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!

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Distillery Tour: The Balvenie

Visitor’s center, from the rear.

Our second tour was at William Grant & Sons in Dufftown. At this site are the Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries. Where Glenfiddich is nearly ubiquitous worldwide as ‘the world’s best-selling single malt‘ and a high-volume product (13M liters/year, produced from 32 stills), the Balvenie site next door is William Grant’s craft distillery. The Balvenie retains its own malting floor (producing 10% of its malt, much of which is grown locally), and has its own cooperage — a rarity in the Scotch whisky industry. Their output is less than half that of Glenfiddich — but that is still considerable. In fact, they about double the output of Glenfarclas. You may not see the Balvenie Doublewood, their most common expression, in every bar, but you’ll see it in many upscale spots. Not all of the production from this site goes into Balvenie expressions, some goes into Kininvie, a malt used in Grant’s blended whiskies.

I usually end with a bottom line, but this time, I’m starting with one: the presentation and execution at The Balvenie is designed to connote a handcrafted, old-fashioned approach to whisky making. Where Glenfarclas is small and spiffy, the Balvenie is organic, even rustic in character. This is the tour to take if you take only one.

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Book Review: The Golden Notebook

This longish novel by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing is known as an important feminist work, and that’s why I decided to read it. However, Lessing’s intent was to approach a number of other important subjects, primarily fragmentation of the mind and of society. She certainly swung for the fences; the number of subjects she touches on are too many to mention without driving readers away (I have a list at the end, for the heck of it). From politics (disintegration and rebirth of the British communist party) to existential loci such as the presence of a child as an emotional anchor, to intimately common things like dealing with tampons. The scope of the novel is wide-ranging; so are the settings and characters: along with the protagonist, Anna Wulf, Wikipedia notes 31 characters, all of whom are fully described, fully animated. The two focal points are the protagonist’s early life in Africa during the War (WWII) and her post-war life as a single mother (and Free Woman) in London. Settings are intimate — passages go on for pages often without the characters leaving their apartment. After the African section, primary characters rarely go outside and there are no descriptions of London at all.

Note: page numbers refer to the Simon & Schuster 1962 edition.

So, how is it to read? I found it odd and intensely detailed, often for reasons which are obscure to the reader until much later. The characterizations are superb, as are descriptions, such as: her room, page 52; the privileged of English upper classes, 71-73, beauty and ugliness, pp 132-133, consideration of suicide, page 152. And, or course, Africa, in many places.

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OT: Good for a laugh – Bookshelf Battle

OK I am a sucker for wacky humor. I found some at Bookshelf Battle. “I swear, I’m not sure there is anyone on Earth who isn’t trying to push a book.  My space craft crash landed in the backwoods of that planet one time and the drunk unshaven hillbilly who pulled me out of the wreckage tried to sell me a copy of his book entitled, “101 Drunk Unshaven Hillbilly Poems.” My sentiments exactly. I was trying to figure out how to say “Every damn fool thinks he can write a book* and every damn fool is on the internet” but the Alien says it better. Give it a follow for some off-the-wall stuff, comments on space and cosmology and even some book reviews.

*Your humble blogger included…I do not miss the irony.