By Tim Hunt
Enjoying single malts and the countryside in the HighlandsUploaded: May 8, 2019
As you read this, my bride and I plan to be en route to San Francisco from London after spending two weeks in Scotland—her first visit and my first as a married adult. It was fresh for both of us.
Other than time spent on the Isles of Islay and Skye, we spent out time in the Highlands, everything located north of Glasgow. We saw the mountains, capped with snow and saw dramatic gorges surrounding deep lochs, including Loch Ness (no, Nessie did not show up). We also experienced hail, rain/snow showers and a bit of sunshine.
Inverness is the capital of the Highlands and we enjoyed whisky, song and history at the whisky experience at MacGregors Bar. Our host, Davy Holt, took us through tasting five Highland whiskies and interspersed that with song and a detailed history lesson over 90 minutes. (35 pounds on Monday and Thursday evenings).
The history centered on the battle of Culloden in 1746 when the Duke of Cumberland’s Army wiped out Bonny Prince Charles’ Jacobites from the Highlands who had been trying to reclaim the throne of England. The duke ordered battle survivors massacred and that started a long downhill trend for the Highlands. England banned the Gaelic language, the clan kilts and their weapons. When we visited the museum and battle site the next day, we already knew most of the story.
Later, the landowners decided that sheep were much more profitable than tenant farmers, so they kicked the people off the land, starting an exodus to the coasts and eventually to North America. Holt said that there are 25 million North Americans of Scottish heritage compared to just five million living in the Highlands today. That’s one-third of the number back in the 1700s and 1800s before the forced relocation.
Times have changed for the Highlands. Demand for malt whisky is exploding around the world and large distillers have returned some brands to making single malt instead of malts for blending into such well-known international products as the Johnny Walker family. Tourism also is exploding while the economy is diversified providing employment. Holt said that five years ago only 10 cruise ships stopped near Inverness—it’s 120 this summer.
More importantly, the Scottish have regained control of their education system. When it was run from England, the five million Scots were almost an after-thought compared to 55 million other residents. He said that in the last 20 years, Scots have been able to control their own curriculum, so they have brought back Gaelic, Scottish history and music. He does classroom presentations and is delighted to hear how much history the students know. NOTE: A native of Scotland who is a loyal reader challenged this and said Scotland has controlled its curriculum for many, many years.
Incidentally, we saw an amazing number of tartan patterns and tasted a wide variety of approaches to single malts from the smoky, peaty-flavored ones from Islay (nine distilleries on that tiny island) to the smooth, fruity versions in the Highlands. Tasting approaches ranged from purchasing flights of three or five 10-15 ml drams (a standard dram is 25 ml, about .83 ounces, compared to a U.S. standard of 1 ½ ounces.) That’s a good thing because it’s a rare whisky at 80 proof (other than blended ones)—more likely 90-plus or more than 100 proof. Twenty percent more alcohol adds up fast.
For a look at our experience on Islay, please see acesgolf.com, the golf lifestyle website that I own with my partner and fellow Weekly correspondent Dennis Miller.
Incidentally, if you’re headed for Edinburgh in the next month and have hankering for fresh fish done Italian style, head for II Castello. It will change ownership after this month. It’s located at the foot of the Edinburgh Castle. The proprietor, Cosimo Polcino II, was reared in restaurants by his father and mother who established the first Italian restaurants in this Scottish city. They also founded the first II Castello in 1989, 30 years after their first one. He told us that most of the current day Italian restaurants can trace some of their heritage to his father.
We dined there twice on our trip, once enjoyed the fresh sea food of the day (sea bass and halibut with broccoli and roasted potatoes) after an appetizer of delightful calamari.
The same goes for the fish, oven baked in olive oil with fresh herbs and lemon. Very simple that let the fresh fish shine—the halibut portion was huge.
We went pure Italian the second night with lasagna and gnocchi in a tomato basil sauce.
We also were regaled with Cosimo’s stories about his colorful life. He’d spent 15 years in Kenya, operating a large resort hotel on the Indian Ocean near the key port of Mombasa. His dad also owned a coffee farm near Nakuru, a city I am familiar with because we visited game parks there with Heart for Africa and Cornerstone Church in Livermore was previously partnered with a children’s home and school there.
Cosimo owns lots of real estate—that’s now his business—he re-opened the restaurant after returning from Kenya to spend time with his ailing mom. He frankly said he’d be bored without it, but, with his partner and their new four-month-old son working alongside him, he’s moving to a different stage. He’s leased the restaurant for 40 years to another operator who will be taking over within a couple of months.
We cannot recommend the seafood, the tiramisu and the Italian specialties highly enough.