Wanderings – Loch Ness

If traveling round Scotland with an eye to visit its castles and distilleries, you will face at one point the stretch from Inverness to Fort William, about two hour’s drive on the (two-lane) A82 with no traffic – but expect traffic along here in the summer. One can press on to Oban, perhaps another hour south. So what do you do on the way? Well, you are driving along Loch Ness, and halfway down is Urquhart Castle, just south of Drumnadrochit.

Drumnadrochit was the only place in we stumbled upon during our Scotland trip that brought to mind the term ‘tourist trap.’ At heart it is a pretty little Scottish town, but overlaid with a lot of Loch Ness themed stores, visitor center, crowds of people, etc.

Urquhart. What lies beyond those walls?

The busy nature of Drumnadrochit foreshadowed our visit to Urquhart. The castle looks stately and a little lonely out on its promontory in many promo shots, not unlike my photo at left. But that’s misleading.

I expected the usual experience for Scottish castles: a modest booth at the car park (mostly empty), a small castle shop, perhaps with a few food items or coffee and biscuits. We would tour the stones with a few other folks and enjoy a pleasant walk around ruins and grassy knolls. Even at the big-name spots like Scone we never felt crowded. Sterling was a bit busy but then it is at the edge of a largish town.

My suspicions about Urquhart were raised by the signs to ‘park in town and ride’ to the castle, and as we entered the Urquhart car park they had traffic wardens directing us. That was new! The park there is long and narrow and traffic is one way. There were a number of buses and groups of people speaking various languages wandering about. Inside the visitors center we saw an operation of unprecedented size. The center is a multi level building with a rather plain entrance above and a cinema, gift shop and cafe below. And that place was packed!

A popular place, is Urquhart. Click for high res.

Back to that misleading photo. It had just rained. We were at the head of a mob streaming out of the cafe and down the hill. Through the gatehouse were more folks than I’d seen in such a small area at any castle in the U.K. and things got even tighter as the skies lightened. We made for the tower straight away, and waited five minutes for a chance to climb the narrow stairs. From the tower we waved at the many boats coming by. It seems that everyone with a boat on the Loch hangs a shingle in the summer and advertises Loch Ness tours. We saw proper ferries, big cabin cruisers, smaller runabouts even, all with their tour name emblazoned on the hull.

Besides the tower the castle is mostly ruin, though the gatehouse has enough structure left to spark the imagination. The spot is interesting for its uneven ground, many knolls, and access to water.

On the way back we pushed through the shop which had become even more crowded. Tourists were literally shoulder to shoulder, and there was no way to get through that crowd and maintain one’s normal politesse; making way became a contact sport. I tried to get some coffee at the cafe. After waiting for a while, I noticed the lady at the head of the line relating a complicated order and making slow headway with the woman behind the counter. Counter lady appeared overwhelmed; I could be here for an hour. No coffee was worth that. I made for the restroom, met up with the wife and we sallied forth.

Urquhart was kind of a zoo but given I have visited probably thirty castles in the U.K. and never had trouble with crowds, I rolled with it. Turns out it is the third-most-visited site in all of Scotland behind Edinburgh and Sterling castles (both of those a lot bigger).

Tower. I waited a long time to get this few people in the shot.

I just think it is a shame that so many people appear to land at Fort William (cruise stop), ride a bus to Loch Ness, jostle about, take some pictures, buy some souvenirs, and then leave. This section of Scotland, the loch country, has a lot to offer. Oban, south of Fort William, is a prettier town and along the drive there you pass the moody and picturesque Castle Stalker. South of Oban lies the beautiful Arduaine Garden. Even in high summer we found those spots to be relatively lonely. I don’t know if I should say this as perhaps some day the experience will change, but Scotland has a lot to offer outside of the big name attractions.

Finally, I have to give props to Historic Scotland for providing lifts and nicely paved walkways at Urquhart for those wheelchair-bound. We saw a number of folks in chairs being accompanied by their families, and you could tell the non-perabulatory were pleased to get out and among the ruins. Castles were not made with accessibility in mind, quite the opposite of course, so making castles accessible is very difficult. I’m glad they made it work at Urquhart for it is such a popular spot.

Loch Ness sans boats. (Again, a wait!) No monster, boats probably scared her away.

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Whisky and Words Number 31: Ardbeg Corryvreckan

This is the final post in the NAS series for now. I’ll write up a wrap-up article in a week or two.

Ardbeg, pretty spiff place.

I read about Ardbeg long before I had a chance to taste it. A distillery raised from the dead, so to speak, it had been shuttered for eight years in the 1980s. Production resumed slowly under a caretaker administration by Hiram Walker in the early 1990s. Glenmorangie bought it in ’97 and resurrected Ardbeg to full production. Blessed with great stocks of old whisky aging in the warehouse, they released notoriously good (and peaty) whiskies throughout the early 2000s. They presented Ardbeg in a craft style – no coloring, non-chill-filtered, higher ABV. Their 10-year is released at 46%, and it is a damn good whisky, as I reviewed here. Despite relatively low production, about 1.25 million liters a year, they have a number of expressions.

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Wanderings–Craigievar Castle

Craigievar Castle. Heartbreakingly gorgeous, and she knows it. Click for hi-res.

Craigievar Castle is hard to find, but a gem. Only about 15 miles west of Aberddon, it is located in idyllic countryside. This country in high summer exactly matched the ideal I developed as a child reading Kenneth Grahame and Pyles’s Robin Hood — the greens are lush, the trees uniform and well-tended, the roads narrow and curvy. When I was planing our distillery tour I presented the wife with a selection of attractions along the route. When she saw that there was a pink castle, it became a must-see.

It was almost a have-to-miss. Using GPS, we ended up literally in the middle of nowhere, a lane bordering a broad barley field a few miles off the A980. We blundered around a bit, found our way off the Old Military Road and back on the A980 and spotted a sign for Craigievar. From there it was a matter of spotting the place peeking through the trees, a pink edifice, like a wedding cake decoration for a princess.

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Distillery Tour — Glenmorangie

I like Glemorangie’s products a lot. They are well-finished, consistent and pure to their style. Their basic 10-year is a smooth dram worthy of quiet moods, some good cheese, contemplation and relaxation. It’s also reasonably priced. Their finished expressions, using port, Sauternes and sherry casks take their 10-year expression and finish for an additional two years, result in intense, well-married flavors. Note to self, I have yet to review these…coming soon.

Main street, Glenmorangie-ville. Shop on right.

It was with some disappointment then that we encountered our first truly industrial-scale distillery tour at Glenmorangie. The tour buses in the vast parking lot should have tipped us off.  The Glenmorangie distillery produces 6 million liters per year, a bit more than the Balvenie. Their tour trade, however, must be many times that of the Balvenie or Glenfarclas. On the plus side, the tour is inexpensive: £7, and that includes a taste at the end. Also, they have a big, modern, well-stocked shop with a lot of special bottlings available. On the down side, the tour is short, with few photo ops, and starts with a healthy dose of marketing.

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Book review: Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory

This was one of those books the library had on display. It is newly out and popular, so I was lucky to get a copy to check out. Being a student of history, I’ve been familiar with the general activities that led up to the British evacuation at Dunkirk, but I’ve always been starved for details. How did the British manage to get all those men out? How many made it? What about the French? Why wasn’t the German army able to stop them? Did the small boats really help all that much? This book is well-researched and does a great job of answering those questions. It also, importantly, introduces the politics–domestic and military–that maneuvered Britain into the situation in the first place. Along the way, Michael Korda weaves a compelling narrative with a information-rich but eminently readable style.

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This is not a travel blog by intent but there are a few interesting spots I thought worth sharing on the Scottish whisky trail.

Rodney’s Stone. The wickerwork is to protect it from the coastal winds.

The day after the Aberlour tour, my wife an I left the Speyside region. We had spent two days there, found the town of Aberlour a pretty sleepy place, and even Dufftown, center of the Spey whisky-making region, preternaturally quiet, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. And this was in August–the high season for whiskey tourism, I reckon. Looking for adventure, we headed up towards the more populated areas of Elgin and Inverness — not terribly large towns, mostly two lane roads there.

Just West of Forres, on the A96 is Brodie Castle. There is a shady car park here (pay to park, a few pounds if I remember correctly) and quite decent public toilets. But I mention this more for the quiet diversion the grounds offer. There is about a mile’s worth of trails on flat ground through the old park, making it a great place for a relaxing walk and quiet contemplation. Again, this was high season, and a lovely morning, and there were few others there. We had the park trails to ourselves, and were delighted to get up close and personal with an old Pictish relic, Rodney’s Stone.

Heading West from Brodie we took country lanes past an Army base (with ‘live fire’ flags fluttering at the ranges) and into Fort George. This is an active Army barracks and thus very well-preserved. The ramparts are quite an impressive–complete with huge ditch and drawbridge–and present an intricate example of 18th century fortress science. The public is welcomed (after a cursory safety inspection) to wander all over the grounds, and as you can see from the photo below, it’s picture-perfect for a picnic. We did not have a lunch packed so ate at the cafe, sitting outside on rough tables as various officer’s of the Black Watch sauntered by. The sandwiches were excellent, made with artisan breads and freshly constructed. Much better fare than when I was in the Army!

Ramparts at Fort George

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Distillery Tour: Aberlour

Aberlour, sited in the town of the same name, caught my eye by the very pretty, old-timey photos of its front gates — such as this one. A really gorgeous little place, their shop (photo to right) evokes an air of Victorian elegance. I have to admit I was taken in. In reality, like any distillery, Aberlour is a factory, albeit one that makes a delightful product. A clean, modern place, there is none of the Victorian funk you might find elsewhere. Although the main range is not one of my favorites, I do enjoy the A’bunadh line and the tasting showed their older expressions in a very good light.

After taking a short break, my wife and I trooped over from the little inn where we had spent the night. I’ll say up front, the experience did not contrast well with that morning’s tour at the Balvenie — what tour could? But they offer a couple experiences we did not get elsewhere, and at the cost (£15), a taste of six expressions. Our guide led us to the main yard and gave us a safety briefing and explanation of the day’s activity. This shot below shows what a compact place it is. I left it at full res, so you can click and spy the ‘Chivas’ van (they are owned by Chivas/Pernod Ricard S.A) and other details.

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