6 – 12 April 2018
It’s early 2021, birds are singing, the sun is shining a little more every day and everybody ‘dun be talkin’ ‘bout vaccines! There’s positivity on the horizon, but it’s hard to argue that we aren’t still running face-first into odd and dumbfoundingly bizarre times.
I tell ya, I’m not even sure I feel like writing about travel and adventure in 2020. I know I’ll eventually want to dip into the unprecedented nature of the past year. Perhaps … but just not yet*
*Truth be told, those posts are coming.
For a year that basically ground to a halt, Kat and I did manage to find some genuinely awesome moments and, heck, even learned a thing or two along the way.
Instead of that juicy 2020 material, I’m going to dive back even further. To the heady days of early 2018 and the high lands of the …
Our time in Scotland was one of our favourite treks so far and I’m honestly shocked that I haven’t written about it before. Chalk that up to one of those, “oh yeah, I’m totally going to write something after we get back from this whisky tour,” moments.
While we’d both briefly visited Scotland prior, this would be the first time we’d visited together, not to mention for an extended period of time.
Brewdog AGM 2018
Purchasing a couple of stocks in Brewdog, as it turns out, gains you access to a bunch of beer-related perks. One of these perks being the option to attend their annual general meetings in Aberdeen. While these do involve a certain amount of official business – state-of-the-union addresses, updates, scripted schtick from the CEOs – they’re mostly an excuse to sample tons of craft beer and eat street food with a few thousand other investors.
Shockingly, it’s pretty well-behaved for an industrial-sized booze-up. That is, until the convention centre disgorges its thousands of half-sauced hipsters, thus making them Aberdeen’s problem.
Pub crawling in Aberdeen during the Brewdog AGM is less about finding your favourite pubs, but rather about finding space in any pub. It’s honestly an absolute riot, and even better with friends.
Meeting up with two of our favourite folks, J&C, as well as another couple of their close crew, we set about getting our hands on an ever-dwindling list of sample-sized brews. Following this we set our sights on Aberdeen and wound up painting the town in the only way a bunch of responsible folks in their mid-to-late 30s are known to do.
… Calmly and calculated, ensuring that we only hit the choicest of establishments, whilst remaining hydrated and interspersing our beverages with adequate amounts of food and fresh air. Yeah, ‘lads’ we are not.
Tbh, there’s not much more to say. It was a blast. We expanded our palettes, probably beyond their abilities to be even remotely reliable. J&C showed us to their favourite stops in Aberdeen, and then, before we knew it, the morning rolled around and our time in the city had run its course.
Aberdeen has a rough reputation, but it’s becoming less applicable as time rolls on. Rough bits and folks can be found, but we encountered mostly the friendly, welcoming, and darkly humoured Scottish folks we’d expected to find north of the borders.
The city certainly owns its moniker as the “granite city”. Granite is rarely out of frame when walking its streets. It makes generally for a very grey, often imposing, visual takeaway. At the same time it also makes the foundation of some stunning architecture and impressive views.
We spent an afternoon exploring its gargantuan port, winding streets, as well as the coastline along its northern edge. I’d expected to be underwhelmed with Aberdeen. The reception I got from stating ‘yeah, we’re going to Aberdeen for a weekend’, elicited prior to our trip was mixed. Having been there, I’m glad I didn’t take that reception to heart.
On that note, we move on to…
It can be sad to bid adieu to friends. But we’d come to Scotland for some Highlands, and dammit, those highlands were only two non-refundable train tickets away. So, we scarpered post-haste, exchanging the stony facade of Aberdeen for the once Pictish stronghold of Inverness.
The Picts have long-since moved on, leaving us with a beautiful little city sat astride the River Ness. The river itself has received some attention in the intervening years, and now features a bevvy of winding trails and maintained walkways that follow its path through the city and into the immediate outskirts. After several hours on a train, this is where we spent most of our first afternoon in the city, before seeking out a choice pub for our first highland dinner.
Like the rest of the UK, you’re rarely left wanting for pub options in Scotland. Within an easily walkable 20 minutes of our bnb we had no shortage of choices, from touristy gastropubs, restaurants, and the like, through chippies and local-favourite boozers. We split the difference and found a nice pub somewhere between gastro and boozer and couldn’t have been happier.
Oh hey, you may have heard chatter about the inherent crime that you’re sure to trip over in Inverness. I’m not sure if the particular TripAdvisor reviewer in question simply had a bad day, or fostered a grudge with the Scots, but their now-viral review was not kind to the city.
Truth in advertising: Inverness isn’t all polish and sunshine. We were there for the better part of a week and got a few glimpses of it’s rougher edges. There are wee corners where the stucco has sloughed off, so to speak. Friday and Saturday nights spawn the same lushes and publicly-urinating lads & lasses who can be found adding flavour across the isle. Every city has its seedier areas. Inverness is no exception.
The Inverness we experienced was far from the Inverness as described in that one scathing review. We found it to be easily walkable and safe, even after 12 noon! It was full of friendly locals, welcoming shops, lovely streets and a surprising amount of culture for such a far-flung centre.
One strike against it would be our own doing. For us, Inverness was a base of operations before setting out in every direction but Inverness. Our time in town consisted of early morning coffee scrambles, bus timetables, and late evening battles against h-anger. That limited view definitely has us wanting to return and experience the city properly. Not to mention that we’re keen to revisit our bnb on the hill and spend a bit more time with Jed, the highland terrier, and his family.
Every direction but Inverness
We’d never really been outside of urban Scotland. The views from train windows were beautiful and tantalising, but nowhere near satiating. We wanted a taste of the highlands, we wanted to experience Scotland, it’s nature, and several choice things that should not be missed. This certainly wouldn’t be our last time in the north, but we also wanted to make the most of it while we were there.
We’re also not tour people. The thought of being stuck on a giant bus for hours sounds like a private hell for me. I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t be inclined to share said hell with my fellow passengers, either. I’m a giving person.
For some reason I’m also a magnet for the worst tourist in a big group. You know the one. Wherever they’re from (*cough, North America) they sport their country’s worst accent, love to overshare, and marvel at even the most banal of differences between home and away. I know, it’s rich for a foreigner to gripe about such things on a tour. I cringe when I recognise that ‘terrible’ accent as one from my own home country. Everyone has their thing. I count myself lucky that folks are usually none-the-wiser about my origins, as long as I keep my mouth shut, smile, and nod.
Digression aside, we ended up going with Rabbies tours for a couple of outings. If this was a podcast, this would be a great time for a sponsored segment. If you’re reading this, Rabbies, I’m open to sponsorship opportunities* (*not sponsored in any way).
Goofs aside, Rabbies operate a plethora of great tours throughout Scotland. Their schtick is to strip back tours to more intimate affairs. Their buses hold, at max, around a dozen folks, and are lead by knowledgeable tour guides who often run double-duty as drivers. Each outing features a variety of stops at key sites for food and sight-seeing, all peppered with relevant facts and local flavour. Their tours were exactly what we were looking for.
Our first outing was hosted by Colin. Colin was ex military and had a fantastic, no-nonsense storytelling style. While he couldn’t drink, himself, he was responsible for trucking 10 whisky aficionados through the Eastern highlands and a couple of the region’s notable distilleries. And he did so with panache!
Starting with a stunning vista of the Moray Firth and North Sea from Findhorn Beach, Colin told us tales of Scottish fishermen and their encounters with everything from porpoises to sly Celtic spirits on the waves.
From there he guided us inland, to the heart of the Speyside distilling region. The abundance of Scotch in Scotland is perhaps a stereotype, however, it comes from a place of truth. For a while it seemed as though every laneway was signposted with directions to a distillery. In fact, it would be foolish to even attempt to visit all but a fraction of them. If there’s one thing that Scotland has in greater excess than munros or fens, it’s distilleries.
For our tour, we would only be visiting 2 of them which, on reflection, was an entirely reasonable number. Not to mention a good cross section.
A smaller, essentially family-run distillery, Benromach had fallen in and out of use a few times over the last few decades. However, it had by then been in operation long enough to offer a wide selection of styles and ages. Not to put down the larger operations, but I much preferred this smaller distillery. The tour felt much more personal, with the owners and operators, themselves, taking on tasting and guiding duties. Not to mention that the whisky was right up my alley, with a greater focus on malt than peaty flavours.
Wisely, at this point the tour took a brief sojourn to Elgin, where we could temper the whisky tastings with food and walks around the town centre. We spent our time lazily eating lunch around the ruins of Elgin Cathedral.
The cathedral had been built in the 13th century and was a seat of local ecclessiastical importance for quite some time. Like many cathedrals of the age, it suffered from several devastating fires and reconstructions over its lifetime. The last nail in its coffin seems to have come in the form of the reformation. The building was both stripped of valuable materials, as well as mainly ignored, until much of it had fallen to ruin. Sometime in the 19th century, a new view towards the importance of such ruins was taken. This seachange is responsible for the surviving structure we see today.
On the entire other end of the spectrum, distillery-wise, is Glenfiddich. While Benromach certainly isn’t a nano distillery, Glenfiddich is the macro of macro operations. Immediately upon arriving, we were informed that, as impressive as the operation appeared, they were in the midst of renovations that would see the current facility double in size. I can’t recall the volume of production, but it would certainly be enough to sink a small town … under litres of delicious, smokey, peat-infused, libations.
Fun fact: Glenfiddich owns a massive parcel of land that includes the source of the spring where they source their water. Water is of immense importance and has massive influence on the flavour of the whisky produced. As such, distilleries protect their sources with every ounce they can mustre. In the case of Glenfiddich, they’re one of only a few distilleries who source their water entirely from a single source. Because of this, any land that could have an immediate influence on the spring is owned by the distillery, and they heavily regulate any activity or alterations to the countryside.
And with that, the whisky portion of the trip was out of the way.
Mixing things up
Between our pair of tours, we wound up with a day to ourselves. Luckily enough, this was also the day when the weather decided to turn and make me thankful for finally owning a quality waterproof jacket.
A short train journey south of Inverness lands you in the very heart of the Highlands, and the outdoor adventurers’ paradise of the Cairngorms. And if you choose to visit in the early spring, those stunning vistas will likely be protected by spooky layers of fog and mist that the highlands are also known for.
That said, we had a great little adventure traipsing through the foggy hills around Aviemore for a day. Like Skye, the Cairngorms are another region of Scotland that we fully intend to return to and explore more thoroughly.
Loch Ness & the Isle of Skye
Our other major tour outing, also courtesy of Rabbies, was a full day loop through the western Highlands. From Inverness we wound down along Loch Ness, then north again and onto Skye, stopping at Sligachan, Storr, the port town of Portree, and the Cuillin Mountains.
This time, our guide was Helen: a local who used her passion and experiences of growing up in the highlands to pepper the tour with an impressive number of anecdotes and relevant facts about the sights along the way. (I said it once above, and I’ll say it again: Rabbies is really the way to go for tours in Scotland, especially if you, like me, aren’t a fan of big bus outings). Moving on…
I’ll mostly leave the account of the day up to the photos I took.
That said, if there’s any part of this trip that we wish we had more time for, it’s Skye. Loch Ness was stunning, and Eilean Donan castle was pure fantasy adventure fuel, but the Isle of Skye was, from shore to shore (to shore to shore to shore … damn this thing has inlets!) a magical and captivating place. Every vista felt like a vignette marrying ancient mysticism with natural wonder.
From the moment we spotted the ruins of castle Moil and the Kyle of Lochalsh, I desperately wanted to set off on our own. It’s not that Helen wasn’t able to captivate us with the surroundings, it’s that there was just so much to see that a single tour couldn’t hope to capture it all.
Skye feels like the sort of place you need to step out into. It’s not just the sights it proffers, it’s the way it ‘feels’. Everything you’ve heard about this magic of Scotland, this is the epitome of it.
Then again, who needs photos?
Fittingly, this is also the moment when my camera threw in the towel. Blame it on being overloaded with beauty and spectacle, or perhaps simply blame it on a cheap lens being dropped one too many times (*cough), but the last photo that would come out of it on this trip would be a lonely boat, lazily making its way across the sound from the viewpoint of the Mealt Falls.
Rounding things out
With a taste of Scotland under our belts, we ended up rounding out our final day in the country with a wander through the streets of Inverness. Our search: an elusive Full Scottish Breakfast. The search would not be in vain – nor terribly difficult, for that matter.
It turns out that Inverness hides a hefty bit of music history cred. What is now a small greasy spoon style diner – serving up a mean Scottish Breakfast that I highly recommend – was once a record store and, prior to that, a music venue. This venue hosted a small and unknown group of four lads who called themselves The Silver Beatles. I hear tell that they even went on to make a bit of a name for themselves. The haggis was pretty darned good, as well.
That about wraps things up for Scotland. While I wish I’d jotted this down back when the memories were fresh, I’ve certainly enjoyed revisiting the adventure. It’s also reminded me just how much we fell in love with the Scots and their country. I know a lot of obnoxious tourists say this, but I felt like I connected with the place.
I’m not sure if it’s because I have ancestry there – perhaps there’s something deep in my genetics that triggered a distant connection to the place – or I simply fell in love with its scenery and the attitudes of its people. From my current perspective in the hedgerow crossed flatness of the English countryside, I’m certainly missing the windswept hills and munros.
There’s something that feels wild and free about Scotland. A little taste of the wilderness that I miss from my own home, mixed with the exotic feel of a foreign land that’s been a huge source of fiction and mysticism. The Highlands are widely considered to be one of the last great wildernesses to be found in the UK, and we’re definitely keen to get our boots back in the midst of it all again soon.