NC500 dispatches # 2022 Part 2

We have arrived at the most northern coast of Scotland (Dunnet Head) and go east from there on.

Wednesday 14/9 Day 4

No puffins. Leaving early from Skarfskerry we do a detour just to see Dunnet Head. The most northerly point of the Scottish main land. Near the Dunnet Head lighthouse minor fortifications were built during World War II to protect the naval base at Scapa Flow, including a Chain Home Low Radar Station and a bunker used by the Royal Observer Corps during the Cold War. A cold and a stiff breeze forces us back to our motorhome. No puffins sighted today.

Royalty. We plot a new route up to John O’Groats. On the way we pull up at Castle of Mey once the home of the Queen mum from 1952 till 2001. It’s a lovely castle with amazing view on Pentland Firth. From 2002 onwards it was handed over in the Royal Family to Prince Charles, now King Charles III. The popular Netflix series The Crown depicts how the heartbroken Queen Mother bought the castle to privately mourn the death of her husband King George VI.

Jan de Groot. Parking in the central square of John O’Groats I am facing the brand new 8Doors Distillery which was opened four days ago on September 10. And will now officially become the most northerly whisky distillery on the mainland. The name intrigued me. Founders Kerry and Derek Campbell dug in the story of Dutchman Jan de Groot who, by trying to keep the family peace with his seven sons, created a house with 8 doors and built an octagonal table so everyone in the household got his equal share. No whisky yet, but the Cambells sourced some Highland whisky (not disclosing the exact distilleries) to create a blended single malt and a blended Scotch both on sale in their wonderful visitor centre. One thing: why not place an octagonal table in the middle of the room?

Clan culture. Going down the A9 we approach a brown road sign reading ‘Badbea Clearance Village’. We’re signposted off the A9. If anything in the history of the Highlands and it’s century long clan culture came down so hard it were the Highland Clearances. Just a bit of necessary history. After the creation of Great Britain in 1707, the fierce opposition that followed the years after by the Jacobites in order to install a Stuart King on the throne (Battle of Culloden in 1746) and the new laws that were instigated by The Act of Proscription in 1747, Scottish Highland culture and life were more or less decimated. Clan tartan had become popular during the Jacobite years and this was outlawed under this new act, as were bagpipes and the teaching of Gaelic.

Clearances. It was not only highland culture that disappeared over this period but also the highlanders themselves. Landowners, on whose lands the clans lived and worked, had decided that sheep were exponentially more financially productive than people. The wool trade begun to boom and there was literally more value in sheep than people. So, what followed was an organized and intentional removal of the population from the area, aka the ‘clearances’. In 1747 the ‘Heritable Jurisdictions Act’, which stated that anyone who did not submit to English rule automatically forfeited their land: bend the knee or surrender your birth right. So thousands of Highlanders fled to Nova Scotia, New Zealand or other parts of the world or just perished in a place like Badbea.

The Maritime Malt. It’s off to Old Pulteney Distillery in the royal burgh of Wick, once a flourishing fishing port with a 1,000 boats and 11,000 workers. It was in the same period that John Henderson built his distillery in 1826. Today it’s located in the middle of quite a run down area of town. Nothing like the Diageo-like appearance here at Pulteney. What you see is what you get: 12 square meters of bottles (all necessary expressions on display), shirts, caps and one till. Staff is very nice and helpful. The visitor centre is actually spacious and very informative. You want to fill your own bottle? Go ahead. It’s the Inver House Distillers approach: simple, sober and straightforward. And a very good maritime malt indeed.

More renovations. Off to Clynelish / Brora. My expectations are high. To my regret I failed to book a tour at Brora long ahead. So no chance to get in there. Johnnie Walkers striding man waits for us at the door so in a way there’s no need to go in there when you’ve been to Caol Ila and the JW Experience in Edinburgh. The renovations were completed in May 2021. Instead we go upstairs to the bar which looks very fancy and relaxed. An asset I would say. I hope Brora will escape the hands of Diageo’s designers squad. The front side of the renovated Brora Distillery looks great. The gates to the front look even impressive. I’ll be back soon.

Royal fly-tier. Having read the travel pages in The Sunday Times (August 27, 2022) I must pay a visit to The Royal Marine Hotel in this Sutherland coastal town overlooking the beach. Dating back to 1913 and designed by Robert Lorimer, the Arts and Crafts architect. Another £1,6 million refurbishment has just been finished here. We enjoy our white wine in the new bar commemorating the Brora lass Megan Boyd, the Salmon fly tyer for former Prince Charles, now King Charles III. Photographs of Mrs Boyd dress the walls of the RMH bar. She was widely celebrated all over the world and the most fishing fly-tier in the world sold her works of art for hundreds of pounds. 

Thursday 15/9 Day 5

Picts. It’s a sunny morning. Balblair Distillery next door only opens at 10:00. In fact, all distilleries in Scotland do. Alcohol laws state that any alcoholic beverage may only be sold from 10 o’clock onwards. On the warehouse doors there’s the intriguing Balblair logo which depicts ‘the passage of time’, an emblem found on the Edderton Stone (Clach Biorach) just outside the distillery grounds and very much imbedded in the local history of the ancient Picts (inhabitants of Scotland between 300 and 900 AD).

We enter the visitor centre just in time to hear tour guide Nigel explain. ‘This used to be the old malting floor. They ceased using it. Since 1976 it’s all automated we don’t bother anymore’. Balblair is getting it’s malt from Inverness Maltings. The floor is divided bij false walls to create two tasting rooms. ‘At the moment we store 18,500 barrels in 9 warehouses. We have a capacity of 22,000’. 

The Angels’ Share. Interesting detail is that film director Ken Loach used warehouse 3 to shoot the famous auction scene in The Angels’ Share (2012) and also the car park. Loach hired a few old timers from the man running the caravan park up the road in Edderton to fill the car park. ‘He has a massive collection of cars. The visitor centre Loach used was only 12 square metres. Of course we extended it since then to what it is now. I know it’s not the Diageo-Disney-Design you see popping up around Scotland (Not my words; just quoting). But we and Inver House Distillers want it this way. Our tours are not scripted, our visitor centre is still old fashioned but we like it this way’.

Tall stills. We continue our tour on the A9 towards Glenmorangie Distillery, known for its tallest stills in the country. A written explanation by head distiller Brendan McCarron on my iPhone reads: “Tall stills mean a slow distillation and lots of vapours running back down the neck in a process known as reflux. The huge amount of copper contact means we remove any heavy, oily off-notes resulting in an elevation of the fruity and floral flavours in the spirit we collect to mature.” Sounds logical. But we miss the personal touch we experienced at Balblair. Nevertheless a mighty fine whisky. 

We cruise the Black Isle and visit Rosemarkie’s Groam House Museum home of a fine collection of Celtic and Pictish Art. The Balblair logo is one of the Pictish mysteries I am chasing. Time to think things over in the famous Plough Inn for a drink before we find ourselves back on base in Inverness.