The Orkney Islands overflow with the richest and most interesting history you’ll find anywhere in the United Kingdom, if not the world. The Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage site brings ancient history far older than the Pyramids at Giza into the present, and there are sites around the archipelago that catalogue the subsequent millennia and cultures that settled these northern isles. One of my favorite examples of later period sites on Orkney is the Broch of Gurness, one of the most impressive Iron Age brochs anywhere.
On first blush it seems strange that ancient peoples lived in such a relatively unforgiving environment, but a lot can happen in 5,000 years (the historical record may go back even farther). In fact, the climate may have been quite a bit warmer when places like Skara Brae were founded. Perhaps a thing as drastic as a climatic shift is to thank for the preservation of these sites. People, wherever they live in the world, have a tendency to build over previous sites, and the historical volume of people living on the Orkney Islands is surely lower than in more temperate places. What remains is an obvious and accessible historical record of these beguiling islands.
The Broch of Gurness is often first in line for a visit after Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, and Maeshowe. It stands on a little headland in Orkney’s northeast Mainland just a stone’s throw from Evie. The broch overlooks the turbulent waters of Eynhallow Sound with clear views of the island of Rousay with its cadre of brochs, Midhowe Broch prime among them. At least 11 brochs line the shores of Eynhallow Sound, a sure sign this was a thriving region 2,000 years ago.
A small building houses the Broch of Gurness’s visitor center, which contains a compact series of informational boards, Iron Age artifacts, souvenir books, and usually a friendly and talkative Historic Scotland employee. Recent scholarship on the topic of Iron Age settlements is leading to a revision of the exhibit at Gurness, so by the time you visit you may see the results of these exciting new developments.
Outside the weather was misty and spitting, but the Broch of Gurness is the type of place that excels in poor conditions. Until 1929, this site was just another one of Orkney’s nondescript low-lying hills called the Knowe o’ Aikerness. It was then that Orcadian poet Robert Rendall’s stool sunk through the turf and revealed a staircase leading into the mound. Can you imagine the feeling of discovery? Excavations carried out in the 1930s revealed a large broch surrounded by a number of collapsed buildings from a later era. One such building, known as the ‘Shamrock,’ possessed a central hearth with four small chambers radiating outward. This structure, which was probably a Pictish or late Iron Age farm, was the best preserved of the lot and carefully removed and rebuilt to allow further excavations of the broch (shown below).
The layers of history are evident. Who were the people before the Picts, the ones who built the broch? And who were the people long before them who built Skara Brae and stood up the stones of Brodgar? And who were the people even before them for whom we have no knowledge or record? The Broch of Gurness invites you to ponder these questions as you circle around the broch between the ditches and dikes.
The eastern approach to the broch is stunning as the ancient foundation stones of later homes and farms spread around the hacked off stump of the central broch. It’s believed the broch would have stood 30 feet tall during its occupation and been surrounded by defensive walls. A structure of that size would have been an immense display of power and influence. Even to later peoples, perhaps as the skills and techniques required to build such a structure began to fade, the broch would’ve been awe-inspiring.
Drifting through the bleached and lichen-spotted field of stones leads you to the broch’s entrance with its massive lintel stone still in place. The interior of the broch holds a central hearth, circle of cupboards, and cubicle-like rooms. There’s evidence that the broch began to collapse a century after its creation, and work was undertaken to fortify the structure and add a new staircase. It’s a bit difficult to visualize what life in the broch must have been like since, despite the presence of these amazing foundation stones, many of the stones from the upper reaches of the structures have been removed. Yet the informational boards scattered around the site do an excellent job interpreting the archaeological evidence.
There have been some very cool finds at the Broch of Gurness. Pieces of a Roman amphora dating from 60 AD lead some to believe that the king of Orkney swore fealty to Emperor Claudius, but for some it simply shows the scope of Orcadian trade. Finds from the Viking Age show that women and men were buried here. History layers upon history. Why? Is it as simple and mundane as this span of headland is the best place to build a settlement, or is it something else, something religious, spiritual, or mystical?
The Broch of Gurness is one of my favorite sites on Orkney. It’s easy to reach from Kirkwall and Stromness and less busy than Orkney’s premier sites. Take your time here, wander the lanes and ditches, and keep your eyes peeled for seals. They’ve been here for eons. Perhaps they hold the answers.
With my week in Orkney last September there was no way I would miss visiting one of my favorite distilleries in the world. Highland Park has long held a soft spot in my heart and upon my palate, and every time I drove anywhere near Kirkwall it was as if the distillery had a gravity of its own. The car would begin veering toward the soft hills on the southern outskirts of Kirkwall, the wheel turning, unbidden, in my grasp. Sarah generally helped me out here, reminding me of the day’s schedule, but not always for she, too, enjoys Highland Park’s elixir.
Eventually that week I returned to Highland Park on official business for another in-depth tour and tasting five years after my last epic visit. I’ve been traveling around Scotland under the auspices of Traveling Savage for over seven years at this point, and that requires a certain amount of retreading my own footsteps mixed in with new adventures. Time passes, things change, once-great places become over-touristed while the unknowns become hidden gems. I view staying on top of such changes as a solemn responsibility to anyone reading this site. The whisky industry in particular is quite turbulent with far-reaching strategies affecting core brands and bottles seeming to change as quick as Orcadian weather. I worry about great brands buckling under the pressure of ever-mounting unmet demand for this mystical liquor only Scotland can produce.
So it was with trepidation and boundless enthusiasm that we arrived to gorgeous Highland Park on a day with a shattered blue sky. If you haven’t read about Highland Park yet or wish to refresh yourself, I invite you to read my original Highland Park post as it goes into detail about the distillery’s history and process, as well as an extensive tasting. Thankfully, those details haven’t changed, so I’m going to skip over those in favor of mentioning mostly new and interesting tidbits arising in the interim.
I received a private tour on my previous visit to Highland Park, but the tasting was captained by a great guide I referred to as Gentleman James. I was happy to see James again on this most recent visit as I got to experience his tour from start to finish. Meeting James again and speaking with him is like speaking to the distillery itself for no detail escapes his recollection. But he’s also not afraid to share his personal opinion about Highland Park, the whisky industry, or just about anything you ask him, and I think this characteristic is what separates the great guides from the good ones.
One of the few distilleries still malting a portion of their barley, Highland Park gives visitors the chance to put their back into turning the malt like a maltman. The barley is moistened and spread along the cement floor where it germinates until small shoots creep out from the barleycorn. Turning the barley keeps it at the right temperature during this process, and I quickly volunteered for a short stint with the paddle. It’s nice to see this grand tradition continuing here on Orkney.
Once the malting process is complete and most of the barley’s starches have converted to accessible sugars it’s time to suspend germination by kilning. This is the stage where peaty, smokey notes are imparted to whisky as on Islay, and here at Highland Park they also add peat to the coal fire used to dry the barley. Peat, which forms in boggy, acidic ground over thousands of years, has been used a fuel source on the Scottish islands for a very long time. It looks a bit like dirt but is actually decayed vegetable matter that gives off heat and a pungent smoke when burned. At Highland Park they use peat from Hobbister Moor, just a few miles southwest of Kirkwall, and by James’s estimation there’s enough peat left to make whisky for hundreds of years yet. To be honest, that has me worried.
Orcadian peat has a different quality from both Islay and Highland peat. There’s a heathery, honey, slightly more woody note to Orkney’s peat than the others, and it’s beautiful in whisky.
While admiring the stillhouse, James told me of some experiments with locally grown barley Highland Park has been undertaking the last several years. Most of the barley Highland Park uses comes from central Scotland, but as provenance and terroir have become huge selling points in the world of whisky, just as they are in wine, Highland Park has been distilling small batches of 100% Tartan barley grown on Orkney. They’re monitoring these barrels and intend to bottle it when it’s 11 or 12 years old. Those bottles will surely fetch a pretty penny.
Passing through the glorious warehouse I sniffed cask of 46-year-old whisky before drifting up to Highland Park’s classy tasting room. There we found an array of seven drams of Highland Park’s blood, sweat, and tears. After seating ourselves James dove into the extensive tasting. As several of the drams are the same ones I covered in my original post (Highland Park 12, 18, and 25) I’ll omit them here only stating that they continue to be as good as ever.
The first dram of the tasting and a new one for me was the Leif Eriksson, a no age statement (NAS) dram bottled at 40% ABV. The light, tropical fruit and pineapple aroma cuts against the standard Highland Park profile, and this tells me there’s quite a bit of American oak at play here. It’s a drying dram that tingles the sides of the tongue, and there’s a gentle peaty, lightly smokey aftertaste with less body and finish than I’d prefer. Certainly this is a carefully crafted whisky for a specific market.
After tasting through the stout value of the 12 and the always excellent 18 we landed on Highland Park 21. Bottled at 47.5% ABV, this dram struck me as the most unusual of the lot. The peaty, smokey character was a bit stronger than the others, and it possessed a prominent floral essence accentuated by raisins, Sherry, and an exotic spice I couldn’t quite put my finger on. This dram was something of a changeling, as each time I went back to nose it I found a different defining character. The warm, glowing finish sent me back for more.
Moving on we came to Highland Park 30 at 45.7% ABV. I do declare this might be the most perfect all around whisky I’ve ever had the pleasure to try. Huge, billowing aromas of Sherry, toffee, dried fruit, peat smoke, dark chocolate, and orange fill the glass. The promise is kept on the palate, which is at once delicate and complex, mellow, and supremely smooth. I pick up something savory in the background which serves to accentuate the other rich notes. Even at £600+ Highland Park can’t meet the demand for this whisky.
James regrettably informed us that the last dram was not the Highland Park 40, as several of us presumed. Instead, it was a single-cask cask-strength 46 year-old single malt distilled in 1968. Shucks. It was, in fact, the very whisky from the cask we smelled in the warehouse. At 40.1% it had to be bottled, and it was magic, though magic very unlike Highland Park’s typical image. This whisky had spent all its life in a third-fill American oak cask, which produced a light and delicate dram with juicy tropical fruit and pineapple notes. It didn’t quite have the same presence on the finish as the Sherry-inflected drams, but my goodness was this drinkable. What an honor to enjoy such a rare malt.
Highland Park has been distilling whisky for going on 220 years. You can find their whisky in blends from Famous Grouse to Cutty Sark, but 70% of their product gets bottled as a single malt with a Highland Park label. That’s no easy feat. Not all whiskies can be enjoyed as single malts — that takes careful wood management, a strong newmake spirit, and attention to detail at every step of the process.
Highland Park sells a huge range of standard bottlings, including 12, 18, 21, 25, 30, and 40. They even sold a 50, which I saw on my last visit. But things change. In the shop I saw Highland Park 10. Highland Park 15 has been discontinued. And the distillery is no stranger to special bottlings either. The Norse gods have come and gone. I’ve seen Fire and Ice, Magnus, Dark Origins, and Valkyrie, and soon we’ll see Valknut and Valhalla. There are dozens more that never make it to American shores. It’s unclear what reserves are being used to bring these bottles to market, but the market demands ever more Highland Park.
When in doubt, stick to the standard age statements. Each of those expressions is finely crafted, consistent, and delicious. Time hasn’t changed that.
Disclosure: Highland Park provided me with a complimentary visit. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own, as always.
Today I’m rounding off my coverage of the North Coast 500 with another entry in what has become a venerable and popular series here. These itinerary ideas highlight different regions of Scotland and provide a handy batch of activities, sights, and experiences I’ve collected during my explorations. I look at it as an homage to the area, one I plan to make for every corner of Scotland. Today I’m highlighting Caithness, a pastoral nook claiming ancient history and the most northerly point on the Scottish mainland.
These Scotland itinerary ideas collect many of my previous articles on the selected region in one place, along with my assessment of their importance for the visitor and a bevy of useful tidbits that might’ve gotten lost along the way. At the end of the day, these articles should be useful cheat sheets to refer to when you begin dreaming up your trip, and they are especially good starting points when you decide to contact me for help in planning your trip to Scotland.
So let’s get into some of the top things to do in Caithness.
Caithness tends to get overlooked among its North Coast 500 neighbors. It’s a fraction of the size of Sutherland, doesn’t hold a candle to the radiant beauty of Wester Ross, and is further from civilization than Easter Ross and Black Isle. Yet Caithness is not without its charms. While inland Caithness is largely given over to pastures and farms, a long stretch of beautiful coastline swings north past Wick and John O’Groats to the east, Thurso, and beyond. Littered everywhere throughout Caithness, almost invisible as rumpled hills and mossy rocks, hide brochs, standing stones, and cairns, the markings of ancient cultures that have called this fertile slice of the north home. Vikings, too, have made their mark in Caithness, and their presence here bridges the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands — the two regions share a similar cultural history in addition to the geological similarities. Despite its small size, Caithness holds treasures for visitors inclined to castle ruins, brochs and other ancient structures, birding and coastal vistas, and distilleries.
Things You Can’t Miss
Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. Just north of Wick stands my favorite castle in Caithness, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe. The Sinclairs are a famous family in Scottish history whose holdings include none other than Rosslyn Chapel south of Edinburgh and a castle in Kirkwall, Orkney. The Sinclairs trace their lineage back through the ages to Norman conquerors, who were themselves descended from Norse vikings. It seems only fitting that the Sinclairs later became earls of Caithness and Orkney, which were once part of the Scandinavian north Atlantic power base. And, if rumors related to Rosslyn Chapel are to be believed, it’s possible the Sinclairs or their ancestors had reached the New World long before Christopher Columbus. Castle Sinclair Girnigoe is a beautiful ruin plunging into the sea on par with Dunnottar Castle.
Cliffs and Coastline at Dunnet Head and Duncansby Head. Dunnet Head and Duncansby Head are a pair of peninsulas at the northern and northeastern extremities of the Scottish mainland. Here you’ll find breath-taking coastal views and swarms of seabirds nesting in the high cliffs. On clear days the southernmost of the Orkney Islands are visible on the horizon, and you can imagine the longships and coracles sailing across the often treacherous firth.
Old Pulteney and Wolfburn Distilleries. Caithness is home to two very different distilleries. Since its founding in 1826 Old Pulteney has been one of the more difficult distilleries to visit in Scotland due to its geographical location. Everything was brought in by sea — barley, barrels, even men — and the finished whisky left by the same means. Today there are roads but the whisky still has a characteristic saline quality resulting in some unique, morish drams. Wolfburn, on the other hand, is a new kid on the block at just over five years old. A distillery with the same name stood here 150 years ago, and the owners, powered by distillery manager Shane Fraser, are resurrecting that history with a fragrant, floral, and light spirit. While a proper visitor centre is still in the works, a visit is still possible and recommended as the spirit they’re making is of the finest caliber.
Things You Shouldn’t Miss
The Hill O’ Many Stanes. South of Wick on the A9 stands one of Scotland’s more curious monuments: The Hill O’Many Stanes. This hillside is set with nearly 200 short, upright stones in 22 rows that form a fan shape. A cursory examination of the site makes one think it’s an ancient graveyard, but theories persist today the Hill O’Many Stanes is actually a Bronze Age lunar observatory or astronomical calculator. The Hill is the largest stone row monument in Britain, and you won’t find these outside of Sutherland and Caithness, though Brittany has much taller versions. All we have are theories and hypotheses for the Hill O’Many Stanes, and that ultimately means we don’t know what it was used for.
Scads of Ancient Brochs. Any exploration of Caithness’s brochs ought to begin at the Caithness Broch Centre. In this excellent, niche museum you’ll learn of the many brochs in the area, places like Thing’s Va Broch, which also served as a Viking parliament, Nybster Broch, Keiss Broch, and secluded Dunbeath Broch. Dozens more have been noted, and only those who live in the earth know how many more remain to be discovered.
Castle of Mey. Formerly known as Barrogill Castle, the Castle of Mey was built in the 16th century and is famously known today as the pet project of the Queen Mother. She purchased the castle in 1952, restored the castle as a holiday home, and regularly visited between 1955 and 2002. Today the Castle of Mey is open to the public and represents the most northerly castle on the Scottish mainland.
Things to Do Off the Beaten Path
The Whaligoe Steps. Whaligoe is a rocky inlet near Ulbster surrounding by 250-foot cliffs on three sides. The only way to get to the water is take the 365 man-made stone stairs down the inside of the escarpment. These steps helped support a small fishing fleet in the early 19th century, and today they remain an interesting historical footnote that provides beautiful views of Caithness’s eastern coastline.
Achavanich Stone Circle. Achavanich is a largely unheralded stone circle near Loch Stemster north of Latheron. Thirty-six standing stones, some as tall as six and a half feet, remain of the original 54, and their placement is unique with the edges of the stones facing inward. This circle is believed to be 4,000 years old and recent improvements to the site, including informational boards, make the best visitor experience yet.
Grey Cairns of Camster. In the Flow Country northwest of Whaligoe stand a pair of incredible cairns that are among the oldest structures in Scotland — 5,000 years! Camster Long is a massive, 200-foot chambered cairn in the Orkney/Cromarty style while Camster Round has an immaculate, high-vaulted central chamber. These amazing Neolithic structures are just far enough into the Caithness countryside to be missed by the majority of travelers up the A9.
Logistics & Salient Bits
Bases. Many travelers gravitate toward Wick, Thurso, and John O’Groats as bases in Caithness since they’re the biggest settlements. Of the three Thurso is the nicest, but I would focus your search on accommodations in the countryside near one of the cities and the coast. I liked our base in Keiss, just north of Wick, though this strategy requires your own vehicle (see below). As always, the best bet is to seek out Visit Scotland’s gold-rated accommodations like The Clachan in Wick. For truly luxury accommodations, check out Ackergill Tower.
Transportation. The train can get you to Wick and Thurso, which means exploring Caithness using public transportation is actually a possibility. Getting to the coastal and interior highlights without a car, however, still will be quite difficult. If you’re doing the North Coast 500 you’ll have a car and it will prove a boon in Caithness as well.
Food & Drink. Caithness has excellent local beef and seafood for those looking to cook meals at home. In Wick, Bord de L’eau is a fine French restaurant and good pizza can be found at Devitas Pizzeria. Meanwhile, in Thurso, Bydand and Red Pepper Restaurant are reliable options. The Whaligoe Steps Café, Stacks Coffee House and Bistro in John O’Groats, and The Bay Owl in Dunbeath are fine choices as well.
Scotland instills in me a great desire to get outdoors, to explore the hills, coasts, and forests of the highlands and lowlands, and to reconnect with a part of me that falls silent beneath the barrage of routine life. I schedule a lot of activities on my trips to Scotland: Distillery visits, castle jaunts, long, winding drives, museum and art gallery days, and a host of others that keep me writing for many months after the trip ends. But amidst all the crazy logistics and scheduling I seek to insert time in the Scottish countryside. I usually choose hikes since there are a dozen amazing options no matter where I find myself in Scotland, and I particularly aim for those last, disappearing stretches of ancient Caledonian woodland, places like the Hermitage forest and Rothiemurchus Estate.
The Rannoch Forest contains another slice of ancient forest in the heart of Perthshire. Unlike the Hermitage and Rothiemurchus, however, Rannoch Forest requires a bit more perseverance to access its beautiful reaches. It stands 25 miles and about an hour west of Pitlochry on the B8019. This is an absolutely stunning drive that takes in the River Garry, The Queen’s View, Schiehallion, and extended time along Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch. By the time I reached Kinloch Rannoch I was nearly halfway to Glencoe (though the road ends when it reaches Rannoch Moor)!
A few miles beyond Kinloch Rannoch on the south shore of Loch Rannoch hides a small parking area called Carie where the hike into the Rannoch Forest begins. It’s a good idea to take a photo of the map as there’s a tricky turn that’s easy to miss. I crossed the bridge and followed the obvious trail into autumn woodland beneath a intermittently cloudy sky. Rannoch Forest’s ancient woodland, the Black Wood of Rannoch, lies in the forest’s southern reaches, off the trail by my reckoning. I intended to follow the long, Allt na Bogair walk through the forest and do my best to reach the distant Black Wood of Rannoch. This whole forest is largely pine and birch wood standing amidst acid heath plants, and I quickly reached views across Loch Rannoch to Ben Alder.
It’s a pleasure to find these tasteful, artistic touches on such hikes. Here, as the woods give way to the banks of Loch Rannoch, I found a seating area inscribed with poetic verse. I always feel the urge to pop in my headphones and listen to some suitably meditative music, but the truth is that the sounds of weather and nature are second to none. I doubt this trail is ever very busy, and in early November I passed less than half a dozen people on this multi-hour hike. I paused to admire the distant, snow-rimmed hills as the clouds roiled in the brisk wind. I soon left the narrow path and joined a larger logging road as a cold drizzle began spitting from the heavens.
The logging road mirrored the shore of the loch for quite some time. Too long, in fact, for after half an hour I found myself going deeper and deeper into managed forest, past logging signs and silent equipment. It didn’t feel right as I checked and rechecked my map, but I hadn’t found the turn in the path. After a good 30-45 minutes and a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, I decided to turn back. Hastening to escape what felt like a sure misstep, I stalked through the inclement weather until Loch Rannoch returned into view. I scanned the forest on my right and sure enough I found a small sign pointing toward a narrow path leading into the forest. This sign was staked into the ground behind a small rise that made it invisible from the other direction! Take care and avoid my 1.5-hour delay.
Relieved to be back on the trail, I passed over muddy, rooty earth through tall pines to a small reservoir as the sun returned. I was short on time when I reached the far extreme of the Allt na Bogair path, and what I believed to be the beginning of the search for the Black Wood of Rannoch. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be able to seek out that ancient Caledonian woodland. I was soothed by the fact that this trail had become very beautiful and interesting upon reaching the reservoir, however.
The trail continued over a bridge and along a burn as it wound along hillsides covered in pine needles, bracken, and fungi. This east-facing return trail was studded with mushrooms growing beneath dripping mosses, including the largest cep mushroom I’ve ever seen (it was bigger than my closed fist). Rising up onto the hillside my mind wandered on the fresh air as I completed the circuit back to the car park.
While the trail wasn’t difficult, I was certainly tuckered out after my lengthy detour. Assuming you experience no such delay, the Allt na Bogair hike should take around 2.5 hours. Add in the drives to and from the site and you’re looking at this activity taking the best part of a day.
What I loved best about this hike is just how far out in the wilderness it felt. I regret not making it to the Black Wood of Rannoch and seeing some of those ancient, gnarled trees, but I view it as an invitation to return.
Scapa Flow is a sheltered body of water in the heart of the Orkney Islands archipelago. These calm waters have long been a focal point, from prehistory to the Vikings to the World Wars when a German fleet was scuttled here. It’s along the northern edge of Scapa Flow, just south of Kirkwall, where Scapa Distillery monitors these precious, calm waters. For the longest time Scapa Distillery didn’t accommodate visitors who wished to learn more about their whisky. This was the case when I visited Orkney in 2012, but since then they have added a visitors centre and opened their doors to the public. When I returned to Orkney last September, a visit to Scapa was among the foremost activities on my mind.
It’s difficult to discuss single malt Scotch whisky in the context of Orkney without mentioning Highland Park. Highland Park is a behemoth in the whisky industry and among my favorite whiskies in the world, but it’s a unique style that leaves room for other expressions stemming from Orkney’s particular terroir and history. Scapa, on the other hand, aims for a lighter, honeyed style if my recollection of Scapa 16 serves. On the rainy day when Sarah and I arrived to Scapa, it was the start of a lesson on the distillery’s present and future.
Scapa Distillery was founded in 1885 by Macfarlane & Townsend and produced whisky for 49 years before entering voluntary liquidation. The distillery closed but reopened under new ownership in the mid-30s, and in 1954 whisky company Hiram Walker acquired the site. It was around this time that a Lomond still, a versatile still design with reflux-controlling plates designed by Hiram Walker, was installed. Scapa underwent significant modernization in the 1970s but was mothballed in 1994. The distillery didn’t resume full operation until the mid-aughts, now under Chivas Brothers management, and the brand was relaunched in 2009 with the aforementioned Scapa 16.
Scapa’s visitors centre is small but tidy with a few bottles and branded merchandise for sale and a scattering of tall tables for tasting. There were just three of us on the tour with our Russian guide. Unfortunately, this was another distillery visit where photos and audio recordings were forbidden, a policy that shoots distilleries in the foot when its enforced on journalists. That said, I’ve done my best to recall the salient bits and provide a feel for Orkney’s second whisky distillery.
Scapa is a small distillery. They produce around one million liters of spirit each year on two stills, and the first thing we heard from our guide is that Scapa aims for a tropical fruit and honeyed character. This explains their long, 80-hour fermentation in eight washbacks. Longer fermentations tend to create estery, fruity wash, and while it wasn’t specified on the tour I’m guessing these fermentations are quite warm. Our guide mentioned that pineapple was a key flavor for Scapa, and this flavor stems from the creation of butyl butyrate during fermentation. All of Scapa’s whisky begins with Concerto barley, the industry’s dominant varietal.
The fermented wash is pumped into Scapa’s Lomond wash still. Now this is unique. I can’t recall another distillery in Scotland using a Lomond still in the production of single malt. Sure, Bruichladdich has Ugly Betty, but she’s used for their Botanist gin. The reflux plates in a Lomond still make it useful in the production of various spirits because it gives distillers fine control over the purity of the resultant spirit, but Scapa has removed the plates from their Lomond still and employ it as their stripping or wash still. The sub-10% ABV wash comes out of Scapa’s Lomond still in the 25-30% ABV range. This liquid, now referred to as “low wines,” moves into Scapa’s 13,000-liter spirit still for a second distillation. This is where a distiller’s artistry takes center stage as the heads and tails cuts are made around the heart, that perfect slice of the distillate that will spend years in oak casks before finding its way into a bottle. At Scapa, the average strength of this heart cut is a whopping 72% ABV.
We departed the sweltering still house for a brief sojourn into the spitting weather along the shore of Scapa Flow before entering one of Scapa’s warehouses. The vast majority of their whisky ages in American oak ex-Bourbon casks, but they had a few sherry butts hiding along the edge. Our guide dogged out rather large tastes of 58% ABV Scapa 12 from a duty-paid cask, which we enjoyed during our wander among the sleeping beauties. The dram had a lot of that fruit and honey sweetness, though its youth was still apparent.
In the visitors centre we sat down for a tasting of Scapa’s current line-up, plus their newmake. This unaged spirit was incredibly strong with loads of native fruit. It’s nice to see the products of fermentation carry through distillation. Scapa Skiren was the first of their official bottles that we tried. This no age statement (NAS) whisky is aged in first-fill ex-Bourbon casks and makes for a Bourbon-forward, easy-drinking dram. Lots of honey and cream here, plus a bit of lemon, apple, and pineapple. This was a little too sweet for my tastes, but if you’re a Bourbon drinker looking for a way into single malts this could be a winner.
Scapa’s other standard bottle is called Glansa, which means ‘shining storm-laden skies’ in Old Norse. Clearly Highland Park isn’t the only one capitalizing on the romance of Orkney’s Viking past. Glansa is also NAS and matured in American oak ex-Bourbon casks, but it’s finished in casks that previously aged a peaty single malt, a technique that imparts a slight peaty flavor without using peated malted barley. Toffee, vanilla, stone fruits, and pineapple blossom through the smoke, which strongly reminds me of Laphroaig. This wouldn’t be surprising since we know nearby Wolfburn ages some of their whisky in ex-Laphroaig quarter casks. I like Glansa a bit better than Skiren — it had more character, more complexity, and that’s where single malt excels.
I was sad to see Scapa 16 missing from their line-up. The new bottles, while showing promise, reveal their youth, and the brand is missing the refined style of the 16.
I’m eager to see where the future takes Scapa. There’s a lot of promise in those warehouses. The history and environment provide unparalleled potential for story and product, and I will continue to look north to see if Scapa will step out of its older brother’s shadow.
I’ve been writing Traveling Savage for the past eight and a half years, and in that time I’ve been responsible for 99% of the website design, build, and maintenance. I had next to no training before I built this site, though I’ve had websites since Geocities was a thing. All of these sites have been me fiddling with code and not really understanding the language underneath it all. The CSS behind the scenes here might give you nightmares if you’re in the web design business. All that said, I’m pretty impressed with how well this site has done since its inception.
Traveling Savage is aging, however, and not all that well. The site has a dated feel, doesn’t perform well on mobile devices, and, owing partly to the nature of blogs on WordPress, makes finding old but evergreen information difficult. In short, there are a lot of things I’d like to improve here but lack the know-how to do it.
That’s all going to change in 2018, but I need your input.
Please read on!
After more than a year of searching for help in modernizing Traveling Savage, I’ve finally settled on a local web design firm. We are kicking off the project next week with the aim of launching a completely custom, re-themed, version in late summer. I’m extremely excited to begin this process and bring Traveling Savage forward to the vision I have in mind. I have a lot of ideas for tweaking navigation, presenting information, and focusing on my products and services (more on that below), but fear not: I will continue to write weekly blogs about Scotland’s wonderful places.
Here’s the first place I need your help: What features would you like to see added/changed on Traveling Savage? Please let me know in the comments and I will keep those with me as I head into design sessions. I can’t wait to unleash a shiny, new version of Traveling Savage on the world!
Four years ago I started offering Scotland trip-planning services, and later this year I intend to launch the first in a series of e-books covering Scotland’s regions and subjects. These e-books will contain all of my favorite excursions, experiences, and highlights in an easy-to-use, attractive digital book you can take with you wherever you go, all at a fair price point. Ultimately, I’d like to provide a suite of e-books covering the breadth of Scotland.
Are you likely to purchase a product like this? What would you like to see in such an e-book?
I currently offer itinerary review, travel consultation, and custom itinerary services. In the months after my impending trip I’m going to review these offerings and potentially make some changes.
Have you used or considered using my trip-planning services? Why or why not? Is there a service you wished I provided?
Alongside the site revamp and products and services changes, I’m investigating running a concurrent Patreon page. Patreon is a membership platform that provides a means to support creators like me with a monthly donation. It functions like a content subscription service where rewards like extra blogs, videos, and Q&A beyond what I provide here are available at different pledge levels. I haven’t yet worked out what those rewards would look like, but I wanted to propose the idea here first and see what you think. Just to be clear, this site would remain completely free with weekly posts as usual.
What are your initial thoughts? Would you consider supporting me for as little as $1/month?
Whew! That’s a lot of new stuff for a site that’s been mostly status quo for the past five years. This represents my continued dedication to sharing Scotland’s charms with all of you, and my desire to improve that experience with the best business sense I can manage.
And the traveling isn’t stopping. I leave for Scotland in just over a month for new explorations of Glasgow, Dundee, Angus, Aberdeenshire, and Speyside. Scotland still holds so much to see and do and write about.
I hope you’ll continue to be a part of the community here, and lend your aid in making Traveling Savage the world’s best stop for Scotland information.
I recently spent a week in the Orkney Islands celebrating my tenth wedding anniversary and exploring many new wrinkles in my favorite place. It’s where Sarah and I spent the bulk of our honeymoon, and it didn’t take any convincing to plan our special return. Five years had passed since my last visit (10 for Sarah) and in the interim cruise tourism had increased a lot. To say I was concerned this place would be irrevocably altered would be an understatement. This is a topic I intend to address in subsequent posts, but suffice to say that Orkney is still very much alive and magical. However, it does feel like it’s in a transitional stage, the outcome of which depends on the Orcadian and Scottish governments’ desire for preservation.
The Yesnaby Cliffs topped my list of places to explore, and we seized the moment on our first day. Yesnaby stands roughly halfway between Stromness and Skara Brae on the western Mainland coastline, which is prime real estate near the UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Unlike rocky Shetland, the Orkney Islands barely skim above the surface of the sea, but here at Yesnaby I found some of Orkney’s most striking landscapes replete with elevation, seastacks, inlets, and geos. This is a beautiful day out hiking along the clifftops and one that should not be missed!
Heading north on the B9056 from Stromness toward Skara Brae, keep your eyes peeled for a single-track road with a white ‘Yesnaby’ sign. Turn left and follow this road past herds of cattle and pastureland to a parking area overlooking the sea. Going north from here leads toward Skara Brae and the special Broch of Borwick (the subject of a future post) while heading south leads to Yesnaby Castle, a seastack, and the best coastal views of the Yesnaby Cliffs.
There isn’t much of a path, surprisingly, as we walked on the spongey grass covering the layered, red sandstone cliffs. Bays formed by rough gashes, lazy inlets of stone and seaweed, and sharp geos cloven into the cliffs passed by like mile markers beneath the broken sky. Now and again sunlight lanced down to illuminate the grass or glitter on the waves, and a cool wind consistently carried that fresh smell of sea, stone, and sky.
This kind of landscape plasters a huge smile on my face. I know because my teeth were tingling and cold. Small pools of water mirrored the sky where the grass receded from the sandstone. These rocks are hundreds of millions of years old, and humans have been walking these same paths for many thousands of years. You can imagine there must be plenty of folktales in this area, and the one that sticks in my mind is the tale of the Yesnaby healer, a woman who could stop the flow of blood at any distance from her target. She simply had to put her mind to the task and the creature would stop bleeding. Seems…useful.
Garthna Geo, also known as Yesnaby Castle, is the most popular sight along the Yesnaby Cliffs. This majestic seastack balances on two spindly legs, and it’s inconceivable that it remains upright after eons of wicked Orcadian storms. We stopped our hike here to appreciate the castle and the cliffs, which we had to ourselves, and connect with that uniquely Orcadian vibe.
After some time we returned north because the Broch of Borwick was also on my agenda. However, the cliffs continue south to the Bight of Mousland and the Blackcraig Cliffs where you’ll eventually have good views of the island of Hoy.
The Yesnaby Cliffs are Orkney gold. I can’t think of a better place to pack a lunch and a nip and while away a stretch of good weather. If you’ve got the time, give Yesnaby the best part of a day.
Loch Earn is a blue blade slicing Scotland’s heart. The centuries fan out here where the loch becomes the river, and ancient names bleed from the æther: Dundurn, Dalriada, Pictland. This rocky knoll floats through the February mist and rain, its quintessence as plain to the eye as any alien script. The Pictish hillfort of Dundurn stood upon that crag, watching the western border of Pictland for encroaching Scots from Dalriada. All enmities and alliances fade, rifts forgotten beneath history’s inevitable, glacial advance. To walk upon Dundurn’s shoulders and into the Dark Ages is a mighty effort, but also, in the hills’ chill breath, a moment of apotheosis.
Within its verdant arms Scotland shelters places that reach beyond the compass rose like accordions into space unknown. At Brodgar, at Glen Creran, and here at Dundurn you can sense it, maddeningly just beyond observation, this other world. But how? We know everything, we know every thing — modern man’s mantra bombards us from every angle. And yet, in the driving rain as my breath becomes one with the mist, I know it is all an illusion. Such chains enslave and make small this wondrous existence. Cast down the crown of arrogance. Seek.
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland’s first national park, occupies a beautiful swath of the central highlands north of Glasgow and Stirling. The park is suitably famous for Loch Lomond, but a host of other lochs rest among the hills in the park’s eastern reaches. Loch Katrine, Loch Earn, and Loch Voil, among several others glitter in quiet, forested vales, and Loch Voil is of particular interest for today’s post. The village of Balquhidder nestles in Glen Voil, and it’s here that the famous MacGregor chieftain Rob Roy is buried.
Rob Roy MacGregor was a complex figure who lived during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and he was intimately connected to the Jacobite uprisings of the time. The history of the MacGregors and their connection to the central highlands goes back to the 1500s, however, when they were driven from their ancestral lands in Argyll by the Campbells. The MacGregors journeyed to Balquhidder and the eastern section of the modern-day national park where they engaged in several battles with the MacLarens who called this land home. The MacGregors eventually murdered 18 MacLaren families — what amounts to an act of genocide — and took over their land. There were no immediate repercussions against the MacGregors for this heinous act, but it was held against them when James VI later declared the entire clan outlaws. In fact, it was a capital offense to even carry the name MacGregor.
This was the political climate Rob Roy was born into nearly 70 years later at Glengyle, at the head of Loch Katrine. Perhaps it’s no surprise that at age 18 Rob Roy and his father joined the Jacobite rising of 1689 led by Viscount Dundee. Rob’s father never recovered from that battle, but Rob Roy continued fighting for the Jacobites through the infamous 1715 uprising. In fact, all those who fought against the crown except Rob Roy and Clan Gregor were pardoned for their insurrection. He later fought at the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1719, supported by the Spanish, against the crown and allied Highlanders, as Britain ramped up to the second major Jacobite uprising.
Rob Roy’s life might have cooled down somewhat after these losses. It’s believed he return to Balquhidder in the 1720s and became a respected cattleman. Unfortunately, he was swindled out of a large sum of borrowed money that landed him in prison and his family branded as outlaws once more. He might’ve languished for five years in prison before he was pardoned and allowed to spend the rest of his life here in Balquhidder. Rob Roy MacGregor is remembered as an outlaw, folk hero, and warrior. He died at the age of 63 following wounds suffered in a duel with Clan MacLaren.
I found myself in Balquhidder on a late February evening. A gorgeous sunset flashed gold across the hills and Balquhidder Kirk. The quiet glen was only disturbed by the herd of sheep trundling through the graveyard, and I followed them to Loch Voil which possessed a mystical feeling that moment. Glen Voil’s history dates back 4,000 years and the Celts considered this place to be a “thin space,” a location where the veil between the worlds was immaterial. Remnants of a Neolithic temple here date back 1,800 years.
Balquhidder Kirk overlooks the grave site. It was built in 1631 by David Murray, Lord Scone, on the site of a pre-Reformation chapel. The attractive stone bastion, like so many of Scotland’s historic buildings, feels at home in the highland countryside. Christianity arrived to Balquhidder in the 500s AD probably with St. Angus who is buried in the ruins of the old church.
Balquhidder is an ideal stop on any route between Stirling/Edinburgh and Perthshire or the west highlands. The eastern section of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park is extremely pretty and less traveled than the A82 that runs along Loch Lomond’s western banks. Do yourself a favor and journey into Balquhidder, find the grave of one of Scotland’s most notorious outlaws and well-loved folk heroes, and commune with the beauty of Glen Voil.
Perthshire is a region of Scotland with the perfect blend of history, scenery, and culture. From the gorgeous Queen’s View and Pass of Killiecrankie to Blair Castle and charming Dunkeld, there’s a reason why Perthshire has the moniker “the heart of Scotland.” Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that when it comes to whisky Perthshire is also the perfect blend as many of the most famous blended Scotch whiskies call it home. Bell’s, Famous Grouse, Dewar’s — you’ve probably heard the names if not even tried them — can all be found here in the heart of Perthshire.
Most blended Scotch whiskies have a brand home which is usually the distillery whose whisky forms the heart of the blend. Blair Atholl distillery in Pitlochry, for example, makes up the base of Bell’s blended Scotch whisky. The same holds true for Aberfeldy distillery, which makes up the heart of Dewar’s, one of the best-selling blended Scotch whiskies in the USA. With the rise of single malts over the past decade, however, many of these brand home distilleries are switching focus to their single malt. Glenturret distillery, the home of Famous Grouse, is a good case in point as between my first visit in 2012 and my second visit in 2017 they had completely deemphasized Famous Grouse in favor of the Glenturret single malt. It remained to be seen how true this would be at Aberfeldy distillery.
Aberfeldy is situated in an extremely pretty slice of Perthshire just west of the A9. An old railway leads to the distillery buildings crawling with multicolored creepers and huddled beneath towering oaks. Dewar’s White Label’s slogan “Live True” was painted on the barrels outside the visitors’ centre. I pondered that truism as I entered quite a posh shop and bar area. Spot lighting, wooden tables, and Dewar’s ads from yesteryear defined the space. A lot of money had gone into shining the best possible light on Aberfeldy’s products, and among them I found Royal Brackla, Craigellachie, Glen Deveron, and Aultmore — all distilleries owned by Barcardi and controlled by Dewar’s & Sons.
I and others waiting for the tour were invited to browse the distillery exhibits. The exhibit room was dark as a movie theater with informational displays, walls of whisky bottles, glimmering mirrors, and a facsimile of a gentleman’s study called into perception by a series of spotlights. There’s quite a bit to peruse here, including artifacts from the distillery’s early days and a great aroma wheel where you can test your olfactory knowledge against common whisky notes. I love this kind of thing and feel it’s super important to finding your way to other whiskies you might like.
Before long George, our mustachioed tour guide, appeared and began the tour of how Aberfeldy makes whisky. Unfortunately, as is becoming all too common these days, I was not allowed to take photos of the distillery or record any audio, which, as you can imagine, drastically hamstrings my efforts to write about the experience. Nevertheless I jotted down some few details afterward while they were still fresh in my mind.
Aberfeldy distillery was founded in 1896 by John Dewar and despite a few closures in the past hundred years has run fairly consistently ever since. The distillery possesses four pot stills — two wash stills and two spirit stills — each capable of holding 15,000-16,500 liters. It’s a fairly average size in the industry, and with them they manage to produce 3.4 million liters of whisky each year. Aberfeldy’s stills are classic in shape with big bodies, medium-length necks, and a slightly rising lyne arm. No boil balls or cinch points, so most of the reflux is happening in the lyne. A lot of Aberfeldy’s spirit goes into Dewar’s blended whisky, but the distillery also produces standard Aberfeldy 12 and Aberfeldy 21 year old single malt whisky. I pick up a mild sweetness and round mouthfeel in just about every Aberfeldy dram, and this makes it a very easy whisky with which to blend.
In the warehouse I found a lot of American white oak ex-Bourbon barrels, and that’s mostly what you’ll find in the Dewar’s and Aberfeldy 12 bottles. Some sherry creeps into the 21 year old and Aberfeldy’s rarer bottlings.
After the brief tour George provided a nice tasting for me that included both Dewar’s and Aberfeldy drams. The first dram on the docket was Dewar’s 12, which is not the same as Dewar’s White Label, and has no age statement. The dram is a blended whisky designed to be round and balanced. I found it quite light, warming, with a thin sweetness and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
The Aberfeldy 12 followed, and interestingly it had spent some time in both white and red oak casks. The dram evoked floral and citrus fruity notes, with increased richness and a waxy/buttery character. Bitter orange and a dash of spiciness appeared on the slightly hot palate. The sherry influence of the Aberfeldy 21 was immediately noticeable. It was drier and spicier with red fruit like raspberries and cherries then clover honey and waxy bitterness followed by a round and dry oaky finish. Not bad!
The tasting finished up with a trio of less common Aberfeldy products. First was the 1998 vintage which delivered fruity sweet notes from the sherry finish. Dried fruit, cloves, leather, and a big, expanding mouthful topped it off. A little bit of water really opened this up. Dewar’s Signature Blend is a blend composed of 20, 30, and 40-year-old whiskies. Wow, sounds incredible, but the cynic in me sees this bottle as a way to recoup cash on casks that perhaps didn’t turn out as well as the distillery had hoped. This dram had heaps more character than the Dewar’s 12, and it was complex, too, with butter, caramel, butterscotch, and a bit of salt. Very smooth and light. Finally, I enjoyed a nip of the 1988 cask strength Aberfeldy which clocked in at 25 years old and 54% ABV. This bottle came from a refill white oak cask and was characterized by a spicy and minty lingering finish.
If you’re a fan of Dewar’s whisky then a visit to Aberfeldy distillery during your time in Perthshire is a good idea. Otherwise, the exhibits inside the visitors’ centre are the highlight of the distillery.
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