A Developer’s Drive Across Scotland
October 1, 2009
In August 2008, I spent a week in London for an Ubuntu Sprint, and then took a week of vacation to hike nearly 70 miles across Scotland, along the Speyside Way. Before I had even left Scotland, I was already planning my next trip!
To my good fortune, the Ubuntu Platform Sprint was held in Dublin in August 2009, and I found myself once again on the East side of the Atlantic. Now Dublin is a positively lovely city. Wonderful people, very walkable, safe, old, and beautiful. Guinness does in fact taste better in on the Emerald Isle. And the cool days and cooler nights are a welcome relief from the blazing August heat in Austin. We got quite a bit of work done, polishing up some of Ubuntu’s Karmic Koala Server features (and saving some others for what will likely be a photo finish!). We toured the Guinness Factory (of course), and had a few pints in the Gravity Bar overlooking all of Dublin. The movie Once is easily one of my favorites of all time, and it was great to see so many of the settings from the film. I met up with my friends Josh and Erin for a tour of their neighborhood and visited their apartment and rooftop views. On the recommendation of my very Irish buddy, Eddie, I visited Gogarty’s in Temple Bar, and sampled a few Irish whiskeys, including Green Spot and Powers Gold Label.
So I set out early on a Saturday morning, hopping a short flight from Dublin to Edinburgh, where I was meeting my wife, Kimberly, and would spend the next 7 days touring Scotland. We both landed at about 9am, and met at our rendezvous point.
Now this trip would be considerably different from my backpacking the previous year. Rather than traveling alone, humping 40 pounds of gear by foot through the Scottish countryside (which is invigorating in its own way), this year I’m accompanied by my lovely wife. Kim is a pretty good sport about the backpacking thing… In fact, I managed to get her to spend 4 of our 14 nights of our honeymoon in 2006 in a tent in Yosemite National Park, including 2 days spent in the back-country dodging bears and bathing in icy streams (Chilnualna Falls, for those familiar with Yosemite).
But we’re doing Scotland by car, this time around, which is a dangerous, exciting adventure of a different kind. It starts by piling into a sub-sub-compact rental car and driving on the wrong side of the road. Just to make sure you’re paying complete and total attention, 2 short minutes into the adventure, you’re testing your nerves against 3 concentric circles of cars swirling about, choosing any one of the 6 different directions their inclination takes them. Yes, the round-about. You see, I only known of one such round-about in all of Austin, and it’s in shopping mall parking lot. Luckily, we survived that first one. And got lots and lots of practice with the hundreds of others that we deftly navigated over the next few days.
It took a few hours, but eventually our nerves settled, and driving came more naturally. However, getting into the car was disorienting every single time. I swear, I approached the wrong car door 75% of the time 🙂
We drove out of Edinburgh, toward Speyside, crossing the Forth Bridge on the A9–what a marvelous structure! We dipped off the freeway (aka, dual carriageway) as soon as we could, and hit the back roads. Let me tell you, this is the best way to drive across Scotland! We stopped at a couple of small ruined castles by the roadside (Balvaird Castle, for one), and had breakfast and coffee at a little fair. I had been in Ireland for 7 days already, so I had long past the jet lag. This was Kim’s first day over, though, so she needed coffee and a big breakfast to reset her circadian rhythm. Refreshed, we headed to St. Andrew’s, birthplace of golf.
I’m not much of a golfer, played putt-putt a few times as a kid and been to the driving range one disastrous time as an adult. But St. Andrew’s is a site to see. It’s absolutely gorgeous, pristine, perfect grass and rolling hills. We kept driving through the heart of the town of St. Andrew’s and over to the ruined castle and cathedral. It’s a coastal town, with lapping waves, constant wind, and a crystal blue sea. The castle was a fortress itself, overlooking the water, and very near the abbey and cathedral. The original cathedral is well over 1000 years old, and what’s left of it is pretty magnificent. This was the center of Scotland church for a few hundred years.
We left St. Andrew’s and continued heading up into the Highlands, and the landscape changed entirely. We had left the bustling city of Edinburgh that morning, and saw a bit of the coast at St. Andrew’s in the afternoon, and were now just getting into the foothills of the Scottish Highlands. The roads get a bit more narrow and the scenery more spectacular. We past a sign for the Dalwhinnie distillery and pull over for a stop. My bar is generally stocked with the Dalwhinnie 15yr, so I was looking forward to a dram, but alas the tasting room had just closed. Bummer. We took a few pictures and continued our trip up to Aviemore.
Last year, I finished my hike, which started in Buckie, at the Aviemore train station, so I had seen a little bit of the town last year, enough to know that Kim would love it. We parked for a bit, and walked around Aviemore, dipping into a few shops. I have only been to Aviemore in summer time, but it looks very much like a ski town, surrounded by mountains and having sports outfitters on every corner. Next time I hike the Speyside Way, I might just start in Aviemore and buy my gear there, rather than hauling it over on the plane.
Evening approached, and Kim’s jet lag started catching up with her, so we made the short drive to Boat-o-Garten, where we had 1 night’s reservation at the Boat Hotel. Now Kim had never been there, but it was already famous in her mind. I stopped at the Boat for a short break on the last day of my hike the previous year. I had a cappuccino and an enormous stack of shortbread cookies, heaven in your mouth for a weary hiker. Having taken one bite of one cookie, I thought, hmm, I should take a picture of this 🙂 The dark wooden table, indirect natural sunlight, and perfect cup of coffee and cookies made for an outstanding shot (if I do say so myself). When I got back to Austin, I had that picture (as well as a couple of others) printed on canvas by Pounds Lab, for wall hangings. So this perfect cup of coffee hangs in our kitchen, and Kim has been dying to have a taste!
So we checked into a nice, sort of Victorian room at the Boat, and headed downstairs for dinner. I’m quite a sucker for Scottish salmon and cask conditioned ales, which I had in one form or another almost every day that week. It was an exhausting day, so we retired quite early, excited about our week of site seeing ahead.
If I’ve learned one thing having traveled extensively across North America, the Carri bean, and Europe with my wife, it’s this… It doesn’t matter where we are, or what we’re doing. Kim’s favorite part of vacation is inevitably the same thing, without fail. And that’s breakfast. It’s a little hard for me to comprehend, because I don’t care much for breakfast. I’ll have a bucket of coffee, or a cappuccino, or an ice latte, or some liquid concoction of caffeine. If I’ve gone for a run earlier in the morning, I might have a little oatmeal or granola to bridge me to lunch. But this gal loves her breakfast. And she really likes it when we stay at a bed-and-breakfast (instead of a tent or Hilton–my two preferences) because she knows that she’s going to get her breakfast 🙂 And on this trip, Kim would have her big breakfast every morning. Not the French or Italian sweet pastry kind. But the full Scottish kind — two eggs, sausage toast, muffins, cereal, and the freshest milk and butter you can imagine.
She she had her breakfast, and she would need it. This would be the one day that we were going to hike part of the Speyside Way, my favorite part of the hike, and I knew she would love it. The Boat Hotel adjoins with the train station, which runs old fashioned steam locomotives to Aviemore and a few other little towns. After a short wait in the 1920s style waiting room, we took the half hour, slow moving train through the mountains back to Aviemore, with just enough time for tea and shortbread.
It was a perfectly gorgeous Scottish summer day with sunshine and partly cloudy skies. We wandered around Aviemore for a bit, visiting the open air market and a 4000 year old Pictish stone circle, and then made our way onto the Speyside Way for about a 6 mile hike.
As I said above, this was my favorite part of the hike last year. But this time around, it would prove to be even more enjoyable. With no heavy backpack, a short 6 miles to go with only a bottle of water and a camera, and best of all, Kim’s company, it was a lovely afternoon. We walked past a hillside that had literally dozens of rabbits popping in and out of holes, practically a scene out of Watership Down. The trail is quiet, the first part under shady canopy of Scottish pines. Eventually, the trail emerges from the woods and out onto a huge, open, heather-laden moor, with 360 degree views of the Cairngorm Mountains. This, too, could be a scene out of the Hobbit. Eventually, we saw the steam locomotive chugging past on its way back to Boat-o-Garten. We hiked lazily, taking lots of pictures, talking about what else we might do on our trip.
Eventually, we made it back to the Boat Hotel, checked out, and sat down in the pub for one more cup of coffee and shortbread. Let me tell you… If you’re in Speyside, these are not to be missed! So we packed up the car and headed to a farm a few miles away for what would be one of the highlights of our entire trip!
Let’s step back a few years, to Christmas of 2007. Three adorable puppies were abandoned on our neighbor’s doorstep one icy night in Austin. Kim and I adopted two of them, and gave the third to a friend-of-a-friend. Kim and I had lightly discussed getting a dog a few times, but never seriously. And suddenly, we were dog owners. Check that, “dogs” owners.
These puppies were barely a few weeks old. We had no idea of their breed, or disposition or anything. Kim’s dad is a veterinarian, and he gave them a clean bill of health and identified them simply as “farm dogs”. As they grew (and grew, and grew, and grew!), they came to look more and more like Australian Shepherds, or Border Collies. And, of course, we grew to love them 🙂 So Tiger and Aggie became such an important part of our lives. Now, as some form of sheep dogs, they’re extremely smart, and obedient. I have taught them dozens of commands, and they are among the best behaved dogs I’ve ever seen.
And for these reasons, Kim and I decided to attend a Border Collie Sheep Dog demonstration at a farm in Speyside. Let me start by saying the sheep dog is a remarkable creature. The intelligence and obedience of these dogs are incredible. You’ve probably seen this video (which borders ridiculousness). But to see a sheep dog in its element, herding, working, and obeying is really awesome. So we spent an hour, with the shepherd introducing us to his 12 working dogs, each by name and a unique whistle that he uses to individually identify the dog to which his command is addressed. He sends these dogs out, one at a time, to herd the sheep scattered across the hillside. He can bark or whistle a command at a dog 1000m away, and the dog will stop dead in its tracks and obey. Wow. A quarter of a mile away, he whistles for the dog to lay down, or slow down, or go right, or left, and it immediately and perfectly complies. I couldn’t help but thinking about SSH + Bash 🙂
So the dogs reign in the 50 or so sheep scattered across the farm. He also selected one of the sheep for shearing. Kim helped a bit, and described the wool as very “oily”. Finally, he showed us how he trains the dogs…using ducks nonetheless. He starts training the dogs at merely 10 weeks old, having them herd ducks, directing them between cones and into a cage. Finally, he brings out the newest litter, 6 puppies barely 3 weeks ago. Adorable 🙂
After our official tour was over, we hung around for a bit and talked with the shepherd and his wife. They directed us over the hill where there were a set of “sheep dog trials” currently underway. Thirty-five of the local farmer were engaged in a sort of ancient competition. Each shepherd had one dog, and a huge field below. Three sheep are released at the far end of the field. The shepherd would direct his dog to herd the 3 sheep and drive them through three sets of cones in a sort of “infinity” shape, concluding with driving the sheep into a pin, where the shepherd would separate one and shear it. The competition consists of a set of points and a timer for accomplishing the task. We watched for about a half hour or so, and then needed to make our way to our next hotel.
So we left the farm, and headed toward my favorite hamlet in all of Speyside–Craigellachie. I spent two nights the previous year at the Highlander Inn in Craigellachie, which were my two favorite nights of my hike. I couldn’t wait to get back, and particularly to share it with Kim this time. Craigellachie is absolutely in the heart of the single malt Scotch Whisky country. The Highlander Inn is “the perfect hotel in the world”, as far as I’m concerned.
It has 5 comfortable rooms above the pub, free wireless Internet, and views of the mountains over the Speyside River. If that’s not enough, you can sample over 500 bottles of Scotch Whisky, or 6 different cask conditioned hand drawn Scottish ales. The food is excellent (of course the salmon, but also try the haggis-stuffed chicken). But the best part is absolutely the company. I spent a good 10 hours in the pub last year, cavorting with the locals, telling stories of Texas and Louisiana, and listening to their stories of the Highlands and Speyside. Duncan, the proprietor, is an outstanding gentleman. And without surprise, I ran into many of the same people I met the previous year in the very pub, including my friend Roy (local tour guide, see aboutspeyside.com). Kim and I sat at the bar for several hours, enjoying the accents and the conversations of the vivacious locales. I took quite a bit of advice on their favorite whiskies, sampling drams of Mortach 16yr and Ben Riach 16yr between each pint of ale.
Kim sprung out of bed the next morning, ready for her next round of breakfast in the charming dining area on the second floor. Duncan answered some logistics questions for us on our touring options, and in fact, called in a favor with the Aberlour Distillery and booked us on a 10am tour. The Aberlour 12yr is another of my stock single malts–double barrel aged in port wood, smooth, almost sweet finish. Kim isn’t much of a hard liquor drinker, but she loves a good tour. We often visit the 20-or-so wineries in the Hill Country near Austin, and love to do so in Napa, Sonoma, and Italy too. So she kept an open mind, and thought that if she learned more about it, she’d enjoy it more. The tour was very thorough, and informative. We saw all stages of the whisky making process, and learned the story behind the Aberlour Abundah, and St. Drosdan’s well. The tour completed with a tasting of 6 different whiskey’s (well, 5 really–one was just raw spirit straight off the still–yuck!). And, alas, Kim still hated the taste of whisky 🙂 Oh, well… I have my designated driver, then.
So we walked a few miles down a trail behind the distillery, and eventually made our way back to the car. Kim, breakfast. Dustin, whisky. Kim’s turn… So we headed to Ballindalloch Castle. Ballindalloch Castle is a still-lived-in monstrosity of a castle, owned by the family that developed Aberdeen Angus beef (which is quite tasty, by the way). We toured this lavish castle, seeing some old, ornate furniture, lots of gold, crystal, and tapestries that wouldn’t even fit in our house. The watchtower was my favorite part, which included a hole that guards could use to dump sewage on invaders. Take that! We had lunch at the cafe near the castle, where I had an Aberdeen Angus roast beef sandwich. Yum. We also stopped at another ancient stone circle, which is in the middle of a pasture.
Next, we drove way up the mountain to the hilltop town of Tomintoul (another excellent single malt). Just outside of town is an abandoned quarry, with a little path to the top and spectacular views of the valley. We got some really nice pictures. From there, we drove through the Glenlivet Estate (which is owned by the Crown). We stopped in a little town hall where we had some coffee and Kim perused the homemade crafts for sale. Also nearby is an ancient bridge dating from the 9th century. We drove by the Glenlivet distillery, but since I had toured it last year, we skipped it.
We made our way to Dufftown next, which calls itself the “Whisky Capital of the World”. Here we visited Mortlach Kirk, the 3rd oldest church in Scotland, founded in 566. In the cemetery, you can see the ancient Pictish standing stone, called the Battlestone. Legend has it that King Duncan (as in Macbeth) prayed here before defeating the Viking invaders. There are graves in the cemetery that are over a 1000 years old. Creepily enough, many of them didn’t use coffins, or the wooden coffins have deteriorated, and if you look closely, there are bone and teeth fragments through the gravel you walk upon!
We also stopped at Drumin Castle, another spectacular ruin. After that, we drove past the Glenfiddich distillery, and walked around the ruined Balvienie castle. As it was getting late, we headed back to Craigellachie for a pint in the bar, and some of that golden conversation with the locals.
So this particular day of the vacation was special for me, as it was my birthday. I turned 30 years old. It was a wonderful way to spend it, though. Soaking in the Scottish culture, indulging the senses, enjoying the vacation of a lifetime with my adorable wife. We capped the day off with a five-star meal at the Cragellachie Inn. It, too, has remarkable selection of 600+ Whiskies on the wall. As an aperitif, I had a 30yr Tamdhu. And for dessert, the most remarkable whisky I’ve ever tasted–a 40yr Strathisla. Wow. Buttery, creamy, perfectly smooth, and indulgent. Kim bought me a bottle as a belated birthday present once we got back home. We called it a night, and made our way back to the Highlander (literally across the street).
Up until this point, we had reservations booked in advance for all of our accommodation. However, the next two nights were totally open. We could really go where the wind took us, which is a really cool feeling. After breakfast (of course), we took a quick look at Thomas Telaford’s gorgeous Craigellachie Bridge. We then made the short drive over to the Speyside Cooperage, where we took an education tour of the process by which whisky barrels are made (or reconditioned). Really, interesting, sort of a different kind of a tour. We both enjoyed it very much.
So we took a look at a map and then made our plans for the next two days. We decided to drive to the Isle of Skye, and see the west coast of Scotland. So we drove up toward Inverness, stopping for a dram at the Macallan distillery (outstanding, the Rolls Royce of whisky, if you have any respect for Scotch, you must have at least a bottle of Macallan 12yr on your shelf), and passed by the Strathisla distillery near Rothes.
We passed through Elgin, and Inverness, and made our way to Loch Ness. We drove the full length of Loch Ness (didn’t see Nessie but saw plenty of Nessie-related crap for sale). We did stop for a long tour around Urquhart Castle. This castle must have been one of the most incredible castles/forts of Scottish history. It’s on a prominent point, guarding the length of Loch Ness. An entire city flourished within its walls, and it protected inner Scotland from numerous Viking invasions. I’d highly recommend this castle to drivers by.
From here, we drove along some very small roads, winding between mountains and lakes, making our way all the way over to the east coast to the islands. The mountains were considerable larger than those in Speyside, and the landscape far more stark. Heavy fog, and clouds rolled all around us (compared to the relatively sunny Speyside area). Of far more concern, though, was the relatively few B&B’s we saw with vacancy. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of B&B’s. But most were sporting their “No Vacancy” signs. Kim was getting more than a little worried. We were still a long way from Skye, and were starting to wonder if we’d even be able to find a place at all, without reservations. And while I have no problem sleeping in the car (or on the ground, for that matter), that isn’t exactly Kim’s cup of tea. So we stopped at the next B&B that had vacancy. The price reflected the quality. Merely 30 pounds, Kim went in to check it out. Yikes. Trinkets everywhere, and the proprietor gave off the “creepy old man” vibe. We had no interest in the Bates Motel. We also stopped at a ranch which had vacancy. I like the idea of a horseback ride through the mountains. But the only accommodation they had was bunk beds, dormitory style, shared with others. Again, not exactly Kim’s bag.
We kept driving, past the site of the final stand of the Jacobite Rebellion (and the last shots fired on mainland Britain). In the worst case, if we couldn’t get a room near Skye, we would just skip it and drive to Fort William, where there seemed to be much more vacancy. We ended up staying at a *picture perfect* B&B just past Glen Shiel in Inverinate. A cute, sweet little old lady with a gorgeous cottage on the loch, for merely 50 pounds/night. We went to a pub (The Claggan) that night and hung out with the locals, including a very friendly chap named Ian who worked at the Eilean Donan Castle. We saw him the next morning and he actually let us in for free! We drove all over Skye with the rest of our day, stopping at the Talisker distillery for a tasting, and touring Dunvegan Castle. We found a couple of neat, old cemeteries and a standing stone. The roads are absolutely tiny, mostly single lane. When you encounter another car, you have to pull the side, and only one goes past at a time. The mountains and sea are spectacular.
We spent two nights at the very cozy bed and breakfast. As usual, the breakfast was outstanding, but more impressive was the view of the glassy lake in the front yard. This place isn’t far from heaven 😉
Even though Skye was rather touristy, we had a great time. Next time, though, we’ll probably head a bit further North, toward Ullapool and some of the less traveled islands. We drove back through Fort William, where we stopped at the Ben Nevis distillery for a taste (probably the only one that I haven’t been impressed with). As usual, Ben Nevis itself was shrouded in clouds and fog, so we couldn’t even really see it. We hit a couple more ruined castle roadside stops. Oh, and also Rob Roy’s grave was prety cool, in a beautiful little cemetery. We drove through Stirling, and could see the castle on the top of the hill, but we didn’t.
We did, however, stop at the Falkirk Wheel, which amazing beyond words! I said that there were two real highlights of our trip–the sheep dog demonstration, and absolutely the Falkirk Wheel. Simply breathtaking. I watched it for nearly an hour. This machine simultaneously lifts and lowers a boat the equivalent of 13 traditional locks, without loosing a drop of water, and is powered by a series of small electric motors for less than 10 pounds of electricity per day! This thing is a marvel of the modern world. If you’re an engineer living on the isle of Britain and you haven’t been to the Falkirk Wheel yet, you should make plans to do so immediately!
After Falkirk, we made our way back to Edinburgh, where we’d spend our final two nights at the Edinburgh Hilton. Little did we know, we had just immersed ourselves in the middle of the Fringe Festival. We caught several comedy shows and theatrical performances–all for free. That was a nice surprise, as we weren’t expecting that. The Rowan Caves are really neat, which is where we spent most of our time. We also toured the Edinburgh Castle, though the weather was very, very poor (rained the entire time).
And that’s about it for our trip across Scotland! We drove several hundred miles, covering so much of Speyside, the Highlands, Skye, and Edinburgh. And already I have the itch to go back–maybe winter next time. A snowy Speyside, perhaps? Some skiing in the Cairngorms? Ah, that sounds nice!