A Wee Dram: Speyside Whisky Tour

I decided to take a whisky distillery tour, not because I’m a whisky drinker—I’m not really—but because I thought I should see how the national drink of Scotland is made.  I’ve spent my entire stay living next to the Holyrood gin distillery—somedays, you could really smell the mash—but I wasn’t that interested in visiting.  But whisky intrigued me, so I signed up for Rabbie’s three-day tour of the Speyside area.  Unlike the peated flavor of the Islay (pronounced “eye-la”) whiskies of the north-north of Scotland and the Hebrides, Speyside whiskies are more mellow, possibly sweeter, and lack any smokiness.  This is a good thing, because peated whisky reminds me of Lapsang souchong tea, which I just hate.

We left Friday morning, and I was thrilled when the tour guide, Stuart, told me that the tour only had five people registered.  This made so much of a difference to my enjoyment.  Suddenly, we could get to know each other intimately and really share in our whisky experience with each other.  Since I was a nearly virgin whisky drinker (with the visit to Dalwhinnie a few weeks previous being my only experience with the drink), I was really open to trying everything.  And the other members of the tour seemed really interested to know what I thought, just as I was interested in their thoughts too.  I loved this tour for its camaraderie, and I thought Stuart was a wonderful guide.  He is a true whisky afficionado, and everything he had to say I soaked up like a sponge.

Friday was a beautiful day to drive through the Cairngorms (east Highlands), because it was ridiculously clear and windy.  Unlike the other visits I made to the Highlands to the west, full of mistiness and magic, the Cairngorms sat proudly to either side of us with nary a cloud rimming the top of the mountains to ruin the view.  (Don’t get me wrong, there were clouds, just not clinging to the mountain tops.)  The sun brought out the green of the Cairngorms and enlivened the purple of the newly-emerging heather, and the sheep we saw were like little clouds in the grass.  And everywhere we looked was a photo opportunity, so it was nice of Stuart to stop the bus for a little while so we could get some pictures.

Lindores’ aqua vitae, and 1494.

Our first whisky stop was the Lindores Abbey Distillery (lowland single malt), which had been around since the medieval times, though there was a 500-year gap between when the place was a thriving abbey making “aqua vitae” and whisky for kings and now.  It recently (say, the last 10 or so years) reopened, and our guide at the distillery took us through the process of making whisky in great detail.  By the end of the day, we understood the three ingredients of whisky (barley, water, and yeast), how whisky is collected in a curly copper still, how it is separated into the head, heart, and tail (different alcohol contents, with the heart being the perfect percentage, and the head and tail having to go back and be reprocessed), how it is stored in oak bourbon or sherry casks, and how long it has to age before it can be called whisky (three years and a day).  After our walk through the distillery, we tried some aqua vitae liqueur, which was a drink with many herbs and spicy flavors, although the main flavor I tasted was rosemary and juniper (though rosemary wasn’t in the mix, according to our guide; I didn’t care for it because it seemed medicinal), and their 1494 brand of whisky, which I really liked because it was smooth and didn’t burn your throat.  I wanted to buy some to bring home, except I didn’t know how I’d get it on the plane.  (And I had hopes I could buy from their website, but they don’t sell it in the U.S.)

Kindrochit Castle ruins

Braemar truffles

Our next stop was in Braemar, a lovely little hamlet, for lunch.  I didn’t find much to eat, but I did stop in the Braemar Chocolate Shop and bought a six-pack of gorgeous truffle “jewels.”  I accidentally threw out the list of candies I bought, but of the ones I remember, there were a mint truffle, a lemon truffle, a passionfruit truffle, and a weird blue cheese and chocolate flavor truffle that was really quite different. (The others might have been a strawberry and mixed berry.)  I didn’t wind up eating the candy until much later in the day, so it kind of wound up being my dinner when I got to the bed-and-breakfast.  😊  Also in Braemar were the ruins of Kindrochit Castle (from around 1390), which were mostly just low walls people could climb on at this point.  And there were children running and climbing all over it.

You can bottle your own… for 150 pounds!

Our next distillery stop was Royal Lochnagar Distillery, near the River Dee, which bordered Balmoral Castle, a Scottish royal home since Albert and Queen Victoria bought it in 1852.  I didn’t get to see Balmoral Castle because it was deep in the woods, and I was a little sorry about that, but the distillery was interesting.  We learned much the same as we had learned at Lindores Abbey, but it was nice to see another version of the same process, and to see the large bell stills.  Additionally, we spent a goodly amount of time in the cask room, smelling whisky through the bung holes (that sounds dirty, doesn’t it?) so we could determine what kind of cask the whisky was ageing in.  And we also got to see a cask of Diamond Jubilee whisky, and the tour guide had us guess how much a bottle of it cost. Pam (the other woman on our tour) guessed $3,000; I guessed $10,000.  But the true answer was $100,000 per bottle, and I think there were only 60 bottles made.  The money was raised for charity, so I guess that justifies the cost.  But still…that’s a ton of money for a blended (yuck) whisky.

At our tasting, we tried four different bottles:  Royal Lochnagar 12 year, the Exclusive Bottling, the Selected Reserve, and the 17 year.  Of course, I liked the 17 year best—and it figures that I would like the most expensive bottle, doesn’t it?  It had quite a burn and it definitely put hair on your chest, but I liked it because it felt full-bodied.  It helped that I added a few drops of water, which everyone said opens up the oils and make the whisky more florid.  We were having such a good time talking about our tasting with each other that we had to be reminded to leave since the distillery was closing.

Brooklynn Guest Hosue

Then we drove to Grantown-on-Spey, where we were all staying for the night.  My bed-and-breakfast was the Brooklynn Guest House, although the other group members were staying at hotels.  My room offered a fancy bathroom and a comfortable double bed, a nice change from the single bed that I slept in in Inverness.  I could have gone walking into town to find some dinner, but I was tired, and after all I had my Braeburn chocolates to eat, and a Hercule Poirot novel to read (Murder on the Links).

Glen Moray flight

Saturday, I enjoyed a breakfast of fancy topped yogurt, full of granola and fruit, and eggs and toast and Scottish breakfast tea, and Stuart and the group picked me up for another day of touring.  This time, we just had a tasting at Glen Moray, in Elgin, with a Rabbie’s tour exclusive flight: the 10 year Fired Oak, the 12 year, and the Peated Classic.  I also bought a delicious shortbread to pair with the whisky, and the sweetness of the shortbread made the whisky taste better if you ask me.  Glen Moray is what you call a “supermarket whisky,” which means it’s good quality, but not as expensive as other brands—the kind you’d find for sale at a grocery store.  I liked the three whiskies offered, even the peated one, although I didn’t care for that as much as the 12 year, which had a bit of a honey flavor to it.  (Or that could have been the shortbread.)  I bought a couple of whisky glasses in their gift shop; they were only £3 each.  (They had some beautiful crystal whisky glasses, but they were £25 each, and I was afraid they might not make the trip home.  Also, hello, expensive!!!)

Craigellachie (Crag-uh-lacky) Bridge

So after drinking whisky at 10 (!) a.m., Stuart drove us to Craigellachie Bridge (built in 1814 and restored in 1964), a lovely bridge that spans the River Spey.  I walked the bridge and got some photos and then joined Parag and his brother for a walk to go to the river’s edge.  They went on to get closer to the river, because Parag was all about making his TikTok videos, while I talked with Pam and her husband and found out that they live in Huntsville, AL, and she teaches nursing at the university.  (Her husband works in the defense industry.)  Then we all ambled back to the bus and drove to the Speyside Cooperage, which is where distilleries send barrels to be put together, refitted, or repaired.  The Speyside Cooperage is one of only two cooperages in Scotland, and there’s nothing but barrels as far as the eye can see.  Afterwards, we stopped at the Glenfiddich Distillery, more just to see it than anything, since it’s the biggest and most-recognized whisky brand, and then the Glen Allachie Distillery.  At neither place did we try any whisky, but it was good to stop and nose around the gift shops; the Glenfiddich gift shop was particularly high-end and fancy.  (They had shoehorns—which I actually am in need of—made of real horn… for £54 each!)

Our tour guide Stuart in front of the MT.

This Heilan Coo needs his bangs trimmed.

We had lunch at the Mash Tun bar and pub, and while I didn’t love my cranberry jelly and brie sandwich all that much, again it was nice to sit and dish with my fellow travelers in a “spirited” discussion. Plus I got to walk by the Spey and watch a fisherman not have much luck. After lunch, we headed to the Cardhu Distillery (“The Speyside Home of Johnny Walker”) in Archiestown, for another distillery tour, though first there was an informative video about the origins of  the distillery and the fact that it was founded by a woman, Helen Cumming, in 1824.  This time they were cooking so it was crazy hot in the distillation room.  But our guide was very nice and knowledgeable, and also let us smell some bung holes to determine what kind of casks

Look at that face!

The Cardhu flight choices

the whisky was being held in.  Our tasting included the Cardhu Gold Reserve, Amber Rock, and just plain Single Malt.  I thought the Cardhu whiskies were alright; I wasn’t bowled over, but the other folks seemed to like them.  I found I added a bit of water to each one, and that helped.  Cardhu whisky makes up a big part of Johnnie Walker blended whiskies, and even if I didn’t have a snobby bias against blended whiskies, I think I would not be interested in Johnnie Walker because I just didn’t love the Cardhu (even though Stuart likes it).  I do, however, love that a woman started the company (and the video does a great job of showing how influential Helen Cumming and her daughter-in-law were as they began their empire).  The other thing I liked about Cardhu were the “Hielan’ Coos” that lived in an adjacent paddock.  And you could buy oat cakes to give to them.  (I would have done this, but the flies were so bad out by the cows that I didn’t want to stay nearby after I took pictures.)

Sunday morning after breakfast, I opened the door to go out and wait for the bus to get me, and who should run in but a handsome black cat.  He ran into the dining room, and I was nervous that I had just let a strange cat in, but the server said that Louis belonged to the B-and-B.  I got to pet him, and would have snapped a photo except that the server shook his bag of crunchies, and Louis high-tailed it back into the kitchen to get his breakfast.  I said goodbye to the Brooklynn, and got picked up.  Our first stop was Dalwhinnie.

Dalwhinnie flight choices

While I had been here before and tried their flight of three whiskies, again, because I was with our group, I had a much better time.  The whiskies were paired with chocolates, as before, which brought a pleasant sweetness to the four drams:  the 15 year, the Winter’s Gold, the Distiller’s Edition, and the Distillery Exclusive Bottling.  I was still partial to the 15 year, but the Distillery Exclusive Bottling was also very nice (and only available for purchase at the distillery proper).  Additionally, because now I had more knowledge about whisky in general, I could appreciate them a little better then the first time I had tried them two weeks before.  The other group members were quite in love with the Winter’s Gold, but to me, that version had an unpleasant earthiness to it.  Not a peaty taste, but a heaviness that I guess might be nice in the middle of winter when you’re freezing your bezonkus off.  Still I didn’t care for it.

Edradour Distillery wasn’t open to the public.

The Mash Tun bar inside Blair Athol.

We stopped in Pitlochry first to look at Edradour Distillery, “Scotland’s Little Gem,” which has been closed since Covid, but the grounds were lovely.  Then we drove back into town for lunch (the third time I had been there), and I went to McKay’s fish and chip house and drank a Lemon Fanta and enjoyed chocolate orange ice cream for dessert.  Pitlochry is apparently a bit of a retirement community; it has a busy high street with lots of tourists, but the town itself is sleepy and charming.  Before we left town, we stopped at the Blair Athol Distillery, which had a Mash Tun bar (I guess it’s a chain) inside, with the bar itself resembling a big mash container.  We all tried the “flavour flight,” which was composed of four whiskies, the Cragganmore Distillers (sweet), the Singleton 12 year (fruity), the Blair Athol 12 year (spicy), and the Caol Ila 12 (smokey).  I liked the Blair Athol the best, but the others were fine… maybe not the Caol Ila which was really peaty, but it wasn’t bad, just not to my taste.

The Blair Athol Distillery is overgrown with ivy

Blair Athol Distillery was our last stop before coming back to Edinburgh.  The ride home was pretty quiet—all of us whiskied out for sure—and I mostly chose to reflect on what a good time I had, even though I wasn’t expecting anything in particular.  Not being a practiced whisky drinker, with a special developed palate, I just tried everything with an open mind, learning what I could.  I can definitely see now how people collect whiskies—Stuart told us about his collection, for instance—because they are like wine in that each one is different and even among the same distillers, the whiskies are different depending on how long they’ve aged, and in what.  But unlike wine, you can open a whisky, and it won’t go bad in a few days—you can just have it until it’s gone. I asked Stuart how he decides which dram to drink on any given day, and he said it absolutely has to do with his mood (and how cold or hot it is).  That makes sense; but from what he told us, he has a number of bottles (maybe 30-50, I can’t quite recall), so that’s quite an arsenal to choose from.  I’m still wondering how he decides what to pick when he has all those choices.

As for myself, I will start my collection small, because I don’t imagine that I’ll be drinking too many drams any time soon:  I’ve gotten Glenmorangie, Grangestone, and if Total Wine ever gets it, I’ll get a Dalwhinnie 15 year, and be happy with those.  And I look forward to trying a flight of whiskies with C. and demonstrating all my new knowledge.

Of all the tours I took, this one was my favorite.  While I didn’t see as many beautiful places to take pictures of, I got something better:  the opportunity to hang with five other people all very present in the moment and all enjoying many wee drams of whisky.  It was definitely worth every penny I spent on the trip.

More pics!

The Cairngorms

The Cairngorms

The Cairngorms in panoramic view

My bedroom at the Brooklynn b-n-b

Parag, Parag’s brother whose name begins with a T, Pam’s Husband Jeff?, and Stuart in front of the Craigellachie Bridge

View of the Spey from the bridge

View from the bridge

Glenfiddich (Glen-fid-ick) Distillery

Speyside Cooperage barrels

Glenfiddich ducks

Glenfiddich’s founders

Daisies in front of the Brooklynn Guest House

Cardhu bell stills

A cemetery by the Spey

A wonderful dog on the High Street in Pitlochry

Hayfield above Pitlochry

Dalwhinnie flight paired with chocolates

A footbridge above the Spey

An unlucky fisherman in the Spey

Entrance to Blair Athol Distillery

Cardhu wall sign

Brooklynn Guest House sign

Glen Allachie (Al-uh-kee)

The trees outside of Blair Athol Distillery were black from the barley smoking process (I think)

The Glenfiddich sign with our bus in the reflection

Glenfiddich’s family sign

Roman Britain

Hadrian’s Wall

I decided to take a day trip down to see Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England.  It was strange:  as soon as we crossed over from the Borders, the land grew flatter (but still with periodic hills) and more farmy.  I was going to say “less interesting” but considering I’d never seen England before, that seems a rather ballsy or condescending thing to say.  Everything is interesting once—or it should be, the first time you see it. The emptiness of the land appealed to me.  Aside from the sheep and the occasional stone wall, the north of England is wide and green, but there’s not much in the way of habitation.

Hadrian’s Wall with a Roman lookout on the hill

A constant wind blew, the sun was a little over-warm, and hardly any clouds laced the sky. As I carefully picked my way through the grass and path (to avoid the preponderance of cow patties and pellets of sheep dung), I made my way to the wall and was once again amazed to think that anything from 1900 years ago could still last.  (And yes, I know there are older ruins throughout the world, but I wasn’t focusing on them.)

In my class, we had been reading Kathleen Jamie’s book of essays, Findings, in which she writes, among her discussions of nature and human coexistence, about how what humans make durable now are throw-away items like plastic bottles (she also focuses on a discarded doll head). Plastic doesn’t go away; we invest our durability in garbage, basically.  The wall, on the other hand, was made to outlast invasions and to protect the people, and yet it works with the land in its purpose.

The fact that parts of the wall still exist demonstrates how humans can adapt to the natural world without spoiling it.  Of course, much of the wall is gone—the stones used for other walls or huts or claimed by the earth again—but when you see the wall, you feel connected to the past but also to the land.  The wall moves with the landscape—at least, the remnants do, and its durability is something that at once seems both amazing and invisible.  It’s easy to see the wall as just another stone wall in the fields, used to pen sheep into certain territories; it takes on significance when you know what it is, and know its history.

Afterwards, not far away, we visited Vindolanda, the remnants of a Roman fort.  The tour guide told us he’s nuts about the fort and the museum where items such as pottery, jewelry, leather shoes, bones, coins, and weapons have been catalogued.  Seeing it from a distance is quite remarkable because it looks almost like a giant stone maze—except the stones are maybe knee-to-waist high—so you could totally find your way out of the maze with no problem. 😊

The mausolea

I wandered a little bit through the stones, and they impressed me because each area had a specific purpose such as the butcher’s shop, the temple to Jupiter, the bath house, and barracks, but I confess I spent the majority of the time there eating lunch, looking at the museum (especially the jewelry—I’m nothing if not predictable), and visiting with other women on the tour as we all journeyed up from a hellacious hill and needed to rest and recoup. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the stones, it’s that they were kind of just…there.

Rebuilt Hadrian’s fort and wall

What was more intriguing was that restorers had rebuilt a section of Hadrian’s wall and the fort in wood and turf as well as stone.  The guidebook suggests that the Romans made parts of the wall in wood because they were hurriedly trying to keep out marauding tribes.  And so this recreation is kind of an experiment—to see just how long it would survive.  The guidebook also mentions that the turf wall has sunk a bit because of marauders too—this time, rabbits.  Which kind of makes me laugh.

Jedburgh Abbey

The other major site of interest we visited was Jedburgh Abbey (in Scotland), which—of course—was also under reconstruction so you couldn’t wander in it, but as with Melrose Abbey the day before, admission only cost half price.  I liked the Abbey, but there was no wandering around the entire church so you could only see it from the one side.  But I found a quiet garden bench and enjoyed a little snack there in the corner, feeling contemplative and peaceful, and wishing a little bit that a poem would come to me.

Enjoy the photos—although there’s not much to see but broad English vistas.

The Vindolanda cafe

Hadrian’s Wall, kind of overgown

The English sky. These clouds look like flying saucers to me.

Somewhere in the Scottish Borders

Moffett ram statue…it does’t have ears.

Moffett High Street

Roman lookout on some hills. At the bottom you can see a couple of people for scale.

More Scottish Borders

My Vindolanda Lemon Fanta

English Hills above Vindolanda

English Hills behind Vindolanda to the east (?)

Fort Wall at Vindolanda

Fort wall

Rebuilt stone fort for Hadrian’s Wall at Vindolanda

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall with cows

Hadrian’s wall in the right foreground with a Roman lookout on the hills behind

English sheep

Looking at Scotland from England

More Hadrian’s wall

Looking at England from Scotland

English border stone

Scottish border stone

Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey garden

Jedburgh Abbey

A Scottish wind farm. Scotland is 100% carbon neutral and produces enough renewable energy that they can power the country three times over.

Rosslyn Chapel & Melrose Abbey

I don’t remember much about Dan Brown’s potboiler The DaVinci Code, other than it posited that Mary Magdalene absconded to France pregnant with Jesus’s baby, and that was some kind of big reveal.  Not for me, of course, who had been studying women’s spiritual writing, and reading books like Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman or Charlene Spretnak’s The Politics of Women’s Spirituality while I was working on my Ph.D. I had also read The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which indicated as much, and I wrote poems about her, including one about her pregnancy.  Just call me a heretic.

Rosslyn Chapel

I also don’t remember how The Rosslyn Chapel fits into Brown’s story, but it does, apparently, and so I took a trip out to see it.  It was an interesting place, because while it was erected in the the 15th century, there was a big gap between when it got a lot of use as the chapel for the Earls of Rosslyn, and when it was closed down for being a house of idolatry, on account of all of the carvings (though from what I can tell, most seemed religious in theme to me).  For two and a half centuries, the chapel sat vacant, windowless, and was basically given over to the damp and plantlife.  Then along comes Queen Victoria, and she falls in love with it.  So begins its restoration.  It gets a new narthex (a shallow foyer) and they install a pipe organ.  It gets cleaned up and looks pretty good for a while, but the damp comes back.  So long about the 1950’s, someone has the “good” idea to cover EVERYTHING in the church with a cement slurry, which paints over the colors and details till everything is a muted gray mush, but stops the damp.  To my mind, the carvings weren’t all that because you couldn’t really see the relief anymore—although there are tons of them. They were probably quite amazing before this “restoration.”

A surreptitious  from-my-purse photo of a boring ceiling in Rosslyn Chapel…the only photo I took of inside 

But I enjoyed the chapel.  I even went down in the crypt where there was a brilliant stained glass window, though not much else.  I would have taken a lot of photos, but there was a sign saying no photography, and me being a (mostly) goody-goody, I complied.  I did take a sneak picture from my purse, which just got a boring part of the ceiling, and I snapped one of the stained glass window because there were only two people down in the crypt with me to object, and they were busy taking their own photos (but it came out kinda bad).  Turns out I was like the only person on the tour who didn’t take lots of pictures.  I feel sheepish.  I should just have taken the pictures of the inside and beg forgiveness if I got caught.  Oh, well.

Walter Scott’s favorite view

This is the first tour I took where we actually went south, to the rolling hills of the Scottish borders.  Earlier in the day, we stopped at a couple of places.  One was a favorite look-out and writing spot for Walter Scott, which overlooked three hills, which at one point had Roman occupation, and they named the hills “Trimontium”—not a particularly originally name for “three mountains.”  The air was fresh, and sweetened with wildflowers.  There were many bees!

William Wallace

Then we drove a little further to see a statue of William Wallace.  Our tour guide was unimpressed with the statue for its many inaccuracies.  For one thing, the statue’s gear is wrong—he wouldn’t have had an oval shield, his sword was too long, his armor on his arms wouldn’t really protect.  For another, and most egregiously, he was wearing his kilt backwards!  The front of a kilt is supposed to be flat; it’s the back that’s pleated (where here you can clearly see pleats in the front). But what I liked about the statue of Wallace was that it faces nothing but a treed valley.  Like, if you didn’t know the statue was there, you’d miss it.  It’s a hidden monument, which you can only get too by taking a walk in the woods (danger! danger!) scented with wild garlic and heavy with cow parsley.  Fortunately, I did not come to any mishap on my walk.  The ground was level.

We stopped in a little hamlet called Melrose for lunch.  I had a cheese and tomato toastie that I bought for breakfast but then didn’t eat, and I found a bench facing the Melrose Abbey so I enjoyed quite the view.  Melrose Abbey is famous for being the site where Robert the Bruce’s heart relics are buried, a heart which he wanted carried to the Holy Land during the Crusades, to expiate the sin of killing another king on sacred church grounds.

After I ate, I went around to the side entrance of the Abbey, paid my entrance fee (which was only half the usual cost since the Abbey is undergoing renovations—everything in Scotland seems to be undergoing renovations!), and wandered the cemetery and took pictures.  I really liked Melrose Abbey because it’s also ruins, and it must look quite wonderful to walk through when the fencing is down.  Apparently, when it was being built, there were masons who decided to make carvings of naked women in lascivious poses which weren’t discovered till much too late, just because the masons could and they weren’t being closely supervised.  I don’t know, I thought that was pretty hilarious, because when this was a whole church, it must have been spectacular and holy.  So a few sexy statues would really amp up the ambiance. 😊

I found a graves stone with the date of 1695 on it, and another of 1810, but most of the stones were lichened over or too weathered to read.  The place was still and peaceful, and the tour guide let us have an hour and twenty minutes for the stop, so I could leisurely gaze at the Abbey and walk around as I pleased.

I was really happy with the tour guide in general.  He regaled us with lots of interesting information, and seemed really happy to be on the tour—like night and day from last weekend.

Oh!  And I forgot to mention that two of the people on the tour—Bob and Linda—were from Marietta!  That’s too crazy!  I would have liked a chance to talk with them more but we all went separate ways at the various stops.  Still, can you believe, running into people living in the same town as you?  It really is a small world sometimes.

Tomorrow I’m off to Hadrian’s Wall, so be sure to tune in for my next post if you’re curious about that.

Enjoy the photos!

The Victorian addition to Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel side wall

A dedication to the Earls and Baronesses of Rosslyn at Rosslyn Chapel

Melrose Abbey

The back left of the abbey. This guy WOULD NOT GO AWAY, so I finally just shot the pic with him in the way.

Melrose Abbey

Close up of the “mouth” (my word) of the abbey.

The mouth of Melrose Abbey, a little further away

The date reads 1695.

The front of Melrose Abbey with a grand (but unglassed) window

More abbey

The first date on here is 1810.

Detail of the grand window

Another view of the mouth of the Abbey

Front view of Melrose Abbey with cemetery in the foreground

I love these three arches.

The gently rolling hills of the Borders

Yet another view of Melrose Abbey

After I toured Rosslyn Chapel, I got this Ginger Beer. You can’t see it, but a dumb bee flew into it and decided it wanted a drink. Then it got stuck in the bottle, so I had to dump it out to free the bee.

Loch Ness & the Highlands, 2.0

I thought taking a two-day tour to Loch Ness and the Highlands would prove to be twice as good as last week’s one-day tour, but I wasn’t as impressed with the tour this time.  Don’t mistake me, I loved seeing both sights again, but the tour itself was lacking.  For one thing the tour guide had the personality of a flaccid noodle; whereas the other tours I’ve taken the guides have been chock full of stories and history and chatter, this guy was sparing to the point of laconic in his speech.  For another he didn’t seem to have a real itinerary, which offended me.  He kept asking the tour group what we wanted to do.  (I was like, dude, this is your country—you show us what we should see.)

A burn (little creek) in the Three Sisters. That little blue thing at the bottom is a tent!


We hardly stopped our drive at all.  We did go to Loch Lubnaig and the Three Sisters in Glen Coe again, but there were other places we might have stopped even for just a few minutes to take pictures. We stopped in Ballachulish at the Clachaig Inn where I made a fine lunch of (vegetarian) haggis, tatties (potatoes), and neeps (turnips), but it was a surprisingly heavy meal that I couldn’t finish.

Urquhart Castle, with Loch Ness in the background

And then we drove to Urquhart Castle, a little south of Inverness.  I know I said, “Once you’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen them all,” and I kind of stand by that statement, but I love ruins, and this castle definitely qualified. There wasn’t much to see since it was half knocked down but ruins speak to me in a way that preserved castle buildings don’t.  And the setting, of course, was lovely, as the castle was on the banks of Loch Ness.

The other people in the tour decided to take a boat ride, but as I took a boat ride on Loch Ness last weekend, I didn’t want to repeat it.  And it was just as well.  It started pouring.  I felt so bad for the rest of them because they got soaked, while I enjoyed some extra time in the gift shop and café, perfectly dry.

“Lay on, Macduff, And damned be him that first cries ‘Hold! Enough!'” (Inverness Castle)


And then it was on to Inverness.  I didn’t see as much of Inverness as I wanted.  Once I got to my B-and-B, Eskdale Guest House, I was kind of super tired and just kind of conked out in my tiny single bed right next to the radiator.  In the morning, I saw a little bit more of the town, but I didn’t get to visit Inverness Castle.  I thought it was closed, because of the time we got to Inverness the night before (6 p.m.), but actually it’s not open to the public.  I was disappointed because I really wanted to see the castle where I thought MacBeth would have lived (although he was King from 1040-1057, and technically the first castle was put up in 1057, so he didn’t live there after all), but I still wanted to see it.  The current castle was put up in the 19th century, and it’s veneered with lovely red sandstone.  And it’s in great-looking condition, though there was orange plastic fence all around it because they are doing repairs.

Who dis? It me!

The trip home was not exciting.  We made several stops for walks-in-the woods, which, if you know me, wouldn’t be my first choice.  One stop was at Loch an Eilein, in  Rothiemurchus Woods, and this was a pretty little loch.  I took the path beside the loch, but wanted to get a good picture from a different vantage point than the pictures I took initially (which, let’s be honest, were mostly about the ducks), and of course, I stumbled over a root and went down like the proverbial ton of bricks, getting mud all over my jeans, tearing holes in my sneakers, and fouling up my knees and legs and arms something fierce.  It never fails. This is why I don’t go hiking.  (Because the woods always try to kill me.)  And then, to add insult to literal injury, in trying to get back up, I fell again.  I was disgusted and filthy, and was glad to get back on the bus.  Then we stopped at another walk by the Tay River (?) and the river was quite pretty, but I didn’t walk too far because my ankle was throbbing and I knew that I was tempting fate to go into the woods a second time. So I found a picnic bench and watched the water.  We also stopped at the scenic Cava Cairns, big piles of stones used for burial and other religious purposes.  Actually, I kind of dug them.  One of the other people on the tour took my picture at the center of one.

The best part of the trip back was stopping at Dalwhinnie distillery, where I tried a flight of whiskies which were paired with festive chocolate truffles.  I didn’t have my camera on me, or I would have taken a picture of the drinks, but of the three of them, the 15-year, the Winter something brew, and the Distiller’s choice, I was partial to the 15-year.  It was raining and cold then too, so the whisky poured a little fire into our bellies.  Of course, the last thing I needed was three “wee drams” on an empty stomach, but fortunately I wasn’t driving.  Or required to stand upright for any length of time. 😉

A church missing its roof in Dunkeld

Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at Pitlochry and I ate fish and chips at McKay’s Hotel. The haddock was perfectly fried and crispy though it needed salt. I wish we had longer than an hour because Pitlochry’s High Street was full of cute little shops I would have liked to look in.  I might have considered skipping lunch, but the whisky was strong with this one, and I needed to offset the booze.  And then we stopped in one more place (Dunkeld) for another walk, where I saw a lovely church in the process of being restored.

In writing this down, I guess we stopped a quite a few places after all, more than I initally remembered, but because the tour guide didn’t really bother telling us about anything, it seemed like kind of a wasted few days.  I guess I’d have liked fewer walks in the woods, and more actual stops at things to see.  But everyone else seemed to enjoy themselves so perhaps my attitude was crappy.  And maybe I expected too much—but after the last few tours, I guess I was a little bit spoiled.

I still have a few more weekend tours planned, so I’m hoping they will be a little more energizing and interesting than this weekend’s.  But it was good to get back to the Highlands.  I just kept thinking how great it would be to live there part of the year (winter). I could so see myself in a little semi-restored farm house, with a sheep out back and a cat at my feet, where all I would do is drink hot tea, eat fresh scones, and write, write, write my heart out.  Maybe some day.

Hope you enjoy this new batch of pics!

Urquhart Castle

Lunch at Clachaig Inn–tatties, haggis, and neeps covered in a tasty brown gravy

Loch Ness, from Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle

Urquhart Castle keep

A view of Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle. In the middle left, you can see signs of tree farming. For every tree cut, Scotland plants 2 more.

A friendly gull

A lovely field at Dunkeld

A train bridge at the Hermitage, near the Tay (?) river

The train bridge from a further vantage point

Loch an Eilein… For this view, I injured myself. You’re welcome.

Mama duck at Loch an Eilein (Rothiemurchus Woods)

As soon as I sat down, these ducks came out of the water to see if I had anything to feed them. Sadly, I did not. (Loch an Eilein)

View from the center of a cairn in Cava Cairns

Ring Cairn, at Cava Cairns

Another view of Urquhart Castle

Another burn in the Highlands

Low hanging clouds in the Highlands (Ballachulish)

Inside of the Clachaig Inn, where I tried veggie haggis

Three Sisters (well, two of them, at any rate)

Another two of Three Sisters

Glen Coe, looking north

A sunny day at Loch Lubnaig

Glen Coe Mountain (from the back)

Glen Coe Mountain, with even more clouds

A view of Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street on the ride out of town

The Highlands & Loch Ness

Loch Lubnaig

Loch Lubnaig

I felt the call of the Highlands this weekend—and suddenly I know why so many medieval romance novels are set there.  They are mystical and majestic, full of history, but more than that, they are primal.  They spoke to me on a profound level; as soon as I stepped foot in the mountains, I felt something—a pull from the Earth I’ve not felt before.  Of course they were already quite beautiful from what I saw on the drive, but once we stopped at Loch Lubnaig—and I touched the freezing water—some fairy magic was transferred. I got the Highlands.  I imagined stories I could tell; I saw characters coalesce in my mind almost instantly.  It felt like a writer’s high.

We stopped a number of places—Glen Coe (the “valley of tears”), where members of the Clan MacDonald defied the King and refused to pledge loyalty so they were all slain in their beds; the Three Sisters, a trinity of mountains also in Glen Coe (but a different part), that were wreathed in mist and rain; and of course Loch Ness.  I can’t be sure, but I saw a shadow which might have been Nessie.

Loch Ness

I loved Loch Ness.  I took a boat tour, and learned some fascinating facts about it, among which there is more fresh water in Loch Ness than all of the lakes in the Lake District in England, and the loch is so big you could fit all the people in the world in it.  (I don’t know how that would work, but I’ll take the tour guide’s word for it.)  Also, the loch is very deep and inky dark, so dark that you can’t see anything except by sonar after 25 meters, because there’s so much black peat in the water light can’t penetrate.  It’s basically like the loch version of a black hole. It was bracing and freezing to be on the water, and the wind actually buffeted people sideways on the top (open) deck of the ship.  I could have cheerfully stayed on the ship longer though, if that were an option, despite the wind and cold, because it felt right to be there—part of that magic I mentioned earlier.  Of all the things in Scotland I wanted to see, Loch Ness and the Highlands were the “Scotland-est.” (If you were to ask me before I left Atlanta what I think of when I think of Scotland, I’d answer “Loch Ness and the Highlands.”)  I’d always imagined going these places, and the reality did not disappoint.  I’m really glad I accidentally booked myself on another bus tour to see these places, because one time is not enough.

Entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Yesterday I finally dragged myself to Edinburgh Castle. I say dragged because I really didn’t want to go—if you’ve seen one castle, you’ve seen them all, right?—but also I had to literally drag myself up this huge stairway—Peter Somebody’s Staircase—because I took a wrong turn down Victoria Street and landed at the foot of the castle, instead of just walking the Royal Mile like I meant to from the bus stop.  Ah well.  My

calves are still sending me hate mail.

Mary Queen of Scotts

The castle was windy and cold—my favorite weather, especially in summer—and amazingly high above the city.  You could see all the way past the North Sea.  I liked seeing the Crown Jewels (a crown and a scepter, as well as the Stone of Scone [pronounced “skuun”] also known as the Stone of Destiny, the stone upon which monarchs are crowned which was stolen from Scotland by England’s King Edward in 1296).  Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the jewels—I don’t know why—because they were kind of cool, though maybe not as ornate as I had expected.  Mary Queen of Scots was born at Edinburgh Castle, so after looking at the Crown Jewels, you got to walk through her rooms.  There was a room which had Mary’s family tree on it…it reminded me kind of like Sirius Black’s family tree mural from Harry Potter, adorned with beautiful and elegant portraits from her family.  You also could look into the birthing room, which frankly was literally the size of a closet.  There was also a lovely and ornate tapestry (and/or bedspread) she had made, but I didn’t get a picture of it because there were too many people in front of it and it was a dark room.  But the needlework impressed me.

Scottish National War Memorial

I also scoped out the Scottish National War Memorial which was dedicated to the memory of the soldiers who died in WWI.  It looked like it should have been a chapel, not a war memorial.  Maybe it had been at some point?  But the sign said it was made in 1927 for the memorial’s purpose, which kind of amazes me because it looks like it was built part of the castle, if not originally, certainly more than 95 years ago.  I also peered in at the Great Hall, and perused the History of War Museum, and I can categorically state the only thing that interested me about the History of War was seeing the medals from the uniforms the men wore.  Some of it looks like jewelry.  And I love me some jewelry.  But the history of war leaves me cold—and with the exception of a brief nod to women as nurses, women’s role in the war(s) was ignored.  Overall, I’m not sorry I went to Edinburgh Castle, but between seeing it and Sterling Castle last week, I’m about castled out.  I appreciate their historical qualities, but they are surprisingly unromantic buildings (yes, yes, I know they are built for military purposes, not fairy tales), and seeing them in real life demystifies them in a sad kind of way.

Millennium Clock Tower, National Museum

Backtracking a little bit, Friday I went back to the National Museum of Scotland.  I had intended on going to the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture instead, but when I got there, the guard told me it was closed because it wouldn’t have an exhibit until the end of July.  I was glad I went back to the National Museum—I got to see things I missed and enjoyed my leisurely walk through the collections.  Something I hadn’t seen the previous time I visited was the two-story Millennium Clock Tower.  If I had been on the first floor, I think I would have filmed it going through its various songs and chimes at 1 p.m., but I missed some of it and wasn’t at a good spot to film anyway.  It’s a wonderful clock though, with four levels—a Crypt, a Nave, a Belfry, and a Spire, to correspond to the way a medieval cathedral is constructed.  Apparently, it was built in 1999—but just like the War Memorial, it looks older than it is.  I really enjoyed looking at it, and seeing various parts lighting up as it rang.

Another thing I saw that was very interesting was their extinction/climate change exhibit.  You would never see such a indictment of things like oil and pollution in a governmentally-supported museum in the States.  Oh, it was critical of human destruction of the planet—and so bald about it.  I mean the exhibit just points out all over the place how human selfishness causes animal extinction events and how we are probably going to end up with a planet that is beyond saving.  Can you imagine if this were the Smithsonian?  Republicans would go bananas.  But I loved it.  It’s a devastating exhibit, of course, but I really appreciated its in-your-face predictions of climate doom. We need truth like that.

One thing doing so much on the weekends helps with is keeping my loneliness issues at bay—you can’t be too lonely when you’re tramping all over the wilds of Scotland as well as the less-wilds of the city of Edinburgh.  So I think I’m doing a little bit better with feeling disconnected and discouraged than I was earlier, which is a good thing, especially since I still have several more weeks to go before I return home.  I still miss folks, and the days are still too long.  But I’m coping.

Hope you like this latest batch of pictures.

A church in front of Edinburgh Castle. At the lower right you can just see a Fish and Chips seller.

Field Marshal Earl Haig statue

View from the castle

I love the clouds in this picture. What you can’t see is just how steep this incline is.

The royal palace with clock tower

Upper ward courtyard

A handsome horse statue on the left side of the War Memorial

A debonair lion on the right side of the War Memorial

Ben Nevis, the highest point in Great Britain, with snow

The beautiful Highlands

This scratched off part of the hill is where Nessie apparently tried to escape the Loch but unfortunatly slipped back into the water because the hill is so steep.

Loch Ness

Loch Ness canal

Loch Ness (I think)

The Three Sisters, Glen Coe

Mountain in Glen Coe… the tour guide said “Geroff, and getcher Instagram pic.”

More Edinburgh Castle

I like the angle I took this pic of the arch.

A Highland bridge, no longer used for trains

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

Loch Ness

Loch Ness

Loch Ness

Piano painted by Phoebe Anna Traquair, National Museum of Scotland

Embroidered triptych by Phoebe Anna Traquair

Big Ass Fish (Kirsten, it tried to bite me!), National Museum

Mass censers, National Museum

Detail of Millennium Clocktower, with a tiny JC in the reflection, National Museum

Detail of the Millenium Clocktower, National Museum

Helen and Kate Storey dress, with X-ray of lung, 1997, National Museum

L: Plaque, the Virgin & Child, Italian,late 15th C., National Museum R: Plaque, the Virgin & Child, Italian, 17th C.

Grape goat, Michael Powolny, ca. 1907-1910, National Museum

The hall of animals, mostly extinct, National Museum

Giraffe head. I think he’s grinning.

Busts, National Museum. But I mostly like the atrium design apparent here.

Airplane in the Hall of Technology, National Museum

Another view of the atrium, National Museum

Bull figurine, National Museum

Cat figurine, National Museum