Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Scotland in a nutshell

Scotland is not typically a destination of choice in January, but I highly recommend it if you happen to find yourself needing to go there in the middle of winter (which is what happened to us). Jeff had to do research on whisky (it's whisky over there, not whiskey like it is the US) for his book. He was going to go in November, but I didn't want to miss a trip to Scotland so I asked him to postpone until after my job ended.

I've been to a lot of snow-covered places, but Scotland wins hands-down at wearing its snow the best. Somehow it manages to snow there almost every day, but not a lot and some of it melts off, so there are not huge, dingy banks of snow on the side of the roads. And driving isn't too treacherous. It is rather scary, however, to drive on the "wrong" side of the road for the first time on snowy roads. We survived that and only got stuck on a giant rock when Jeff tried to eat an ice cream while driving. That might work with an automatic transmission, but you'd have to be an octopus to manage that with a manual. Luckily, we were on a farm when it happened and a kindly farmer was nearby with a tractor.

I'm not a fan of whiskey or whisky so after tagging along to a few distilleries I went off on my own, which really is the perfect scenario anyway since I love having my own time to tool around on trips and Jeff had his own adventures driving down narrow country lanes in search of whisky.

Cullen skink is smoked haddock in a milky broth with chives. Doesn't sound too appetizing but after trying it in two different restaurants I am sold on in wholeheartedly.

Bar tabs aren't allowed by Scottish law, to keep people from drinking too much. If you order food, however, it is allowed. The legal alcohol limit in Scotland is only 0.5, whereas it's 0.8 in the rest of the UK and in the US. That's like one beer. At one of the distilleries Jeff visited, he was told they don't give tastes to anyone who is driving as that will automatically put them over the limit.

There's no rhyme or reason to where people park or pull over. This seems to be a pan-European phenomenon that I will never understand. I saw someone parked in a bus stop, facing the opposite direction as the cars on that side of the road.

One day Jeff dropped me off in the small town of Grantown (pronounced Granton) while he went to a distillery nearby. First I took a walk down a lovely snowy path and then I poked my head into a cafe that didn't look too inviting so then I poked my head into a bar. Three gents were sitting there and they welcomed me happily. One was named Norman (last name of Grant, whose family is original townsfolk). The one with the mustache is Davie (don't ever call him David) and the third one is Iain, who had a voluminous beard. Davie's partner owns the bar but he works it when she's out. He kept up with the rest of us in beers, however.

They wouldn't let me buy my beers and they kept me thoroughly entertained. The only other bar in town is the Craig but they assured me it was not as good as the Claymore. I believe it! These 3 tease each other mercilessly. I get the impression most Scots are like that. For example, to tell Iain apart from another bar patron with the same name, he is called Upside Down Iain since his hair is below his head. There are various things they bet on in the bar and he always writes his name as U.D. Iain now. "It was easier to just go along with it," he said.

I was so eager to try a local speciality, squat lobsters. But, sadly, they are only available in the summer. A fish and chip shop owner told us it's just not worth it to prepare them in the winter for not much demand. And they aren't exported due to their delicate nature. Some day we'll have to come back in warmer weather, check out some of the islands and eat squat lobsters.

I managed to nearly eat my weight in other types of seafood, however. Smoked trout, smoked haddock, salmon, fried pollack, fried shrimp. And all local!

Women eat heartily in Scotland, thank goodness! Although if one is feeling less hungry (due to all the other eating), waitresses will try to tell you that you haven't ordered enough food. No salad for main courses! Maybe you want the haggis, too?

Speaking of haggis, it's fairly palatable, but I can't get over its components. Beef and ale pie is more my speed.

I will possibly never be able to see a “TO LET” sign without mentally inserting an i.

I sure love the existence of half pints. Not so much real ales, though. I just can't get used to beer being served that warm. Sorry, beer aficionados.

You know how in many parts of Europe if you want to drink water you have to order a bottle of if and even so it tastes funny? Well, in Scotland not only does hardly anyone buy bottles of it, but the tap water is top notch!

The only real downside to a wintertime trip is that there are going to be days that are just too yucky for being outside. Luckily in Scotland there always seems to be a welcoming pub or old bookstore.

The name Craig is all over Scotland, mostly as parts of longer words. I have never seen most of my name on so many signs! It was fun introducing myself as Craige as well, especially to the gents I met in the bar in Grantown.

So, that's Scotland in a nutshell. I absolutely want to go back, perhaps in slightly warmer weather, because I need to have those squat lobsters and because the ferries to the islands run only about once a day in the wintertime and I'd love to get out to the islands. Otherwise I'd absolutely go in the wintertime again!

Apex City Hotel, Edinburgh
The Gatehouse B&B, Inverness
The Ranald Hotel, Oban
CitizenM, Glasgow
Edinburgh City Hotel, Edinburgh