I loathe golf. I can live without tartan. Still, I love things Scottish. The gamekeeper look (Shetland sweaters, tattersall shirts, piles of Harris tweed) is a personal favorite, and if Heaven doesn’t have single malt and salmon fishing, then I’m not sure it’s worth the price of admission.
Our port of arrival was Inverness, a river town of about 45,000 people. My wife Dana and I somehow scored a window table for two at the traditional Castle Tavern, which overlooks the River Ness and had just as homey a pub scene as we could have asked for late on a Saturday afternoon (even if the fish and chips were nothing special).
Truth be told, I was impatient to plant my feet on Highland soil—and by the middle of the next morning, we were doing just that: trudging up a 2,800-foot hill called Morrone at the southern end of Cairngorms National Park. The brushy first mile or so gave way to chocolate-colored tundra above treeline, where we overtook a gentleman who must have been in his mid-eighties, bent into the wind and walking with the careful determination of a tortoise en route to water.
We plopped down in the lee of a radio tower at the top, where three couples of pensioners were enjoying a break in the sun. We were somewhat amazed to find ourselves the youngest people on the trail by 20 or 30 years. Note to self: a country of walkers is a fine country to grow old in. We trundled back down, past streamside cottages and into the picturesque town of Braeamar, where we had cider and stout and a plate of cheese at a timeless sort of place called Gordon’s Tea Room.
It was an hour’s scenic drive along the park’s single-lane “snow roads” to our hotel. The Muckrach is at the northern end of the Cairngorms. It’s a nice-looking conversion of a 19th-century shooting lodge, kitted out with plaid tub chairs and chesterfield couches and a pair of resident Highland cattle named Dougal and Hamish. But when I asked the young bartender about local whisky, he suggested Glenlivet and Macallan. True, these are Speyside malts. But imagine being in Jalisco, Mexico’s tequila heartland, and having your waiter enthusiastically recommend Patrón.
I used to enjoy distillery tours. Having done a half-dozen or so in my lifetime, however, they are just about my least favorite way of earning a dram. Instead, we went thrifting in tidy Grantown-on-Spey. Dana bought what was presumably once someone’s grandmother’s silk scarf, and almost too perfectly, I scored an aluminum flask wrapped in Harris Tweed. And at a high-end provisioner called Elephant’s Pantry, we found a suitably unknown Speyside malt to fill it with.
We had high hopes for our lodgings for that night, Killiehuntly, a beautifully restored 1850’s farmhouse on the western side of Cairngorms park. Researching it online, Dana and I had swooned at photos of its fleecy sheepskins, plank floors, and bread-and-cream palette. But the Instagram images hardly prepared us for the baking smells. We walked in to find the caretaker, a young American named Jenny, taking a lemon-drizzle cake out of the oven. It was all pretty overwhelming, in the best of ways.
We dropped our bags, had fresh cake and tea, and borrowed a pair of fat-tire bikes to go tour the farming estate’s 4,000 acres. Rarely have I seen miles of stone wall so perfect. A schvitz in the sauna yurt and a drink in the drawing room rounded out the pre-dinner routine. The cook, Verity, served young turnips in butter and a delicious roast lamb au jus. With us at the farmhouse table were three other couples: one English, one Australian, and one German, each at a different stage of middle age and equally happy to be there.
When they’re not on duty at Killiehuntly, Jenny and Verity live in a seaside town called Glenelg. We took their advice and passed through it en route to Isle of Skye, a drive remarkable for its fjord-like lochs and eyefuls of saffron-colored gorse. With this route, we bypassed the popular Skye Bridge, which has linked the island to the mainland since 1995 and arrived via old-fashioned instead. Our boxy little Vauxhall rental was one of two cars on it.
The ghillie (Scottish for guide) at our hotel on Skye, Kinloch Lodge, was waiting for us when we got there. His name was Mitch, and he looked glorious in moss-toned tweeds and Tattersall. Over the next hour, this stylish ex-military man walked us through the vicinity, explaining the many uses of the rain-soaked local vegetation. There’s cushiony silverweed, a moleskin alternative for lining boots, and deergrass, which makes for a comfortable sleeping mat. Kinloch’s bartenders use eucalyptus-like bog myrtle in cocktails and sometimes also scurvy grass, which has a peppery bite and a dose of Vitamin C. Much as I’d like to think otherwise, this latter approach to foraging is the more relevant one to me.
Kinloch belongs to members of the MacDonald clan, which used to avail itself of the place as a shooting lodge. The decor is what you might expect of aristocratic Scottish owners, which was a nice contrast to Killiehuntly’s rustic Nordic chic.
In a portrait-lined dining room where the staff is far more buttoned-up than the clientele, Brazilian-born Chef Marcello Tully sweetens up Scottish fish and game with flavors of lime, coconut, parsnip, and Pertshire honey mousse. (For a look at some of his recipes, go here.)
For breakfast the next morning I ordered the kedgeree, a smoked-fish risotto of sorts that I’d had only a few times before. It came on a fragrant brick of saffron rice, topped with flecks of parsley and a poached egg. Dana ordered the porridge, which Tully makes with cinnamon, milk and sugar, not the salt and water of austere Scottish tradition. This is not oatmeal that you would want to make a habit of. Dana declared it the best she’d ever had.
We embarked a bit heavily for Carbost, where the pounding rain had driven everyone into either the Talisker Distillery (stunning location, spacious bathrooms) or the Oyster Shed, where we huddled around an upright whisky barrel and sampled fruits de mer from the half-shell.
We decided to brave the elements and make the short, stream-hopping hike from the road to see Skye’s totally entrancing Fairy Pools, a tumbling natural sequence of small waterfalls. Why be a wuss about the outdoor conditions in Scotland? Tomorrow we’d be leaving; it was now or never. We packed the tweed flask and strode into the rain. I really do love most things Scottish—on some days, even the weather.
Photography courtesy of Killiehuntly