After our beautiful 24 hours on Islay, the Spring Break 2018 trip to Scotland continued from Glasgow as we headed north to Ballachulish. Exiting the airport in the rented Land Rover was… challenging. We weren’t on Islay anymore. There were other cars to tailgate, pass, ward off and not hit. Yet, no cows or sheep which was a big plus. I think.
The screams of “STAY TO THE LEFT!” from my co-pilots (Mrs. Satellite Engineer, Teenager Daughter #1 and Teenager Daughter #2) were taken a bit more seriously this go around. The rumor is true. Everyone really does drive on the other side of the road in Scotland. I thought maybe it was a cute little Islay thing from days long ago when horse and buggies ruled the world. I was actually hoping that was the case. And speaking of go around… ROUNDABOUTS!
The nice British lady stuffed into the dashboard alerted me with “At the next roundabout, take the second exit” which was very kind and almost didn’t scare me. She sounded very nice, yet a tad authoritative for my liking. We’d battle for days as she nagged and nagged.
The drive was gorgeous with a variety of greenery abounding from the road up into the hills as we trekked the A82 through the western side of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. Snow covered mountains were upon us before we knew it. Snow?! This was going to be a great drive as long as I STAYED TO THE LEFT. And it didn’t snow.
The goal on this day was reaching Ballachulish. We were staying in the Craiglinnhe House, a bed and breakfast, on Loch Linnhe’s southern side. Built in 1885, this Victorian home is across the road from the loch and was a splendid and comfy place to rest our weary heads for a few nights as we explored the Glencoe and Fort William areas. Owner Lawrence Hughes is the nicest of hosts offering help of all sorts, tourist tips, and tasty full breakfasts with warm and and pleasant attention. The bedrooms were quaint and warm. The sitting room was cozy and, much to my delight, stocked with a table of spirits, wines and mixers to pour oneself to relax with. And after a day of driving, I warranted, daresay deserved, some relaxing.
Our stay in the area led us to a gondola ride up Ben Nevis (recommended by Lawrence) where there was still a fair amount of snow. The Beast of the East had played havoc with Scotland in much of January and February so it’s not certain if the white stuff we tromped around in was remnants of that bizarre storm pattern or just normal for the country’s tallest hill. At over 4,000’ it’s tough to call Ben Nevis a mountain where it would barely make the top 50 highest in California. But it was majestic overlooking the Highlands valley below, and shocked us as a ski and snowboarding destination.
We also had a couple nifty views of The Castle of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh, i.e. Castle Stalker situated in an inlet of Loch Linnhe. It looked rather menacing at 600 years old. But who wouldn’t? A long guided hike in Glencoe’s Highland Reserve got us out into nature. And in the little village of Banavie we took a pleasant walk up Neptune’s Staircase, the longest staircase canal lock in Britain, showing us a fascinating industrial side of the area as well as (and more importantly) many dogs!
After our second day’s breakfast at the Craiglinnhe House and our goodbyes to Lawrence, we headed again up the A82 north towards Inverness. A stop at Urquhart Castle was a chilly and breezy one along Loch Ness. A busy place with tour buses and visitors from all over with Germans leading the numbers, Urqhart was interesting as our first “touristy” stop (we happily avoided any of the Nessie stops). The ruins are intact enough to see how the Scots and English lived at the fortress. My guess is that it was no 13th century version of the Craiglinnhe House.
Mrs. Satellite Engineer and I get a kick of ruins and she had more interesting ones in mind. The daughters would have to deal with it. Corrimony Chambered Cairn is west of Loch Ness outside of Drumnadrochit which is just fun to type. Corrimony is a burial cairn site, oh, about 4,000 years old for those of you scoring at home. A domed construction made of rocks and out in the middle of nowhere, it’s a place I’d like to be buried if you can keep the sheep out and guarantee that some joker won’t take the rocks as souvenirs. Bastards. All three women in our party climbed into the small passageway towards the middle never to be seen again…uh, I mean, and were heard laughing and shrieking scaring the nearby sheep as I walked back to the car pretending not to know them while apologizing to the sheep on the way.
A bit more driving via Inverness and we were in Speyside. Brown Malt Whisky Trail roadside signs popped up and I knew we were in a good place to be on our planet.
On the recommendation of a friend who we will meet in a bit, we made our way to the small town of Rothes. It could well classify as a village but I’m not sure what the Scottish definition is. Night skies were upon us as we parked at the Station Hotel on the side street adjacent to the hotel. There was a small parking lot right across the street that was interesting since it had a large copper still in it looking like a monument of sorts. Hmmm. As we unloaded the car to check in, it was hard not to miss the factory behind the hotel not a few steps from where we parked. Forsyths was the name on the sign. Yeah, that one. The one that makes the majority of the copper distillation vessels for the whisky industry. Huh. Right behind our hotel. Go figure.
At the registration lobby and our brief look into the hotel, copper seemed to be a “theme”. And a Forsyths company brochure laying on a table brought more head scratching. The Station Hotel was beautiful and our two room family suite was roomy and quite elegant. After a quick unpacking we headed back to the hotel pub, Toots Cafe, for some dinner. A lively group filled the tables. Football on the big screen. It was like any bar at home almost. The menu was full of many choices but the whisky list was…heavy on the “many”. Oxford Dictionary heavy but with bigger font. This was going to take awhile to peruse. Order some food, family! I’m reading!
The hotel’s whisky bar, The Spirit Safe, a few turns aways from Toot’s has 500 or so whiskies and…a spirit safe made next door at Forsyths. A unique drinking space, the front of the bar is adorned with a copper silhouette of a still for each Speyside distillery. Speyside has 60 distilleries. That’s a lot of silhouettes. As we learned that night, the Forsyth family owns the Station Hotel. An old hotel in need of repair, Richard Forsyth and his wife took it upon themselves a few years ago to restore it back to its former grandeur. And they have. The food, drink and accommodations were superb. Five star in my book. This was not a sleepy roadside motel. There was a quiet elegance to it and a highly recommended stop by us.
Glen Moray Distillery
The next morning after a delicious breakfast of oatmeal, salmon, eggs, toast and tea in the hotel, we headed back to Elgin about 20 minutes away. First stop: the Glen Moray Distillery. On my last trip to Scotland with the Single Cask Nation boys, they took us to Glen Moray for a fun visit that included a tour led by Master distiller and distillery manager Graeme Coull, a blind tasting to choose a cask for The Jewish Whisky Company, and then an entertaining dinner out with our group, Graeme and his wife, Faye, and their visitor center manager, Iain Allan. I’ve kept in touch with the Coulls and after various exchanges, a visit again was in order.
The drive to Glen Moray is a bit of an eye opener and a wee bit confusing. Did this woman in the dashboard know where she was going? Why are we in a neighborhood? With houses. And trees. And frontyards. And rubbish and recycling containers. We all know neighborhood bars but Glen Moray is a neighborhood distillery. Faye and Graeme actually live on the premises in a house next to the distillery shop.
The lovely Faye met us in the shop and it was like seeing an old friend. She welcomed the family with open arms asking all kinds of questions about our trip to date. She was a trove of information too. And truth be told, she recommended the Station Hotel (thank you, Faye!). She also gave us great ideas for lunch that day and dinner later on (keep reading).
Iain then Graeme made their way into the visitor center and it was just great to visit again with them. The boys as affable as I recall. The shop is half whisky-centric and half cafe. But I found the cafe area almost more interesting. As we stood and chatted, the cafe slowly filled up. It was 10:00 am. A stream of locals were making their way in for their morning tea, scone, or whatever was on the menu. Yes, there was potato leek soup (The National Soup of Scotland). We weren’t on a desolate piece of farmland or in an industrial strip of warehouses. The Glen Moray Visitor Center is a hangout for the neighborhood which made it feel hyperlocal and even more welcoming.
The distillery has been undergoing a wealth of construction and upgrades to increase capacity. And much like here, the wheels of progress grind to a halt waiting for permits from the local government offices. Graeme had his hands full this morning so he put us in the vary capable hands of Ionna to lead us on a private tour of the distillery. This “special” treatment didn’t go unnoticed by the girls who like their mother was agog at the industrial science on display. After a tour of the “hardware”, Ionna led us to a warehouse that was undergoing a roof replacement – bit breezy and chilly in there with the blue skies above. She popped opened a few casks so we could put our noses in. Mmmm.
Back inside the visitors center, it was tasting time (and shopping). Since I had driving to do, Ionna and Faye kindly packed me some to-go samples for later while Mrs. Satellite Engineer sampled at the counter. We spent a “few” pounds in the store of course on whisky and stuff because we’re very good at spending money in foreign countries on stuff. We’re pro-globalism and the economic “benefits” of it. We did our best to prop up the Elgin economy. A bottle of the Glen Moray cream whisky liqueur that I’ve been jonesing for since my last visit, a 100% Chardonnay cask expression; a 22 year old that spent the last six years in an Islay cask from an “L” distillery (you guess which one); and a 13 year old bourbon cask pour-your-own which I poured and the teenagers labeled and sealed under Iain’s guidance. I sense internships in their future.
As I expected, the good folks at Glen Moray were simply kind, wonderful hosts and great ambassadors for Speyside. The neigborhood is lucky to have them and we’re lucky to have Graeme, Faye, and Iain as friends.
Next stop on the Old Ruins Tour (without Ozzy) was Duffus Castle between Elgin and Lossiemouth. Built around 1150, this ancient motte and bailey style castle is but ruins now, and one of those landmarks that seemingly doesn’t get many visitors if the size of the car park is any gauge. Atop a big grassy hill in the middle of somewhere with the North Sea in the distance, the ruins are desolate, breezy, and peaceful. There were a few informative signs of what this wall or that wall were long ago, just enough to fill one’s quest for some answers. It’s a vast property that takes some imagining to wonder about how the castle looked and functioned centuries ago. On this day it functioned admirably as a dog park as we met a couple walking their two retrievers, Sam and Frodo. The two hobbit dogs were much like their owners; as friendly as can be.
The quiet of the visit was interrupted every five or ten minutes by a very loud blur in the sky. The Royal Air Force’s Lossiemouth airbase lies between the castle ruins and the North Sea. Lossiemouth is home to the RAF’s Typhoon fighter squadrons responsible for intercepting Russian aircraft per Sam and Frodo’s master. I wasn’t doubting him since breakfast was whisky and eggs, not borscht and vodka. The jets took off and landed in easy sight distance. Scorching across the skies with regularity, the nearby sheep barely cared obviously feeling very protected from enemy foreign rustlers. We drove by the airbase that was built in the late 1930’s and could see the castle not far back in the rearview mirror. Bet those kings would have liked to have these flying machines at their disposal.
Off to the quaint coastal town, again a suggestion from Faye at Glen Moray, we found ourselves mesmerized by the homes overlooking the rough North Seas. We could have driven up and down every little street all day. Moray Golf Club hugged the sea and duffers battled the winds on this links course. This was golf in the traditional Scottish way, no doubt, and for a bit, was played under no sunshine either. We made it to “downtown” Lossiemouth and walked the small streets by the ocean and harbor as waves crashed over the break walls. It was lunchtime so we headed into Harbour Lights Bistro & Cafe (highly recommended by Faye). We brought the average age down a bit as this place catered to the senior set. Canes and walkers (which is the name of my future distillery) were the transportation aid of choice. But the well dressed crowd were pleasant only staring at the Southern California contingent occasionally.
Lunch was delicious and highlighted by soup! No, not potato leek. Don’t you wish. A hearty bowl of Cullen skink was intoxicating with all the its aromas. Thick and chunky, creamy and a bit salty, this was a soup that pulled you into its depths and to the folks sitting around you. The haddock was fresh and was locally sourced from the sea. Duh. The vegetables were firm and from the earth nearby. This tasted like Scotland and the people seated around us. This was a working class albeit retired crowd who no doubt worked hard through their lives weathering good and bad days, and harsh winters by the sea. This was a soup that spoke of the sea and their Speyside people. And a few crusty rolls and a dram of BenRiach made it all the better.
Before leaving Lossiemouth, we stopped a few blocks away from where the buildings ended. The bluff there was covered in long grass and edged towards the rough North Sea. We were a long 9-iron from the rocky beach below. The short tromp across the bluff put us pitching wedge distance in rough that would be challenging enough for Rory, Justin, or Tiger. The battering waves were mesmerizing even as birds ducked in and around the puffs of wind flitting above the shore. To the west the Typhoons jetted towards the cloudy horizon barely visible from this spot. The sea air was chilly and damp, the wind was no friend here. Turning to look at back at the buildings of Lossiemouth behind, it was hard not to envy the locals and their particular spot on the map.
Next stop was Elgin Cathedral. This 13th century series of remaining structures is impressive in scope, size, and sheer age. A self-guided tour takes one up the cathedral towers and the many levels they have. Each landing has a well organized display of artifacts and historical data. The climb up the narrow spiraling staircases is a bit dizzying but well worth the spin. And the view of Elgin, River Lossie, and Cooper Park, from the roof is spectacular as well as the bird’s eye view of the Cathedral’s expanse. Each parent explored with one daughter. I got the 15 year old who was more than happy to lead me up and down the staircases, through the chapel ruins, and amongst the centuries old cemetery plots. Again, there were a scattering of folks walking the ground leaving us relative quiet aside from the riding lawnmower chugging along the property tidying up the grass.
Before heading to dinner, we stopped in “downtown” Elgin proper. The Gordon & Macphail Shop was on the list to see. The front part is more of a foodie shop with deli options, various jams, honeys, cheeses, and the like. The back of the store is the whisky room with full walls of G & M offerings of all ages. There were almost as many non G&Ms but by and large nothing noteworthy. There was a top shelf with unreachable bottles in the thousands of pounds. Port Ellens, Broras, Macallans, et al. The gentleman behind the desk was nice enough and let me peruse the list off offerings. The sheer size of the list was more impressive than the actual shelves. I’m not sure what I was hoping for but I felt a bit disappointed. I did add to my mini bottle inventory with a few purchased there though.
The twenty minute drive south on the A941 took us through Rothes and onto Craigellachie. A tiny burg on an elbow of the Spey, Craigellachie was our stop for dinner. Fay Coull (thanks again, my dear!) suggested that night’s choice and called ahead to get us reservations at the Copper Dog located on the ground level of the Craigellachie Hotel. The hotel’s exterior has an old world charm but the Copper Dog has a new world ambiance. Small part pub, large part restaurant, it was quite the fun experience. Regulars populated the pub, football on the telly, pints poured. We sat in a quaint dining room that was adorned with plenty of wood and repurposed furniture. It was casual, not trying too hard to be cool or hip. Our redheaded server seemed more of manager than server and took great care of us, laughing with us at just about everything we talked about. My Glencairn never went empty for long with the long list of choices. The dinner choices were not simple pub fare. This was a sophisticated menu that was difficult to choose from. Meats, fish, veggies, all locally sourced (within a 40 mile radius) and prepared without fault tempted us in so many directions. A delicious evening and highly recommended. After dessert (of course), we walked up Victoria Street past the noted Highlander Inn. The chilly air felt good as did the short jaunt with our full bellies.
Back to the Station Hotel, the missus and I headed to the The Spirit Safe for nightcaps. A long day filled with food, whisky, history and the best of Speyside’s beauty.
Before breakfast in the hotel the next morning, Teen #1 and I took a walkabout Rothes. We started south along the main street passing ancient building and store fronts, the Church of Scotland, the pharmacy and the road to the Glen Spey Distillery, with Glenrothes a bit farther west. Heading back through the neighborhood to the east, we met various locals, humane and canine, all pleasant and friendly. River Spey separated Rothes Primary School from Mackessack Park, a large triangular public green space and home to the Rothes Football Club. We made our way along the river spotting several pooches on their morning jaunts before turning back towards the A941 from the north. We passed a driveway into the Forsyths plant and saw many stills at some point in production possibly awaiting to be loaded up and delivered or shipped. The stills were a tad blinding with the sun beaming off their reddish skin. Teen #2 found a new friend in a little black cat from a house next to the factory. Back to the main drag and were we back at The Station.
It was time to pack the car and head south. Speyside struck a chord in our hearts. Its villages and people had grown on us over the last two days. It’s a special place with an ancient heart from sea to valley, from hills to Spey.