After Culloden, we stopped by Inverness for a mediocre fish and chips by the coach station, and on to the Black Isle (which is a green peninsula), past the seemingly endless fence of a cattle show, spying oil rigs out in the Moray Firth in the slanting rain. At Cromarty town we watched tugs escort an oil tanker out from the deep water terminal, and made a six-pointed trace italienne sandcastle with bastions and ravelins (without the bucket and spade our cottage came equipped with, which had been left in Elgin). In Cromarty, we found a lovely second-hand bookshop/cafe hybrid thing, whose gimmick was having walls and ceiling coated with signatures from past patrons. (The most famous one they could name was "Tolkien's great niece", though.) We bought a lot of tea, several excellent biscuits and a little interesting-looking literature, and headed on back to the cottage.
The following day we did the whisky industry.
|Image: The Speyside Cooperage|
The Speyside Cooperage is one of the few functioning places of its kind left in Scotland, supplying dozens of distilleries, and they're justifiably proud of it. There are thousands of casks piled up behind the place. The tables and chairs in the cafe are made of casks. There are rain shelters in the car park, made of half-tuns on their sides with little windows and chairs. Made from casks. We got shown around an interesting history of the cask industry (they being the go-to break-bulk container for literally thousands of years), watched an educational video about casks, were shown the cooperage floor full of manly coopers doing manly things, had the general cask-making process explained to us with helpful diagrams and examples of tools and cracked staves.
Casks are an essential part of the whisky-making process, the ageing being what gives whisky a lot of its flavour, and the wood and what it's previously been used for (whisky is only very rarely aged in casks that haven't had another kind of alcohol in them) are very important. The coopers we saw were rebuilding casks, which is the main work done by Scots cooperages (their master coopers do actually make casks from scratch on occasion, but they're bespoke and thus rather expensive.) Used bourbon and sherry casks are broken down and shipped from America and Spain. US law forbids re-using bourbon casks, a law presumably passed due to the influence of a cooperage magnate, or the owner of a lot of prime forest. It looks like back-breaking work; they do twenty, twenty-five of these a day, earning a respectable salary (in the master cooper's estimation, anyway). Apprentices train for four years, and there was a special area laid out for them, but there weren't any in attendance the day we came. At the cafe we were given some wine made from oak leaves (me neither) and bought some tablet.
ust down the road from the cooperage is Glenfiddich distillery, which prides itself on being one of the few left with its own cooperage, and brags about its professional coopers rebuilding seventeen casks a day. Glenfiddich was much more slick than the cooperage; a bit too slick and commercial, which is slightly weird given that the tour is free. Once we'd got past the appallingly gushy, overwhelmingly desaturated, slow-mo-blurred-smiling-crofter-faces-li
It all makes me almost wish I were interested in alcohol. At the end of the tour they sat us down in the bar and gave everyone sample drams in 12, 15 and 18-year-old incarnations, but they all just tasted like fire to me.
After the tour, parents discussed Highland Games (some were playing on screens in the bar; I always thought caber-tossing was some sick joke thing that didn't actually happen, like haggis running around, or Baba Yaga, or Swindon) with the nice German guys in our group, while I chatted
On the Saturday we set off on the long road south to Edinburgh. On the way down we espied a ruined church lurking by the roadside, and explored. There were death's heads on half the gravestones, among various other highly morbid symbols; the church had no roof, and the weathering inside suggested it had lacked one for a long time; it all reminded me somewhat of Marienkirche in Lubeck (so it was with wry amusement I noted it was called St. Mary's). Beyond it all, there was a pervasive, distant buzz, like a thousand beehives. Mum suggested midges. If that was true, it was terrifying.
Really, really pink.
Castle Kellie, our last stop before Edinburgh, was a deeply Civilised country house, brimful of nannyish guides and down-the-centuries ephemera (children's picture books of the late 19th century look both hilariously racist and Uncanny Valley creepy). Most hilariously, a couple explained (in character) how to Keep Up Appearances as a fifties family celebrating the coronation, while short on money but attempting to be long on class. It... it was the most unexpected, and the most priceless, moment of the holiday so far.
Crossing Fife we had a perfect view of the glorious Forth Bridge in the dying sun, on the last leg into Edinburgh.