Travel: Falling for the Scottish highlands hook, line, and sinker
“Only neat – anything else ruins the taste. Malt whisky is meant to be drunk neat,” rumbles the driver of the sedan that’s slicing through a thin mist from Aberdeen airport in Scotland to the storied Meldrum House Hotel (attached is a golf course almost too beautiful to play on), in Aberdeenshire. It’s seven in the evening and a smoky blue sheen, the colour of a Scottish fold cat, is settling over the soft, rolling hills of this desolate yet hauntingly beautiful landscape.
I’m here to fish and drink whisky. I’ve+ flown in from a raucous Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on a cookie-cutter KLM flight from New Delhi; European airlines just don’t have the cut and class of the Middle Eastern carriers. But that, as they say, is another story.
Before the drive into the country, there was immigration at Aberdeen airport; nowhere in the world have I been greeted by a smile – a sunny beam, really, by the male officer behind the desk and the female one after. Clearly, this isn’t just my cologne. Scots, I will discover over the next few days, are a warm and friendly people. They are full of laughter and bon-ton and far removed from the brusque thrust of London, this is a welcome thing.
The bucket of my bucket list runneth over, but fishing in Scotland has always been somewhere at the top of that list. I have fished for trout in Bhutan, which was joyous and easy as the river was a mob scene of trout leaping out of the water with smiling faces and balletic grand jets and pirouettes. In Pahalgam, the fish are less enthusiastic as are the dour helpers mooching around, kicking pebbles listlessly while handing you slightly grubby fishing gear. Plus, Kashmir turns on a rupee coin, and suddenly you have to up sticks and bolt. This doesn’t not make for leisurely angling.
In Scotland, things are different. On a gushing River Spey just a few kilometers away from the storied Ballindalloch Castle, the fishing is genuine sport. Purring Range Rovers (this spot is one of the more expensive fishing tours), deposit you between a tiny – or wee since we are in the Highlands – bothy ( cottage), and a tent. In the cottage, you can sit and learn the intricacies of making the fly. Using feather, fur and such you create elaborate hooks to lure the fish. The process is as painstaking as making beautiful jewellery – any fish would be hooked, no pun. Or you sip a hot whisky toddy from a boarding school-type enamel mug while you get kitted out, head-to-toe in Barbour fishing gear – thick socks, boots, waxed overalls.
After that, there’s nothing more exhilarating than stepping to the side of the river and casting – there’s the astonishing intake of sharp, clean air, like the sensation of plunging into bracingly cool water, and then, the palpable beauty and optics of the river. At this time of the year, the landscape is still relatively barren, but you can spot heliotrope-coloured bushes of heather, common gorse, whin and broom emerging shyly. Did I catch a salmon? Probably not, but the experience was intoxicating.
Castle of treasure
Back at the Ballindalloch Castle, we are hosted by the ebullient Guy Macpherson-Grant – he of the jolly disposition and impeccably cut tweed suit – and his gracious wife, Victoria. The Grant family have been here since the 15th century and amidst gentle quaffing of malt whisky, Guy, as the ‘Laird’ (owner of a large Scottish estate), shows us around his lovely castle. There are fabulously cosy rooms in cream and café au lait with plump sofas, swagged curtains, gilt mirrors and working fireplaces. We tiptoe through The Library with its towering bookshelves holding some 2,500 tomes of 18th and 19th century European literature. There are rare Spanish texts and massive open books on creaking stands holding antique maps. En route to the dining room and through a narrow corridor, there are intimate, signed photographs of Britain’s royals clustered on antique tables – Prince Charles and Cam, Prince William and Prince Harry with their father, the late Queen Mother proudly looking over a herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle which she was mad about breeding – the Ballindolach herd is the oldest in the world.
Guy Macpherson-Grant, if one looks, as one does, at pictures of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding, was one of the adorable page boys at the wedding. Now, of course, he’s all grown up with three kids of his own! A jolly Old Etonian, he and Victoria give us tea and Hummingbird Cake (pineapple, banana, cinnamon, all dunked in a luscious cream cheese frosting), beneath glowering portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte by the famous Georgian artist, Allan Ramsay.
Other rooms hold other treasures: Sheraton corner cupboards, Louis Quince period wonders, Chinese Chippendale as finely wrought as fine embroidery. Meanwhile, high above in a tower, is a pointer to the austere life led by domestic servants – a still life of a washing jug, a simple cot and a sturdy wooden table on a cold stone floor.
Onwards then, to whisky – ask any self-respecting Punjabi person such as me, and we’ll swear whisky is our state drink; some say more is consumed in North India than is produced in Scotland, though this could be an urban legend. And the ambrosial malts around Moray, Strathspey and Badenoch – more than 40 of them – in this gorgeous part of Northeast Scotland, are an essential visit for any one tooling around these parts. Around rolling hills, crofters cottages and hillsides dotted with fat sheep looking like huge pilling on a green jumper, distilleries lie off rambling cottage roads. Unlike wine tasting, where one takes a sip, swills and spits, whisky here is too delicious to dispel – reason enough to be pretty tight at the end of the day.
After all that quaffing, you need an enormous dinner; at The Glenlivet distillery, the nosh has been laid out fulsomely. Wild mushroom consommé with moss, pine and wild garlic, hand-dived scallops seasoned with seaweed, foie gras parfait, black truffle gougeres, Scottish venison and celeriac ’haggis’ and rounded up, as dessert, milk chocolate, malt, bitter orange and milk ice-cream.
All this extravagance has been put together by Clare Smyth, the first woman chef to win three Michelin stars, and while Alan Winchester, the ebullient master distiller raises a toast to the Glenlivet 50 (first laid down in 1967 and it’s jammy and peachy and deliciously almondy), the award-winning designer Bethan Gray unveils the stunning maple and copper case with its hand blown glass bottle. It’s all very swoonsome and we totter to our limousines.
The question of haggis
Before I return to India, I need to dispel some notions about the clichés of Scotland.
Haggis (liver, lungs and heart of a cute sheep encased in the poor dear’s stomach), isn’t half as bad as it sounds. Haggis has a strong, slightly funky taste like keema without the spice.
Kilts are to be worn commando, never mind the breeze whistling up and about.
The accents: They’re charrrming.
Bagpipes: A deeply romantic sound and one that’s so mournful. The reason for the weepiness is the slow dirge-like cadence at which it’s played. It’s a musical instrument that’s not terribly sophisticated. The timbre remains the same as it has to be played continuously. But the sound coming over hill and glen is sheer joy.
Tartan: Ubiquitous and scratchy as hell unless the warp and the weft are so fine as to give it a cashmere-like softness.
Redheads: I didn’t see one.
And on goodbye, a quaff of Irn-Bru, the Scottish national soft drink that gives Coca Cola the jitters, while reading Robert Burns. Burns says (the old dear), “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here; My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer; A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.”
Delhi-based Nikhil Khanna is the founder and executive chairman of Avian Media. He began his career as a copy writer in the ad world and contributes to a number of publications.
From HT Brunch, April 21, 2019
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