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Driving through Scotland

a visit by Jenny and Charlie Plesums

October 11-20, 2010

Jenny's passport was getting dusty... we had to go someplace. Jenny was struggling with details about Rome and Paris, so I said "lets go someplace else." "Okay, where?" "Well, how about ... (listing several options) or Scotland - we could check that they are making enough Scotch Whisky to last another 40 years." Well, we didn't get our usual super cheap tickets, but we had a great time.

Getting There

Nothing special about the travel - the best kind. Departed Austin on Monday afternoon October 11, modest layover in Dallas, Non-stop American Airlines flight to London Heathrow, transfer to Terminal 5 in London (the hardest part), for British Airways to Edinburgh, arriving 2:40 pm Tuesday local time.

Arrival - Day 1 - October 12

The plan was to get an Avis rental car - we selected a large car - a Volkswagen - to give us ample room and comfort since we would be driving all week. At the airport, Avis gave us a free upgrade to a BMW diesel Wagon. It was sexy and fast, and hard for a tall guy to get into. And it included an automatic transmission which I usually reject, as part of the "keep on the wrong side of the road" reminder.

The plan was to drive to Perth, about an hour from the airport, for the first night. Outside Edinburgh we noticed a police car behind us. And still behind us 10 minutes later. We were relieved when we lost them on a roundabout, but they reappeared too soon, and pulled us over. The officer explained that he noticed we weren't keeping in the center of the lane as well as most (what do you expect - the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car?), and that the two of us were doing a lot of pointing and gesturing. (I didn't tell him that I wasn't sure whether the little 50 in the red circle meant 50 mph speed limit or 50 kilometers per hour.) I think he was wondering if I had been drinking. When he learned that we had arrived less than an hour before, he (actually the two of them, by this time) spent the next 5-10 minutes giving tourist suggestions. Actually I think they were impressed at how well I was doing, after such a short time. Jenny had the hiccups, and the police stop fixed that.

We arrived in Perth without incident, and checked into the Holiday Inn Express (where we got special rates due to our Daughter-in-Law's business connections, thank you Stacey). Fine hotel, except the wireless internet didn't reach to our room, and we had a handicapped room (no edge to the shower stall) with a shower curtain that wasn't long enough to keep the shower water in the shower. Trying to figure the light switches we also bumped the emergency call button, which we couldn't figure out how to turn off, and which brought the desk clerk running!

Day 2 - October 13 - Perth to Aberdeen

The first thing we did today was buy a new cell phone. For £10 (around $15) we got a new Samsung phone, unlocked so it can be used on any network. We bought another £10 (around $15) worth of talk minutes, with virtually unlimited text messages and other service on the O2 network which the clerks felt had the best coverage where we would be going. For less than $1 we could buy a sim card to run on a different network. And if we run out of time, just add money by phone or internet. It was bought at the Scottish subsidiary of WalMart, ASDA. And if we murder someone, we can throw the phone away like they do on TV. The first call we don't make on the AT&T international network (at $1.25 per minute) will probably pay for the entire phone. 0 771 6976957 or if you want to call us the next time we are in Europe, drop the 0 and add the country code.... from the states 011 44 771 697 6957. But we aren't asking for a call... we are busy.

The most important part of today was the visit to the Famous Grouse Distillery, or more specifically the visit to the Glenturret distillery, since that is the single malt scotch that is a primary component of Famous Grouse Scotch. That and Macallan, plus "grain" scotch, plus small parts of as many as 100 others (chosen to add a particular aroma or taste) that make up Famous Grouse. And the Famous Grouse is 30% cheaper at WalMart (ASDA) than at the distillery. What is "grain" scotch? It is made from a combination of grains. Less sophisticated stuff made in big factories, so big that in one afternoon they produce as much as the Glenturret distillery produces in a year.

Most of the place was "no photography", nominally since the environment with alcohol vapors were flammable. More likely because it would slow the tour. Knowing what I know now, this tour was more of a sales pitch, and over $11 each admission for "seniors" compared to free tours at many other distilleries.

Once outside we could see the condensing coils where the distilled alcohol was cooled to liquid, next to a Japanese maple.

To prove that we were there, these photo props were provided

The building where the kegs are filled to age.

But this is where it really rests until it is sent to Glasgow for blending. Remember that the single malt distilled here is only a small portion of the blended whiskey created in Glasgow, and sold around the world.

Then we traveled to Dundee and saw the actual ship, the Discovery, that Scott took to the south pole. It was built in Dundee and recently returned to be a tourist attraction

Jenny said I looked like a penguin, outside the museum. Maybe we won't make it to 41 years married after all!

Our drive towards the Aberdeen (think Houston, as an oil/seaport city for comparison) took us by the Dunnottar Castle, but it was raining and cold and admission was £10 each

The picture above is not the castle... the real one was at the sea, and falling down. We passed on the tour. From here it was on to Aberdeen.

Off on a tangent for a minute. Think back a year ago, to our trip to Prague. Jenny had picked the ideal hotel (cheap, ample, and perfectly located).. By the time we got there the hotel had changed names (except on the memo pads and napkins), and had moved from the ideal location to someplace too far away. She said, "I plan extensively, a year in advance, and it doesn't help." So this year she only wanted to make reservations for the first and last nights, and for the others, we would "wing it."

Well, winging it on the way into Aberdeen meant spending an hour or more on the new cell phone, calling hotels to see if they had any rooms at all, and if they did, if it would cost less than five times the rate advertised in the tourist magazines. After the calling spree, we finally spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express for twice the cost we could have had with an advance reservation. And once we got to the room, we made reservations for the rest of the trip. Between reservations, dinner, and watching the rescue of the Chilean miners, we were up until well after midnight.

Day 3 - Thursday October 14 - Aberdeen area

On Thursday morning we explored Aberdeen - mostly from our car, since we found many exits from car-parks, but never found an entrance. No, the exits were not entrances in disguise. Our GPS even took us down streets that were probably pedestrian only, looking for entrances. We would have loved to see the harbor - some huge ships and oil rigs, but there was only parking for unloading trucks.

Finally we headed out, North and West, exploring small towns (the kind of place where, if there were room for two cars to drive comfortably in opposite directions on main street, that meant someone had to park at the edge of the street to create a driver's challenge. We started in the Speyside area (as in Spey river), then got distracted with the distillery trail.

Years ago someone gave me a bottle of Knockando Scotch, which I really liked, but it isn't available in the USA. As we were driving we saw a sign for Knock town, near Knock hill, with a distillery.

Believe it or not, this is the main road to Knock - a two lane, 60 mph highway. It was in the GPS, even though it didn't have a name (the GPS called it "Road".) And the trucks coming at you at 60 mph felt no need to slow down.

We found the distillery, and stopped to see if they had a shop, but it was locked up. The "maintenance man" Allister, found us, and offered to give us a tour.

It turns out we hadn't found our goal... there were two distilleries with similar names, both near Knock hill, but Knockando had won the lawsuit, so this distillery changed names and distilled anCnoc scotch - a similar word in a different historical language.

The big piles of stones were the walls of the three storage warehouses where Scotch is aged, that collapsed under the weight of the snow a couple years ago. Forget the buildings... only 13 kegs of Scotch whiskey were lost in the disaster!

Unlike the "stand back, don't touch, no pictures" tour at Famous Grouse, this guy took us through the working still... showed us the grinders, and explained how they were set to get the best texture of ground barley, and how the "mash" was washed at different temperatures and mixed (cooked) to develop the sugars.

He showed how the precise amount of water was mixed with the recently "cooked" mash which is now called wort, as it was pumped into the wort tanks, where the yeast is added.

There are 8 huge wort tanks, where the yeast ferments. One tank is filled each 8 hours, in rotation, (so 8 tanks, one filled each 8 hours, means that the wort ferments for 64 hours before being moving on to the still). Allister showed us each of the tanks, from the newest batch which was just starting to bubble, to this tank in mid-cycle, where the foam had come to the top of the tank, to the one which was being emptied, where most of the foam was gone.

He took us to the stills - in fact, it is actually distilled twice to isolate the flavor and alcohol from what will become cattle feed. The first still is larger since the yeast can still foam (there is a window near the top of the still to be sure the foam doesn't get too high). Then the condensate is moved to the second still. The clear Scotch comes out of the still as a continuous flow (not the slow drip I expected) - faster than any faucet I have seen, including the largest tub faucet. The color comes from the used bourbon or sherry casks where it is aged, often for 12 or more years.

OSHA did not control this tour. We were on the working ladders, next to steaming hot pipes and stills. We climbed the ladder to the outside cooling area, where the output from the stills ran in pipes through a water bath drawn from the river. It was amazing. And this guy knew details that make me believe he was one of the distillers, off shift, not just a maintenance man.

The third and fourth nights were spent in a Thistle hotel, in Inverness. Jenny found an exceptional restaurant for dinner on Thursday, and a competing restaurant across the Ness river (As in Loch Ness Monster) for dinner on Friday. Both were outstanding.

Day 4 - Friday October 15 - The Highlands

After the first night in Inverness, we ventured back to the Southeast through the whiskey country. The rain fell mostly while we were driving, and it was pleasantly cool and sunny while we were walking. The hills were much like Colorado, steep, with vegetation right to the edge of the road, but nowhere near as high as the Rockies, and very old and rounded at the top.

There were many small towns where you weren't sure if you had seen the town or had missed it as you passed through. Dufftown was fairly large as these towns went...and had about 7-10 distilleries in the immediate area. This is the main part of Dufftown... Remember that you drive on the left, then notice how many people park at the left edge of the road in this picture ... facing the wrong way. It may help the driver get out of the car at the curb, but it sure scares the tourist drivers who must face headlights towards them on both sides.

Dufftown had an interesting liquor store... thousands of different Scotch Whiskeys, with probably over 100 open for samples. Note that his small corner was only for the single malt Scotches from the immediate Dufftown area. And we later found far larger liquor stores, with even more open samplers.

We never did find the Knockando distillery although we were able to buy some in the store. We did find the Glenfiddich distillery, with a gorgeous visitor's center. We suspect their free tour would have been better than the expensive tour (with lots of sales pitch) at Famous Grouse.

Since we had already done two distillery tours, we just enjoyed the Glenfiddich grounds and shop (also selling Balveine, Grants, and other scotches made by the various distilleries owned by the Grant family).

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The Glenfiddich visitor center is next to the Balveine castle, closed for the season, but still impressive.

We then visited the Speyside cooperage. To our surprise, they don't make new barrels, but remake used barrels... the barrels used for one cycle as Kentucky Bourbon or one cycle for Spanish Sherry are then used for several cycles of Scotch, before being refurbished for further use. This pile of barrels is a small portion of those awaiting treatment.

On the way back to Inverness we saw the Elgin Cathedral, built in the 1200s and destroyed in the 1300s and standing like that ever since.

Day 5 - Saturday October 16 - Skye (Northwest)

On Saturday morning we left Inverness, with the plan to visit Skye, in the Northwest, and then drive to Ayr, near Glasgow (as in far cheaper hotel rooms than Glasgow). Total of over 330 miles driving. Only about 10% of it was on roads comparable to Interstate Highways, but mission accomplished, we made it to Ayr.

Oh, you want pictures too? Okay. Way too much of the drive was on single lane 60 mph roads, with "passing places." Where there was a lot of traffic there were frequent passing places, like this, where one car would pull off to the side to let the other pass. Where the traffic was lighter, the "passing places" were farther apart... almost out of sight, so it was a guess who would pull off and wait.

There were also lots of signs that said something like "Oncoming traffic may be in the middle of the roadway." We learned that meant a narrow bridge or underpass, less than two lanes wide, often just around a corner, where the approaching 60 mph traffic played chicken about who would slow slightly to let the other through first. We have no pictures. It is hard to use the camera when you are hanging on and screaming.

There were some narrow "curvey" roads where "oncoming traffic....etc" and all the reflectors, on both sides of the road, were broken or bent off. After making it through 330 miles of this, I needed to buy more Scotch.

Skye is rugged, beautiful country - lots of steep hills - not as high or as sharp as the Rockies, but every bit as dramatic.

There were surprising breaks in some hills.

Remember we are driving on the left, and the curve is not the only issue.

As we left Skye, we stopped at the Eilean Donan Castle, one of castles in better condition and very photogenic - movies are often shot here. For £1,000 you can rent the castle for a wedding, as was happening shortly after we were there.

As we continued south towards Glasgow and Ayr, the hills got lower and greener. We zipped through the popular city of Fort William, walked the streets and old church. Perhaps half the houses on the main street were B&B, with great views of the Loch.

Jenny even saw a seaplane landing on a fiord ... ooops ... Loch

Day 6 - Sunday October 17 - Ayr and Glasgow

Not much of a picture day on Sunday. We went to mass... turned out to be at the Glasgow Cathedral located in Ayr, not far from our hotel. Lots of bells and smells but we were still done in less than an hour. The biggest issue was parking... the church had none, so we saw lots of small side streets looking for a space. Then the plan for the day was two museums in Glasgow

The first museum was the Burrell Collection on a many-hundred acre estate, now a museum, of the collection of Sir William Burrell. He was a shipping magnate (shipbuilding entrepreneur) at the turn of my century (around 1900). An eclectic personal collection of 8,000 pieces of stained glass, tapestries, furniture, ancient artifacts, paintings, etc., all of major museum quality. A surprisingly large number of pieces had been removed for analysis and restoration. The problem wasn't occasional missing pieces, but that a roomful had been removed at a time.

The second visit was to the Kelvin Grove Art Gallery Museum, certainly in an impressive facility at the right. Once inside I couldn't resist this museum sign below

We were disappointed that much of the art was displayed and presented to teach young children, not to appreciate the beauty and historical value of priceless paintings.

The organ had over 2000 pipes. None of the show pipes have a voice - they are for show only. Come to think of it, none of the pipes had a voice the day we were there, despite the sign on the keyboard that said "Organ Recital 3 pm Sunday". Instead they were having a demo of historical instruments.

The chamber concert of strange brass instruments (the leader was John Wallace, presumably the best trumpeter in the UK, if not the world), but when you want an organ concert, trumpet and strange instruments don't make you happy)

We did see the tall ship in the Glasgow harbor (despite the rain) before returning to Ayr for the night.

This is part of the tall ship, not Jenny hanging on for dear life as I drive.

Day 7 - Monday October 18 - Ayr to Edinburgh

We started this day in Ayr, near Glasgow (as in cheaper rooms) but drove on to Edinburgh. While we had the car we stopped to see the Royal Yacht Britannia, retired to the Edinburgh harbor.

The Britannia is moored next to the Ocean Terminal shopping center in the Leith Harbor. It is so large, that I could not get an overall view in a single picture, so I stole this picture from the official Britannia web site. Their video tour on that web site, by Gethin Jones, of the TV show "Blue Peter" was a better tour than I got in person.

The several hours we spent touring was VERY interesting. For example, this is the Royal Barge... the 40 foot long landing craft, if you will, for the queen. Oh, that little boat in the background is the real yacht.

You may rent the royal dining room and have a meal prepared on board by the royal chefs, served by.... you get the idea. Starting price is £200 per person... not including renting the ship for the event. I couldn't find the price of renting the ship - I guess it is like a Rolls Royce - "If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it." It would be cheaper to rent a castle, as reported earlier.

By Monday night we were in Edinburgh, and turned in the car having driven 989.9 miles, mostly on the correct (left) side of the road. Our Holiday Inn Express was on the lower level of the city, not far from the Edinburgh Castle.

Near the hotel is the largest hostel we have seen - a full size city building half a block long. This is perhaps a quarter of the kids we could see, doing email, video calls, Facebook, etc., in what must have been the Wi-Fi room, with rows of bunks in other rooms. We thought back to the days when we were that young and traveling, and a message home took weeks - often 6 weeks or more, and you made an advance appointment for an international phone call, which cost several dollars per minute.

Day 8 - Tuesday October 19 - Edinburgh on foot

This was the first day without a car. Yesterday Jenny's pedometer reported she took about 10,944 steps on a day with a car, (about 5 miles) so today's count could be scary! We have been in Edinburgh several times before on business (4 or more times for Charlie), but didn't see much of the city - the goal this time is to wander around Edinburgh and see things we missed when with a corporate host.

The city is sort of on two levels... the higher level (does "High Street" suggest something?), and the lower level where our hotel is - Cowgate Street, but we haven't seen any cows or gates. We forgot to take a picture as we climbed the hill between them, but we are standing on the ground, not in a building or tower - note you can see the roof of fairly tall buildings.

On the way up the hill, behind the hotel, we found the local catholic church...

On High Street, on the way to the castle we found St. Giles Cathedral - if the Presbyterians have cathedrals. It was beautiful, but half way through it, we found signs that, while admission was free, you had to have a £2 permit to take pictures. We didn't "rip the film out of our camera," but don't have as many pictures as we could have taken to bore you.

Note the ceiling. Note that Jenny isn't paying attention to the handsome photographer.

They have a new organ, if you look across the high altar from the crossways direction.

A little farther along we come to the Edinburgh castle. Impressive, especially in the center of the city.

We didn't tour this castle either, since we have already toured it several times, and it was really great back when it was free, but now ....over $40 before the senior citizen discount, another visit wasn't worth it.

This is an ordinary apartment building next door to the castle. We didn't check on rental rates.

We did check out the Witchery, where we have eaten on previous visits, and made reservations for dinner tonight. It turns out that it was a relatively new place when we first came many years ago, and is now a well-known favorite with multiple dining areas. In fact, there are two dining rooms, and all the tables were filled in the "Witchery Room" that we were expecting, so we ate off the same menu in the "Secret Garden" dining room. The food was excellent.

There is some dramatic architecture around. The recommended Edinburgh "Whiskey Experience" is on the right, but we have been whiskeyed out (and their prices, and others on High Street, are twice as high as Wal-Mart (ASDA) for the same Scotch)

Jenny wasn't able to find a rate below about $1,000 per night at the Balmoral Hotel, so we stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.

We spent quite a bit of time at the National Gallery ... great art, well displayed. Great furniture exhibits, but totally not labeled. As one guard said, the furniture is just to keep the people back away from the paintings. And no photography allowed! In this one, I would have gladly paid for a camera permit.

Finally before returning for a nap, we walked to see the Edinburgh palace. If that isn't a castle, I don't know what is....

Return - Wednesday October 20

This was our marathon travel day. Leave Edinburgh Airport at 9:10 am (which means a lot earlier departure from the airport - around 6:30). A much shorter layover in London, made even shorter since our plane landed just after a charter of Sikhs who were on a pilgrimage, and apparently had never flown before. We were behind them in security - they had huge amounts of carry on baggage, no understanding of the "no liquids" rules, heavy jewelry under many layers of clothing, and a nightmare for the British equivalent of TSA since the travelers didn't speak English. We thought the line was short until we waited behind them. Our non-stop London to Dallas flight was uneventful, then on to Austin and home. Our own beds never felt better.

 

PostScript: A spelling lesson. Scotch Whisky does not have the letter "e." Bourbon and Canadian Whiskey do have the letter "e." Now that I have finally learned this, it has become important.

PostScript 2: Is the money the same in England and Scotland? Well, simple answer is yes, but only "sort of." The unit is the pound sterling, and whatever money you have in your pocket that works in one place works in the other. But look at these three banknotes. In the cities of southern Scotland, the English pound, at the top, is probably most common, but as you get farther north, the Royal Bank of Scotland money, in the middle, becomes more common, and you may even encounter money from other banks like the Clydesdale bank, at the bottom.

For my technical friends... I put the notes in the scanner, and the scan preview worked fine, but when I said "scan" it gave an error and stopped within the first inch - the scanner somehow detected that it was currency, and would not proceed. I had to take a photograph rather than a scanned image.


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