Highland cattle (known locally as ‘coos’) have a double coat of long hair making them well suited to the rain, cold and winds in the Highlands of Scotland. They are also hilariously photogenic.Throughout the trip we sought as many opportunities as possible to see Highland cattle and made sure to get photos. By the end of our week, I swear I started to look like a Highland coo! Our eight day trip to Scotland began in Edinburgh. Delta Airlines introduced seasonal non-stop service from Boston and we were on the inaugural flight. To celebrate, Delta had a bagpipe player at our gate and offered whisky and shortbread before boarding. A cliche for sure, but a welcome one! We arrived to sunshine and despite only a few hours of sleep on the overnight flight, we set out to explore the city.Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline from high on Castle Rock, an extinct volcano, and is visible from just about anywhere in the city. It was the home of Scottish kings and queens for centuries and is a symbol of Scottish independence. In August the esplanade in front of the castle becomes the site of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo where kilt-wearing bagpipers and drum corps entertain the crowds. Here’s a link to a YouTube video from the BBC to give you an idea of the power of the bagpipes and drums.An easy walk that provided us with great views over Edinburgh at sunset was Calton Hill with numerous monuments including ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’ — the nickname for the unfinished replica of the Parthenon, honoring those lost in the Napoleonic Wars.We had two memorable dinners in Edinburgh. We were tired on the first night since we had only arrived earlier in the day, our hotel suggested a room in the west end since we were willing to eat early and it was a short walk. The food was delicious and I began working on my goal to try a different Scottish gin every day (I didn’t meet one I didn’t like!)— my first tasting was Caorunn. Our other dinner in Edinburgh was at Purslane, a cozy basement bistro with inventive food pairings and a beautiful presentation. My G&T at Purslane was made with Edinburgh gin.
On the morning we were leaving Edinburgh, it was pouring rain, yet by the time we reached the Falkirk Kelpies, the sun was out. That kind of weather is pretty typical — mainly wet and unpredictable. The Kelpie is a mythological transforming beast that possesses the strength and endurance of 100 horses and inhabits the lochs and pools of Scotland. The two-30 meter high horse head sculptures were designed by sculptor Andy Scott and opened in 2013. Visible from the highway, yet much more dramatic to approach on foot, they honour the lineage of the heavy horse in Scotland.We also made a stop at the Falkirk wheel, a giant wheel that picks up a boat and slowly raises it up to link the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals. Prior to the opening of the wheel, transportation relied on a series of locks that were effective, but slow. Our destination after Edinburgh was Pitlochry, an attractive tourist town on the edge of the Highlands. We arrived in the late afternoon in time for a visit to the Pitlochry Dam Visitors Centre and Salmon Ladder which was easily accessed on foot from our hotel. We didn’t see any salmon but saw the ladder which allows the salmon to step their way upstream to the next dam.We returned to the hotel in time for cocktails and my third evening of Scottish gin tasting. This time I ordered Shetland Reel gin and was quite happy with my choice. The next morning, before leaving the area we stopped at the Edradour Distillery for a tour and tasting. I’ve been mentioning my gin tastings, but my husband was treating the trip as a whisky tasting tour! We attempted to make reservations for various distillery tours several weeks before our trip but everything was already booked. Edradour is the smallest historic distillery in Scotland and they don’t take reservations. We made it in time for the 10am tour and thoroughly enjoyed the tour and tasting.
Next stop was two nights in Inverness. We followed Rick Steves walking tour and agreed with his assessment that it’s a nice, midsize Scottish city with a disheveled grittiness. We had a late, hearty lunch at Number 27 Bar & Kitchen where I stuck with a familiar Scottish gin – The Botanist – and was not disappointed!The real reason we were staying in Inverness was because of the Malt Whisky Trail in Speyside, a pilgrimage for single malt whisky lovers (and my husband). To get there we drove through the town of Elgin and made a stop at Johnstons of Elgin where we had an excellent tour of the mill. They purchase cashmere from Mongolia and then dye, tease, card, spin and hand finish the fabric. No photos were allowed since they also produce fabric for Burberrys and Hermes and those companies don’t want to see their next season fabrics on someone’s blog or instagram!
On our must-see list for our day in Speyside was the Cooperage where you can watch coopers build or refurbish casks (barrels) for whisky storage. Oak is the only wood that is used to produce casks as it prevents seepage and allows the contents to breathe. Due to the porousness of the cask, some of the whisky inside evaporates during the aging process, roughly 2% per year, affectionately known as the angels’ share. Many of the casks used in Scotland are hand-me-downs from the US where bourbon laws allow only one use per barrel. From the observation deck we watched a former oak bourbon barrel get refurbished in record time. The coopers are paid by the piece and the best ones work with amazing speed and accuracy.We stopped at the Glenfiddich Distillery since it was a beautiful day. They had space in a tour but we decided to skip it and continue exploring the picturesque region.Walkers Shortbread is made in the town of Aberlour. They don’t do tours but they did have a factory store where we bought a large bag of seconds for about $3 and snacked on them the rest of the trip! Our last stop before heading back to Inverness was Cardhu Distillery. A little out of the way but worth the drive to walk around the charming distillery founded by women, and see some more cows! From Inverness, we were heading to the Isle of Skye. The sun was out and we were excited about the drive, that was until we met the single track road! I don’t know who decided this was a good idea. A one lane road that permits two-way traffic but isn’t wide enough for two vehicles. There were plenty of ‘passing places’ but you had to be very aware of their locations and be prepared at every corner to meet a car or a logging truck! Drivers were polite and the system seems to work but we had to adjust our arrival times accordingly! The scenery was incredible!Plockton is a picturesque Highland village that sits on Loch Carron. The single track road into the village was a little crazy but worth it for the view and the charm. We stopped to walk around and had delicious take-away fish & chips from The Harbour Fish Bar.Just a short distance from Plockton was the incredibly photogenic Eilean Donan Castle. You may recognize it from numerous movies…including the location of MI6 headquarters in the 1999 James Bond film The World is Not Enough.And finally, we reached the Isle of Skye. Rugged, remote and with unpredictable weather, we felt like we were at the end of the earth – in the very best possible way.Our hotel was in the main village of Portree with a view from our window over the colourful harbour. It was a perfect location, away from the hustle of the main street but an easy walk into the village.We had one full day to tour Skye so we set off for the Trotternish Peninsula. On a map it looks like an easy drive but with so many single track roads, it took us most of the day. We never made it to the Dunvegan Castle or to the Fairy Pools hike. And despite having booked a tour at Talisker Distillery, we got bumped for a private party. By this point in the trip, Ron was happy to taste the local whisky in the bar and skip the driving to a distillery! We started our day with a visit to the Skye Museum of Island Life, a small settlement of croft houses that offers a glimpse into life on Skye 100 years ago.Next stop was The Quiraing, the northernmost summit of Trotternish, for the spectacular view. We felt like we were alone at the end of the world…except for the 50 or so other people who also drove the very narrow single track road to reach the start of the hike!Kilt Rock was a quick stop to see the 200 foot sea cliff that look like the pleats of a kilt!And on my must-see list was Shilasdair Yarns, a small shop that sells British wool that they have dyed using local plants and minerals. From there we headed back to Portree and a delicious late lunch at the unassuming, local diner The Cafe. I tried Isle of Harris gin with my hearty portion of fish and chips and was quite content to skip dinner. We left Skye for a long day of driving through what was to be an incredibly scenic drive past Ben Nevis and through Glencoe. It poured rain and the fog was so extensive it blocked most of the scenery except for a quick shot out the car window! We’ll add it to the list for next time and request sunshine! We found a great little restaurant called The Laroch when we needed a break from the rain and traffic. It was in a village that was fun to say…Ballachulish.Since we weren’t stopping to look at the scenery we decided to push to make it for the last tour of the day at Deanston Distillery. This is where some of the scenes for Angels’ Share were filmed, a 2012 quirky movie about a troubled young man from Glasgow who discovers he has a nose for whisky. A relative new-comer to whisky production, Deanston single malt is made on the site of the former Deanston Cotton Mill. We had an excellent guide that made the tour a great end to a long day.Small but spectacular with rugged mountains, dramatic coastline, castles, culture, golf, cows, whisky, bagpipes and kilts — Scotland has so much to offer. We felt like we barely scratched the surface of what we wanted to see and plan to return soon. Haste ye back!