The regal Balmoral Castle in Ballater, Scotland

Scotland – Where Real Men Wear Skirts

No, I didn’t wear one myself, but only because we were already half-way through our trip before I came across a store that sold them.  Real men also eat haggis (sheep’s heart, liver and lungs encased in it’s own stomach) – I did do that!  Of course, so did my two-year old daughter… and she probably had more than all of us combined.

A scenic shot of the River Dee in the Scottish Highlands

Since living abroad, we’ve been able to get in touch with most of Jen’s roots.  Her father is Italian (hence us living in Italy) and we’ve gone to many of the places where he has or had family.  Since he grew up in Africa, we still have that left to do.  Jen’s mother grew up in Ohio, and having crossed that off the list multiple times – it was time to go a bit further.  Diane’s lineage is a mixture of Irish (we went to Dublin in March, HERE) and Scottish.  Now, it was finally time to go to Scotland!  And since Jen’s parents and sister were here visiting us, we would all embark on this adventure together.

Jen’s mom had reserved a private cottage exactly where I wanted to be… in the Scottish Highlands.  There were a variety of reasons I was excited about this particular area of Scotland.  The beauty of the countryside is well renowned.  The area is an important part of the country’s and the world’s history.  But I think there were two reasons more intriguing than all of that.

1) Many of the scenes from my all-time favorite movie, Braveheart were shot and took place in the Scottish Highlands.
2) Most of the world’s fine scotch is made in the Highlands.

I needed no better reason than those above to break out the scotch and watch Braveheart (for the umpteenth time) with Jen’s parents before we boarded our plane to Scotland.  Jen’s eyes rolled as I screamed “FREEEEEDOM” along with Mel Gibson for the 1,000th time since we’ve been together.

After a short flight from Milan, we landed in Aberdeen, Scotland famished.  We had one important task to tackle before we would allow ourselves to eat lunch… re-training our brains to drive on the wrong side of the road (that’s right to all you Brits, Aussies, Scots, etc. reading this blog… the wrong side).  Jen’s father, Dominic and I each rented our own car and narrowly missed colliding into each other as we took a few practice laps around the parking lot.  Five minutes later and confidence at 100% – our plan was fairly simple; we would spend the day touring Aberdeen before driving north to our cottage in Ballater, a charming town in the Royal Deeside.  By the time we had parked our cars for lunch, it became apparent that none of us had packed properly for the Scottish weather.  We ducked into a TKMaxx (I suppose it’s the Scottish cousin of TJMaxx) and bought jackets and warmer wears.  I suppose it pays to read a few more blogs before traveling and arrive prepared.

Once we were warm and cozy, we walked around Aberdeen for a bit.  We found a charming pub that fit the bill of exactly what we wanted.  I scarcely glanced at the menu before ordering what I knew I would be the staple of my diet all week – fish n’ chips.

Old Blackfriars – the sign didn’t lie, it was Good Food indeed
My fish and chips, served with peas (although not mushy peas as tradition dictates, still delicious)
The “Belhaven Best Steak Pie” that Diane ordered
Julia found time to fit in a few slots

After lunch, we walked around Aberdeen a bit more and discovered truth to the nickname, the Grey City.  Our group was weary and ready to shed our luggage.  Additionally, we still had a two hour drive to Ballater, so our Aberdeen tour was cut a bit short.  Headed due north and still on the wrong side of the road, we undertook one of my top 10 all-time favorite drives.  The Scottish countryside was every bit as majestic as I would have imagined.  We found Ballater, we found our cottage and then we found a great place for dinner later that evening.  Unfortunately for Jen’s sister, Jessica – she had yet to find a wifi signal.  Something those crazy, young kids need these days.

We wasted no time on our first full day in Scotland.  The country is full of castles and Diane, knowing how much Jen and I love castles, was eager to share in the exploration of the country’s historic beauties.  She had spent many fruitful hours researching a few castles to visit.  Our first choice was somewhat local to our location, Balmoral Castle. This particular castle was an excellent choice, because of it’s direct and current ties to the Royal Family.  It is the Queen’s personal residence each fall and has been used consistently by Royals since 1852.  The castle is closed to public tours from August through October each year while the Queen takes up residence.

For posterity’s sake (and because I chuckle each time I think about it) I would be remiss not to mention a funny anecdote.  When we purchased our tour tickets, I mentioned that my mother-in-law was of the Anderson Clan.  The little old lady working in the shop proclaimed that “she knew many Anderson’s in her day and they were a bit like the Drummond’s… but nothing like the Cameron’s…” and on and on until she arrived at, “but watch out for those Macfie’s, they’re sheep stealing bastards, they are!” with more conviction than I would have expected from such a sweet little lady on such an otherwise innocent exchange.  Sheep… stealing… bastards.  That absolutely made my trip!

Balmoral Castle gates
The gatehouse and museum
Full view of the gatehouse
Julia prepares to go in the castle
But not without her audio guide
“I’m ready guys, let’s go!”
Balmoral castle from the main courtyard
I loved the turrets of the castle
Another angle
Part of the Queens garden – her bedroom overlooks a rose garden and then this beautiful, sunken garden
Julia was delighted to be in the Queen’s garden
She found such wonderment in the fountain as well

After a delightful tour of the castle (admittedly, it was more a tour of the grounds than the interior since the castle is still very much in use) – Jen, Jessica, Julia and I went for a stroll along the River Dee.

We took a stroll along the river
As well as the adjacent pathway through the woods
Beautiful scenery
The girls in the woods
I was so happy to be in such majestic outdoors
Julia was so happy, she broke out dancing
Sissies forever!
“What a day!”

At the end of the day, we checked in with the properties Event Manager to listen to all the activities available to us.  They had some wonderful choices including fly-fishing, nature walks, bike tours and horseback riding.  But the one that immediately caught the attention of me and Dominic was the whisky class, happening in a mere 30 minutes!  I think we both half-expected the ladies to bow out and head back to the room, but we were pleasantly surprised when all three (Diane, Jen and Jess) told us they wanted to join in on the fun and spirits too.

All the whisky we got to taste

Whisky is as much a part of Scotland as cold weather, kilts or bagpipes.  But let’s pause for a minute, because you may have a question.

“Greg, you referred to it earlier as scotch and now you’re calling it whisky.  How come?  Isn’t whisky different?  And while we’re at it – how does bourbon play into all this… isn’t that in there somewhere?  And is that stuff, rye invited to the party?”

If you already know the relationship between these spirits, please continue to the next section.  If you’re curious – please read on.  First, I called it scotch earlier to simplify things and use the commonly accepted American vernacular for this drink.  Scotch, is in fact a whisky.  So is bourbon.  So is Tennessee whiskey and Irish whiskey (those would seem obvious) as well as the often forgotten rye.

So, all these delicious brown drinks are considered whisky.

Dominic drinks with his new English pal

So what differentiates all these types of whisky’s and what’s with all the different names (but speed it up, would ya)?

Can’t promise to speed it up, but let’s continue.  The differentiators are [mainly] their geography, the ingredients/process used and their spelling (notice the “e” comes and goes).  Let’s start with geography.  Whisky made in Scotland is, Scotch Whisky (even though we call it “scotch” they just call it “whisky” and laugh at anyone that calls it scotch.  It would be like ordering an “American” when you really meant to order a “Budweiser”).  If it’s made in Ireland, it will be an Irish Whiskey (think, Jameson).  If it is made in that young country we call America, it will either be a Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey or Rye.  Bourbon is made (to my knowledge) exclusively in Kentucky while Tennessee Whiskey (think, Jack Daniel’s) is made exclusively in Tennessee.  A few years ago I sought to unravel this web and found a blog that rumored the only difference between Tennessee whiskey and Bourbon was that the Tennessee folks didn’t want to claim the same name of anything made in Kentucky, and so Tennessee Whiskey was born (as I’m doing a little boning up for this piece, I’m learning that there is more to it).  In any event, it turned out to be a wonderful marketing angle for Jack Daniel’s.  Oh yeah, and then there’s Rye.  It’s made in America and Canada, but as far as I’m concerned – it’s really only prevalent in Canada (think, Crown Royal).  Rye is nice and all, but a bit forgettable at times (just like our nice neighbors from the north).

As far as the ingredients, they use malted barely on the more formal side of the pond, while us swashbuckling American’s distill from corn (heck, why not – we have a lot).  Oh yeah, and that forgettable rye drink – you guessed it; it’s distilled from rye (although in Canada it doesn’t have to be… yeah, that makes a lot of sense, Canada!).

Our instructor, Gordon Muir pours some malted barley into my hand

OK, I’m afraid to ask… but I will anyway.  Now that I know we’re discussing whisky from Scotland, what is the difference between a single malt and blended whisky?

I really will fit this one into a nutshell (as I have a lot more typing left to do).  A single malt is whisky that is all from the same distillery.  The distillery will usually blend many different barrels to make their final product, but it will all be from the same distillery (think, Glenmorangie 18).  A blended scotch whisky is the final product of whisky from two or more distilleries (think, Johnnie Walker – yes, all of them from Red to Blue).  I didn’t know Johnnie Walker was a blend either (yeah, I’m talking to you), until my time in Scotland.  If you want to read further on the subject, check out this guy’s blog – he does a far better job answering this particular question than me.

Me and my boy after a fun tasting

Since Scots call their drink simply by it’s proper name, whisky – henceforth so too shall I share in this fine tradition and proclaim, whisky whilst blogging about the great Scotland and forevermore (at least until I return home to the States – lest someone pour me a glass of Jim Beam, when I really meant Oban).  Interesting fact that I learned while doing these whisky tastings (yes, a few more tastings were still to come).  To add ice cubes to a nice glass of whisky is simply sacrilege and (I’m quoting my instructor here) “reserved for the Americans and those bourbons they call…pause for a chuckle… whiskey”.  He went on to explain that the only good thing an American whiskey was good for is to mix with some of Scotland’s more inferior whisky’s to “liven them up a bit“.  I spoke with a Scottish accent the rest of the class and hid the bald eagle that had previously been perched on my arm.

OK – whisky lesson over.  WAKE back up!

Dominic walks Julia back home after the tasting

For those that endured a quick history on whisky and hoped for a more exciting adventure along the trip, I’m sorry but I may have to disappoint you.  For those that skipped ahead as I offered you could do many paragraphs ago, I have accidentally mislead you.  When I said to simply “skip down” I hadn’t yet consulted my photos, which chronologically catalogue our trip.  So, you may be dismayed to learn that the whisky tasting only whet our whistles for a whiskey tour in an actual distillery.  So you get… more whiskey photos!  But before we did that, we went to go see the Falls of Feugh, explored some of the magical countryside and visited an intriguing suspension bridge.

The Falls of Feugh (pronounced almost like the naughty F word)
The Scottish-Irish crew
Scottish countryside – absolutely breathtaking
There were sheep everywhere
Dominic and I pause for a photo along the path to the suspension bridge
Father-daugher photo
My “artsy” shot with my muse
I felt like we were taking engagement photos
View from the bridge
The view from the other direction
Queen Elizabeth opened the bridge in 1988
A Scottish thistle (emblem of the Scottish nation) not quite in bloom
Digitalis Purpurea or Foxglove Flower

After all this time with nature, it was off to visit the Royal Lochnagar Distillery and see firsthand the process of how whisky is made.  This particular distillery produces a relatively small amount of single-malt whisky each year.  The distillery received it’s Royal Warrant in 1848 when the owner, John Begg invited Prince Albert to stop by for a drink.  He offered him a sheep ride back to the neighboring Balmoral castle, since it wasn’t that far away (OK, I made that last part up).

The sign out front
They had Highland Cattle out front
The breed was developed in the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles
I couldn’t get enough of these guys
Apparently, neither could he
Fields in front of the distillery
I’ve never seen a more welcoming front door
Jessica stops to welcome us
A display of some of their finer whisky’s
If you want to buy a good whisky – just consult this group above, you can’t go wrong with any of them
I snuck all the following interior shots.  We were not allowed to take photos inside the premises… but they didn’t realize I had a BLOG to write!!
On the left – peat (a wood burned to add smokey flavor), barley both natural and malted and an old scale
On the right – an old fashioned kiln that would be fed with peat
Copper pot still used during the distillation process
Barrels used during the aging process
The distillery always sets aside some of the best for a special whisky released in limited quantities
Our guide demonstrates how to property seal a barrel
Look at the mugs on these two – guess no one taught either of us how to smile
Water is a critical element in the process – this is the reserve that Royal Lochnagar uses
Another thing I learned – this is the “official” design of a proper whisky glass adopted somewhat recently

The next adventure within our Scotland trip was a pilgrimage to the capital, Edinburgh.  Since I boiled 1,094 pictures from this trip into a mere 120 for this post – I think I’ll pause here and resume with a new post.  Tune in again soon – plenty more fun to come!


Make My Order Of Haggis a Double, Please
Don't Pack Up The Grill Just Yet

2 thoughts on “Scotland – Where Real Men Wear Skirts”

Please let me know your thoughts!