We began our holiday in Inverness, from where we visited two local castles. The first was Cawdor, of "All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!" fame, although far from being the sort of blasted ruin those words immediately conjure up, it is actually the very nicely-maintained living seat of the Cawdor family, and since we visited it in brilliant sunshine in early June, my prevailing memories of it will always be of the incredible smells and colours which filled its gardens and the banks of the stream which runs alongside it. It all made me think rather of Lord Summerisle's Castle, with its similarly bountiful gardens, dark wood furniture and armour on the walls, and even had some topiary in the garden which looked awfully like a pair of spread thighs to me. The family's motto, visible on various parts of the castle, is 'Be Mindful', and struck me as a nice example of the Tiffany problem - a perfectly valid early modern motto which now sounds anachronistic thanks to modern hipsterism.
Cawdor was followed by Urquhart, on the shores of Loch Ness, which of course reminded me of another ruthless English-accented aristocrat, Francis Urquhart. He wasn't home, and nor was Nessie, but the castle was a very aesthetically-pleasing ruin which probably looked better for the fact that the skies had clouded over while we journeyed there from Cawdor than it would have done in bright sunshine. I mean, sunshine just isn't very Scottish-castley, is it?
Back in Inverness that evening, I took advantage of the opportunity to meet up with local resident celtic_rose, whom I have been LJ friends with for c. 10 years now, but had never met in person. She took me to a local bar called Scotch and Rye, where we had a grand old time chatting away, eating dinner and working our way through their extensive cocktail menu, trying a cocktail each from every one of the first four pages. We decided at 11pm that moving onto page five would probably be a bad idea, although celtic_rose did go back and continue the great work the following evening! We were obviously having such a lovely time together than when we paid at the end of the night, our waitress asked us if we were celebrating anything special. Yes, we replied - meeting IRL for the first time after a decade of online friendship!
The next day we set off for Cruden Bay, where we started with Slains Castle (as per yesterday's post). After that, our next stop was Dunnottar Castle, which stands on an incredibly-dramatic rocky headland that can only be reached via a narrow spur and a lot of steps.
The next morning saw us at possibly the second most exciting castle of the trip after Slains, by virtue of a similar combination of Gothic literary relevance and unkempt, enter-at-your-own risk promise: Gight Castle, the ancestral seat of Lord Byron's family. He never got the chance to own it, because his father gambled the family fortune away and it was seized by creditors, but the best-read member of the Dracula Society told us he would have been conceived there, and I believe her. It isn't really a 'castle' as such - more of a fortified manor-house in a green and pleasant valley, but anyway it was marvellous fun to rummage around, cautiously testing our footing and daring to climb up piles of rubble to the first floor, all again under suitably-grey Scottish skies and with nary another soul besides ourselves in sight. I'm sure Byron himself would be very pleased with how it has all ended up.
I believe 'H H' on that milestone stands for Haddo House, which is also named in the blue 'at your own risk' notice above, and lies about the right distance to the south-east. But anyway I was amused by the notion of a milestone standing in a field full of cows with no visible roadway alongside it.
Thence onwards to Huntly Castle, whose Earls belonged to the same Clan Gordon of which the Byron family were a branch.
Finally, it would be rude to visit Scotland without going to a whisky distillery. We went to Strathisla, which is one of a handful of distilleries claiming to be the oldest in Scotland(!). It is certainly very picturesque anyway, and as a great lover of Scotch whisky I enjoyed learning properly about how it is made. I'll have a better understanding of the vocabulary used to describe it in future - such as knowing that when a whisky is described as 'peaty', this is not because it is made with peaty water (as I had assumed), but because the malted barley is dried out over a peat fire before being ground up to go into the whisky. After our tour of the distillery itself, we were treated to a tasting in a lovely darkened room lined with leather chairs and tables with rows of tasting glasses, which was very pleasant indeed.
I thought their 12 year old single malt, just called Strathisla, was fairly pleasant, but I wasn't blown away by it and could take or leave their blends, so did not buy a bottle to take home. However, in the duty-free shop at Aberdeen airport I discovered a bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which I have been in quasi-religious raptures about ever since trying it at one of Alistair Carmichael's whisky tasting sessions at Lib Dem conference in Southport, and which I'd enjoyed a dram or two of in Inverness and Cruden Bay as well. So I coughed up and carted the precious nectar carefully home, where I immediately also ordered a pair of the proper whisky tasting glasses which Alistair uses, and which they'd also given us at the Strathisla distillery. They really do make a big difference to how the aromas reach your nose, and given that the whisky itself cost the best part of £60, I wanted to ensure I was getting the most out of it!
I had my first little dram last night, and it really is very special. My prevailing experience of it on my first try at Southport was that it tastes of bonfires, and it still does, but there are all sorts of other notes which come out as it oxidises and you add little drops of water - chocolate, musty leather, crème brûlée and something spicy between ginger and cumin. Definitely one to enjoy in moderation, and perhaps especially as the winter nights draw in, but an excellent souvenir to have brought back from my summer holiday.