First published in the Sunday Times on 14 November 2021
If there’s a country out there with more character than Scotland then it exists only in an alternate universe. In our world, the real world, the Scots take this cake and its crumbs as well, having cultivated a tapestry of rich traditions and endearing idiosyncrasies that are beyond beating — from their dress, and their food and drink, to their language and accents, and much in between.
If you’re not Scottish and have no Scottish connections, fear not; this is a hospitable place where anyone who’ll embrace their customs — as some friends and I did with the passion and gusto of pure-bred locals – can get to be satisfyingly Scots, for a little while at least.
It was February 2020, right before lockdown, and we set out with a basic, three-point plan: to revel in as much rugby, whisky, and Scottish cuisine as we responsibly could. As it turns out, I went somewhat overboard, eating so much haggis in particular that I thought I might turn into the wild beast from whence it comes (or at least from whence gullible Americans think it comes). Actually, the stuff is made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs (known as pluck) and is delicious. It’s traditionally eaten with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes), but is increasingly deployed in more creative ways: combined with black pudding in sausages (a speciality of Stornoway in the Hebrides); as stuffing in Chicken Balmoral; doing a gourmet turn, again with its black pudding partner, in a “Dirty Apple Charlotte” (outstanding!), and at ease on the wrong side of the tracks in a “chippy” (which typically refers to a fish supper – fish and chips, but also to anything deep-fried and served with chips, haggis included).
We were pleasantly surprised by the vegetarian haggis served to us at Amber in Edinburgh, the highlight of its Taste of Scotland sample menu. This amidst stiff competition; the meal featured Cullen Skink (a soup of haddock, potatoes and leek), a trio of the local salmon, and fillet of Aberdeen Angus, a prime cut from the world famous Scottish breed. The list of Scotch delicacies is in fact so long and varied that it’s a wonder these laddies can fit into their kilts.
The rugby episode of our trip required us to fit into ours, so luckily it was scheduled first-up, before we’d gorge ourselves with haggis et al. I’ve attended all manner of rugby matches domestically, and my fair share abroad, yet they all paled in comparison to the simmering, high-voltage atmosphere of Scotland versus England at Murrayfield. The world’s oldest rugby rivalry, on our visit as it always does, trod a fine line between respect and animosity.
We joined a legion of Scots for the build-up at a nearby pub before disgorging into the streets for the procession to the stadium, a tartan army in high-spirits. Our little platoon was fortified en-route by a specially arranged flask of Johnnie Blue King George V — what a dram for the occasion, the complex arrangement of silky smoke, fruits and honey serving up a brilliant rendition of the national drink.
We arrived ready, in full voice, belting out Flower of Scotland with the best of them – following “Proud Edward’s Army” with the unscripted but obligatory (if you’re to be a true Scot): “wankers”. The game itself was marred by atrocious weather and an unhappy result, but this was of no great consequence. We’d been through a gold-plated rite of passage and had been welcomed into a brotherhood. It was an experience to treasure.
The next day we began our pilgrimage to the Highlands, looking to appreciate (if you’ll excuse the euphemism) the country’s finest creation in its birthplace. The Speyside region, broadly the valley of the Spey River between Aberdeen and Inverness, is a whisky wonderland — you couldn’t toss a caber without hitting a distillery. We’d wound our way north by train, travelling through Dundee, a picturesque, richly historic city poised on the banks of the Firth of Tay, a massive estuary emptying into the North Sea, regretfully not having the time to stop and take its full measure.
The journey took us to Craigellachie (Craig-ella-kee) where we’d decided to spend the night so we could visit the eponymous, legendary, old-school distillery, and to lodge at its renowned hotel. I think of the Highlands as Scotland proper, the stuff reminiscent of Braveheart and Highlander, a rugged countryside replete with rivers and lochs and peaks, and colourful characters with broad accents. At a quaint pub, the Fiddichside Inn, on the fringes of the town, we got to know one such chap and his five unruly, but adorable hunting dogs, who took over the place without anyone batting an eyelid. That’s pretty much the style of things over there – it was simply marvellous!
Craigellachie’s whiskies are distinguished by their kiln-derived sulphury notes, with variations of sulphur, fruit and wax apparent in most expressions. It is probably the most distinctive and easily recognisable of the Speyside whiskies, so worth singling and seeking out on that basis alone. We were privileged to sample the standard-bearing 13YO and the Rioja cask from the aptly named “Exceptional Cask Series” whilst standing on the banks of the Spey, drawing our water directly from the river like I imagined the locals would have done in earlier days.
Our home for the night was the Craigellachie Hotel, famous in whisky circles for its vast collection of the beverage, but appealing regardless as a quintessential representation of a Scottish country hotel, dishing up friendly service, ultra-comfortable accommodation, wholesome and hearty fare (i.e. more haggis), and an incomparable setting, including a view over the Spey onto the weirdly wonderful, subterranean Macallan distillery. The hospitality in the Highlands did not disappoint, not here, and not anywhere else.
We completed our brief sojourn in Craigellachie the next day with a Scottish breakfast inclusive of all the trimmings, and, after a polite interval, with a tasting of the distillery’s 31YO, a giant of quiet intensity that had won the World Whisky Awards best single malt title in 2017 – a special treat. I left wistfully, with the sense of having tapped into a vein of deep authenticity that seems increasingly rare in today’s world of big brands with tall stories.
Our final stop, heading back south for our return home, was Aberfeldy, known as the gateway to the Highlands. The route threaded us through some prime landscape studded with what is known in Scotland as Munros, peaks of over 3000 feet. Local enthusiasts participate in “Munro-bagging” i.e. summiting as many of the 282 total as possible. We didn’t have the space in this particular trip to indulge, but I made a mental note to bag at least one in the future, to further entrench my Scottish credentials, and just for the sheer joy of it.
Aberfeldy distillery should be a priority destination for any whisky tourist, given its proximity to the major centres and the sheer range of the distillery, which also serves as the Dewar’s brand home. From hot toddies alongside the burn, and the blending of our own expressions, to the distillery and museum tour, and the premium tastings in the dunnage warehouse, it was one of the fullest, most interesting whisky excursions that I’ve ever experienced.
I’m a longstanding Dewar’s fan, as is my father, and as was my grandmother, so this felt like the culmination of three generations’ enthusiasm. The tastings were nothing short of exceptional, a towering 40YO and a 1999 Single Cask in particular (both Aberfeldy’s); but my highlight was the straightforward comparison of two 12YO Dewar’s – a demonstration of the specific marrying process that sets Dewar’s apart from most other blended whiskies. The Dewar’s blends are “double aged”, basically left to settle and harmonise in oak casks for about six months after blending. It sounds great, the idea has always resonated in an abstract sense, but to tangibly experience the difference – we tasted against a single aged version that is commercially unavailable – proved the simple genius of the technique.
A trip can be just a trip, or – much more rewarding and meaningful – it can be a total immersion into a culture, and way of life. And it doesn’t take much to make the difference – just a bit of planning, being open to the experience, and in a place as welcoming as Scotland, the renting of a kilt. Slàinte Mhath!