The traffic, the people, the pace of life: they are all quiet here. Nature, on the other hand, is abundant. Yes indeed: in the highest of spirits. A drive along the western coast of Scotland is easy going and enervating at the same time.
Text: Hans Bouman
Photography: Frits Meyst
In the morning, there was whisky and coffee. Lunch meant whisky and a sandwich. Afternoon tea brought yet another whisky. For eighty years, this was everyday life at the Glengoyne Distillery. Here’s why. When in 1899 a man called William McGeachie was the distillery manager, he discovered that the barrels in which the precious liquid was matured, touched down a bit faster than one could explain the basis of evaporation alone.
The abiding manager soon realized what was going on: his employees weren’t exactly averse to the occasional dram of their precious product, and, while at it, allowed themselves a second and maybe a third sip as well. William, who himself wasn’t your typical teetotaler either, saw their point. To regulate things, he decided his men were allowed to have three free glasses of undiluted whisky a day. Straight from the barrel, so quite a bit stronger than the stuff that is normally bottled in Scotland.
‘Cheers, m-men! And n-now, back to work!’ Hiccup!
It took a while before the management was starting to understand that this regime, although admittedly reducing whisky theft, was not really ideal for productivity. And that, perhaps, health wise there were some disadvantages as well. They took a couple of decades to work things out, but around 1980 it was decided to put an end to drinking during working hours.
‘Frankly, there have been a few employees who had their reservations about daytime drinking themselves’, says duty manager Edwin Hutchison, as he invites us into the sample room of the distillery. ‘Especially the younger men couldn’t really cope with three large lemonade glasses of whisky during their working day. In order not to look like a sissy, they poured their part in the cooper’s old teapot, which was standing in the window. The cooper, of course, pretended he just drank tea.’
In honor of that tradition Glengoyne Distillery occasionally bottles young whisky with a cask strength of 58.7 percent, and sells it under the name Teapot Dram. It’s not cheap, hits you like an uppercut Muhammed Ali style and is immensely popular.
The Glengoyne Distillery is located in the vicinity of Glasgow. With 60,000 visitors it is one of the most popular distilleries in Scotland. Like almost all whisky distilleries, it has a pagoda-like tower, dating back to the time when the malted grain was smoked over a peat fire, at the distillery itself. The smoke was not allowed to escape too fast, because it was important to the flavor of the whisky. The typical chimneys made sure it didn’t. One sees the ‘pagodas’ popping up everywhere in the Scottish countryside, especially if you follow one of the Whisky Trails. These days, most malt is smoked by specialized companies, not at the distilleries anymore.
After three drops of whisky and two mugs of coffee – was that a trace of contempt in manager Hutchinson’s face? – we drive on to Balmaha, a town which is a great starting point for a walk around Conic Hill. From here you have a wonderful view of one of Scotland’s most famous lakes: Loch Lomond.
While walking we encounter the bronze statue of a man called Tom Weir: woolen hat, grandfatherly mustache, outdoor clothing, binoculars. Clearly a hiker and nature lover. Being ignorant foreigners, we admit Tom’s existence was hitherto unknown to us, but in Britain his television show Weir’s Way has been a household name for years.
Later, at the cemetery of the village of Balquhidder, we meet a celebrity we do know, at least by name: Rob Roy. But who was he again? A couple of Scottish admirers, tossing coins over Rob’s grave (pennies, that bias, at least, is correct), answer our question with secretive smiles. But in our travel guide we read that this National Hero was probably an opportunist, who mainly used his image of independence fighter to steal loads of cattle.
However, a novel by Walter Scott (1818) and a movie with Liam Neeson (1995) gracefully embezzled these inelegant facts, making sure we can deposit our eurocent on Rob’s grave a without too much guilt.
Glen Coe is said to mean ‘Valley of Weeping’, apparently referring to the historical Massacre of Glencoe. Today is may just mean: so beautiful it almost makes you cry. By car you can cross it in maybe an hour, but no one should wish to do that.
This valley, with its green meadows and its imposing Munro mountains left and right, demands to be cherished in low gear, or in fact, in no gear at all. One should get out and walk.
There are several hiking trails in Glen Coe, ranging from ‘quite manageable for those who can just about make it to the fish & chips shop without rollator’ to ‘strictly limited to Olympic athletes with a healthy contempt for death’. In all fairness, it should be noted that the first category is a minority. Trails here have names like ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ and some are used by the British Army to teach soldiers-in-training a trifle of humility.
‘Every year people die here’, says Angus, a tawny hiker with a dark and undeniably masculine voice as we stand panting on a hill top. ‘You have to understand: the weather can change very quickly here. Good shoes, good clothes, a compass: they are all vital.’
Probably encouraged by our facial expressions, he begins to tell about the Massacre at Glen Coe in 1692. His enthusiastic, though not at all times fully comprehensible story makes clear that the Dutch viceroy William III, also King of England, did not like the Catholic MacDonald clan.
‘He massacred clansmen by the dozens. During a battle on a wintry day in February, hundreds of brave Scotsmen were mercilessly driven into the snowstorm. Poor devils. They had no chance.’
‘Cruel, right? Bloody Dutchman.’
‘Well, nice talking to you. What country did you say that you came from?’
In a flash
From Fort William, situated at the foot of 1344 m high Ben Nevis, to the coastal town of Mallaig, is just a stone’s throw. But it takes all day to cover the distance, because there is so much to see. Hills and valleys, rocks and ravines, lakes and waterfalls. And for those with good eyes (and good binoculars): golden eagles, peregrine falcons and pearl divers.
Glenfinnan Viaduct is a man-made highlight. This viaduct is a classic case of Victorian can-do mentality. On its way north, the Great Western Railway had to cross Loch Shiel, so the Victorians constructed a concrete work of art with 21 arcades. On one side, you see a green and pleasant, sloping landscape. On the other, the imposing construction, and the beautiful loch.
To the great enthusiasm of train buffs, occasionally steam locomotives are operated on the Fort William-Mallaig rail track, which includes Glenfinnan Viaduct. And since the viaduct was used in the Harry Potter film adaptations – the Hogwarts Express runs over it – the general public has discovered the viaduct as well.
As the steam locomotives only operate in summer, and even then only a few times a day, a visit to Glenfinnan should be well-planned. Well, we did. We have figured out that the westward moving train (Fort William to Mallaig) produces the best pictures, because then the train rides right towards you. It passes at 3.05 PM. Some ten minutes later, the less spectacular eastward moving train will follow.
We are an hour early, which gives us ample opportunity to pick out a good spot. Friendly people at a nearby railway station warned us of damp grass and the need for serious boots, but we appear to be doing all right.
Gradually, things get busier at the slope. Two Asian Potter fans play out a scene from one of the books: Draco Malfoy trying to make Harry’s life miserable. An elderly man with a video camera tells us he has photographed and filmed the train ‘God knows how many times’, but is keen on capturing it in all seasons, in all possible weather conditions and in all configurations (steam and diesel). ‘In the autumn I’ll be back.’
We wait and wait. Of course the train is late. The bloody bugger probably does it on purpose, to increase tensions to the maximum. Then, at last, in the far distance, we see something that looks like a plume of smoke. Do we hear the spluttering of a steam engine?
And yes, there it is: a black locomotive followed by a coal wagon and six red carriages, which runs a bit faster than I had hoped. Chook-chook. Chook-chook. And gone.
‘It’s like the Tour de France’, the video man grins. ‘They keep you waiting for hours and then it’s over in a flash. But hey man, that was beautiful or was that great?’
Pyjama hero in Scotland
When the second train has passed as well, we descend towards Loch Shiel. On its shores the Glenfinann Monument reminds visitors of that memorable event in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his royal standard here: the start of his fight to the British throne.
‘Beautiful Charlie’ was officially named Charles Stuart, and was not at all happy with the fact that his father had been expelled from the throne, years earlier. He gathered a bunch of brave Scottish followers around him and – much to everyone’s surprise – gained a number of serious victories over the Royal army. When his troops invaded northern England, there was panic in London.
But Charlie’s success proved short lived, and after a devastating defeat at Culloden Moor near Inverness the young pretender fled. The historical fact that ‘Culloden’ turned out to be the last battle fought on British soil was probably little comfort to the would-be king. Charlie spent his final days sulking in Rome.
Despite his failed operation and rather dishonorable retreat, Bonnie Prince Charlie still enjoys a hero status in Scotland, or at least with the Scottish shopkeepers. Be it biscuit tins or tea mugs, yoga mats or children’s pajamas: his portrait is unavoidable.
Sleeping in coffins
Mallaig has the raw character of a fishing village. It may be the gateway to the popular Isle of Skye, visitors are looked upon as a strange specimen here. The door of the Navy Bar, at the bottom of the eponymous hotel, is barricaded by three heavy smokers. If you manage to slip past them, you are greeted by the disturbed looks of a group of locals, wondering who the hell has the bloody guts to enter their sanctuary. Eh… alright, we’ll have a look somewhere else.
The locals, however, are a bunch of goody two-shoes compared with the seagulls. This winged scum is responsible for three quarters of all road debris in the city, we are told by the clerk at our hotel.
‘I hate these *** animals! Day in day out I see them snatching fish and chips from startled children’s hands. Even as an adult you have to be careful with them. They are serious street fighters. Life at sea must have hardened them.’
In the midst of these Street Fighters of the Sea, we meet the surprisingly gentle fisherman Billy, who was born in Donegal, grew up in Glasgow and is the proud owner of the Marelann. Unfortunately the ship is currently experiencing technical problems. ‘The mechanic I called should have been here an hour ago.’
Fishing is a great but rather dirty job, Billy tells us. ‘I sail with a crew of four and the way we sleep may remind you of a horror movie. Our bunks look like coffins, really. But ah… the freedom of the seas, that does it, right?’
Nature lover with speargun
After a half-hour ferry crossing we set foot on Skye. The sky is overcast and the sun shines warm light on what is dubbed ‘Scotland in miniature’. No island in this region has such a varied landscape as Skye.
We drive to Tarskavaig, a small village that was founded by peasants, driven off their land during the infamous Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. The landowners expelled them, because sheep were more profitable than tenants.
From here and from the adjacent Tokavaig there is a magnificent view of one of the most famous attractions of the island: the Cuillin Range. Like the Quiraing in north, these volcanic mountains often have sharp edges and points that seem to bite the sky.
In nearby Elgol the view of the Cuillins appears even better. A resident walks up for a little a chat. ‘Look at that small island over there. That’s Soay, where naturalist and author Gavin Maxwell once had his domain.’
‘Famous nature lover. Written many books. Fell in love with Soay and settled there soon after the war. Started a little business there. You know, old Maxwell had noticed there are quite a few basking sharks swimming in these water.’
‘So he organized tours to spot them?’
‘No, he shot them with his speargun. He loved nature, Gavin did.’
We drive from the west coast to the east coast – on Skye you can never be further than eight kilometers from the sea – and pass another neighboring island: Raasay. Here Bonnie Prince Charlie spend the night, when on the run for the English. In his escape, the prince was aided by Flora MacDonald, who has since been a Scottish heroine. She is buried at Kilmuir, in the far north of Skye, and of course we will visit her grave.
Eventually we settle in Portree, the only settlement on Skye which you might call a town. Familiar scene: in the sun man and seagull enjoy their fish and chips. Happy faces everywhere. Until an overly cheeky seagull… Well, exactly.
Stalker in waders
Had we wanted to be your original, headstrong travelers, we would of course have ignored it completely. Because let’s be honest: everybody visits Eileen Donan Castle. Point is: everyone is absolutely right in doing so. The castle is stunningly situated on a small island in Glen Shiel, complete with a stone access bridge. After Edinburgh Castle, Eileen Donan is the most photographed castle in Scotland.
Not only tourists can appreciate the phenomenon, filmmakers greedily go for it as well. Scenes from Highlander were filmed here, and in the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough they have us believe the castle is actually the Scottish headquarters of MI6.
While our visit to Eileen Donan was definitely scheduled, the discovery of Castle Stalker, a few hours later, is a complete surprise. We are driving along the A828 to Oban and suddenly our right a castle appears, this time entirely surrounded by water, without a bridge.
As we walk to the shore, we become aware of a tiny spot that turns out to be a rowing boat, with an elderly lady and a young girl in it. The young girl is rowing. Could this be a grandmother giving her granddaughter rowing lessons?
Frits gets his waders from the car and tries to walk more or less unobtrusively into the water, but this appears not really necessary. Grandma is quite willing to chat. She appears to be the daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel Steward Allward, who bought this castle (dating from 1320) some fifty years ago and renovated it as a family mansion.
‘You may know it from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’
‘Well, I never… What’s the castle’s name?’
‘Castle Stalker’, the woman replies.
Scottish sarcasm? Frits looks at his waders, then at his camera, and makes an apologetic gesture.
‘No, no’, the woman laughs. ‘Stalker means hunter or falconer in Gaelic, the native language of Scotland. It’s okay to make some pictures, though. Meanwhile, we continue with the lesson.’
She nods her granddaughter, who bravely begins to grow.