A PICTURESQUE WEEK TAKING IN THE GLORIES OF SCOTLAND
I’ve long wished to visit Scotland, to experience the culture and to see up close the ruggedly beautiful countryside and volcanic mountains such as Ben Nevis and Glen Coe. Oh yes, and to sample the whisky.
Last fall my wife and I took a weeklong group tour of Scotland, and it was a low-stress, easy way to get acquainted with the country. Bus tours have their drawbacks — you can’t deviate far from the tour itinerary and schedule — but they are also appealing because everything is pre-arranged. Luggage is picked up and delivered to your room each day, many meals are included and there is very little time spent waiting in line at attractions because tours get preference.
Our tour started in Edinburgh, and we arrived a day early so we would have time to adjust to the time change. After a day spent touring this ancient city, we hopped on the bus and headed for the mountainous Scottish highlands and our overnight stay at the Laggan Country Hotel near the tiny hamlet of Laggan. On the way we made a quick stop at St. Andrews, the home of golf. Despite a soft rain, being able to stand at the fabled 18th green and visualize Tom Watson waving goodbye from Swilcan Bridge for the final time in 2015 sent a chill up my spine.
We arrived at our Highlands hotel by mid-afternoon and after a brief rest we drove to nearby Aviemore for a 45-minute sheepdog exhibition by Neil Ross of Leault Working Sheepdogs. Scotland has more sheep than people and raising sheep is one of the predominant types of farming. Sheepdogs are a crucial part of tending flocks. Ross has more than a dozen dogs, as well as a few pups, on his beautiful farm near the heart of the Cairngorms National Park and he frequently hosts tour groups. With the virtuosity of an orchestra conductor, Ross commanded his dogs with whistles, hand gestures and occasional shouts. The precision with which the dogs rounded up and moved a small herd of sheep was startling. At one point in the demonstration, Ross had four dogs lie down about 20 yards apart while a single dog drove the herd back and forth between the dogs as if they were weaving through gates. Young pups were just learning and often took their lead from the older dogs. Our visit culminated with Ross shearing a sheep by hand.
As the afternoon turned to twilight it was back to the inn for a wee dram of whisky to ward off the late fall chill before dinner. Like sheep, whisky (no e in Scottish whisky) is a staple of Scottish life and has been for centuries. Scotland’s earliest documented distilling of whisky dates to tax records of 1494, when Friar John Cor bought “eight bolls of malt to make aqua vitae (water of life).” The Scotch Whisky Regulations define “Scotch Whisky” as that produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley, processed, fermented and matured in Scotland for at least three years.
Throughout our stay in Scotland I marveled at the vast array of whiskies that come from the more than 100 distilleries in five main whisky-producing regions. A small whisky shop in the mountain town of Pitlochry had an entire wall stacked floor-to-ceiling with boutique brands.
The Glengoyne distillery north of Glasgow was founded in 1833. Our tour included a “wee dram” at 10 in the morning. The Glengoyne visitor center had several displays that demonstrated how whisky changes as it ages. It takes on a darker color from the sherry oak cask in which it is aged, and over time evaporation causes the volume to decrease. That explains why some really old vintages are so expensive. Glengoyne sells its 35-year-old whisky for £2,850 pounds, or about $4,097 a bottle.
There are as many sides to Scotland as there are brands of whisky and that means that a weeklong tour is just a “wee dram.” There are many more places to explore the next time, and I especially want to visit some of the smaller villages in places such as the Shetland, Orkney and Hebrides islands. Oh yes, and sample a few more whiskies.