The highlands unplugged

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: November 15, 2009

It is rather easy to fill up a travel article with clichés, and when the subject is as stunningly beautiful as Scotland, a weak artist such as this author would need to resort to such devices. Everything about Scotland is great, the immigration queue is not a mile deep, Edinburgh airport is nice and functional and the city itself, well, actually Edinburgh is a mess. Not so much the fault of the city itself but the administrators who are putting in a tramway through the heart of the city on Princes Street.

I arrived in Edinburgh on a horribly depressing and blustery day, which made everything a bit worse. But I found sanctuary in the National Gallery of Scotland, just off Princes Street, which has an excellent art collection. But since this trip wasn’t about a discovery of Edinburgh but about a drive north to the Highlands, we decided to turn in early.

To be sure, renting a car is not very cheap, but then again that depends on which car you decide to rent out. We had requested a large Estate, but we got upgraded to a Ford Galaxy, a large people carrier. It was great for all the luggage, not so great if you want to explore Scotland’s wonderful A and B roads off the Motorway. These would be best enjoyed in a nice two-seater convertible, and I saw a lovely new Mercedes SLK 350 standing outside the rental place. Sadly, Galaxy it was.

You could call driving in India “instinctive” or “indisciplined” depending on your point of view, but driving in Scotland, even on the Motorways, is a pleasure. You do not need to go through the tortuous process of getting an International Driving Permit (IDP) for the United Kingdom, though there can be issues with paper licences that some states hand out. To cut a long story short, you can rent a car from one of the many rental companies starting at £15-20 a day for a small car and go upwards of £70 a day for a luxury car.

We headed out onto the M90 towards Perth after crossing the Firth of Forth bridge. The Lowlands here live up to their name as small rolling hills dominate the view. It’s only after you catch the A9 does the driving become a lot more enjoyable. As you charge at 60 miles an hour, the road start climbing and then the dual-carriageway disappears every once in a while. However, if you have the time and were driving up to the Highlands, you could take the scenic route up to Inverness via Aberdeen down the eastern coast of Scotland.

The dreadful weather of the first day had disappeared and a high-pressure zone had cleared the skies and the sun was out with only the occasional cloud. It would remain this way for the next few days. Crossing the Moray Firth onto the Black Isle—named after the colour of its soil—we crossed the northern-most major population center in the United Kingdom. There are some largish towns from here on, many of them depend on whisky for a large part of their income. We were headed for Tain, the town where Glenmorangie is distilled and their off-distillery country house—Glenmorangie House.

The House is actually a good five miles from Tain, located in a village called Cadboll. It pretty much was the manor house of the village and now doubles up as a small hotel. Cadboll got its name after the numerous wild cats that used to be found there. Sadly, during our stay there, none could be found. At Glenmorangie House, we were treated to spectacular views of the North Sea with the occasional Royal Air Force and US Air Force jets buzzing overhead (there is a bombing range not very far away), which were the only objects disturbing the peace. The rest of the countryside was dominated by barley farms where farmers grow the barley (recently harvested) that will be malted and eventually end up in a bottle of whisky.

The Glenmorangie House demands that you try their brilliant food—a five-course dinner, which features local produce, including vegetables grown in the estate’s own garden and meats from nearby farms. Both dinners were great, especially our second featuring local lamb along with bread made from whisky-infused dough.

Before visiting the distillery, we decided to take a drive around the countryside. We were told that the old Cathedral in Durnoch was the place to go. But instead of taking the direct and rather short route there we took the scenic route via the A836, crossed the Bonnar Bridge onto the A949 and discovered the Pictish trail in the process. Durnoch cathedral is a lovely little building, and has some amazing traditional stained glass work, as well as a few modern pieces allowing you to notice how that art has evolved.

The Glenmorangie distillery itself is a must-visit for anyone who ventures to the Scottish highlands. Unsurprisingly, the place was over-run with tourists. Viewing the entire whisky-making process at the distillery is fascinating—from the grinding of the malt to the distillation of the mash. It’s distilled twice to get the clear alcohol that will eventually end up on someone’s table. Maybe in 2019 or possibly maybe when I’m celebrating my fiftieth.

We did get a chance to see the distillery’s storage sheds where, using a device called a valanche, with which you take out the contents from a barrel (even though the process does look a bit gross). We tried cask-strength whisky from a 21-year-old sherrybarrel. It was possibly the best whisky I’ve ever drunk. I’d say it was even better than the lovely Astar and Cignet whiskeys that Glenmorangie has just launched that we drank with Andy MacDonald, the Distillery manager. The only downside is that caskstrength whisky has a lot more liquor content—60-65 per cent—than the 43 per cent liquor that is sold in bottles.

We also visited the valley, or “Glen” from where Glenmorangie gets its water source. Every Malt Whisky would have you believe that their source of water is the best in the world. Well, Glenmorangie might be named after the valley of the river Morangie, but it gets its water from a place called Tarlogie springs, located on a small part of the thousands of acres around Tain that are owned by the company. Tarlogie Springs is a natural spring, the water seeping through layers of permeable sandstone over “thousands of years” (or so the literature says) but the water does have a lovely taste to it and that comes through in the whisky.

The next morning, on the way back, we saw the restored Cadboll stone made by stonemason Barry Grove. The stone was originally erected by the Picts, and we discovered a lot about these people from Grove. The Picts, the original inhabitants of the fertile eastern Highlands, were decimated by the Celts who in turn were over-run by the Vikings who might have come from the Mediterranean. The Cadboll stone contains a remarkable amount of detail and Glenmorangie has adopted the symmetrical design from its base on all its bottles.

Leaving Cadboll and Glenmorangie House behind, we were to head to Stirling but instead of taking the same straight road south, we drove through the Lochs, including Loch Ness and the amazing Spartan landscape of the Trossachs, but that is another story for another time.

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