Pubs and North Sea
In a wee, high-ceilinged Scottish pub taller than it was wide, a grizzled man played rollicking tunes on an accordion, while middle-aged attendees swayed to old steps and smiled at each other, as if they had not heard such music in quite a while. One detail stood out oddly: Men heading to the bathroom opened the door of a prominently placed wardrobe, then seemingly disappeared into the cabinet.
After spending four days strolling around the cities of Scotland, I had finally found, four hours drive into the rural northeast, what seemed to be the real, glowing heart of the country: in the town of Elgin. It only made sense that this might occur in Speyside, an area defined by rushing streams such as the river Spey, spruce forests and proximity to the Firth of Moray, a massive inlet of the forbiddingly gray North Sea – as well as many whisky distilleries and history dating back beyond the time of MacBeth.
It was just as true when we took to the narrow, winding roads along the North Sea coast the next day. Spruce-edged green hillsides led to the High Streets of close-set villages of stone medieval row-buildings, whose bottom floors displayed Indian restaurants, butcher shops offering haggis in bold painted letters, libraries and off-licence shops. We passed through the tiny villages of Banff – the inspiration for the town in the Canadian Rockies – and MacDuff – part of the former holdings of the Scottish lord MacDuff, MacBeth’s contemporary. Despite chilly, rainy weather, we stopped in Buckie at a candy shop for excellent ice cream at The Ice Cream Cabin.
Driving over green slopes – beyond which the sea occasionally emerged to our left, misty and rough and unwelcoming – our destination was one of the several former fishing villages, Pennan – also the setting for the 1983 movie Local Hero, about an oil company’s attempt to buy up a Scottish village. We rounded a long slope and down to the line of white-washed houses in a cove facing the sea.
We were glad to get out of the drizzle and into the Pennan Inn, a cozy pub lit partly by firelight, where we ate fried prawns and good bread and tea – all of which tasted surprisingly fresh and original. A few regulars in Wellingtons and slickers chatted with long familiarity with the female inn keeper, while their well-behaved dogs, a wooly sheepdog and a schnauzer, waited beneath their chairs.
The next day, starting again in former Moray (pronounced Murray) County seat Elgin, we took an inland route along single-laned country roads between farms, enjoying a distant vista of purple-tinged hills and tufted-grass pastures, to the village of Aberlour (pronounced Aber-lauer).
In the Old Pantry Restaurant & Gift Shop, a pleasant, many-windowed café with a fire to take off the chill, we chose from well-prepared soups like chicken potato and lentil carrot leek, as well as sandwiches, paninis and toasties – sandwiches toasted over a flame. The cold sandwiches – typically ‘salads’, such as egg salad and tuna salad, and a shrimp salad, Prawn Marie Rose – were tidy and filling.
That afternoon, back in Elgin, known for being smack-dab in the center of Scotland’s famous Whisky Trail, we toured the malt whisky distillery Glen Moray – choosing first from already-damp umbrellas to take with us from building to building, though in this rare case they went unused. We peered through viewing holes into gigantic holding tanks of pre-whisky in several stages, awed by the malty swirl and the sheer tons of water involved. The distillery’s filtered water, we learned, is drawn from the local swift-moving river Lossie.
In a cavernous, cold-aired warehouse, wood casks of aging whisky were held in racks that reached the ceiling. The whisky flavor, we learned, is partly influenced by what the cask held before — some contained French chardonnay, others Jack Daniels whiskey or Wild Turkey bourbon.
Later, we tasted the differently aged whiskies – 6- to 8-year-old, 12-year-old and 16-year-old – noting the differences in peatiness; the youngest whiskies were light, but older ones were dark and peaty. Not far away, and – more importantly after whisky tasting, reachable on foot — was the Johnstons woolen mill. Its fine cashmere clothing is known far and wide, and is the cashmere of choice at the major Scottish airports. Tours of the mill are available, and the shop is well-stocked with that luxuriously soft product. Locals note that before the shop updated its prices, celebrities including the Royal Family were drawn here for the terrific buys. When I was there, a cashmere scarf could be had on sale for $38, though sweaters were marked “down” to $311.
From the woolen mill it’s an easy walk (as is everything in Elgin) to the ruins of the town’s 13th century cathedral, which was the second largest in Scotland, after one in St. Andrews. After being burned in 1390 by the Wolf of Badenoch, exacting revenge on the town for his excommunication (allegedly for having stolen land from the Bishop of Moray), the cathedral was rebuilt, but later collapsed several times. The remaining towering Gothic face and thick side walls still have the power to strike fear into believers and heathens alike, particularly on one of Elgin’s many dark and misty nights.
A journey to Elgin is not complete without climbing Ladyhill, crowned by a 24-meter stone column erected to honor the 5th Duke of Gordon, the first commander of the Gordon Highlanders regiment, in 1839 and completed in 1855. Next to the monument are the dark, moldering ruins of Elgin Castle – which on a dark night bring up a rush of memories of every Round Table tale one has ever heard. From this inspiring height there’s a view of the distant Cairngorm mountains, as well as the present-day town, which includes the super-grocery Tesco and the highway to Aberdeen.
After that, time to bid cheers to the night in a pub.
Scotrail trains run from Aberdeen to Elgin about three times per weekday and on Saturdays; the trip takes an hour and a half. From Inverness to Elgin is 45 minutes on the train; trains run three times per weekday and Saturdays.
Where to stay:
The Pines Guest House, East Road, Elgin. IV30 1XG telephone: +44(0)1343 552495 (drop the (0) when calling from overseas.) www.thepinesguesthouse.com, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, offers pleasant rooms with baths, with full Scottish breakfast, five minutes’ walk from Elgin town centre. 6 rooms available – from $49.
Heather Glen Guest House, 1 North Guildry St., Elgin, Tel. +44 (0)1343 545221, is a two-story, 10-room bed and breakfast. Rooms from $55.
Where to eat and drink:
The Imperial Bar, 67 South Street, Elgin. Pints and drinks $2.80-4.00
Tel: +44(0)1343 542462
Ice Cream Cabin, 17 East Church St., Buckie. Ice cream and sorbet start at $1.75.
Tel. +44 (0)141 221 4212
Pennan Inn – on the main street facing the water. It’s painted aquamarine, whereas the other houses in tiny Pennan are all white — easy to spot. Fish and chips, soups, sandwiches — $3.50-5.50
Tel. +44 (0)1346 561 201
Old Pantry Restaurant & Gift Shop, The Square, Aberlour – sandwiches, soups, $2.50-5.50
Tel. +44 (0)1340 871617
Johnstons (cashmere mill and shop), Johnstons Newmill, Elgin IV30 4AF, Tel. +44 (0) 1343 554000, Fax +44 (0) 1343 554055 email email@example.com, http://www.johnstonscashmere.com/, free tours.
Glen Moray Distillery, Bruceland Road, Elgin, IV30 1YE Tel. 01343 542577, Fax 01343 546195, www.glenmoray.com. Tour is $3.75. Most whiskies $28-47.
Driving directions, coastal route from Elgin to Pennan
Take the A96 towards Aberdeen until Fochabers. Bear left onto the A98 towards Fraserburgh. Turn left at the A990 towards Portgordon. Continue along the coastal route through Portknockie. Rejoin the A98 and turn right back onto the road just before Cullen. Continue on A98 through MacDuff. Bear left onto the B9031 towards Pennan. Follow the signs left towards Pennan.
Pennan is 46 miles, about an hour and a half drive. Buckie is 17 miles, 20 – 25 minutes.
To Aberlour, take the A941 south out of Elgin 15 miles, for about 20-25 minutes.
Prices calculated at the exchange rate of $1.88 to the British pound.
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