Category Archives: Scotland

A Denouement of Drams

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” – Mark Twain

I arrived in Scotland already resigned to saving distillery tours for a future visit. My travel companion is not so interested. But then a series of coincidences (or were they?) conspired to have me visit four distilleries. Excessive rain and wind limiting outdoor options in Glen Coe, and all of a sudden I was at Oban. Wait, there is a distillery on the Isle of Skye and we’re going to be there anyway? Our friend in London’s spare bedroom isn’t free until the 25th, so we have an extra day to work with? Let’s stop in Speyside between the Highlands and Edinburgh.

Many a tome has been penned on the topic of Scotch whisky, and I am far from an expert. So this post is not an attempt to comprehensively cover the topic. Rather, I will share a few of my experiences, mention some things that surprised me, and also cover in the Practical Info section our night in Speyside and a few tips. I will over-simplify many things, and I will generally use “whisky” only to mean single malt Scotch whisky. And yes, here they spell it without the “e.”

There are five single malt regions of Scotland, though they are not necessarily entirely distinct and there may be some overlap. The five are: the Lowlands, the Highlands, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown. To generalize, Islay whiskies are often the most heavily peated and smoky. Speyside are often more sherried. Note that Speyside technically lies within the Highland region, and it is home to approximately half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries.

Making whisky is actually a pretty simple process. There are only three ingredients: water, malted barley and yeast. To qualify as “Scotch whisky,” the whisky must be produced at a distillery in Scotland, aged in oak casks for at least three years and carry an ABV of at least 40%. There are countless variations in temperatures, types of casks, time frames, etc., but the basic process is as follows:

  • Barley is malted. This means it is soaked in water, which causes germination. Then it is dried in a kiln to halt further growth.
  • The malted barley is then run through a mill, and the goal is to break down the barley and typically get about 20% husk, 70% grist (grits?) and 10% flour.
  • The entire mixture is then added to the mash tun, where it is combined with hot water to convert the starches into sugars. The resulting sweet liquid is called worts. It is drained and the remaining solids become animal feed.
  • The worts is cooled and pumped into washbacks, where yeast is added to begin the fermentation process. This usually lasts 2-4 days and the resulting wash has an ABV around 8-9%.
  • The wash is then pumped into copper pot stills and the distillation process begins. Scotch whisky is usually double distilled (Auchentoshan is triple distilled), so you will see one or more pairs where one still is larger and the other smaller. The wash first goes into the larger still and is boiled, and since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, alcohol vapor is produced. It is then condensed and that liquid is called low wines, usually about 20-25% ABV.
  • The low wines liquid is pumped into the second, smaller still and boiled again and the resulting liquid has a much higher ABV. Distillers talk about the head, the heart and the tail. The first bit of liquid that comes out of the second distillation process has a very high ABV and some unwanted properties, and the last bit of liquid that comes out has a low ABV and also some unwanted properties. So these parts (the head and the tail, aka foreshots and feints) are recycled back with the low wines into the second still, and only the heart becomes the new-make spirit.
  • This new-make spirit is a clear liquid, usually with an ABV around 70%. Most (all?) distillers then dilute this a bit with water (to perhaps 63.5%) before filling the oak casks for the aging process to begin.
  • After the whisky has been aged in oak casks, it is diluted again (usually to 40-48% ABV) before being bottled, unless it is bottled as cask strength whisky.

Among the key variations and nuances in how whisky is made, perhaps the most obvious to the palate is whether peat is burned to dry the barley during the malting process. If so, the resulting whisky will have a smoky taste, depending on just how much peat is used. Examples of very smoky whiskies that I’ve tried include Laphroaig, Talisker and Lagavulin. Interestingly, peat is odorless when raw. If you do a Google search for “Dave Broom flavor map,” you will find maps illustrating where certain whiskies fall on the spectrum between delicate and smoky and between light and rich. Here is an example:

I would say the next most influential difference is what type of cask is used and for how long. Whisky almost always begins in an ex-bourbon cask and stays there for 10-20 years. Sometimes it is finished in a sherry cask for 6-12 months, possibly even a port or rum cask. Occasionally whisky is aged in a sherry cask from the beginning.

Here are a few things I learned:

  • Hardly any of the large distillers malt their barley on-site. Rather, barley is typically malted at specialist facilities and then delivered to the distilleries. There are exceptions to this. I believe Balvenie still does floor maltings, but I’m not sure they cover all their production needs in-house.
  • The huge majority of oak casks are ex-bourbon casks imported from America. There is a simple explanation: by regulation, bourbon casks may only be used once, thus providing a fairly inexpensive stream of oak casks for Scotch whisky distillers.
  • All the color in whisky comes from aging in the cask(s), it is a clear liquid when it enters the cask.
  • The oak casks are porous, and the evaporation rate is usually 1.5-2% each year. This lost liquid is referred to as the angels’ share. This gave me an entirely different appreciation for why older whiskies are more expensive (without opining on whether they’re worth it). Not only are they rarer and require more time in storage etc., but more of the original amount has disappeared. Keep whisky in a cask for 25 years, and you’ll have only half the liquid you began with!
  • Cask strength means whisky that is not diluted before being bottled. I think some alcohol evaporates over time (?), so an old cask strength whisky might be 51-52% ABV vs. a younger cask strength might be 57%.
  • After the wash is distilled, the liquid runs through a spirit safe, which literally has a lock on it, to avoid tax-free diversion of the spirits. I mentioned the head, heart and tail above. To separate these segments, someone manually moves a lever and the liquid falls into a different receiving vessel.
  • I believe that all whisky is aged in a bonded, duty-free warehouse. The taxman must take his, but it would be impractical and unfair to tax the whisky so many years before it could be sold and before all the angels’ share disappears.

It is true that hardly anyone puts ice in their whisky here. They insist that it dulls the flavor, and besides, the mercury rarely pushes up in these parts and whisky is viewed as a warming beverage. However, it is very common to add a few drops of water to a dram. This is said to open up varied flavors and aromas. You might try the whisky untouched, then add a few drops and see which you prefer. If you see me pull out a medicine dropper at the bar, stay calm.

One of the biggest disappointments is price. Because taxes are so high, you will typically pay no less for a bottle at the distillery itself than you would pay at a store in the US. I have not done much research on what you can find in the US if you look hard enough, but I think it is fair to say that you can try a lot of whiskies in Scotland that you can’t easily find anywhere else. And though prices are high, the system is conducive to more affordable tasting. Pours are smaller, usually 25ml, so for £3-5 you can try many whiskies where in the US you’d have to buy a bottle or at least a more expensive, albeit larger, serving.

The four distilleries I visited are Oban, Talisker, Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich. It was interesting that even though Oban and Talikser are owned by the mega-behemoth Diageo, those distilleries were smaller than the other two. Glenfarclas definitely had the most independent feel to it, while Glenfiddich may remain a family business but the distillery is enormous and more corporate feeling. You generally may not take photos on the Oban or Talisker tours and generally may on the other two. I recommend making a reservation even if you read that it is not necessary, as many tours do sell out. I only made it onto an Oban tour because of a kind woman who sold me her ticket. And I’m told Balvenie (and I’m guessing others) can book up weeks or months in advance. I will summarize my visit to each.


  • Set right in the middle of the eponymous town, apparently because the distillery was there first and the town grew up around it.
  • Signature malt is the 14 year (taste included on tour), a nicely balanced dram with a hint of smoke.
  • The tour costs £7.50, but it (and the other Diageo distillery tours) is free if you become a Friend of the Classic Malts. The tour includes a tiny taste straight from an 11-year-old cask, and also a souvenir glass. Only seven people work in the distillery (not counting the visitor center etc.).
  • At the visitor center there is a little tasting bar where most drams cost £3. This is how I came to try the Lagavulin Distillers Edition and ended up buying a bottle.


  • The only distillery on the Isle of Skye.
  • Signature malt is the 10 year (taste included on tour), heavy on the peat smoke with pepper on the tongue.
  • Tour costs £7.


  • Owned by the same family since 1865; the tour costs £5 and includes a taste of the 10 year.
  • I think they have the largest mash tun in Scotland.
  • The tour leader told us that a taller still with a longer neck will yield a lighter spirit (such as Glenmorangie or Ardbeg), while a shorter and stouter still will yield a richer/heavier spirit (such as Lagavulin).
  • He also said they heat their stills from underneath using gas. They tried internal coils for a while but found it impacted the flavor, so they switched back.
  • One of the few that uses almost all sherry casks from the start. The flavor will differ significantly from the first-fill vs. a later fill, so they blend the whisky from casks with different fill seniority.
  • They mature all their whisky onsite, and store casks for some others, too.
  • In the midst of a drought, they invited famed BBC weatherman Ian McCaskill to open a new warehouse. It proceeded to rain for months, so Ian now has his own gift cask maturing on site.


  • Owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own Balvenie.
  • The world’s top selling single malt.
  • There is a well-reviewed cafe/restaurant on site, called the Malt Barn.
  • A regular tour is free. I did the Explorer Tour, which costs £10, and there are more expensive options. With the Explorer Tour, I got to taste the 12, 15, 18 and 21 year olds. The 12 and 18 are similar in composition, while the 15 is made with a method unique to Glenfiddich and the 21 is finished in a rum cask. Pioneered by legendary Malt Master Dave Stewart, the 15 is “aged in European, American, and New American oak to carefully release the virgin cask flavours, the whisky is then mellowed in our unique Solera vat before being married in Portuguese oak tuns” (emphasis added).
  • While some whiskies begin in bourbon casks and are finished in sherry casks, here for the 12 and 18 year they age the whisky separately and then combine the bourbon-aged and the sherry-aged whiskies in a marrying tun before bottling; about 80-85% bourbon and 15-20% sherry.
  • This distillery is massive, with 24 mash tuns vs. maybe 1-8 at others I saw, and here they’re made from Douglas fir vs. the more common stainless steel. They have 28 pot stills vs. maybe 2-8 at others I saw.
  • A rarity, they have an on-site cooperage. Casks are made only from oak staves, metal rings and river reed which creates the seal, i.e. there is no glue or nails.

Aside from these four distilleries and the various drams I tried therein, the other single malts I recall tasting in Scotland are: Auchentoshan Three Wood; Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year and Caribbean Cask 14 year; Aberlour 10; Mortlach 15; Glenfarclas 15; Glenmorangie; Glenkinchie; Ardmore 10; Bunnahabhain 12; Highland Park 12; Macallan 10; Bowmore 12; Benromach Traditional.

Practical Info

I mentioned the five whisky regions above. The only region that we visited specifically to taste whisky was Speyside, as it was a fairly convenient stop between the Highlands and Edinburgh. Speyside has the greatest concentration of distilleries (I believe Islay is a distant second), and there are many towns where you could sleep and lots of options for guided tours. We stayed in Dufftown, which is home to Glenfiddich and Balvenie. They say, “Rome was built on seven hills but Dufftown’s built on seven stills.” We considered staying in Grantown-on-Spey and drove through Aberlour which looked quaint. I am told the Aberlour distillery tour is among the best.

I did not do any multi-distillery guided tours because Jenni was not interested and it did not seem the right fit for this trip. If you are serious about visiting and tasting, though, it might be a good idea. In addition to a driver and knowledgeable local, you can get access to distilleries that are otherwise closed to the public. The Dufftown Distilleries Walk sounded appealing, but it is not offered on Wednesdays. Conversely, the nosing and tasting evening in Dufftown is offered only on Wednesday, but I skipped it. You might look up the Malt Whisky Trail for some regional info.

In addition to distilleries, there are quite a few castles in these parts.

Transportation: We drove from Ullapool to Dufftown, and Inverness is right on the way but we did not stop. It would be a 3-4 hour drive from Glasgow or Edinburgh. You need a car to get around Speyside, unless you go on a tour.

Accommodation: We stayed at Fernbank House in Dufftown. Karen is an excellent host (she gave me a ride to Glenfiddich as I was pressed for time, and also gave us muffins and fruit for lunch), our room was spacious and nice and breakfast was great. The only negative is it’s a one+ mile walk into town and the road is narrow and windy with no sidewalk. There are B&Bs in town, but these were already booked.

Food and Drinks: The Royal Oak in Dufftown may be my new favorite bar, or at least Pearl is hands-down my favorite bartender. She has been in the pub business for 52 years, and sampling some drams with her advice at this little dive was wonderful. I would like to return with some friends and nobody needing to drive afterwards, and just sit at her bar for hours and hours. Our only meal was dinner at D.J. Chippie, a pretty low quality fast-food joint but with friendly service and, according to our B&B host, meticulous cleanliness. Recommended restaurants in Dufftown include Taste of Speyside, The Stuart Arms and Tannochbrae.

Activities: I covered most of this above. Beyond distilleries, you might look into the Whisky Museum in Dufftown, Speyside Cooperage, the Knockando woolen mill, and castles. There are some whisky festivals that sound fun, and it was a shame our visit (not just here but anywhere in Scotland) did not coincide with a Highland games event.

August 20-21, 2014 (Wednesday-Thursday) (just our time in Speyside)

On The Fringe

Scotland continues to impress. A solid pseudo-country all the way through. Edinburgh is one of the most visually impactful cities we’ve ever seen. Walking around the downtown area is honestly mind-blowing. One might venture to say that it feels like walking through Gotham city. Gasp – did I just make a Batman reference? First the Scotch drinking, now this? Someone keep an eye on me before I start enjoying the Hobbit or Star Trek or some other retched thing (apologies to the large majority of you people in the world who actually enjoy action movies, manly drinks and/or fantasy).

Part of the reason we hit up Edinburgh when we did was for the festival timing. Our visit coincided with the Edinburgh International Festival, the Military Tattoo (though we sadly didn’t act fast enough to get tickets), and – most important – the Fringe. The International Festival offers an impressive selection of shows through which you can enjoy the finer arts (e.g. dance, music, art). We attended one show of the International Festival variety. Having seen the movie Pina a while back and being obsessed with her work and the soundtrack ever since, we went to see the Pina Bausch directed and choreographed show, Sweet Mambo, at the Edinburgh Playhouse. While it was so artsy as to be on the verge of artsy-over-our-heads, it was absolute beauty and a complete steal at only £12 a ticket. If you’ve not heard of Pina or seen her work, rent the movie Pina immediately. What she does with the human body and the stage are just breathtaking.

The Fringe, on the other hand, is where things get weird. In a really good way (almost always). The Fringe is essentially a humongous collection of shows throughout the city. This ranges from street performers to comedy shows, to theater performances, burlesque shows, live music and more. A lot of shows are paid and require advance ticket purchases, but a huge number of them are absolutely free of charge. And while some may be worth their entry price, we visited many free shows that were a delight. In fact, I think we hit up a total of seven shows while at Fringe, five of which were free.

It feels like the city was practically built for this festival. The Old Town area is dotted with venues, ranging from bars and pubs, to a warehouse turned barnyard themed music venue, to these large multi-storied event halls with show rooms and pubs on each floor. I’m not sure if these venues are open year-round or how they are utilized outside of the Fringe, but they are some seriously cool event spaces. There are also outdoor areas with venue spaces set up in small pop-up style tents and buildings, with food trucks and bars spread out around them. One we checked out even had an astro-turf lawn for hanging out on.

We are big fans of comedy (I mean, who doesn’t enjoy laughing, right?), and so we attended many comedy shows in various forms. Highlights included what amounted to, essentially, an incredibly weird play. Comedy theater? I’m not entirely sure what to call it, but it was most certainly strange, and parts were hilarious. The show, called Grandees, was performed by three people in a small room with minimal props. One of my favorite comedy shows was Northern Ireland’s stand-up comedian, Luke McGibbon (#luketony). We were two of six guests in attendance. I couldn’t tell if his embarrassment at the small crowd was part of his act, but I literally cried from laughing at what he claimed was once reviewed as the worst part of his show. Check him out, though be warned I am a sucker for see-what-I-did-there kind of jokes and Alan often teases me that the worse a movie or TV show is, the more likely I am to enjoy it…that said, Alan enjoyed as well. And it’s pretty cool to chat with the comedian pre- and post-show. A Room With A Jew by Joe Bor was good entertainment as well, and Alan somehow got roped into an on-stage interactive bit during the performance, as well as getting called on a few times throughout the act. Ahir Shah’s show was also terrific, in a somewhat stand-up, spoken-word combo, or, as he calls himself, an incredibly funny lecturer.

We only saw one horrible show and it was at 11:30 pm in a bar quite far from the Old Town area. So, I guess our advice would be to steer clear of the free late night shows in sub-prime venues. We are almost certain that these two guys got up on stage as part of a dare or a fraternity-pledging related hazing. And I literally fell asleep in my chair to spare me from the pain.

We switched it up a bit for a blues and burlesque show called Hotter than Hell. Awesome. We did little music since the options were too overwhelming and unknown, but we did enjoy some time at the Cow Shed in between comedy shows one evening. Overall, we were blown away by this festival. Highly, highly recommend a visit to Edinburgh while the Fringe is on.

While we spent a large part of our time in Edinburgh enjoying the entertainment that the various festivals had on offer, we took a break to explore the rest of the city. The long walk to Leith is maybe not worth the journey (at least if you’re just meandering, as opposed to walking there to enjoy one of Leith’s many F&B options), but it was interesting to see all the “Yes” campaigners out to educate the Scots about why they should become an independent state.

The walk to (and up) Calton Hill was definitely worth the excursion, as it afforded some phenomenal views of this epic skyline. They even have a national monument up there that looks vaguely Parthenon-esque. Not for nothing is Edinburgh called “Athens of the North.”

On the way into Edinburgh we stopped in the town of Stirling to do the whole castle thing. I’ve never really been one for history, or tours, or ancient things in general, but this castle was next level crap. Well, the building itself, its historical significance (especially for Braveheart fans) and the location are great, but the castle is this gigantic impressive hunk of old stone set on a phenomenal site, and they’ve gone and plastered the walls inside and painted them with an interpretation of a medieval (also, how awesome is the British pronunciation of medieval?) castle that might be used to decorate a second grade classroom. What the funk?

Anyway, the town of Stirling was quite lovely, and we enjoyed a quick meander around the cobblestone streets and old gothic buildings before and after our tour of the fake-interior castle. For a sense of the castle’s historical significance, consider this quote on display there: “Over the course of 50 years Stirling Castle changed hands eight times between the Scots and the English. Because of its strategic position above the River Forth, where Scotland narrows between the Forth and the Clyde estuaries, Stirling Castle has always been fought over. But never more than in the 1300s when, during the Wars of Independence, the Scots were fighting for their freedom. If you held the castle you held the crossing. If you held the river, you could hold the realm.”

Practical Info

Edinburgh is a stunning city, at its most dramatic in and around Old Town. August is jam packed with festivals, most notably the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (billed as the largest arts festival in the world). If you like comedy, theater, cabaret and more, it is well worth going out of your way to attend. We found the festivals a little overwhelming at first. Note there are multiple contemporaneous festivals and their listings will appear in separate places. So e.g. the Pina Bausch dance we saw was part of the International Festival, while everything else was part of Festival Fringe. Fringe itself has an extraordinary number of shows, from early morning until the wee hours. I think I searched online for free comedy or cabaret for one single day and got 400+ results. There are street performers plus venues all over the city, with most of them in Old Town. Some of these venues are year-round brick and mortar, but might be regular theaters or pubs or instead might have five floors with rooms on each floor. Some are like pop-up areas created for the festival, perhaps with several little theaters and some F&B options. We found a book purporting to list four major companies/venues. These are Underbelly, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Pleasance. The Cow Shed is a covered space with bands and bales of hay. The Three (aka Free) Sisters was a fun venue. I would suggest a mix of free and paid shows to sample greater variety of talent and production expense; and I do not mean to suggest the paid shows are always better! Note that at all “free” shows they will pass a bucket or wait at the door, and you are expected to pay something if you enjoyed the show. If you only want to visit one city in Scotland, and leaving festivals out of the picture, we would say choose Edinburgh for sheer beauty and history, and choose Glasgow for partying and a more cutting edge vibe.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Dufftown, with a long stop in Stirling on the way. We returned our car on arrival, figuring it would be more hassle than help. We departed on a train to London King’s Cross (~4.5 hours). It seemed you could buy tickets online at the National Rail site or the Virgin site, among others. We walked everywhere in Edinburgh. There is no underground, but there are buses and trams.

Accommodation: We stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb apartment at the corner of Dundas Street and Henderson Row. I think this is on the edge of the Stockbridge neighborhood. It is residential and attractive, with a cluster of cafes and shops nearby. Most of the top sights are in/closer to Old Town, thus you might prefer to stay over there. Some places I came across that are well-located include The Balmoral, Motel One, Radisson Blu and Hotel du Vin. We didn’t mind our location because we enjoy walking and got to see more of the city.

Food and Drinks: Breakfast at Roamin Nose was great; at Cuckoo’s Bakery it was OK. Lunch at Soba was pretty good. The lasagna at Giuliano’s was tasty. There are tons of options in the Old Town, and outside there are many clusters of restaurants/bars, including: Rose Street; Hanover Street; Thistle Street; Broughton Street; Commercial Quay and Shore in Leith. Some places I wanted to try include the dogs, The Vintage and The Shore (the latter two are both in Leith). Many Fringe venues have restaurants or food trucks.

Activities: We spent most of our time attending festival shows and walking around. There are plenty of museums, the Edinburgh Castle and Royal Mile, Calton Hill, Holyrood Park, the Scotch Whisky Experience, the Royal Yacht Brittania, etc. On the way from Dufftown we spent a few hours in Stirling, a beautiful old town with cobblestone streets and home to Stirling Castle. While the castle’s location and historical significance are impressive, we found much of the inside rather bizarre in its cheap looking reconstruction. Tickets cost £14 each.

August 21-25, 2014 (Thursday-Monday)


As we are nearing the end of our time in Scotland, I can now confirm that it rains a lot here. It poured on us many times the last two weeks, with at least some rain it seems every day. We gather that this amount of rain is somewhat unusual, and while a bit of a damper on the hiking, it does make for some spectacular rushing rivers, gorges and waterfalls (even if the treacherous drives and flooded roads made them difficult to access).

We stopped on the drive to Ullapool to appreciate some of these waterfalls a bit closer up. Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Falls of Measach are impressive. I wasn’t a huge fan of the wobbly suspension bridge and precariously placed overlook, but who couldn’t appreciate the views?

We also stopped a few times to snag photos of these awesome highland cows. Looks like this guy was sick of the rain too, no?

We did little in the little town of Ullapool, and this felt appropriate.

Chief among the handful of things we did accomplish was the drinking of much Scotch whisky. I know this might come as a shock after my recent post in which I referred to the stuff as firewater, but…I’m kind of getting into it. I suppose it’s inevitable when trying to be a good sport for your husband who visits four distilleries, and tries nothing short of 20 some odd single malts. Or maybe it’s just that I like identifying scents in a drink’s bouquet (is a Scotch’s fragrance still called a bouquet?). I may be the only person to smell linseed and cotton candy in a dram of Glenmorangie, but at least I’m getting something more than the smell of jet fuel now. And the whisky paired well with our meals, especially at The Arch Inn. We went with some Scottish classics. Alan finally tried Cullen Skink (and the award for weirdest food name ever goes to…), which is basically thin clam chowder with smoked haddock in lieu of clams. He enjoyed. I tried the scallops with black pudding, which, in small doses (the bloody sausage, that is), is not half bad. But the highlight was definitely the braised ox cheek. I don’t know if it was the ox, or the Scotch, but after the first bite I found myself idly mumbling to Alan, “cheeks are so good. If you die and I have to eat you to survive, I’m totally gonna eat your cheeks.” For my sake, let’s hope I learn how to braise before Alan dies and I’m forced to eat him to survive.

P.S. For a little behind-the-scenes peek at our life on the road, and some of our not so gourmet meals, here’s a lunch in the life of round the world travelers: PB&J in the car. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many times this has happened.

We also checked out the live music scene one night, and this was surprisingly impressive. We got tickets to see Rab Noakes and Kathleen MacInnis in the tiniest venue that ever was. I was blown away by this performance. Rab has a very folksy sound, and a few of his songs are Dylan-esque. (In fact, he covered one Dylan tune). On his own, he’s great, but when accompanied by the angelic and ethereal coo of Kathleen, it’s transporting. Incredible performance. They have sadly not yet recorded anything together, but I’m holding my breath that they’ll release their version of “Two Sisters,” an eerie song about murder, that’s surprisingly sweet and beautiful.

Walking home after the show, we happened to hear the tail end of an accordion performance at a larger, but emptier hotel lounge (the Caledonian). We stumbled in and sat with the one other couple in attendance to listen to this man’s last few songs, having a lovely chat with the three of them afterwards. Our man on the accordion even played Bonanza for us when he found out we are American.

Our efforts to hike were somewhat hindered by all the rain (and, who are we kidding, all the whisky), but we were able to motivate to make the quick trek up to the top of Ullapool Hill, which offered a pretty view of the town and surrounding waters.

Practical Info

Ullapool is a popular base for exploring Wester Ross/the North West Highlands. It is a small town and easy to walk around; the often-present ferry seems to dwarf its surroundings. I can’t say exactly why, but Ullapool seems to be the kind of place where younger international folks post up for a while and work in the hospitality sector.

Transportation: We drove from Isle of Skye, taking the bridge across and then turning left onto A890; then left on A896 past Torridon and through Glen Torridon to Kinlochewe; then left on A832 past Loch Maree and up to Gairloch, continuing on past Dundonnell; and finally left on A835 and into Ullapool. Just before the junction with A835 we stopped at Corrieshalloch Gorge for a short walk to a suspension bridge and viewing platform for the Falls of Measach. It was windy and pouring much of the time, which meant that some views were obstructed but the rivers and waterfalls were superb. I said “that’s effing awesome” countless times. A bit of water made its way onto the road, but we were fortunate to avoid any of the serious flooding or landslide activity that has recently hit these areas.

Accommodation: We stayed at Riverside guesthouse (B&B) on Quay Street. Charlie is a very friendly host, it is easy walking distance from downtown and the room is spacious. On the other hand, it is styled a bit more like a motel than a quaint B&B, and the walls are very thin. When booking only a week or two out in August, our options were extremely limited.

While hiking up Ullapool hill, we came across The Stonehouses, which might be great for those on a bigger budget wanting self-catering luxury. The Ceilidh Place offers accommodation, in addition to a bar, restaurant and small events venue. Something we haven’t mentioned yet is that there are campsites all over Scotland. I think beyond the formal sites, there are liberal regulations allowing you to camp all over. Anyway, there seems to be a campsite just about in the middle of town here.

Food and Drinks: Dinner at The Arch Inn was very good. I tried Cullen Skink for the first time and we shared a delicious braised ox cheek. Jenni also began her career as a Scotch whisky taster, finding floral notes in the Glenkinchie, cotton candy and linseed in the Glenmorangie, and some sort of Christmas candle in the Balvenie DoubleWood (where I got vanilla). Dinner at The Ceilidh Place was also good and the space is maybe a little nicer, though I preferred the food at The Arch Inn.

Activities: A relatively short hike up Ullapool Hill is a perfect way to get some exercise and savor views of the town and water. We walked straight from our B&B and it took about an hour and a half. One night we went to a concert at The Ceilidh Place’s event space, which cost £9 and was terrific.

We were more in errand/relax mode here and the weather continued to be poor, so we didn’t do much else. You might check out a boat trip to the Summer Isles, one of the myriad hikes within easy reach, or a visit to Ullapool Museum.

August 17-20, 2014 (Sunday-Wednesday)

The Misty Isle

On the drive out to Skye we made a quick stop to get our castle on. We chose the Eilean Donan to pop our Scottish castle cherry, largely because it’s one of the most hyped, also because it was on the way. Pretty awesome building in a stunning location. We found it neat that it’s privately owned and presumably the family can just hang out and weekend there. Alan remarked how he appreciated Scotland since it made you feel like you were in Scotland, as opposed to places that are lovely but really if you were knocked unconscious and dropped there, you could have guessed any number of locations upon awakening. But it’s hard to guess anything other than Scotland with bagpipers, castles, mountains, a cold blustery shoreline and a Scotch whisky in hand.

Once on the Isle of Skye, we drove out to Elgol one day to catch the boat to Loch Coruisk. While technically on Skye, rather than a separate island, this mountain-ringed lake is accessible only via boat (or long hike) and is so remote that you truly believe you’re on a deserted island once there.

The ride in affords some fantastic views of the surrounding landscape and the few white houses dotting it. It seems like almost all the homes in Skye are white, which only makes the contrast of green, blue and white more stark (when blue skies actually appear, rare as they are).

The boat also pauses alongside a seal colony on the way there. How are seals so cute? Honestly. Their adorable whiskers and the way they seem to wave hello.

Once at Loch Coruisk we braved the river crossing in search of the best views. The water was a bit high, making the way across challenging. I was lucky enough to be assisted by not one, but two strangers who passed quicker than I.

There were no good samaritans to help me on the return across the river (except Alan, sort of), but fortunately my forced walk through the water helped clean the mud off my boots from my multiple accidental introductions to peat and mud sinkholes.

Luckily the messy and soggy walk was well worth the views. Quite spectacular. And we even saw a small herd of deer!

But the most beautiful scenery on Skye had to be the awe inspiring views at the Quiraing. I am so glad we accidentally fell into a hike around this area. This was a highlight of our whole trip.

The hills here are full of jagged, steep rocks, but they are blanketed by verdant grasses. It looked almost like the scenery you might find in the American west, but lush and green. The land sweeps upward then ends abruptly in a cliff, with pinnacle formations and ocean views a constant presence.

The pictures really speak for themselves. It’s intoxicating up there.

We hit up our second Scotch whisky distillery with a visit to Talisker. Whisky is always a little strong for my pallet, but the 10:30 am tour and tasting was pushing it for me. Alan, on the other hand, was a happy camper. We had signed up to be Friends of the Classic Malts at the Oban distillery (another Diageo brand), which meant we got free tours at Talisker (woot woot). But the highlight, for sure, was seeing Alan’s eyes light up as they stamped his “passport.” This must be what it feels like to take a little boy to a train museum.

Just up the street is a most adorable lunch spot: the Oyster Shed. Boy did we fall in love with this place! We ordered fresh oysters that were shucked right before our eyes, and with the purchase of six we got a glass of wine for free (something for me to enjoy now, eh?). There is also a little stand of sorts just outside the shed where you can order prepared foods and we also picked up small crab rolls. Certainly hit the spot. (Pro tip: do not be tempted by the jarred pates. We made the mistake of buying the pheasant pate with morello cherries and it had the exact same smell, appearance and consistency as the canned food we used to feed my cats).

We rounded out that wonderfully lazy day with a slow drive around some more of the beautiful Skye scenery, stopping to pop into a few art galleries and one delightful tea shop. I will never get enough of tea and scones.

Or this stunning Scottish scenery!

During a brief respite from the rain (actually it might have still been raining on us at this point), we got a stunning glimpse of the full arc of a rainbow. Positively picturesque.

And we spotted these two bunnies chasing each other around a small concrete box, and it was cute enough to become an internet meme.

The grand finale, and one of the most striking vistas we’ve seen, was Neist Point. This tiny peninsula juts out into the sea, and is adorned by a beautiful lighthouse. You can walk out to the end, but we smartly opted instead to walk up a bit towards the rocks on the other side of the small bay. We were surprised to have the area almost entirely to ourselves, and the view was well worth braving the gale force winds. I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that it’s this cold here in August!

The cows and the sky were not so bad to look at either.

We spoke recently of a hotel that completely made our stay: Hazel Bank in England’s Lake District. Well, our B&B on the Isle of Skye almost had the capacity to break our stay, what with its moldy fruit breakfasts and sharp cracked toilet seat (ridiculous that they haven’t changed that), not to mention the fully carpeted bathroom (the germs that must stick in there!!). And of course there was the aggro chicken welcome committee. This chicken came uncomfortably close to pecking our ankles, and I have to say it was rather creepy. But it was kind of cute and funny, so I won’t blame the innkeeper for that one. And I’ll give them props (despite Alan’s allergic reaction and consequent dismay) for their adorable little cat. He was such a sweetie.

And because Skye is just that beautiful and I couldn’t stop taking pictures… here are a few more to savor.

Practical Info

The Isle of Skye has appeared on lists of the world’s best islands, and it lives up to the hype.

It is a good idea to reserve accommodation far in advance. I contacted perhaps 30-40 places and only one was able to offer us a room the four nights we wanted. And while this place wasn’t so bad, it may be the only place we’ve stayed on the (Europe) trip thus far that we would not recommend.

Transportation: We drove from Glen Coe/Fort William. It is a scenic drive, and the stretch of A87 east of Dornie (I think it may be Glen Shiel) is terrific. There are some ferries from the main land to the island but we took the bridge. It is cheaper (free) and doesn’t require any reservations, and this way we could stop at Eilean Donan Castle right on the way.

On the island, it is highly recommended to have a car (there are at least a few petrol stations, and at least the ones by Portree and Broadford seemed reasonably priced). There is bus service, but that would be very limiting. It is a big island and driving between points may take a long time, e.g. it is about an hour and a half from our B&B to Elgol.

Accommodation: We stayed at Skye Redwood House, which is right by Greshornish House Hotel on Google Maps, in or near Edinbane (about half an hour from Portree). It has a nice waterfront setting and a very spacious room and the owner seems nice and well-intentioned, but we cannot recommend it (at least the B&B portion, there are also self-catering cottages). Loving touches are absent; the toilet seat had a huge and bothersome break; there was mold on the berries at breakfast; in four nights they never cleaned the shower or emptied the trash; the list goes on…

Food and Drinks: I should mention that lox-lovers will enjoy Scotland, as eggs with smoked salmon has been on the breakfast menu at most B&Bs. The pizza at L’incontro in Portree was on point, the service not so much. We picked up crackers, cheese and pate from Relish another night. There are several dining options in Portree.

Dinner at Edinbane Inn was good and it is a cozy, pub-like setting. After visiting Talisker distillery we had lunch at The Oyster Shed, which sells game and seafood including delicious, plump oysters shucked when you order. They also sell various pates and some cheese. Tea and scones at Ceiteag’s in Glendale was lovely.

The Three Chimneys is touted in local print, and I think Kinloch Lodge has a Michelin star.

Activities: A visit to Loch Coruisk is highly recommended. You could hike there, but I think it’s very long and may be hairy in spots. We did what most do, which is take a boat from Elgol (book ahead, at least in summer). We went with Misty Isle. They take you to Coruisk and on the way you see a seal colony. Then you have an hour and a half to walk around before the return boat, or you can stay longer and take a later boat. We started to walk around the Loch but realized it was a long trip on very muddy terrain. Depending on recent rainfall, you may need good balance to cross the river at the start of the circuit without getting wet. Misty Isle charges £20/adult and we were very pleased with their service. Bella Jane is another company that offers this trip.

Our hike around the Quiraing was a highlight of our whole trip. The scenery is just magnificent. There is an obvious parking area around the high point of the minor road that cuts across the Trotternish peninsula connecting Staffin and Uig. We did the hike counter-clockwise, i.e. we headed out along the base and returned above the escarpment. It took us about 2.5 hours. Also on the Trotternish peninsula (which we circled clockwise) is the famous Old Man of Storr. The hike up is steep and a couple miles, which I didn’t realize so I only went about half way in my flip-flops.

Talisker is the only distillery on the island, and we enjoyed our tour. It usually costs £7 each, but was free for us after we joined the Friend of the Classic Malts program (also free).

Eilean Donan Castle is not on the island of Skye, but it is nearby. Admission costs £6.50/adult.

Other things you might look into doing: Dunvegan Castle; Coral Beaches near Dunvegan; Fairy Pools near Glenbrittle; visiting galleries and craft shops, see; sea kayaking through various operators.

August 13-17, 2014 (Wednesday-Sunday)

You Go, Glen Coe

If Glen Coe, the valley, went to North Shore High it would totally get four candy canes. Scotland’s pretty pretty, y’all. The scenery in this glen of volcanic origin is rather surreal, and I say this despite that we had loads and loads of rain. Actually, one might venture to say that the rain added to the experience. Going out for a wet walk in the highlands, as a tartan-kilted bagpiper serenades you is just about as Scottish as it can get. Unless we had a tartan-clad Scottie walking with us and carrying our shortbread on his back. Then I guess we would win. Here is a quick video to give you a sense of the scene:

It feels very remote out here. The vistas as you drive in are dramatic, as you wind through verdant valleys surrounded by steep, craggy mountains and many brimming waterfalls. (By the way, apologies if we keep repeating ourselves in these posts on Ireland, the Lake District and Scotland…it’s just that it’s all so, well, verdant and craggy and waterfall-laden).

We learned quickly why Scottish people are so pale, as evidenced by our preparation for this August, summer hike:

This hike was actually wonderful, and since we were covered in rain gear we didn’t have to face the dreaded midges that we’d been warned about. We were a bit bummed to arrive close to the top only to discover that the river was glutted from the rains, meaning crossing it would require a walk through rushing (cold) water certainly above my hiking boots. We sat there debating and exploring alternate routes for close to an hour before I almost let Alan persuade me to do it. But then we decided dry (ish) boots sounded better and headed back down. We’ll never know for sure what the Hidden Valley looks like. It’s a good thing too, because the itty-bitty café we stopped in for lunch played our wedding song! First time that’s happened to us, and surely a sign. P.S. are we the only ones who find it odd they always use shredded cheese on their sandwiches in the UK?

Our first day coming into town we fit in a very, very short walk at Glencoe Lochen, which went up a little hill and then round a quaint wee lake with ducks and Scottish boys fishing. Picturesque.

Alan also ventured out on his own for one last quick hike in Glen Nevis. He walked through Nevis Gorge until it opened up to a beautiful meadow and Steall Falls.

Apart from the natural beauty, Scotland’s big draw is its spirits. Not just any canned heat, but Scotch whisky (yes, here it’s spelled without the “e”). Cue Alan saying, “I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly.” So Scotland is quite famous for its whisky. (And apparently, Scotch is basically just whisky from Scotland. Mind blown. If you don’t know, now you know.) I don’t know, I can’t drink the stuff; it smells like fire. But Alan began his tasting journey up in these Scottish Highlands with a visit to Oban Distillery. He was like a petulant child when told all the tours were full for the day, so we drove the 45 minutes over to the town of Oban anyway, so he could try some whisky in their tasting room and read some of the informational bits on display. He somehow managed to finagle a tour ticket purchase off of a lovely wife, who, like me, couldn’t care nearly as much as her husband about hard liquor. So while she and I sat in the waiting room for an hour talking about how much better wine is than whisky, Alan and her husband learned all there is to know about boiling beer fumes into whisky, or something like that. Anyway, I took his credit card and bought him a $100 bottle of some real fancy firewater as an early birthday gift, and all was very well.

One of my favorite activities while traveling (and really, just in life) is “picnicking” with wine, cheese and meats. We did this in our B&B room the night we arrived. We were staying kind of far from all the action (what little there is), so we had picked up supplies in Glasgow, and enjoyed some Roquefort on Fine Cheese Co.’s Toasts for Cheese (public service announcement: if you have not tried these with some good creamy blue cheese you have not lived life), terrific coppa and a bottle of Montepulciano that night. Lovely, just lovely. And our B&B was just about as remote as it gets, complete with gates you must open manually to get onto the property, and of course, loads of Scottish sheep.

Practical Info

If you want a taste of outstanding Scottish Highland scenery without driving so far from Glasgow (or Edinburgh), this area is a solid option. Glen Coe is stunning and has lots of great hiking. Fort William seems a little less beautiful but is no slouch, and it is the home of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles. You can easily visit Oban from Glencoe village. By the way, I’m pretty sure that Glen Coe refers to the valley itself and the area while Glencoe is the village.

Transportation: We drove from Glasgow on A82, up the west side of Loch Lomond and then through the pass and down to Glencoe (and then headed south on A828 towards Oban to reach our B&B near Duror). The scenery from, let’s say, Tyndrum through to Glencoe is beautiful. Diesel costs ~£1.35/liter.

Accommodation: We stayed at Bealach Country House in Salachan Glen near Duror. It is kind of in the middle of nowhere, a mile and a half up a dirt road which itself begins away from any town. Our room was nice with a very large bathroom (with tub), WiFi worked well and breakfast was great. They also serve dinner (not on Monday) for £30/person; we declined but sort of regretted it when we smelled the remnants after returning from Oban. There was a little bit of complimentary whisky in the room, and it was refilled the next day.

I think if your focus is hiking around Glen Coe, you probably want to stay in Glencoe village or near the hostel and Clachaig Inn. If your focus is hiking Ben Nevis, you probably want to stay in Fort William and maybe at the Ben Nevis Inn.

Food and Drinks: We had lunch at the Glencoe Cafe, a cute spot with good WiFi. And, they played our wedding song (Si Tu Vois Ma Mere), which never happens. Dinner in Oban at Piazza was tasty (though we only had a cheese pizza) and there are lovely views of the harbor. Lunch at Cafe Beag in Glen Nevis was also good.

Activities: We did the Lost (or Hidden) Valley hike in Glen Coe, which is a very nice and not so hard hike. We also did the short Mountain Walk at, and then circled, Glencoe Lochen. There are a number of Munros and other bigger hikes in the area.

My hike in the Nevis Gorge to Sheall Falls was pretty short, it took me an hour return though I was hustling as Jenni was waiting. I was pretty bummed not to hike Ben Nevis, but the forecast was kind of grim. The upper reaches are in the clouds most days and that is one thing, but gale force winds due to the low-pressure system from the remnants of Hurricane Bertha are another. You can also do some boating with various operators. In the winter, you could ski at Glencoe Mountain Resort.

Oban is not that far away. It is a sizable town that seemed pretty nice and gateway to the nearby islands. More important, it is the home of the Oban Distillery. I’ll do a separate post later on some distilleries.

August 11-13, 2014 (Monday-Wednesday)


Imagine our surprise when we arrived in urban Galsgow, began pulling our bags out of the trunk, and discovered that we’d had a sneak hitchhiker come along for the ride. This Tolkien-esque toad creature stowed away in one of our hiking boots without our knowledge. Despite that it was an accident, we still felt really guilty knowing this little dude would probably not survive the city life. I seriously contemplated trying to find someone driving to the country to see if they could bring him back, but we ended up freeing him in the car park and imagining him going on to lead a happy life in the drainage system.

Even though we knew our road trip companion wouldn’t be a big fan, it turned out we were on the other end of the spectrum with Glasgow. What a fantastic little city. It feels somewhat Boston-esque with its brownstones and compact layout, and Alan felt the impressive architecture reminded him a bit of Stockholm. The famed architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh had his hand in a lot of the design in this city, and his influence is easy to find, but there’s much more to it. It seems like every block has at least a handful of buildings that make you stop and say “wow.” I couldn’t put the camera down while walking these neighborhoods.

We loved that there were so many pedestrian friendly streets for meandering. And there are also heaps of adorable places to go out, highlights including this bar/restaurant built in an old church, and Ashton Lane, with its adorable twinkle lights, cobblestone-ish street and ample outdoor seating. Perhaps the most novel spot was Merchant Square, which was set up like a pedestrian friendly square with outdoor seating, except that it’s covered so folks can enjoy it rain or shine. Loved this idea! It’s clear others enjoy the nightlife scene here as well, as seemingly endless restaurants were overflowing with diners and partiers.

And Glasgow is apparently full of engaged ladies and their heaps of friends keen to attend their hen parties. I haven’t seen this many bachelorettes in such close proximity since Nashville! Alan captured this meta photo bomb while I was snapping a photo for one of said hens.

And, like Penang, Malaysia (a favorite of ours), you can go on a scavenger hunt in search of murals painted throughout the city. We somehow managed to find only one, but next time we go back I’ll have to do the full tour.

Glasgow can probably take the cake for easiest subway system of all time. It’s a circle, and it goes both ways. Your only decision is outer or inner line (so, clockwise or counter). There are 15 stops in the entire system, and the trains are so small, I actually saw a medium height man duck to get off.

With the remnants of an American hurricane coming over to the UK, we got lots of rain on our next and final day in Glasgow. Glad to have known this in advance and taken advantage of the city’s offerings on a sunny Saturday arvo, we enjoyed the rainy day in a sleepy, slow fashion. We had a leisurely cream tea at The Butterfly and The Pig, savoring some more scones and clotted cream. Then we headed over to the Kelvingrove museum where we perused the art like adults, but secretly enjoyed the child-oriented animal exhibits far more. We had a lazy afternoon and headed out for dinner, deciding on the Wee Curry Shop partially because it’s fun to say, but largely due to its proximity and the fact that it was not raining inside. Nonetheless it was a tasty Indian meal and we enjoyed lingering over it with their enormous pours of wine. It was no haggis with neeps ‘n tatties, but we’re fine to miss that. Neeps, tatties, and haggis (for those not in the Scottish know), are, respectively, turnips, potatoes, and either a savory pudding made of sheep heart, liver and lungs or a potentially made-up short legged raccoon-like animal (depending on who you ask).

Practical Info

Glasgow has had quite the renaissance of late. It suffered many years of urban decay following its post-industrial decline, but you would hardly know it from visiting today. It is filled with trendy bars and restaurants, cute curated shops and glorious buildings. I expected it would still feel rather rough and tumble, but I was wrong.

City Centre seemed to have more big-ticket buildings and opportunities for self-guided walking tours, while the West End and Byres Road in particular was a bit more leafy and hipster. At least parts of Sauchiehall, Buchanan and Argyle Streets are pedestrian only.

Transportation: We drove from the Lake District. The M6 and A/M74 are nice, wide expressways. In Glasgow we rode the subway, which is so simple. It is just a loop and the two directions are called “inner” and “outer.” A one-way ticket costs £1.60 and return fare is £3, we did not explore getting a card. There are many bus routes.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb place right by Kelvinhall subway station, at the bottom of Byres Road. This location is excellent. The Hilton at the top of Byres Road and across from the Botanic Gardens would be a nice location. We didn’t really explore enough to say for sure, but I think you’d do well to stay in the West End or the City Centre.

Food and Drinks: Dinner at Oran Mor was good. It is a nice, large pub (in a former church, with the pub + a brasserie + theater etc.). The burger and the sticky toffee pudding were both solid. The scone at The Butterfly and The Pig (West End, not the one on Bath Street) was so-so but the space is nice and service was friendly. Dinner at The Wee Curry Shop on Byres was very good and quite reasonable at £25 for two apps, two entrees and 500ml of wine. Peckham’s on Byres Road has meats, cheeses, wine, etc. The pastries were meh but the rest was very good. TriBeCa was packed for Sunday brunch. Three Judges has jazz on Sunday afternoon. A friend recommended Two Fat Ladies (there are multiple locations).

There are lots of places to eat and drink throughout the city. Two of our favorite little hubs judged only from passing through are Merchant Square in the City Centre and Ashton Lane in the West End.

Activities: There are a number of free museums and there is endless impressive architecture (with Charles Rennie Mackintosh the local hero). Simply walking around and admiring your surroundings is a great way to spend time here.

We visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum and spent nearly two hours there, a miraculous feat for these short attention span folks. It offers a great combination of animal, cultural and artistic exhibits, making it appealing to kids and bigger kids. It is housed in a splendid building, and it’s free. If we had more time and/or better weather, we might have visited the Botanic Gardens and Riverside Museum.

There are lots of options for shopping, from the big name brands like John Lewis to smaller boutique shops. Jenni very much enjoyed checking out the goods at Tiger and liked the collection of art at By Distinction Gallery.

If you are not visiting the more well-known whisky areas or just want to hit as many as possible, the Auchentoshan distillery is very close to Glasgow, on the way towards Loch Lomond and Dumbarton Castle (which we stopped at but decided not to pay the £4.50 each to enter, in part because it was rainy and there was scaffolding).

August 9-11, 2014 (Saturday-Monday)