With an appropriate nod to George Bernard Shaw, I thought that the title of today’s blog needed to make some reference to whiskey, since this is the day we are heading into the Speyside region of Scotland, home to more than half the distilleries in Scotland.
Truth be told, I am not a Whiskey drinker, in fact I don’t drink any alcohol at all (I quit drinking in 2003), but as I’ve written previously, Mary does enjoy a good Scotch from time to time (always “neat”), so this was a day she’d been looking forward to for some time.
Whiskey distilleries in Speyside are a really big deal, and not just because of the famous names that reside there including Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glen Moray, and 41 other single Malt Whiskey brands. If you don’t believe me, just google Speyside Tours. People commit to up to three days of group or personalized (chauffer-driven) tours visiting as many as 13 different distilleries. When I was preparing road trip notes in the weeks before we left home, I could not believe the size, scope, and degree of interest there was in what is affectionately known as “the Malt Whiskey Trail”.
As I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s blog, we’d been alerted to the pending arrival of a nasty storm (Storm Ali), so weren’t sure what to expect as we opened the curtains on this Sunday morning (September 16). The skies were a motley mix of grey and blue, and it had rained a bit overnight, but that was about it. The worst of it is still coming, but apparently not until Tuesday or Wednesday.
In order to visit a couple of “must-see” distilleries, we were going to drive a circuitous south-westerly route that would have Mary driving on narrow two-lane roads such as the one below. It seems funny to me to post these pictures, because they don’t do justice to the real thing. These roads are barely wide enough for two small cars to pass each other without “kissing” mirrors. When big trucks, holiday campers, or tour buses go by, Mary is forced to snuggle the shoulders, but as you can see below, there really isn’t much space on either side of the pavement. And, don’t even get me started on what it feels like to be a passenger on these roads. When there are stone hedgerows on either side as opposed to the spongy ground you see below, all I can do is quietly close my eyes. Thank god Mary is such an amazing driver.
Our game plan was to get to the Glenfiddich distillery just before opening time – 9:30. Experience has shown us that if we can get to major attractions early, we can be ahead of the tours and most of the tourists by at least an hour. Also, we only planned to wander the grounds and visit the gift shop since we’ve already been on quite a few distillery tours over the years. Our early arrival plan worked to perfection, as there was only two other cars in the parking lot when we got there.
After visiting the Famous Grouse facility earlier in our trip, Mary had decided she wanted to collect “dram” glasses from four different distilleries, so a purchase from the hallowed grounds of Glenfiddich represented glass #2.
The drive from Elgin to Glenfiddich had taken nearly 40 minutes, and now we were heading another 25 minutes deeper into whiskey country, to the home of Glenlivet. The roads between these two distilleries were “single-track”, which means exactly what it sounds like. Check this out.
Arriving at the Glenlivet distillery shortly before 10:30 (they had a later opening time), we were once again ahead of the crowds. Glenlivet also had a completely different feel to it, as it ss very much “out in the middle of nowhere”, as you can see. It sits in a wild a remote glen, and has been here since 1824.
Once again, we were just interested in a walk-about and a visit to the gift shop, and Mary added glass #3 to her collection of dram glasses. We were now more than an hour south of Elgin and needed to head north and slightly west toward our end-of-day destination, Inverness. Our route took us through some beautiful countryside, with fast-running rivers splitting valleys on one side of the road or the other. Every so often we would pass through small towns with one main street, places with great names like Longmorn, Knockandhu, and Dufftown (below), which for some reason made me think of Homer Simpson, he, he, he.
On our way back up to the coastline that runs between Fraserburgh and Inverness, we finally spotted our first Highland cows. They’re an iconic Scottish cattle breed that have long horns, and long wavy hair. They are a hardy breed, having been bred to withstand the harsh conditions of the Highlands. They have an unusual double coat of hair that makes them more cold-tolerant, and their skill in foraging for food allows them to survive in steep mountain areas where they graze and eat plants that many other cattle avoid. Apparently they use their horns to dig through snow to find buried plants.
This guy wouldn’t cooperate and raise his head for me, so I’m hoping to get a better picture a little later in our travels. These “Coos” as they are known, are celebrated all over Scotland, and can be found in gift shops on mugs, t-shirts, place-mats, on virtually anything you can print an image on.
As the day wore on, Mary drove through everything from light drizzle to sheets of rain that would last for five-to ten minutes, and every so often we’d get a break from the wet stuff. One thing was clear though, the winds were beginning to pick up. Also, we once again did a little editing on the fly, and decided to pass on a couple of lesser ruins and minor museums, opting instead to head to Fort George.
Fort George is located about 12 miles northeast of Inverness on a peninsula that juts into the Moray Firth. The sea protects the fort on three sides, and as we came to understand, it has very elaborate defenses on the eastern side. And Fort George is huge!! It is the size of 40 football fields, and the only way I can really convey the magnitude of it is to share this aerial view from a postcard I purchased.
I’ve written a lot about the turbulent times of the Jacobite wars of the 18th century, and Fort George is the most tangible reminder left of them. When the fifth and final Jacobite rebellion was crushed at Culloden in 1746 (just 9 miles from present-day Fort George), George ll of England set out to build the most impressive fortress in all of Europe to make a statement to all whom might consider any future rebellion.
The contract to build the fort was given to William Adam who had previously carried out work on Edinburgh Castle (Mary and I visited it in 2008 and it is spectacular), and other royal castles. He incorporated what he termed “an international vocabulary of the architecture of warfare” into the construction of Fort George, mapping out a complex of interplay of ramparts, massive bastions, ditches, and firing steps.
The strong winds had temporarily blown the grey skies out over the sea, and we were able to wander the massive grounds under blue sky, at least for about half an hour. The audio-guide we picked up told us much about a soldier’s life in the 18th century, and we were surprised when we encountered one of them still hanging around the barracks.
He looks pretty good for a guy who is almost 275 years old!
The garrison buildings which took 14 years to build were designed to accommodate 2,000 soldiers. They are laid out in a very symmetrical fashion and are generously surrounded by a lot of open space. We had quite the panoramic view once we entered the main grounds, and you can see the rows of garrison buildings at the back of the inner courtyard.
In the picture above, you can see a man wearing a red jacket. He was dressed in the attire of a soldier who would have served at Fort George in the late 1700’s. He is on his way to the Grand Magazine, where all the gunpowder was stored. Mary and I followed him as he was about to give a 15-minute presentation on the life of a solider, the clothes they wore, and the weaponry that they used.
He was both interesting and entertaining, and we learned that the magazine had been intentionally separated from the rest of the fort by a tall blast wall. This was done in order to reduce the possibility of fire entering the magazine accidentally, and help contain a blast should the magazine explode.
We walked through many of the buildings on the grounds of Fort George to learn their purpose, and at the very back of the complex was the Chapel. We had been alerted to look for a bagpipe-playing angel incorporated into one of the stained-glass windows, and sure enough Mary spotted it.
The barracks at Fort George are still in use today as a military establishment, but Scotland’s Ministry of Defence recently announced that the site would close as an active military base in 2032.
The former Lieutenant Governors’ House is home to the Highlanders’ Museum, the official regimental museum of the Queen’s Own Highlanders. The exhibits include uniforms, weapons, medals, photographs, paintings, memorabilia and regimental regalia. We took our time looking over the displays and I particularly enjoyed the paintings.
I noted earlier that the fifth and final Jacobite rebellion had been crushed at Culloden in 1746 and that it was a short 9 mile drive from Fort George. That’s where we went next.
For several days, I’ve been trying to take a picture of the enormous stacks of hay that line the side of many of the roads we’ve been traveling. It’s either been raining too hard (winshield-wiper interference), or the pictures turned out too blurry. However, on the drive from Fort George to the Culloden battleground, I finally met with some reasonable success. You can see how high these stacks are by comparing them to the height of the vehicle on the road in front of us. I’m guessing they’re at least 12 feet high if not more.
The desolate battlefield of Culloden looks much as it did on April 16, 1746, the date of the last battle to be fought on British soil. Here the Jacobite cause under the direction of Bonnie Prince Charlie, perished under the onslaught of 9000 troops, led by the Duke of Cumberland. The final conflict was quick, bloody, and almost unbelievably, was over in less than an hour. Close to 2000 Jacobites were killed or wounded in the brief battle while only about 300 government soliders were killed or wounded.
During the past three weeks, Mary and I have seen, heard and read a lot about the Jacobite rebellions and the Scottish fight for independence. The 90 minutes we spent here tied all the pieces together for us under one roof. The Visitor Centre which stands beside the battlefield, features artefacts from both sides of the battle and interactive displays that reveal the background to the conflict. It is extremely well-done and very user-friendly.
We ventured out to the battlefield beyond the visitor centre where there are red (Government) and blue (Jacobite) flags marking the positions of the two sides at the beginning of the battle. There are also graves and monuments that serve to commemorate what went on that day
To say that the Battlefield of Culloden was windswept during our visit today was an understatement, as you can see by the picture below. Perhaps given what transpired on this site back in April of 1746, the sombre mood created by the weather seemed somehow fitting.
We covered a lot of ground today, and I have been looking for an opportunity to give Mary a surprise as far as accomodations are concerned. I found what I was looking for about 8 miles outside of Inverness – the Bunchrew Castle House, built in 1505.
The house was started by Alexander of Lovat, and it only had two rooms in the beginning. The original walls were incorporated into the building you see above, in 1621. The house was purchased in 1673 by John Forbes (whose son Duncan was involved in the Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden in 1746), and changed hands a number of times in the years that followed. It became a hotel in 1986 and its character has been retained to allow guests to experience a night or two in a castle. I booked us into the corner room with the turret and you can see my fair lady at the window of her room.
The room we had was awesome if I do say so myself, and featured a four-poster bed with canopy, complete with stepstools to help negotiate the climb into bed.
I had a bay window nook to sit and record my notes for the day, and it wasnt too hard to imagine the residents of decades past sitting at this same window looking out at their magnificent grounds below.
Since Bunchrew is an old castle house, when you settle down for the night your senses can play tricks on you. Was that a soft clink of a glass, or did I see something move out of the corner of my eye? It was probably just a floorboard contracting as the temperature outside cools for the night. Or pehaps, it was Isobel, an elderly ghost who is said to occasionally walk the corridors at night. She even has a favorite table at the restaurant and I’ve heard that other guests have felt her presence during a late evening meal. Her portrait hangs just inside the front door and if you look closely at the picture below, you might even see a ghostly presence just over her right shoulder.
Good night from Bunchrew.