Scotland is a place that seems to want to make you earn it’s charms. I’ve driven around Scotland for a week now, from Edinburgh up thru the Cairngorms National Park, around Loch Ness, across to the Isle of Skye, down thru Glencoe, and currently enjoying the charming harbor town of Oban before leaving to the Trossachs and Loch Lomond, Stirling, and back to Edinburgh. Even without the final legs of my trip complete, I am convinced that Scotland’s beauty is near unrivaled. But there are laws that govern the universe which put everything in balance, and in the case of Scotland, the price which must be paid for such beauty is the weather. Living in Belgium as I do, it is cliche to comment negatively on the weather to friends and strangers alike. But at no time have I ever experienced a week in July like this one. Daily temperatures ranging from 11-14C, with a high of 17C in Edinburgh. I would estimate that the sun has appeared for a total of 3 hours and otherwise the precipitation level has rotated between misty, drizzly, and rainy.
But Scotland’s astounding scenery drives people to practically wrap themselves in garbage bags and face the unforgiving elements, all for the love of the magic that exists in the mountains and valleys here. Every direction the eyes look, the mind imagines frolicking across the heather-covered hillside or trekking up or down the winding paths, along waterfalls, streams, mountain ridges and thru the lush purples and greens. It is a series of temptations that has you looking for spots to pull over to take pictures and at the same time planning for future trips in order to hike there and there and there. I had this experience a few years ago on my first trip to Scotland during a bus day-trip to Glencoe and Loch Ness. I told myself then that the next time I was in Scotland, I was going to rent a car and take a hike in Glencoe. The dream finally came true earlier this morning.
Glencoe has several places to hike along the scenic route. The visitor center just outside Glencoe Village provides a handy map showing the locations of the trails. The one I chose was The Devil’s Staircase which is a hike up and over a ridge going from the Glencoe road to the town of Kinlochleven – about a 4 hr round trip. It is also possible to detour along the ridge to reach a higher elevation for supposedly fantastic views. My daughter and I had intended to skip the part to Kinlochleven and try for the peak. However, the trail had become a river and the strong wind and rain at the higher elevation made it a bit more uncomfortable than I really wanted to endure, so we decided to cut it short and head back to the car. But it was just prior to descending that brings me to the real point of this story.
As my daughter placed her rock on the obligatory rock pile at the top of the trail, a hiker from Portland, Oregon asked if we had found the hidden bottle of whisky. Looking at the pile of rocks, we laughed off the friendly joke. In the meantime, he set his backpack on the wet ground and started rummaging. “I have the hidden bottle of whisky”, he promised. And out came a 20cl bottle of Oban Single Malt. I didn’t catch the age, but the bottle was down to its last 5cl. He unscrewed the cap and passed it around to myself and a young French lad who still had 30km of hiking to go to reach Fort William. It was one of those precious moments – three drenched strangers standing on top of a ridge in Glencoe, Scotland sharing a whisky for two minutes – if Dionysus actually existed, he would surely be smiling. For me, it is a moment which I will always remember fondly.
Scotland is a land which has this dual effect. It not only has this great scenic experience but an unprecedented drink experience as well. The drink experience in Scotland does not begin and end with single malt whisky though. Without a doubt, single malt is king, but the craft beer culture here is thriving as well. Having a 16-year old daughter as a travel mate for this trip gave the pilgrimages a lower priority, but even by accident it is near impossible not to experience a few while in Scotland. I had no agenda to visit the Aberfeldy distillery but there it was a few kilometers from my B&B.
There is something mystical about stepping out of the car just off a rural Scottish road and smelling the aroma of distilling whisky. The type made by Aberfeldy has a similar aroma to beer brewing but much richer and may I say more delicious. On the Isle of Skye, the Talisker distillery sits on a tiny single lane road along the edge of Loch Harport. Talisker uses peat in the whisky making process and the aroma from the parking lot is smoky and unmistakable.
In the Speyside region of Scotland, which is the northern border of the Cairngorms National Park, exists roughly half of the distilleries in Scotland, a Dionysian torment for someone traveling with an underage companion. A very nice map can found here. There are enough pilgrimages here for future holidays several times over. Anyone interested in planning a joint whisky adventure, please contact me.
For something a little less than 40% alcohol, Scotland offers many enticing choices for craft beer. Scottish beer is typically in the range of 3,5 to 4,5% alcohol and are ales rather than lagers, which means they generally come with less carbonation. While the main enjoyment of beer is the taste, I do get inspired by good marketing. In my opinion the name and label have a lot of impact in the beer drinking experience, and Scottish craft beers do not disappoint. Beers come with names such as “MacBeth”, “The Red Monk of Iona”, “Braveheart” and “Dragonhead”, and they often have celtic or historical symbolism. If my eyes are scanning a shelf of beers, they will always spot what I call the ‘historical’ beers first. I will always overlook beer labels with floral or cartoonish artwork. So for me, the beer marketing here in Scotland is definitely geared towards my esthetic taste.
The craft breweries which I have managed to sample the most are Weird Beard Brew Co. (Decadent Stout, Black Perle), Williams Brothers Brewing (Fraoch Heather Ale, Caesar Augustus, Joker IPA), Isle of Skye Brewing Company (Skye Gold, Skye Black), Cairngorm Brewery Co. (Highland IPA, Black Gold, Nessie’s Monster Mash) and The Orkney Brewery (Raven Ale, Dragonhead). The only visit I have managed is the Moulin Brewery which is a small brewery sitting behind the Moulin Hotel near Pitlochry. If you take the scenic route thru the Cairngorms from Pitlochry, you will pass right by it before reaching the Edradour Distillery. The Moulin Brewery brews only for the hotel, so good luck to Untappd fanatics logging their 3 beers. I managed to “Untap” the Braveheart Ale which was the only one available for tasting.
I will conclude with a few tips about traveling in Scotland. First, rent a car. Don’t take a tour bus. There have been very few moments of road hypnotism in Scotland and you will never feel in a hurry to be anywhere but where you are at that moment. The scenery is so amazing that to have the freedom to stop whenever you want and explore whatever road you want is the only way to experience this country. Second, when possible, stay in B&B’s outside the city center, particularly when not in Edinburgh. Find B&B’s on scenic routes or back roads. Once you get outside of Edinburgh, it is all about nature, not museums and sites. Yes it is nice to throw a few pints back in a village pub without worrying about driving, but there is something more magical about looking out over a moor or loch from your bedroom window. Finally, bring rain gear: at minimum a rainproof jacket with some thermal protection, quick drying pants, and sturdy waterproof hiking shoes. Cheers!