Our small convoy of Arcos, those rugged take-you-anywhere ATVs, circles the rounded top of Cairn Liath. We’ve carefully threaded our way uphill along a narrow, bumpy path winding through the pastel fields of heather and thigh-high meadow grasses that drape the Scottish landscape spread out below us.
The late-morning air has a hint of chill, although it is still summer in the Highlands. We climb out and stretch, camera and field glasses at the ready.
On our way up, we’ve passed grazing sheep, sent a large, gangly hare scurrying to its underground lair and flushed a covey of grouse running through the gorse before rising up in low flight. We’re told there are also red deer hiding in the thickets of trees tucked into the mountainside. Come fall, a hunter’s paradise. For now, serenity.
The Livet Valley, a tributary of the Spey, shields its narrow stream among undulating hills. A few hundred yards below us, now out of sight, is a stone hut, the old Peat Reek Bothy, where whisky smugglers once hid out. Today it’s part of the walking Smugglers’ Trails—and where we will soon have an elegant catered lunch of rabbit rillettes, grilled halves of lobster, and venison shank.
For dessert, we’ll walk across a castle’s pasture to the pride of the valley: the Glenlivet distillery, past its ancient source of chilled, pure water, Josie’s Well. We’ll finish the afternoon with a tasting of ancient single-barrel Scotches.
This is whisky country—spelled without the American “e,” thank you. It’s an area of the Highlands named Speyside after the river, a place where most of Scotland’s most famous drinks are distilled.
This wedge of northeast Scotland, which encompasses part of the Highlands as well as the plains radiating from the port city of Aberdeen, has much more to offer the tourist than a series of wee drams. There is golf to play, both at American-style courses and traditional seaside links, in this country where the world’s most-frustrating game was born. And fly-fishing in Scottish streams is legendary.
There are grand old mansions and castles for lodging and touring, hearty rustic fare like haggis and Scotch eggs, and elegant
cuisine that always seems to surprise first-time visitors. There are miles of little-traveled roads for bike riding, scenic trails for hiking, and small fishing villages still trying to eke a living out of the North Sea.
On this visit to Scotland, I’m traveling with other wine-and-spirits writers to taste the Glenlivet’s 50-year-old single barrel Scotch—a very rare treat, indeed. My wife and I have also toured the country, from the Inner Hebrides to Glasgow to the border regions. All said and done, Scotland’s northeast corner has become my favorite destination.
There are several options for places to stay. Aberdeen has all the attractions of a city base camp—great restaurants and shopping, especially for woolen goods—but it’s a few hours’ drive from whisky country. There are many attractive B&Bs in the small city of Dufftown, the unofficial capital of Scotch country. There are also former castles turned into hotels—notably Kildrummy Castle-, set among early ruins at the edge of the Highlands, and Meldrum House, just northeast from the Aberdeen airport in Oldmeldrum. Kildrummy is more secluded. It’s a great place to hike or jog, fly fish in the local streams and have afternoon tea. Meldrum House has the advantage of being attached to a rolling golf course.
Two notes about driving in Scotland: The roads are narrow and often lined with berms that prohibit you from easily pulling over. You must also drive on the “wrong” side of the road. And, if you rent a stick shift, all gear changing must be done left-handed as well.
There are literally dozens of distilleries in the Highlands leading down to the plains of the Spey River, a Napa Valley for peat freaks. In addition to Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, the famous Macallan, Glenrothes, Knockando, Balvenie, Glenfarcas and Cardhu are all made here. You can create your own malt whisky trail, but be sure to assign a designated driver before you make the first stop. Check online in advance to see hours and location.
With a little luck, time and planning, you can play three of the East Coast’s most famous seaside links: the Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay just north of the city and Carnoustie, a little farther down the coast near Dundee.
If you have time to venture west past the lures of whisky country, there is Nairn, a few miles north of Inverness
There are also American-style courses without the famous potholes, scrubby fairways and blind approaches.
Like Atlantic Canada, commercial fishing in Scotland is not what it once was, the region having been over-fished and the local
economy now more tied to offshore oil. That said, the little towns are still there—quaint and tourist-friendly.
One town that might look somewhat familiar is Pennan on the north coast, a single street of businesses and houses facing the ocean. It was the locale for the film Local Hero. Banff, a little farther to the west, is a much larger sea town, with several golf courses in the area.
If your lodging has cooking facilities, you’ll want to visit the local seafood and produce markets. Most towns have a local inn or pub worth trying, some with quite innovative menus. Eat on the Green restaurant in Ellon is a delightful place to spend an evening with Craig Wilton, the Kilted Chef.
Biking, hiking and fishing are all good possibilities for active sports. You’ll also want to time your visit to take in the
pageantry and competition of one of the many Highland Games that take place during the summer and fall. Bagpipes abound.
Shopping for woolen scarves, sweaters and kilts is also a good pastime.