If ever a dragon had roamed the Earth, it would have lived in the Scottish Highlands.
And, had she a taste for liquor, she would have regularly descended upon the many distilleries nestled in the Caledonian hills in search of a cask or twenty of good Scotch whisky.
Joe and I went on our own sort of whisky adventure (kind of) over the past few days; we packed up a couple of bags and went on our very first road trip to the Highlands.
Our first visit on this trip was to Oban, a charming old seaside town on the western end of Scotland. True to our expectations, we had more than a fair share of options for a delicious seafood dinner. What better way is there to start off a vacation?
Oban is known best for the single malt Scotch whisky produced by its relatively small distillery (which is actually older than the town itself), so of course we had to visit the source itself for a taste! At the distillery, we went on a tour that took us step-by-step through the whisky-making process,with a fantastic guide who explained things so well that I can finally say I actually know what it means for something to be a single malt Scotch whisky. At the end of the tour, we got to taste both the traditionally sold 14-year-old Oban whisky and a sample from a special cask that had been pulled from the warehouse early at 11 years, for the sake of a different, stronger drink. (It was GOOD.) It was amazing to actually see what it takes to make the stuff, and it really blew both of our minds to realize how it is that Scotch whiskies get their flavors. (We had just been under the impression that things get added in to give that sort of complexity, but clearly we were dreadfully off-base.)
I have to say, a lot has changed for us in the past year. For one thing, I definitely have a much stronger appreciation for a good whisky (now that I even know what a good whisky is like)!
The great (Scottish) Alexander Fleming once said, “A good gulp of hot whisky at bedtime–it’s not very scientific, but it helps.” Of the countless, beyond-useful observations to be shared by the man, this may have been the truest. The Scots have this fact so well-understood that they have made it almost impossible to go a day in even the absolute middle of nowhere in the Highlands without having the opportunity to have a drink. For our lunch-break on our second day out, we headed into the tiny, cozy cafe which wins the oh-so-eminent title of being one of the only two restaurants listed on Yelp as actually being located in Glencoe. (To be fair, though, the village of Glencoe is–apparently–so very tiny.) To my absolute delight, this little cafe offered a drink they referred to as the “Hug in a Mug,” which consists of hot whisky, honey, lemon, and some lovely spices floating around in a rather large coffee mug. Poor Joe–he was driving, so he ended up ordering a bottle of sparkling elderflower (which was actually also very delicious!); but you can bet that I had my quality bonding session with a Hug in a Mug! It was beyond wonderful. The Hug in a Mug has already joined the favorites list of hot beverages available in our flat.
And here I am, skirting discussion of the main course of our trip! Glen Coe–the epic remains of a long-gone supervolcano, up in the Highlands of Scotland–completely blew our minds. Within about an hour’s drive from Oban, we were transported into this ancient world so breath-taking and vast, yet somehow oddly contained within a span that would take significantly less than half an hour to traverse by car. I almost feel guilty for even attempting to illustrate this post with the photos I managed to get with my novice camera hand; I don’t think even a skilled photographer could ever actually manage to fully express the sheer beauty of Glen Coe. (I haven’t seen a photo so far that actually does the place justice. Not that the photos aren’t gorgeous, but none of them prepared me even a bit for what I saw on this road trip. It’s just too much.) I made a complete fool of myself turning round and round, spinning circles, bending this way and that, changing lenses in attempts of shooting an image that even nearly captured the majesty of just one view of one side of one peak. Eventually I just kind of gave up–it’s maddening to try to translate such beauty into a two-dimensional image. Honestly, I don’t even really know how I’m going to finish this blog post. I don’t know how to choose from the photos, which are sub-par to start off with.
Glen Coe is the epitome of paradoxical beauty in nature. The words that come to mind when attempting to describe those mountains are both decisive and somewhat contradictory, and it seems no amount of philosophical reasoning can sufficiently parse through the mess. The mountains of Glen Coe are magnificent, humble, ancient, frightening, massive, kind, looming, sheltering, watching, proud, and somehow alive, and the valley that rests between them is both ominous and protective–almost fiercely maternal, like a serpent and a cradle all at once. The sun and the shadows are at constant odds–simultaneously battling and flirting as they chase one another through the glen, across the glimmering faces of stone. I’ve always somewhat dismissed the idea of Stendhal syndrome, but I must admit that, had we stayed much longer or had the weather been slightly more optimal (or had I indulged in a well-timed glass of whisky or two), I might have been reduced to a blubbering mess right there at the mouth of the glen. I swear to you, my imagination was running rampant the entire day, from musing over the grisly battles fought many years ago to gazing upwards and expecting to glimpse a scaled or stony hand–colossal in size–reaching out from the valley behind to take hold of the first peak of the Three Sisters. The songs of Tolkien’s dwarves unintentionally set the pace of my breaths as we climbed our way up a stony hikers’ path.
I’ve just stared a hole through my computer screen over what must have been the past five minutes. Even having made it out, up to the north, and then back down again to our flat in Edinburgh, I’m apparently still finding myself getting lost in the Highlands. While it does not flaunt the effortless, vivacious beauty of the tropics which dance vibrantly through my dreams with nearly each night that passes, Glen Coe sits quietly and calmly like an old truth, confident in the knowledge that it will be visited again, that it will be remembered. Somehow, a place which I have only visited very briefly–at the age of 24, nonetheless–has familiarized itself so firmly inside my head as to feel like a treasured childhood song, comforting in its recollection.
There’s something lovely in knowing that magic–of one kind or another–still exists in this world of modern pace and progress. It emanates from the crashing wave, the blooming flower, and the patient hills. You can feel it every time the sun warms your skin, or the wind steals your breath. I think that this bit of understanding is not meant to be forgotten, regardless of the manner in which everyday life might carry on. I can only hope that for years to come, no matter which way life sends us, we will still remember benevolent Scotland and its enduring Highlands with every first sip of a good Scotch whisky.