I enjoy travel and love capturing the sights, sounds and stories of the places I travel to. And even before I started enjoying a drink, I had always wanted to do the Whiskey Trail in Scotland. So last summer, I finally got around to doing it. When I went around making the bookings, I realized there were 4 different trails on offer -Islay, Highlands, Lowlands and Speyside. I am partial to Speyside whiskeys, so I chose that. My excitement was all about the various whiskeys I’ll taste, until I reached Edinburgh.
Our group made our first stop at a large, almost empty parking lot, after leaving Edinburgh. We did not know what to expect. Our driver-cum-guide, Andrew, requested us to disembark. We made our way on a narrow dirt trail into the woods. Once we were inside the thick oak forest, it got rather dark despite it being morning. We walked in silence for about 20 minutes, and then we hit a clearing suddenly, or what we thought was a clearing. In fact we had exited the forest and had reached a breathtakingly beautiful locale. We were on the banks of a cluster of lakes (or lochs, as the Scots call them). The lakes extended till distant horizons, and then faded and merged into the sky. We stared speechlessly, for what seemed like hours. The lakes had some waterfalls, and the vegetation ranged from giant oaks to ferns of various varieties. Another prominent flora included colorful wild heather.
Andrew told us that we were just about 2 miles from a small Scottish town, Pitlochry. He mentioned that the place was called Queen’s View. That moment on, I had forgotten all about the whiskeys, and had fallen in love with the trail instead. The scenic landscape, the gorgeous blue skies, thick but gentle clouds, colorful wild plants, verdant green grasslands dotted with jersey and highland cows, undulating terrain and once-in-a-way sighting of agile, yet shy, red deer was to be a routine for the next 3 days – a routine we all loved
We moved from town to town, and distillery to distillery, but nature’s beauty continued to surprise us at every curve. Pitlochry, Grantown, Elgin, Braemer, Knockando, 5 Tomintoul, Blair-gowrie – all had their own charm. Grantown, for example, lies partly in Moray region, and partly in the Highlands. It is on the banks of the charming River Spey.
The architecture in these towns was colonial, marked by low-rise construction, beautifully maintained facades, and patches of green all around. The streets were clean and with sparse crowds. There seemed to be no stretching of infrastructure. Despite their minuscule sizes, these towns had their own cute main street markets complete with restaurants, open air roadside cafes and bars, daily needs stores, and other items locals and tourists may need to get by.
Garth Hotel (how much more Scottish you can get !) was to be my home for the next couple of days. It was extremely clean and surprisingly well equipped to cater to any leisure traveler’s needs. Despite being an 18-room hotel, it had its own chef who conjured up tasty meals at every dinner I had here. This pleasant little hotel was on the main street, and had started business as an inn in the 1850s. Unlike in India, the main street here was not crowded – in fact you’d be lucky to spot a car or bicycle pass by; and was spanking clean. Another surprise was the rich, bright carpet of greenery that covered the entire area.
During these 3 days, we saw many castles the Scottish countryside is famous for – Drumin castle, Braemer castle, Balmoral castle and Corgarff castle, to name a few. What strikes you about these castles is their location. These are mostly away from the nearby towns and are located in splendid isolation. The castle building normally forms just about 1% of the area of the estate. The rolling green meadows and gardens leave you gaping and dumbstruck.
On day 2, we entered Cairngorm National Park, which is at the heart of the Whiskey trail. The park offers a lot more than we saw. It has ski slopes, wildlife preserves, museums, and activities for various age-groups including hiking and rafting, etc.
Day 3 brought us to the countryside that houses Glenlivet and many more distilleries. In a onehorse town called Tomintoul, I saw a Guinness Book of World Record holding single-malt bottle. This bottle holds 105.6 liters of Tomintoul single malt, is 1.44 meters tall, and is housed in Clockhouse, a restaurant here.
This little town also has a world-famous whiskey store – The Whiskey Castle. It boasts about 400 different brands of whiskeys.
Rivers we passed during the trail were many – Tay, Northern Esk, Southern Esk, Dee, Spey, Forth, etc. These ranged from small, gently flowing ones to monstrous, noisily gushing ones. Some passing through thick cover of forest, while the others meander through vast open meadowy stretches. Each more beautiful than the other.
For a small area, Scotland has about 50 rivers and about 3000 lakes. The region sure is flush with fresh water sources. My interaction with the Scots left me with a feeling that as a nation, they are proud of their heritage, ancestry and country. Like Indians, Scots are also extremely hospitable. As a race, they are rather rugged looking, yet, gentle.
Those 3 days have long gone, but I still can feel the sights, sounds and stories, as if those happened just yesterday. And I have made a promise to myself – of visiting Scotland again. This time, not for just 3 days, but for at least a fortnight, if not more. And, this will not be a whiskey trail tour.