Scotch Hop

ABERLOUR, Scotland (AP) — Forget the three Rs. I went to Speyside, Scotland’s “single-malt capital of the world,” to brush up on the three Ws: whisky, wool and walking.

And it was while striding beside the River Spey on a misty afternoon, a warm sweater from a local mill wrapped around my shoulders, an even warmer dram of whisky awaiting me at my hotel ahead, I realized I’d reached peak Speyside status.

Educational mission accomplished. Or, to quote Scottish poet and noted whisky fan Robert Burns, “Gie me ae spark of Nature’s fire/That’s a’ the learning I desire.”

Dreaming of drams and doing a little whisky wandering of your own? Here are a few pointers to the Speyside region’s must-sees.

Click here to read more of this story, published by the Associated Press.

Riding that (Caledonian) train …

 

I’ve wanted to book a private sleeper berth on a train ever since I saw North by Northwest , and read The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express, etc., etc. So, when I found myself needing to travel from Inverness to London my thoughts immediately turned to the Caledonian Sleeper. A private compartment came to somewhere around $350 which was comparable and probably even a bit cheaper than paying for airfare and a night in a hotel so I booked it. (If you are traveling as a couple the price will be much cheaper than airfare/hotel, so that’s something to think about, too.)

And … it was pretty fun although not quite as glamorous as the website would have you believe. The train runs from Inverness to Euston station in London, and leaves around 8-9 p.m. There’s a lounge across the street from the station where you can wait. It was OK, but not really luxe. I was way early so had a really long afternoon tea at the Royal Highland Hotel next to the station. Lobby was quite stately, and would have been statelier if they’d run a Hoover over the carpet sometime in the last decade; scones were leaden enough to qualify for the periodic table.  Continue reading “Riding that (Caledonian) train …”

Skye Highs

Portree, Scotland (AP) — Bonny Prince Charlie saw Scotland’s isle of Skye on the run. He was fleeing government troops after his Highland rebellion ended disastrously at the 18th century Battle of Culloden.

My visit was hurried, too, although due to nothing more exciting than a tight schedule — no redcoats on my tail.

Luckily, even a short stay is long enough to glimpse why the Misty Isle of Skye is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist attractions.

Here are a few reasons.
Click here to read this story, published by Associated Press

Day out in Glasgow

glasgow-reflections-two“You’ve been to Edinburgh? Oh, we’re much nicer than them,” declared the driver who met me at the Glasgow airport.

“Mmm,” I said politely, although to be honest I had my reservations about that.

Eighteenth-century novelist Daniel Defoe* called Glasgow the “cleanest and beautifullest, and best built city in Britain, London excepted.” But today the city has a much dimmer reputation as a rather damp, grey and gritty place. When your nickname is the Merchant City it’s hard to conjure up much magic. Even if you are the largest city in a country that has a unicorn as its national animal. True facts.

But I wanted to make my own observations of Glasgow so after the full Scottish (minus the black pudding, you can have my black pudding, thanks) I was up and out and ready to explore.

I spent a fair bit of time just wandering around and soaking in the Glasgow ambience.

IMG_1523To be honest, there were a lot of police call boxes although they had been painted cheery colors so I guess that’s positive?

In other signs and portents, it seems Glaswegians are not really into eating their

Vegan fare, Glasgow style
Vegan fare, Glasgow style

greens.

But I wasn’t here for salad. I wanted to try the haggis, that savory concoction made of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet (beef fat), spices and salt, mixed with stock and then cooked inside the sheep’s stomach. (Although modern life being the pale imitation of glory days that it is, it’s usually wrapped in an artificial casing these days.)

I knew it would be offally good and it totally was! Here I’m enjoying it at the Cathedral House Hotel served meatball style and washed down with the local lager, Tennents.

Haggis and beer, brings good cheer.
Haggis and beer, brings good cheer.

Then it was off to a fabulous pub, The Pot Still, where I was researching a travel article on how to taste scotch.

Yes, that does most definitely count as research. I’m surprised I don’t bust out a white coat on these visits.

The Pot Still has more than 600 whiskies. I tried four, poured for me by the friendly and knowledgeable co-owner Geraldine Murphy. She asked me if I wanted any food to soak up the rocket fuel and suggested a haggis, neeps (mashed rutabaga) and tatties (mashed potatoes) pie. “I love haggis and neeps and tatties!” I said. “That’s you sorted then,” she replied.

Sorted is my new favorite word and I don’t care how dumb Americans sound using British slang. Totally using it.

The Pot Still pub has 600+ whiskies /Photo Michelle Locke
The Pot Still pub has 600+ whiskies /Photo Michelle Locke

While I was conducting my scotch studies, two gentlemen of the English persuasion came in to the pub with their large, loud dogs and proceeded to feed said canines drops of beer by hand. They were pretty annoying but no one said anything — although the combined force of our mildly annoyed glances at their table did eventually force them out.

I turned to my neighbor and said, “Gosh, those gents. A bit eccentric, eh?”

“Oh, we let ’em in,” he said. “But pretty soon they’re going to need a visa.”

This is Scots political humor and we both laughed heartily. (FYI, I am Welsh. With possibly a wee bit of Irish.)

glasgow-cathedral-rear
Glasgow Cathedral, viewed from the Necropolis /Photo Michelle Locke

My second task of the day was visiting Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis for another travel story. The cathedral was cool and I got to hear the choir practicing which was goosebump-y good. But there is nothing I like so much as a big cemetery so wandering around the Necropolis with volunteer guide Ruth Johnston was a treat. Johnston is a member of the group The Friends of the Necropolis which raises money for restoration.

I went for a quick stroll through Buchanan Galleries, the big shopping center, and walked through Strathclyde University before taking a quick spin through the West End. There is a good deal more of Glasgow to be seen but when you’re busy doing research and eating like a horse you can only fit so much in.

It having been a good two hours since my last haggis fix I felt peckish again so I stopped by the Butterfly and the Pig for tea. The place is in a lavishly decorated Victorian house, in fact the decor is so cute it made me wonder if the food would be kinda blah because that’s often how that correlation goes. But in fact the tea and scones were everything that tea and scones should be. IMG_1525

Sitting at the table next to me was a group of women wearing fabulous ’40s style outfits with red lips to match and they explained to me they were having a “hen party,” or bachelorette party, for their friend the soon-to-be-bride.

It was only 5 p.m. and I’d already clocked about five conversations with strangers. This is roughly five more conversations than I managed on a similar visit to London. Actually, come to think of it the only strangers who talked to me in London were Americans.

So the whole “dour Scot” thing was looking pretty shaky.

I finished my day with dinner at Mother India, because what else would you do in Glasgow but go out for Indian food?

Next day it was off to the airport and home to sunny California.

“How did you enjoy your trip?” asked the friendly cabbie as we sped down the motorway.

“Great!” I said. “Someone told me people in Glasgow are nicer than the folks in Edinburgh and he was right.”

“Nicer than Edinburgh?” the driver exclaimed. “Why, the whole wurrrld knows that!”

___

*Fun fact I learned while researching this post, Defoe was a spy as well as an author and visited Scotland to report back on sentiment toward impending union with England, a topic that remains relevant today.

*Fun other fact: His name was really Daniel Foe. He added the De to sound posher. Should I try that with my full name do you think? Michelle Locke DeHo?

I think I just may be sorted.

Cheers, swankily.

Raising the flag issue

welsh

As you no doubt know, Scots voted this week on whether to split from the United Kingdom. Ultimately they decided to stay.* Huge decision. I think I’ll stay out of it.

But, I cannot help but be struck by all the talk there’s been about what could happen to the British flag minus Scotland.

As you probably know, the union flag (It’s only union jack if it’s at sea, did you know that?) looks like this:

 

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It’s a combination of the red-on-white cross of England’s St. George, the white-on-blue cross of Scotland’s St. Andrew and the red x-shaped cross on a white background known as St. Patrick’s saltire that represents Northern Ireland.

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Something … seems to be missing. And that something is the beautiful red dragon on a field of green and white that is the flag of Wales. (My homeland, ladies and gents.)  The dragon is the red dragon of the King of Gwynedd, Cadwaladr. (Obviously, that’s pronounced “Gwinneth” with the “th” as in than, not thin, and “Cadwallader.” Obviously.) and includes the Tudor colors of green and white. It was used by Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth. (That’s the one where Richard III went toes up.)

Why no dragon?

The official answer is that Wales is a principality, not a kingdom. Which, OK, fine … except Northern Ireland doesn’t use the red cross as its official flag. The union flag flies on government buildings there. So, if we’re talking symbolism, how about a little principality parity?

This issue has come up a time or two with various amendments proposed. This version was put forward by a Welsh MP (member of parliament) in 2007:

The Union Jack proposed by Ian Lucas.

I think that looks rather nice.

And here’s a handsome rendition of a flag should Scotland ever gang awa’.

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P.S. Honesty compels me to admit to one disadvantage to the Welsh flag. It’s the devil of a job to draw and crayon one yourself if you’re, let’s say eight years old and the Queen and Prince Charles are coming to your town and you need something to wave and you don’t have enough money to buy one ready-made. You end up, hypothetically, coloring madly away, sticking the paper on a knitting needle with a LOT of sticky tape, getting up at 6 a.m. and standing in the High Street frantically waving what looks like a prototype of Clifford the Big Red Dog.

I can only hope that should she have happened to catch sight of me, Her Majesty was amused.

*Edited 9/18 to reflect the independence measure failed.