In Scotland, a toast to high spirits
I came to Scotland in search of the Loch Ness Monster and found a ghost instead. Of course, I also sampled a lot of Scotch, which might lead some to think my vision was impaired. To those naysayers, I say, “Chill.” My camera recorded the event. At least I think it did.
But let me start at the beginning.
Scotland has always appealed to me. Its wild places — its mountains, moors, lochs and islands — speak to my Scotch-Irish heritage. I’d love to take a month off and hike the high mountains and walk the deep green glens of the Highlands, then cap that off with a month of island hopping, sailing to as many of the Scotland’s windswept isles — there are more than 700 — as possible.
Who has that kind of time or money? Not I. So I went for a week instead, taking in as much as possible. My plan would take me to the Highlands; I’d spend a day peering into the unfathomably deep waters of Loch Ness, plunge into the milieu of the Middle Ages within the historic stone walls of Scottish castles and hop across the water to see an island or two. I’d also try to learn a bit more about one of the nation’s most famous exports: its smooth, mellow malt liquor.
Scotch may not be America’s favorite hard liquor — vodka holds that title — but Americans manage to knock back more than 100 million bottles a year, from inexpensive blends to high-brow varieties with prices to match. Michael Jordan’s favorite, the Macallan’s 25-year-old single malt, costs about $600 a bottle off the shelf.
U.S. bars that cater to Scotch drinkers, such as the Daily Pint in Santa Monica, stock hundreds of varieties; members of the Los Angeles Scotch Club (www.lascotchclub.com) work hard to sample their fair share. “We’re a small but very dedicated community,” says Andy Smith, who puts out a club newsletter to a mailing list of 350.
Like a growing number of Scotch drinkers, they prefer single malts — the product of one distinct distillery — rather than blends. “We’re snobby,” Smith says.
I didn’t know enough about Scotch to be snobby. But Scotland has more than 100 distilleries, and half have visitor centers. They’re happy to show tourists around and treat them to a “wee dram.”
So why not combine tasting with traveling? “I have to make sure I don’t sample too much,” I jokingly told a colleague before I left on the trip last month, “or I might spot the Loch Ness Monster or see a ghost.”
Little did I know.
The Whisky Trail
In Perthshire, about an hour’s drive north of the Edinburgh airport, I tried to shake off my jet lag at the Gleneagles Hotel. Gleneagles is the kind of place where croquet wickets are a permanent lawn fixture and the valet wears a kilt. I skipped golf, tennis and the indoor pool to try my hand at falconry, a popular resort activity.
“Don’t worry about his beak,” instructor William Duncan told me. “Worry about his talons.” Easier said than done when a Harris hawk’s beady brown eyes are staring at you, its beak a mere 5 inches from your eyes. He was perched on my forearm, which was covered with a heavy leather glove. I leaned away from the hawk. “You don’t look real comfortable,” one of the other students said.
The hawk ignored me; he was well trained even if I wasn’t. When I moved my arm in a sweeping motion, he flew away. When I put my arm back out, he returned to perch on it. “OK,” I squeaked at the instructor, “you can take him now. He’s a nice hawk, but I think I’ll go play croquet.”
If I needed a little liquid courage, I didn’t have to look far. The countryside is laced with distilleries, and the next day, I visited my first, Cardhu, home of Johnnie Walker (www.discoveringdistilleries.com), said to be the world’s largest-selling blended Scotch. Cardhu, set in a scenic rural area and surrounded by rolling green hills, was established in 1824 and is known for its sweet, smooth, mellow malt. I joined a tour, saw the pot stills where Scotch is created, tasted a bit, and then took a stroll outside. On a hillside nearby was a famous local resident, a highland cow, which looked up at me through its fringed bangs.
More distillery visits would follow. Scotch is a $10-billion a year industry, one of Britain’s top exports. More than a million visitors tour Scottish distilleries each year, many of them tourists like me. I’d arrived in a region of the Highlands called Speyside, site of the Scotch Malt Whisky Trail. Although 90% of the Scotch produced is a blend, single malts account for most of its recent growth. About 50 distilleries line the banks of the River Spey on the eastern side of the Highlands; a marked trail (www.maltwhiskytrail.com) points the way.
The region may be famous for its Scotch, but I tried to focus on its other charms too. The Spey River winds lazily through the countryside, its tranquil waters reflecting the green hillsides, villages, well-tended farms, ancient castles and grazing sheep and cattle.
I roamed the area visiting distilleries: Strathisla, home of Chivas Regal (www.chivas.com) and one of the oldest and most picturesque distilleries in Scotland, the Macallan, (www.themacallan.com) and the Glenlivet, (www.glenlivet.com), where I ran into some fellow Californians.
Gary Goodson, a former superintendent of San Gabriel Unified School District, was on a two-week tour of Scotland. “It’s fun to walk around the distillery and talk to people about Scotch and life and liberty,” he said. His wife, Marian, interrupted and said with a laugh, “Don’t get him started. He’s had three shots already; he’ll go on forever....”
Goodson was partial to Glenlivet; I found I also liked its Scotch, particularly Nadurra Triumph, an 18-year-old single malt. Another of my favorites was the Macallan 18. I probably won’t be swilling either; they’re in the $70-$130 a bottle range in the U.S.
In search of Nessie
The exact origin of Scotch is uncertain. The ancient Celts called their fiery amber beverage uisge beatha (sometimes spelled uisghe or uisce) or “the water of life” They were enthusiastic producers — and consumers — who claimed the drink could cure colic, smallpox and other common diseases. Others credit it with saving Scottish lives in the winter by warming a drinker on a cold and rainy night.
Absent a cold night (it was rainy, however), I decided it was time to take a break from the tasting rooms and enjoy Scotland’s nonalcoholic charms. So, I headed north about two hours’ drive to Inverness and then to Loch Ness, where I boarded a small cruise boat for a tour. The clouds hung low on the hillside, the wind was light, the air fresh as we sailed around the lake said to be home to the monster. The gloomy weather added to the sinister feeling of the place.
Loch Ness stretches 23 miles, its winding edges bounded by steep, wooded hills. Tales of dragons, sea serpents and water horses stretch back to AD 565, when St. Columba supposedly confronted a roaring monster on his way to convert the local populace. The stories gained credence during the last century when photographs appeared to support the tales (“appeared” being the operative word here).
I sought out the boat’s captain, John Askew, who was happy to tell me that he was one of the last people to spot Nessie, “or something.” Last year, he said, he saw a large shape on the screen of his sonar; it was 750 feet below the hull and rising. He photographed the sonar screen, and the picture appeared in the local paper. No one could identify or explain the strange, large shape he spotted in a lake, where the largest fish are salmon and trout. Could it have been Nessie, which some think could be a plesiosaur that somehow managed to avoid extinction these last 65 million years.
We cruised for about 45 minutes — Nessie was conspicuous by its absence — then went ashore at Urquhart Castle, a picturesque ruin that saw centuries of turbulence and conflict during the Middle Ages.
I headed north again, driving about two hours, exploring the rugged Highlands countryside and coastline as I went. My next stop was Glenmorangie Distillery (www.glenmorangie.com), where I tasted an unusual Scotch, Signet, made with chocolate malt, and stayed at the Glenmorangie House, a country estate on the shores of Dornoch Firth, a bay on the edge of the North Sea.
I was now about 250 miles north of Edinburgh, so far north that dusk was at nearly 11 p.m., offering time to taste — and to explore. But my week was more than half over, and I needed to retrace my steps south.
In Glasgow, I took a 25-minute plane ride to Islay Island, where some of Scotland’s smokiest whiskeys are made, flavored by the island peat that’s used in their production. I stopped in at Laphroaig Distillery (pronounced la-FROYG, https://www.laphroaig.com); visitors receive a square foot of land, along with samples of the distillery’s famous liquid smoke, and are dubbed “Friends of Laphroaig.” A fun place to visit, but the smokier Scotches aren’t for me.
Was that a ghost?
I saved the best part of this trip for last. It occurred in the lively Highlands resort town of Aberfeldy, about 60 miles north of Edinburgh. I’d stopped here to visit Dewar’s World of Whisky (www.dewars.com), where interactive exhibits give the distillery tour a flashy flavor.
While in the area, I also toured nearby Castle Menzies (www.menzies.org), a huge 400-year-old turreted structure with a checkered past.
“Hundreds and hundreds of people died here,” said castle administrator John Jack, reciting tales of war, mayhem and execution at the castle. This is the ancestral home of the Menzies Clan, a Highland tribe that once lived there. Descendents live throughout the world and come to the castle once a year for a four-day gathering.
“What about ghosts?” I asked.
“There are 20, they say,” Jack said, listing a few: three executed soldiers, a teenage boy, a young girl and Lady Anne, a tyrannical chieftain’s wife who lived 250 years ago.
“Strange things happen here: voices, slamming doors, a feeling that someone’s just touched your arm.”
Jack said he didn’t completely buy into the ghost stories until last month, when a French group descended on the castle trying to ferret out its ghosts.
They shot pictures in several rooms; in two of them, bright circles of light, called orbs, appeared on the photographic images, he said.
Some people say the orbs are the manifestation of spirits in the form of balls of light; they are not visible to the naked eye but can be seen in a flash photograph. Other people say the orbs are just reflections from the flash off particles of dust in the air.
“Show me where you saw the orbs,” I said to Jack. We trooped up a winding stone stairway to the top of the castle, arriving in a large open room. It was empty, save a few barrels lying against a stone wall. The room was rumored to have once been used for occult ceremonies, Jack said.
I asked him to walk across the room several times as I shot photos. I looked at the digital images: nothing. I had him cross the room again and shot one more frame. Near his left leg was a small, bright circle of light.
“Is that it?” I asked.
“That’s it,” he said.
Later that day I Googled “ghost orbs.” The images looked like my photo.
In the past six years, I’ve shot tens of thousands of frames on my camera, a Nikon Coolpix 5700. None contains images like the one I shot that day.
I checked with Jack recently to see whether there had been any more “sightings.”
“It’s a pity you are not here now as groups of orbs are showing up on almost every pic people take,” he replied by e-mail.
Did I photograph a ghost? Your call.
As for me, I think I’ll go get a wee dram to settle my nerves.
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