these parts ever since.
All of this took place within sight of the Clachaig Inn, our home for the evening, a few miles above Glencoe village at the mouth of the glen. As we check in, we notice a sign (common in Glen Coe) by the front desk reading “No hawkers or Campbells”. Ron and I take this as a light-hearted jest; on the other hand, they are probably serious about the hawkers, so we decide it best to keep our mouths shut.
There are two bars at the Clachaig, the larger of which, called the Boots Bar, obviously caters to the many walkers and climbers who come to the area. It’s the party bar, but it’s quiet tonight. We have a good pub meal and pints of cask ale, and peruse the 120 or so malts on the wall. During the evening, the latter part of which is spent in the more comfortable Bidean Lounge, we sample several of these. I have a G&M Cask Old Pulteney, which is heavily sherried with subdued smoke; a Dallas Dhu, which tastes of popsicle stick and, very late, cake icing; and two Benromachs, the younger light and smoky, the 21 tasting of molasses, but dry and slightly sulphurous.
We are all feeling a bit draggy and so retire relatively early. We make sure to lock the door before going to bed.
Wednesday 12 October 2005
Over The Sea
The day breaks gray and misty, and never improves. Breaks? More like “crumbles”. We pass through Glencoe village and make the loop around narrow Loch Leven. Our immediate goal is the Atlas Brewery in the village of Kinlochleven. We find it in a recycled industrial building, along with several other small businesses. I have read on their website that eight-pint minikegs are available for purchase, and we are fortunate to pick up the last one in stock, of their Three Sisters Ale. One for each of us!
Back at the mouth of Loch Leven, we cross the bridge and pick up the A828 southbound. About ten miles down the road, we pull over for a look at Castle Stalker, a bleak tower house on a tiny island in a shallow, muddy bay. It is immediately recognizable as Castle Aaaaaaa, from the end of Holy Grail. We find a good vantage point from which to photograph it along the side road to Port Appin.
Port Appin is the ferry port for Lismore, and the tiny village seems to serve mainly as a car park for holiday-makers on the island. We loop around the peninsula and pick up the main road again, and before too long we are in Oban. We have about an hour before we have to check in at the ferry, and I have a number of phone calls to make, so I turn the other lads loose in town, setting a time to meet back at the car.
Phone calls complete, I browse the seemingly ubiquitous Whisky Shop and a tweed shop. I arrive at the car ten minutes early, and the lads aren’t there. Of course, they are in the Oban Inn across the street, halfway through a pint. Well, if they have time for half a pint, so do I.
I’ve chosen to approach Islay on the ferry from Oban, which makes the through trip via Colonsay only on Wednesdays, for several reasons. One is that it means much less driving, while still arriving at the same time as catching the usual ferry from Kennacraig. Another is that it is a very scenic ride on a fair day, with great views of Mull and Jura along the way. This, alas, is not a fair day, and it isn’t long before we are out of sight of land altogether. After a couple hours, Colonsay advances silently from the mist. We dock at Scalasaig long enough to swap a few vehicles, before the island again recedes from sight.
The third reason for coming this way bears fruit. The lighthouse at Rubh’ a’ Mhàil, Islay’s northernmost point, blinks into view, and we enter the Sound of Islay. It’s nearly sunset, and growing quite dark at the end of a dismal day, but we can plainly see the distilleries at Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila as we drift toward Port Askaig. They are inspiring sights.
Back on land, we make the run to Bruichladdich, which takes about half an hour. We are staying at the distillery! A house, formerly a duplex which served as home for the distillery manager and the excise man, sits up behind the distillery proper, and houses students at Bruichladdich’s Academy. When the Academy is not in session, the rooms can be taken on a B&B basis. We find no one in, but a note addressed to me is stuck to the refrigerator in the kitchen, telling us which rooms to take. They don’t do it like this in Edinburgh!
We settle in quickly and drive the two miles to Port Charlotte. The Port Charlotte Hotel has a top-notch restaurant, but we are more comfortable in the pub, where we nevertheless have a top-notch meal. There are also good pints of Islay Ale, and drams, of course. The malt list here is all-Islay-all-the-time, and is a bit pricey, but we have no trouble satisfying our needs. I have a honeyish Douglas Laing Bruichladdich, and a Murray McDavid 1989 Bowmore bourbon cask. It’s the best Bowmore I’ve ever had, I think; but I still don’t like it much. Ron has a Laing Ardbeg, and Bob surprises us by ordering a Laphroaig Cask Strength. Bob is of Irish heritage, and has only recently delved much into the world of Scotch whisky; not long ago, he told us that he didn’t really care for the peaty ones. He therefore shocks us when he declares the Laphroaig tasty. He’s learning, that lad is.
Spike presides over all. Spike is my mascot, a replica of a Lewis chessman, a Viking berserker, acquired at the museum in Edinburgh a few years ago. Spike the Viking always presides.