Cairngorms NP dispatches # 2022

Having finished the amazing North Coast 500 trail we plot our journey through the Cairngorms National Park and find ourselves ending up in Bertie’s Whisky Bar.

Friday September 15

Respect. We decide to pay our respects to the late Queen and plot our tour differently. Going southwest we head for Ballater and Crathie Kirk where the Balmoral Estate is. As I forage my next cappuccino-to-go at one of Ballater’s fuel stations I read a leaflet saying ‘More commonly known as Royal Deeside, the land stretching west from Aberdeen along the River Dee revels in its connections with the Royal Family, who have regularly holidayed here at Balmoral Estate, since Queen Victoria bought the it. Eighty thousand Scots turned out to welcome her on her first visit in 1848. Some weren’t charmed: one local journalist remarked that the area was about to be “desolated by cockneys and other horrible reptiles’. It’s in the same year that Victoria pays a visit to neighbouring New Lochnagar Distillery on the inviation of owner John Begg. Impressed with what she saw she issued a Royal Warrant to the rebuilt distillery.

Art and more. For the moment I have satisfied my Whisky Trail curiosity so I can easily resist the brown signs to Tomatin and Royal Lochnagar. There’s something else I do want to see: Bertie’s whisky bar at The Fife Arms Hotel at Breamar, Aberdeenshire. After a four-year renovation by designer Russel Sage owners Iwan and Manuela Wirth of Hauser & Wirth Art Galleries Zürich spent millions to utterly transform the interior of the former Victorian coaching inn. Opened in January 2018 it is now ‘a grand, luxurious destination with 46 extravagantly decorative bedrooms, a restaurant, public bar, events rooms, spa, shop and an extraordinary collection of art and intriguing objects’, my travel guide tells me.  In time for lunch in The Flying Stag I order the large haggis. What a culinary delight ! My white wine is perfectly chilled and a giant winged red stag right above the bar keeps an eye on me. One of the waiters is so kind to lead me to the whisky room. 

Bertie’s Bar. From Queen Victoria’s days onwards Bertie’s bar used to be a library. It was transformed into a whisky bar and opened in May 2021. The mahogany clad panelled room displays 365 whiskies from all over the world, one for every day of the year. The collection is ever-changing since some expressions are the last bottles of its kind. The amber nectars are nicely arranged in four flavour categories: fragrant, fruity, rich and smoky. Victoria’s eldest son Edward, aka the playboy prince, was called Bertie by his family. Hence the name of the whisky bar. In Whisky Magazine 183 Phoebe Calver wrote a great travel story unraveling this whisky walhalla.

Saturday September 17

Robert Burns. We leave the Ferryhill Hotel (Aberdeen) and go south to Stonehaven. At the Tolbooth House overlooking the harbour three volunteers are more than eager to tell the story of William Burnes, Robert’s father, who was born in Dunnotar in 1721 just 3 miles south of Stonehaven. He became, like his own father, a gardener. He had to leave his native county in search of work and, after a period spent in Edinburgh, arrived in Ayrshire in 1750.

Whisky gem. We explore the Angus Coastal Route south on the A92. I pick up the lead we got at North Point Distillery (Thurso) to visit Arbroath Marines Centre. The whisky bar in the officers’ mess In Arbroath is one of the whisky world’s hidden gems. There was no way to get in touch via normal lines so decide to just turn up at the gate. The heavily secured compound has one entrance: a check point with an armed marine. I get second thoughts and wonder if it’s worth following up. No way we can get in. “It’s weekend, Sir. The mess is closed. No officer available. Sorry to disappoint you”. It is what it is. The story is this. With every officer who leaves and every overseas visitor who wishes to add to the gaiety of the mess, the whisky collection grows by a bottle of single malt, with 15 to 20 officers contributing each year. All in all It’s a fascinating record that provides an unorthodox history of the regiment since 1981. So, I will have another go next year and contribute a bottle….on weekdays. 

Forth Bridge. We enter Queensferry, an Edinburgh borough. The Hawes Inn is our haven for tonight and magnificent Forth Bridge our view. The bridge was designed in 1853 by John Baker and technically constructed by John Fowler both reknown from Victoria Station and London Underground. Legend has it that up to 73 of workers died while working at the construction of the bridge. About 4,600 workers from all over Europe were here to do the job. It took 7 years to complete and was officially opened by ‘playboy prince’ Edward VII in 1890. 

Sunday September 18

Home. There’s a full program of entertainment on the DFDS Princess Seaways. Cover band Peter and the Jetsets start off with a Bob Dylan evergreen I’ll be your baby tonight. When lead guitarist Peter sings his first lines ‘Shut your eyes. Close the door’, I hear my Dutch neighbour comment ‘Ik zou het andersom doen’ (I would do it the other way around). I know I am on my way back home.