Scotland; August 2nd to 24th, 2018

Our adventure in Scotland was planned a little differently, as we are moving almost every 3 days.  Our first relocation was from Belfast to Bowmore on the Isle of Islay. As the crow flies it really is only a little less then 150 kilometers.  However, we had to take a two hour ferry ride to Cairnryn, Scotland, rent a vehicle and drive for four hours to get to another ferry.  We were on this ferry for 2.5 hours before reaching the dock at Port Ellen.  One final ten minute drive, and THEN we arrived at our “cottage” in downtown Bowmore.  It only took 14.5 hours!  It was time to get a good night sleep as the tour of Islay starts tomorrow and Scotch is on the menu.

The main business on Islay is Scotch, let me rephrase that, Peated Scotch.  There are eight distilleries on the island, with a few more being built, and we had 2 days to visit all of them.  Sheep far outnumber the population of 3000 humans on the island. However, we were not here to see the sheep so, back to the Scotch.  So our first stop is Laphroaig Distillery, where we had a Cask Tour of the distillery.  They were in “cleaning shutdown” so nothing was “working” but we saw the malting floors, peat furnace and the stills. The coolest part of this 200 year old distillery was the cask cellar that we finished the tour in.  We drew, and drank right from the cask of three different scotches. It is special because the scotch has never left the building and they are not sold to the public, the only way you get them is on this tour.  We each got to choose the one we liked and fill a 250 ml bottle of it.  So, off to a good start with knowledge and between us a litre of scotch.    

Smokey and Peaty but oh so good!
A peat ditch!

Second stop was at Lagavulin Distillery, followed by Ardbeg Distillery where we had a late lunch and our first taste of haggis in Scotland. The first of many I might add! With food and scotch in our stomach it was time to head back to town and the Bowmore Distillery.  It worked out well that  June was not a huge scotch fan as she was our designated driver for the next 3 weeks. We finished off the day at Bruichladdich Distillery for the heaviest peated scotch on the island. Turns out, they are also a gin distillery, aptly named The Botanist, it was fantastic, so we left with a bottle of that instead of scotch. One day in and five distilleries down,  what a great start!

Golden barley makes golden scotch!

We started off day two at Kilchoman Farm Distillery, where we did our second distillery tour.  This tour was quite different as it is the only independent farm distillery on the island, a family run business.

…barley malting..
…tasting the sour!

 They were actually making the whiskey, so we got to see the barley malting on the barley floor and tasted the sour brew that comes from the barley before it hits the stills ( not so tasty ).  An interesting fact at this distillery is that they grow some of their own barley, as opposed to getting it shipped there from the mainland. 

Hiking in the hills of Isla!

 With only two more distilleries to tour we had time for a walk in the hills amongst the sheep.  It started at the old Kilchoman Church ruins and went up into the hills and finished along the west coast of the island on the beach.  It was one of the more rugged hikes we have done as there was no defined walking path just points to head towards like “the broken hole in the stone fence”.  We enjoyed stunning vistas of the hills and water! With a few hours left in the day we headed to Caol Ila Distillery and finally Bunnahabhain Distillery. We did it, all eight distilleries in our two days on the island.  We were off to a good start, scotch, haggis and scenery all great so far.

With another long relocating day up into the Highlands we left the island on an early morning ferry ride. We actually did leave some unfinished business behind us, and that was Islay’s sister island called,  Jura.  We were in luck! There just happened to be a Scotch bar on the ferry and two very nice scotches from Jura Distillery, the only distillery on that island.  So, we had to try them.  A nice bonus was, we had a very generous bartender and after our shots were poured, she finished the bottle by topping our drinks up.  She explained that in Scotland if there is not enough left for another shot there is no need to keep it in the bottle!  We thought that this made  A LOT of sense ( sadly, we did not experience this Scottish tradition again ) and it made the ferry ride more enjoyable first thing in the morning.

Highland countryside…

  Our drive across Scotland took us through Inveraray where we stopped at the George Hotel for lunch and then continued on to Pitlochry where we found another distillery to stop at, Blair Athol Distillery.  We didn’t really care for the scotch, but the tasting bar was one of the coolest ones.  It was an old copper mash tank that was cut open and turned into a bar.  The final two hour drive took us into Cairngorms National Park and past some ski hills as we went over the mountains of the park.  With just a peak of the tower and flag flying was all we could see of the Queen’s castle at Balmoral as we drove past it.  The significance of the flag flying indicated that the Queen was in residence, which meant we could not tour the castle.  This week we were staying at the Hilton Grand Vacation Resort and  not only was the Queen our neighbor, but Trina’s Mom, Barb and her brother Kale and his friend Lisa were our next door neighbours as well.  This was an action packed week!

Ballater from above…

We started by exploring Ballater by foot.  The walk into town was about 2 kilometers past some very old castle type looking homes.  It must have been a theme back in the day when Queen Victoria fell in love with the area.  It was a very quaint small town so it did not take long to walk it.  

We didn’t see the Queen, but we had the benefit of seeing her regiment drum and bagpipe marching band parading around the town after welcoming her at the castle.  This happened to be the regiment’s pony’s birthday as well, so after the parade they sang happy birthday to him and gave him a beer instead of cake. It was quite comical to see a pony try to drink beer! 

Highland dancing at the Highland games.

There were 2 festivals going on this week, Victoria Week, a small downtown festival and the Ballater Highland Games. These games appeared to be a very organized chaos.  At any given time there were bagpipes playing, girls and boys dancing, people running races, tug of war games and of course hammer throws and tabor tosses.  There was even a Canadian involved in the tabor toss which we watched from atop a small hill since we didn’t want to pay the entrance fee.

Queen Victoria’s old rail line, now a cycling trail.

 Another way we saw the town was from on top of Craigendarroch Hill that rises above the town, when we did a nice little hike basically out our back door.  Another day Robert and us rented bikes and did an awesome ride on a rail trail along the River Dee.  We rode about 60km to a lovely cafĂ© in Potarch, passing through several small villages and farms along the way. The trail was the old rail line that was put in so Queen Victoria could bring the train up from London to her vacation home at Balmoral.  However, she did not want the train going past her castle so it stopped at Ballater and then from there she took a coach.  With the track long gone it is now a very nice cycling/hiking route along the river.

The nights were full as well.  We enjoyed 2 Scotch tasting evenings.  One, was put on by the resort, which was again very informative and fun, and one, that was hosted by the 4 of us in our suite from our scotch that we had gotten when on Isla.  The final evening we were all there, we made a very tasty dinner and enjoyed a lovely evening at home. Another fun evening that we had was up the road a very old, very basic pub that had a quartet playing some traditional Scottish music on the fiddle and accordion with a cameo appearance of the bagpipes.  The small room was packed and then around 22:00 they served homemade cup a soup, which was very tasty!

Driving through Cairngorms Park

Now, that was just in the village.  We also explored a little further with a couple road trips.  The first one took us to the west side of the park, a beautiful hour+ drive over the mountains in Cairngorms Park and through part of the Glenlivet Estate.  When we reached Aviemore we let Barb and Lisa off to spend the next few hours in the village and the rest of us went for a walk in the highlands.

walking in the heather and the Highlands, literally!

This was a spectacular walk up the hill to the mountain top which gave us a beautiful view of the surrounding area.  We walked through heather, lots and lots of it!  The mix of green and purple was amazing.  Oh yeah, there were also sheep and at one point one decided to “chase” us down the path.  Since we were hiking on the sheep trails, I guess it had every right to chase us. 

The main reason for heading to this side of the park was to go see the Leault Working Sheepdogs. When we called to inquire about the demonstration we were told that if we wanted we could show up early and watch the Sheepdog Trials that were going on, bonus!  This was very cool watching the shepherd controlling his dog from hundreds of meters away with whistles and yells and the dog then would guide 3 sheep through a slalom course and finally into a pen.  Incredible to watch!

Rounding up the sheep for the demo.

Then it was time for the demonstration.  The shepherd had twelve dogs that he controlled and sent a few out in the fields to bring in the sheep.  This time instead of 3 sheep there were closer to 60 sheep!  He then did different drills which demonstrated the intelligence and control that these sheep dogs possessed.  It was truly stunning.  At the end of the demonstration he picked one of the sheep and started hand sheering it.  After a few minutes he asked for volunteers and June was first in the line!  To finish it off they brought out puppies and baby sheep for everyone to feed and cuddle with. What a day!

…a new profession?

The other road trip day took us north of the park into the Speyside area.  This is the heart of Scotch making territory and we were looking forward to this.  The first stop was at the Cooperage, this is where they make wooden stave barrels.  We took a little tour of the factory and today they were refurbishing barrels, taking them apart and replacing staves that were no good anymore.  We actually were able to watch the World Record holder for fastest barrel making working in front of us. 

After a very interesting tour we headed over to Aberlour Distillery.  This is where we found out that not all distilleries offer a tasting room and this being one of them we could not taste here.  So, we got on the phone and started calling around.  It was shocking to us how many distilleries did not have tasting bars, luckily we were able to find a few.  We stopped at Macallan, Glenfarclas, Cragganmore and the Glenlivet Distilleries.  It was a good day to say the least.

We rounded out the week with one last distillery visit to Royal Lochnagar which is a small distillery right beside Balmoral Castle and most of their scotch is used in the Johnny Walker Black and Blue blends.  One last long walk along the River Dee where we had another view of the village but also some nice sightings of some of the local cattle & deer, toads and some cool slugs. What a great week. Lots of scotch dunk, good food was ate and new friendships established. However, there was more of Scotland to see and it was time to say goodbye to Kale and Lisa.

With Barb joining the four of us for the rest of our Scotland tour we headed north west to the coast.  This three hour drive took us through the park again and out through Speyside and beyond.  Of course there were things to see on the way with the first stop being, you guessed it, a distillery.  Tomatin Distillery turned out to be one of our favourites, especially their 18 Year Old Single Malt.  A big thank you to Barb who purchased a couple of bottles to share.  She is a very good addition to our travelling group, for many reasons! 

So with a little scotch in our bellies it was time for some history.  Barb is a big Outlander fan who also enjoyed the history behind the story so we found ourselves driving to Culloden Moor outside of Inverness.  The significance of Culloden Moor is that it is the place where the last battle of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 took place.  This battle only took a little over an hour but the results were devasting to the Jacobites as 1,500 and 2,000 were slaughtered as compared to only 300 of the government forces.  The site is now a museum and was very interesting. 

There also was Clava Cairns a few kilometers away from the battlefield.  This was a collection of 4,000 year old stone monuments for some form of rituals. 

The rest of the way to Ullapool took us past another distillery so of course we had to stop.  This one was Glen Ord Distillery.  A few of the requirements that we had instilled upon ourselves for tastings, was that they  needed to be single malts and made on site.  At Glen Ord the only scotches that they made at this distillery went exclusively to Japan.  So, we could taste it and buy it at the distillery but outside of Japan we could not purchase it again. 

A splash of colour in the green and grey.

We finished our day arriving in Ullapool at our B&B which we would call home for the next three nights.  With no distilleries in the area it was time to do some exploring.  We started off with a couple little walks, one along a gorge and then another one through an arboretum.  These two were just outside of Ullapool and then we drove further north with a stop and a small walk to a rocky outcrop along the coast. 

Of course this took us through more sheep fields and then to the water where we had some cool shell findings and starfish sightings.  The rest of the day was spent sightseeing from the car.  We drove further north up to Unapool and to the Kylesku Bridge.  The scenery on the drive was stunning with a few old castle ruins, lots of heather and rolling terrain.  The bridge was a very cool modern structure spanning the narrow point of the Loch. 

This was our turn around point and just as we came to the other side of the bridge over the ridge came a small herd of elk.  With a mix of females and majestic males with their large racks they just came and grazed,  almost as if they were posing for us.  Nature can be incredibly beautiful! 

…there is two way traffic on this road!

The next day found June and I on our own. Stac Polly is a mountain north of Ullapool that rises over 600 meters above the sea.  As we were driving out there, our windshield wipers madly going, it appeared very unlikely that we would be able to hike.  As we drove past,the peak was not visible, and the rain was falling. So the day turned into another sightseeing day from the front seat of the car.  We continued out to Summer Isles and even with low clouds the scenery was quite stunning.  We even saw a sheep with four horns!  These are known as Jacob Sheep which have been bred on the British Isles for centuries.

…a very wet Jacob Sheep

Even though we did not have great weather in Ullapool, well I guess for Scotland maybe we did.  Our next location was calling and it was time for another three and a half hour road trip that took us south along the coast to Plockton.  A small town close to the start of the bridge that takes you over to the Isle of Skye.  The drive was another very stunning drive that took us along Lochs and through some very scenic valleys.  We stopped for a light lunch at a very nice place called The Old Inn Gairloch.  There was a nice walk back to a waterfalls as well so we had a nice break to stretch our legs.

We then continued on some very crazy narrow roads until late afternoon we arrived at “the jewel of the Highlands”, or that is how Plockton describes itself.  This was our home for the next three nights and our starting point to explore the Isle of Skye.  The Isle of Skye is one of the most popular of the Scottish Isles and there for basically has a couple of “tourist” scenic routes. 

They definitely are scenic and with some Scottish weather in the forecast we headed across the bridge.  The drive up the coast of Skye was again spectacular even with the rain clouds hanging on the mountains. 

The sun shining on the Old Man of Storr.

With our first stop being a hike up to the Old Man of Storr we had to depend on Old Mother Nature to co-operate and she did!  As we pulled up to the parking area and the trail head the clouds parted and the sun came out.  So off we headed to go and see if we could get up close and personal with the Old Man.  It was not a long hike but it took us up and up.  The views were wonderful and as we did the final climb up to the formation, Mother Nature played a dirty joke and opened the taps which only took a few minutes to make us wet and the scramble down from the top a little trickier but by the time we reached the car and Barb in the parking lot the sun was shining again and we were dry. 

With some exercise in our legs we continued north up the coast to our next stop on our tour which was a point called Kilt Rock.  The formation really did look like a kilt and on top of it there was a lone bag piper standing at the edge playing.  It had a very Scottish feel. 

With our tour continuing to the top of Skye where we had another short hike through a sheep field to the ruins of Duntulm Castle.  As we turned the corner at the top of Skye and started the journey back toward the bridge and Plockton.

First we took a “quick” detour that took us back almost to the east coast to the Quiraing Pass and with some more rain moving in and some very windy weather we just stopped and took some pictures of The Quiraing.  Retracing our steps we headed back to our route and headed towards home with one more stop for the day.  It was a magical valley filled with Fairies.  Or it really looked magical and was called Fairy Glen.  It was a valley that was filled with little mounds and hills and pools of water and very lush and green.  Truly  a magical place and a very nice way to finish our first of two days exploring the island. 

…view from our room.

Our second day on the island was spent mostly in the car driving the “other” loop which went up to Dunvegan Castle.  We did not pay to go into the grounds but had a nice lunch in the village of Dunvegan.  Then we had two Scotch tasting locations planned.  The first one being Talisker Distillery.  This is the only distiller on Skye and had some nice scotch.  The highlight of this tasting was the 27 Year Old Scotch that Barb treated herself with.  Then before leaving the island we stopped at Gaelic Whiskey and the Gaelic Gin.  The whiskey was not distilled here and were blends, but we tried them anyway and even though they were ok we actually left with a bottle of their gin that they do distill on the premises.  It was a whirlwind tour of Skye but it was time to cross the bridge one last time and say goodbye.

With a 3 hour drive, some scotch, hiking and castles on the agenda we left Plockton and headed towards Oban.  The first stop of the day was to pick up Barb and Trina who had gone to tour Eilean Donan Castle. 

Once we had everybody together we drove to Ben Nevis Distillery at Fort Williams.  After tasting five more scotches and having a light lunch we drove to the Glen Coe Valley where we were once again treated to incredible mountain vistas and a valley below as the road went up through the middle of it.  For you Harry Potter fans it also was the location used for Hagrid’s cottage but no signs remain of it after filming was finished. Once again relying on the sun to push through the rain clouds, or at least the rain to stop, we were able to pull into a parking area along the way and hike across the valley and partway up the other side before returning the way we came. 

Oban from McCaig’s Tower

We arrived in Oban later in the afternoon in time to walk downtown for dinner and have a nightcap of scotch back at our BnB.  In the morning we did a walking tour of Oban which took us along the promenade and then up to McCaig’s Tower, a Roman looking monument built by one of the wealthy citizens of Oban at the turn of the 19th century.  Barb and Trina then went for a boat tour and Robert joined us on a walk up over Pulpit Hill and through the country side and back into Oban. 

This was a nice walk that worked up a good desire for you guessed it, some more scotch tasting!  Since Oban has had a distillery in town since 1794 and is known around the world for it’s scotch we had a very good place to go. It did not disappoint! The next day we went for another nice walk  north out of the city along the water with our destination being Dunstaffnage Castle.  The castle was built on a rock sometime before 1240 and was captured by Robert the Bruce in 1308. Incredible!  We finished the day with a beautiful sunset from the promenade to say goodnight to Oban, as we were heading across Scotland in the morning to Edinburgh.

The drive to Edinburgh took us straight across the island and, as luck would have it, past a few more distilleries.  Our first stop was at Glenturret Distillery, home of The Famous Grouse.  Since the Grouse is a blend of scotch it did not fit our profile but luckily they also make some good single malt scotches so we had some tasting to do. 

Next was Tullibardine Distillery, one of the newer distilleries, only coming to be in 1949, but, on the grounds of one of the first breweries in Scotland, dating back to the 12th century!  It was the brewery used for the coronation of King James IV back in 1488. It was fun to learn some history while drinking scotch! 

Sadly, our next stop was our last distillery of our scotch tour of Scotland :(, Deanston Distillery.   Another relatively new distillery as it only dated back to 1966.  

Our final stop in Culross was for Barb, as she is a big Outlander fan and this charming 17th century town is featured as the fictional town, Cranesmuir, in the series.  Our road trip of the Scottish Highlands has come to an end and we dropped our cars off and piled into a cab which took us into the city and our final three nights in Scotland in the beautiful city of Edinburgh.

The Tattoo, The Fringe and The Crowds!

With our small town tour of the Scottish Highlands behind us it was time now to experience the big city life of an ancient city.   With the craze of the Fringe Festival and Military Tattoo in full swing the city was one big party.  Our Airbnb was within walking distance of the city center, The Royal Mile, which made it easy to explore on foot. 

The Palace

We did a couple walking tours of the city, the first one being The Royal Mile, which started at the Castle and then down to the Palace with many interesting stops along the way.  

We walked up Canton Hill to the Observatory and then down to the  New Town and did a tour of it.  “New” is a relative word as it was built in the 18th century!  This gave us a good feeling of the old and the new and the royal tidbits of the city. 

Canadian street performer

We did not tour the castle as we had done it when we visited the city 19 years ago.  Planning a visit to Edinburgh in the month of August is done for one, make that two reasons and two reasons only. The Fringe Festival, which started in 1947, and has grown into the world’s largest arts festival which spans 25 days and features over 53,000 performances of almost 3,400 shows in 300 venues.  Let’s just say there is a little of something for everyone! 

We attended three of these shows.  Our first one was Trump Lear,  a one man show in a “bunker” with a Trump impersonator doing a spoof of Trump and a version of “King Lear”.  It started off quite entertaining, but turned into a disturbing version of “gross” comedy.  The second was a Canadian Comedy Show.  The location was about 3 floors below ground level under a bar in what is a storage room the other 11 months of the year, definitely a fire hazard!  It was ok with five different Canadian comics, two of them were good the other three not so much. 

Our third show was actually on a theatre stage, with a cast  of five people and it was called, Vulverine, with an empowered heroine spin on the action hero Wolverine.  This was a very energetic show and might not have been Broadway material but was entertaining just the same.  We saw a couple street performers, one being a young man from Vancouver, British Columbia who was a juggler and comedian and was entertaining. 

The Royal Military Tattoo

The main attraction and event that really blew our minds was the Tattoo.  The Royal Military Tattoo, is a show that highlights the precision and sound of military drum and bagpipe bands.  It has performed every year since 1949 and has grown to be the best in the world and now uses the Edinburgh Castle as the backdrop. 

Bag Pipes, Drums, Flames and the Castle

It is really hard to describe how incredible this show is.  It was absolutely amazing!!!!!!  We had tickets at “center ice” and almost in the rafters.  Oops, we were outside and there was no ice, rink but you get the idea.  This gave us a great overview and vantage point for show. It is a performance that will stay with us for a lifetime.

So, after 3 weeks of travelling the Scottish Highlands, stopping at twenty five different Scotch Distilleries, tasting over one hundred different scotches, eating haggis many different ways, one even being vegetarian and 3 royal days in Edinburgh, we have many memories that we will treasure for years to come.  Now, it was time to say good bye to our travel mates. Thank you Barb for being a great travel companion the last three weeks. It was wonderful spending the last seven weeks with Robert and Trina as room mates exploring the United Kingdom.  On our last morning, after many hugs and a few tears, we said good-bye and headed out the door towards Amsterdam!

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