Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Wee Bit of Scotland

(Stirling, Scotland) After decades of "one of these days" projections that never occurred, a lifelong desire to drive the roads of Scotland through its rich terrain of mountains, valleys, and countless lochs became reality last week. Not having the disposition for tour guides or packaged programs, I rented a car and selected my own routes, accompanied by my dear companion L on an adventure that for better or worse would be one of our own making.

L had the easier commute to Edinburgh, catching a Ryan discount flight from Berlin. My flight from Nashville, Tennessee required so much of Saturday, June 11, that it became Sunday, June 12. The free rental car upgrade resulted in a shiny new silver Mercedes E-Class with black interior and yes, the driver's seat on the right side of the car.

The five-minute drive to L's hotel required an hour, but I survived the plunge into the pool, the crash course, of driving on the left side of the road, navigating roundabouts, and unfamiliar traffic signs and signals. After several stops for directions and assistance (some males can in fact do this) and some navigational consternation, I arrived at the Edinburgh airport TraveLodge hotel, mentally preparing for Murphy's Law to prevail with the discovery that there were in fact two Edinburgh airport TraveLodge hotels and that I was at the wrong one.

(The Wallace Monument) These thoughts ended abruptly when L came running out of the building, smiling ear to ear. What a sweet embrace in the parking lot of a discount airport hotel. She grinned at the Mercedes, and before noon L and I were heading west on the M9, bound for Stirling, Scotland, its famous castle and other sites rich with historical drama. While Stirling is quite small (the smallest city in Scotland), its significance and importance rivals any location in the country. Upon arrival, we drove slowly, our eyes and minds devouring our surroundings. We parked near downtown. Within just hours of landing in Scotland, L and I were enjoying our first plates of fish and chips.

Our B&B did not expect us until 5, and my energy, while compromised, remained functional. We made our way to Stirling Castle and took our self-guided tour with informative audio guides that provided interesting and useful background information. In preparation for the trip I'd studied Scottish history in some detail, and this paid off as the audio guide presented much of the 1200 – 1700 period, in particular the highlights of Stuart kings and Mary, Queen of Scots, many of whom had lived or spent time at the castle. While I had planned to visit the William Wallace memorial, energy was waning, and the view of the monument from the castle was good enough for this trip. We returned to town and casually absorbed the ample smorgasbord of sights and sounds until it was time to “truly locate” the B&B, another little adventure.

(Girls learning what it was to be a maiden inside Stirling Castle) The Forth House Guesthouse offered immediate access to downtown Stirling, and after a power nap we walked into the city in search of a proper pub, which we found, a more or less locally frequented establishment featuring authentic Scottish fare. As we had heard and would soon verify, the Scottish pubs offered the perfect ambiance to relax and enjoy a meal and a drink. We suspected that Sunday evening at 7:00 differed from a weeknight, but the place filled most of its seats with a diverse set of folks including some touring couples like ourselves, younger locals, and a highly intoxicated man of about fifty seated alone at a table save a small piece of luggage and his pint, which he drank slowly.

Unlike the American establishments concentrated on milking patrons for as much money as possible as quickly as possible, the Scottish pubs served other objectives. The darkly yet warmly lit rooms produced an atmosphere I have craved as long as I can remember. They had lots of wood, wood floors, wood tables and chairs, wood bars, wood walls, wood shelves, wood stairs and railings, lots of wood. The fantastic bars had an ample row of taps for first rate ales and lagers chilled at separate temperatures. Behind the bars, well lit walls displayed richly stocked shelves full of liquor and in particular a Scotch selection to die for, not to mention a wine selection capable of pleasing all but the most uppity wine connoisseurs. Charging prices that allowed patrons to not only grab a bite, but stay awhile and have a second drink, or a third, the pubs provided community, as the saying goes, “where everybody knows your name.”

(Forth Guest House) We ordered the Scottish mainstay of haggis, neeps, and tatties, which came on a plate separated by oat cakes mounted vertically like walls between the three. Haggis is best enjoyed if one doesn't think about what it is. Yours truly sent a cautious fork into the dark, spiced concoction that looked like a combination of meat and dough. To my surprise, it was quite good. A few small doses of this stuff over the week would not hurt me. L ordered a Guinness and I enjoyed a dark Scottish brew not entirely different from some of the high quality ales produced in America's Midwest (the quality ones you won't find advertized on television). I loved the food, and in particular, the oat cakes. More on the oat cakes later.

A trip to the restroom spared me what L and other onlookers then witnessed, the intoxicated man flipping backward over his chair, feet over head as the last remnants of his beer sailed skyward. Not laughing or smiling, the humiliated soul sought to end his intimacy with the pub floor as quickly as possible, and before I could return, had scurried away as onlookers returned to their prior conversations.

L and I slowly walked the rather empty, Sunday evening streets of Stirling. In spirit I could have spent another three hours downing a few more pints and taking in the sights, turning to L as occasions warranted to share thoughts or observations, but in body by this time I was spent and running on the last remnants of fumes.

We awoke Monday morning for the second B of “B&B” and arrived at 8:04 AM for the published “8-9 AM” breakfast, and most fortunately, for the “8-9” meant starting at 8 and finishing at 9. One didn't start at 8:30. As all breakfasts this week would, it started with a selection of high quality cereals (although one choice was corn flakes, which almost no one chose) that had oats, nuts, dried fruit, heavy, substantive cereals that satisfied to which one could add fresh fruit and milk or yogurt. Then came the real breakfast of haggis, eggs, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, beans, bacon, potatoes, and dark pudding with choice of "white" or "brown" toast. We left Stirling well satiated and ready for a day of adventuresome driving across the extraordinary country in the border region between the lowlands and highlands. The drive did not disappoint, and I will remember it always.

Our trip took us northwest from Stirling towards Doune as L reminded me, “Keep left!” and we enjoyed spectacular “eye candy” of jaw dropping terrain that included not just the mountains and valleys, but a rich and diverse presentation of extraordinary colors and mixtures of colors. L's artistic eyes marveled in the delicious display of roadside flowers and other vegetation, the green of the grasses and hillsides, the Scottish summer skies of morning, afternoon, and night, and the architecture of town after town, each qualifying as a vacation destination with roadside B&B's for those choosing to stop, and water was everywhere. As I drove the Mercedes around curve after curve, up and down the hills, I kept thinking of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. We were on his turf. I was driving through the Shire, expecting to see little hobbit mounds with their tiny wooden front doors and the peephole windows.

The A84 took us through the central lowlands, up through Doune, Callander, and to A85 over to Crianlarich. The highlands, Loch Ness, Inverness, Aberdeen, Perth, and the Highland and Speyside distilleries would have to wait for another trip. When we reached Dalmally and Loch Awe I knew we were close to a sight I really wanted to see, Kilchurn Castle, but we couldn't find it. As a particularly compelling hotel showed up on the left, L suggested we stop.

What a delightful, old hotel, a marvelous structure located right on the Loch with a fantastic view to the south. We admired the sight, and when we turned to our left, in the distance stood the castle. We doubled back from the hotel in search of a road to the castle. No road, but a footpath to the castle did exist.

Kilchurn Castle is considered the most professionally photographed castles in all of Scotland. While quite accessible, it is far enough from the tourist hot spots to escape the crowds. We had the place to ourselves - no audio guides, attending staff, and admission fees. L and I visited Kilchurn Castle proper, thoroughly exploring the 560 year old structure.

As we explored the various rooms and climbed to the higher stations in the structure, I found myself imagining what may be impossible to truly imagine, the many human experiences of people occupying the rooms of this building so long ago when it was the only building (other than tiny shacks) for many miles. Whatever the history books said, who really occupied these dark rooms centuries ago? Truth be told, who can say what is significant and what is not, but I am certain some of what occurred inside these walls never reached pen and paper.

From Kilchurn we continued west, and the Scottish terrain continued to amaze. I could only imagine from photographs how beautiful the highlands must be. My eyes welled up on several occasions. The history of the people in these lands involves considerable hardship and violence, but I couldn't help thinking that to some extent, “If you're lucky enough to live around here, then you're lucky enough.”

As we started getting closer to Oban, my attention became increasingly focused on the clock and the time remaining to catch the 6 PM ferry to Islay. We nixed the plans to visit the Oban distillery in favor of using extra time to visit other sites as we headed south in what proved to be an excellent choice. We shared a quick lunch of fish and chips in Oban, stocked up on British cash, and headed south. L noticed a place on the map called Kilmartin that had dozens of historic sites. We stopped and found ourselves looking at the Kilmartin Stones. Only later did I learn that we had in fact been through the heart of Kilmartin Glen, one of the greatest concentrations of ancient monuments in Scotland.

When we reached the Kennacraig port, we still had time to visit a castle, this one just a wee bit off the usually traveled path (as if Kennacraig were not already a wee bit off said path), Skipness Castle, located near the remote village of Skipness.

The drive to Skipness featured what we did not know would be a preview of coming attractions, a tiny, single lane road barely wide enough for one vehicle. To allow traffic in both directions, pullouts to the left occurred every several hundred yards. The consideration of oncoming traffic became a vital component of using these roads, and failing to do so would be delinquent driving. Drivers were expected to note oncoming traffic as soon as it was visible. Whoever had the first turnoff would signal this with a flash of headlights and turn to their left on the little space provided.

The tiny road to Skipness became even tinier after turning left towards the castle. Again accessible only on foot, as we hiked I wondered how many of the Scots themselves had actually made it to this place. While inside the ruins of Skipness Castle, once again I wondered who had been inside this place at its prime, whatever its prime might have been, and what constituted their lives.

We weren't on the ferry for the island called home by the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bunnahabian, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, and the almost brand new Kilcharin for fifteen minutes before we were talking about scotch with one of the locals returning to the island. The ferry served Scotch with dinner during the ride, but we opted for “Black Rock Ale,” one of the brews produced by an Islay brewery located near Bowmore.

As anticipated, the drive from Port Askaig to Port Ellen occurred without incident and provided a brief introduction to the island, taking us through Bowmore and past the Bowmore distillery. We arrived at the B&B around 9:30, and our host invited us into the living room for an explanation of the accommodations, pouring a generous “taste” of an Islay whisky blend known as Black. When I finished the taste, he poured a second one.

(Kildaton Cross) Our first morning on the island began with a breakfast feast featuring haggis that was delicious and SPICY! Amply fueled with another fine morning meal, we headed east for the “wee bit” of a drive I had fantasized for the better part of a decade, the drive from Port Ellen to the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. We passed Laphroaig as we would be touring it that afternoon and stopped at Lagavulin, touring their gift shop and walking around, but it still felt a little early for tasting and shopping, and in the mind that I would be returning here, I didn't buy anything but took note of the 20cl bottles and some of the glasses and other items. In light of everything that would be coming up, I'm not sure what made me think I would actually make it back.

The reception room at Ardbeg occurred like the entrance to heaven itself, and my concern for the time of day evaporated. Let the tasting begin, and ohh, the water of life indeed! I must have had 5 tastes of different versions of the beyond delicious whisky for the Islay scotch lover. I bought a 50ml miniature to later perform something I had always wanted to do, a side by side comparison of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. I've thought about this comparison for years.

After Ardbeg, L and I headed up the east coast of the island towards the ancient ruins of Kidalton. The Kidalton Cross is considered one of the finest remaining high crosses in Scotland, carved in the late 8th century. This Cross was crafted 100 years closer to the crucifixion of Christ than to our visit today. We walked around the tombstones, reading the engravings and looking at the countryside. Other than an elderly couple who departed shortly after we arrived, we were the only people in sight.

That afternoon we entered the Laphroaig distillery and tasted the 10 year, the Cask Strength, and the 18 year. The 18 year Laphroaig is quite possibly the best scotch I have ever tasted. Over the next 90 minutes, we watched and learned in great detail the process which produced the incredible spirits we were drinking. I bought a bottle of the 10 year, and we returned to the B&B for some delightful R&R. Refreshed, we found a terrific restaurant in Bowmore right on Loch Indaal with floor to ceiling windows looking over the water.

(Peat, a dense, rich soil full of decomposing vegetation on its way to becoming oil, is placed on burning coals to produce a thick smoke which rises up to the next floor over the barley, giving Laphroaig its strong peaty flavor.)

"Whisky" (without the e) refers to products distilled in Scotland, Wales, Canada, or Japan. "Whiskey" indicates it was made in the United States or Ireland. In 1968 the USA's Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms decreed that America would adopt the first spelling. So many American distilleries told the ATF what they could do with their decree that it backed down and let producers use the spelling of their choice.

Wednesday started with a slightly smaller yet terrific breakfast before we headed up the single lane 8016 to bypass Bowmore and head directly into Bridgend and over to the Islay House Square, which featured a series of shops and art galleries, Islay Ales, the brewery which produced the ales we enjoyed on the ferry, and a marvelous community maintained garden enclosed by stone walls. We tasted more brews, bought some whisky fudge, and looked at the galleries.

A short drive took us to the Woollen Factory, a historic facility whose owner had established contracts serving the Prince of Wales and other dignitaries. The owner, easily in his late sixties, bought the factory decades ago. It now featured a variety of tartan weave, as well as solid cashmere/mink blends, thick wool blankets and scarves, and other “home grown and made” wool products of the highest quality. He personally greeted the two of us and then offered to walk us through his domain. Some of the extraordinary machines had been in operation for dozens of years.

We headed for Portnahaven, an exquisite little village that seemed like a place at the edge of the world far out of reach of all things bad on the planet. As far as we could tell, few people and fewer (if any) tourists were around. L struck up a conversation with an elderly woman having lived in Portnahaven all of her life, a reality I can't even pretend to grasp. The woman shared that during the 1950's, she and a friend had all of the papers and arrangements to move to the United States, arrangements that included green cards, apartments, and employment. At the last minute, she had changed her mind and decided to stay. For 50 years, she has wondered what life might have been had she left.

That ponder is a cerebral rabbit hole without a bottom.

(Portnahaven as seen reflected from a window of one of the properties along the coast) That evening, we enjoyed one of those meals one will remember for life, seafood that for the most part one simply doesn't get at a restaurant, at least not in such quantities. It started with scallops, huge scallops including the attachments with the eggs (which I had never seen before, let alone eaten), presented inside of a sauce making it appear like a soup. After this "scallop soup" came the main dish, more lobster and crab than you could eat, masterfully pre-cut so only minimal effort was required to extract the meat. Our host knew the local fishermen who went to sea each day, "Everything you are eating was in the sea this morning."

The food occurred to bottomless glasses of whisky and beer. When I said that I couldn't possibly have the coffee and dessert, our host smiled, “At least taste the coffee.”

Oh my Lord. The coffee, some kind of remarkable concoction, proved irresistible. I turned to its maker, my eyes wide. He grinned, "Yeah, it has whisky.”

With the coffee came more oat cakes, a rather dry food unlikely to appeal to most, but I loved them, and perhaps due to the alcohol, as I ate them after this meal I became overwhelmed with emotions I didn't fully understand. If our host could tell, he kept it to himself as my eyes grew moist and my lower lip started to quiver, but L knew at once and could see my struggle to remain composed. If I had been alone, I would have been sobbing like a little boy. Instead, I managed with regular wipes of my eyes and the occasional napkin over my mouth. There is something about those oat cakes that stirs something deeper than I can reach, calling to memories I no longer have.

One doesn't lie down after such a feast. For the remainder of our last night on the island, we walked hand in hand in the never ending dusk beneath a sun that took four hours to set, a walk in as much silence as speaking, listening to everything.

Thursday morning we caught the ferry off the island and found ourselves in Kennacraig at 11 AM, ready to head north to Lochgilphead and over through Inverary, down along the famous Loch Lamond, and then into Glasgow. As we descended from rural to urban, population density spiraled and the transportation options grew complex. We chose a course right into the heart of Glasgow and slowed to the downtown pace of stop and go through the city.

We reached the Edinburgh airport, returned the shiny Mercedes, caught the bus downtown, and taxied to the B&B. Our new hosts were exquisitely British, “If you walk to the castle, you will arrive in 17 minutes. If you stop for directions, you will arrive in 19 minutes. If you leave, shut the windows entirely, for the rain comes at the building sideways.”

After hearing his advice on nice walks to gardens, reasonable walks for groceries, and not so nice walks to avoid, we asked for his thoughts on a nearby pub with character and affordable prices. He suggested the Conan Doyle, a pub named after the Sherlock Holmes author who had frequented the place during his prime. In case our “affordable” was less modest than might be presumed, he couldn't resist suggesting another option, a fine establishment with exquisite fare at triple digit pound per person prices, but then added, “You likely require reservations.”

We had neither reservations nor the inclination to part with triple digit pounds per person, and walked the three blocks along Broughton Street to the Conan Doyle, and in just that walk we noticed more pubs, cafes, wine shops, boutiques, and city markets than existed on the entire island of Islay. We were farther from the island than a boat ride and a drive. I noticed the creative economy of space both inside the buildings and outdoors, where some rooms had widths of just a few feet, sinks extending only inches from the wall, yards behind buildings split by stone walls into narrow slits of turf, one per residence. Space was not left idle, and tiny balconies and micro-porches held meticulously maintained vegetable or flower gardens.

The Edinburgh Castle attracts thousands of visitors per day, so I wanted to arrive early Friday morning and begin with what I expected would be a bottleneck where the lines could get long – the Royal Jewels of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny. The Castle had an interesting and informative exhibition taking about 20 minutes to traverse on the way through the building to the jewels. For this part of the castle, photography and the use of cell phones were prohibited.

I won't add to the abundant material on the castle, save to remark that in the Scottish National War Memorial, dedicated to those Scots who served and died in WWI and WWII, one of the displays contained captured flags from Japan and Nazi Germany. As I stood there, looking at the two flags, it occurred to me that this was the first time in my life I stood face to face with a real Nazi flag. Though behind glass, the flags were up front and viewers could get within inches. The Japanese flag, as real as reality gets, had dozens and dozens of Japanese signatures, clearly a flag of some importance. I looked at each flag for quite some time.

(The Elephant House, where Harry Potter author JK Rowling wrote many of her early novels) After the castle we walked the Royal Mile, a tourist saturated collection of shops and restaurants serving its volumes of visitors. Even here, the ever perceptive and resourceful L found a remarkably quiet and reasonable restaurant where she enjoyed a Guinness and a rich salad heavily laden with goat cheese. I couldn't resist the “Wallace Special,” a hamburger topped with haggis. After lunch we reached the end of the Royal Mile and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, noticing a marked increase in access control and security measures. In the gift shop it became clear why. The place serves as one of the official residences of the Queen of England. We passed on both the tour of the palace and the abundance of souvenirs associated with Buckingham Palace, leaving the Mile for a stroll through downtown Edinburgh. By this time, my capacity for new data was tapped.

After R&R at the B&B, we caught a bus further into town for live music, Stramash, a small and quite intimate musical concert where 5 musicians played for an audience of only 20 or 30, allowing face to face conversation between all after the show. We arrived in time to first have dinner and selected a pub of the more popular, energetic variety for our last plate of fish and chips with her usual Guinness and my dark, Scottish ale. After the show, we walked the streets of Edinburgh past the countless pubs full of Friday night festivities amongst the wood, the well lit shelves, the whisky, and the lively conversations of the patrons.

In so short a visit we only scratched the wee surface of the rich and deep, but it provided a taste, a taste as thought provoking as unforgettable.