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26 Aug 2016

Scotland recap – Well, it’s been nearly two weeks now since we returned from Scotland. It has taken me a bit longer than expected, but I finally have a follow-up post to tell you about our trip. There is a lot to say—well, to be honest, there’s way too much to say in just a single entry. To give you an idea of how much I could say, I kept a journal during our trip, and it ended up filling two notebooks (actual notebooks with paper, not computers) and spilled over into a third. So to say that you’re getting the abbreviated version today would be putting it mildly.

“...to be honest, there’s way too much to say in just a single entry.”

But I can start by saying that we had a great time, and I’m very glad we went. This trip was a dream of mine, and it more than lived up to that dream. There were, of course, rough spots, specifically with the walking. In the end, I managed to do the entire walk with my pack, but early on in the walk HJ developed severe blisters and did not walk several of the legs. I struggled with what I should focus on in this entry, but in the end I decided to more or less mirror my previous entry, prior to the trip—that is, I’ll be focusing on the walk itself, with specific mention of distilleries after that. I would be remiss not to accompany this description with some photos, but I took nearly two thousand photos throughout the trip, so what you’re getting here is just a fraction of that. I can’t promise that these are even my favorites, but I’ve tried to select photos that I thought were interesting or representative of that part of the trip. Each paragraph, starting with the next, will be followed by a photograph relating to that paragraph; hover your cursor over them for the captions. OK, let’s begin with the walk.

Our Day 1 walk from Aviemore to Nethy Bridge (~17 km) was a fairly easy one, taking us through some lovely forests and wetlands and featuring a pleasant lunch at the hotel in Boat of Garten. This was an ideal walk: not too long, leisurely, and with good weather. I think we were both feeling fine after this and pretty positive. Day 2, Nethy Bridge to Grantown, was an easy 10-km walk that started out on a disused railway (straight and flat) and also featured some lovely views of the Spey River along the way. The following day, though, Day 3, was the longest walk we had done yet (23+ km) and toughest day of the walk for HJ. The walk from Grantown to Cromdale through the Anagach Wood was actually quite pleasant, but from Cromdale to Ballindalloch was a nightmare. There were parts that weren’t so bad, like the last bit into Ballindalloch along a disused railway, but at one point we had to wind our way through pastureland along a trail that was either muddy or rocky (and in some cases both) and threaded a needle between barbed wire fences. My favorite parts of this section were those with barbed wire on one side and nettles on the other—those were a lot of fun to walk. To be honest, I was tired at the end of this leg, but I was still fine physically. HJ had developed a blister larger than any I had ever seen, though, and was just completely knackered and in a lot of pain. It looked like our plans needed to be changed.

Day 4 was a non-pack walk, since we were doing the Tomintoul Spur (24 km one way) and staying at the same B&B in Ballindalloch. The day began with a taxi ride up to Tomintoul, but as part of our change in plans, HJ got out at the Glenlivet Distillery, which is at roughly the halfway point of the spur. I continued on up to Tomintoul, and along the way asked the driver about the possibility of luggage transfer to our next destination. From Tomintoul I walked back down to the Glenlivet Distillery. Although much of this walk was quite beautiful—a hillside absolutely covered in heather just starting to come into bloom is one powerful memory I have—my absolute worst experience on the entire walk came during this part as well. There was a particularly boggy section that I had to traverse, which in itself is not unusual on the Speyside Way, but this section was infested with more flies than I have ever seen in one place. They tormented me relentlessly, and when the ground was dry enough to allow it I actually ran along the trail just to get away from them (which didn’t really work, but it got me through that section more quickly). Seriously, for as beautiful as other parts of the spur might be, that one section is almost enough for me to recommend against doing the spur. I have no idea if it is like that all the time, though, or if I just got very unlucky. The trail back down from Glenlivet is not nearly as bad, but it rained—lightly but steadily—almost the entire way down, and we were soaked by the end.

So, Days 3 and 4 were rough. That was probably the low point of the trip, to be honest, when we smacked up against the cold, hard wall of reality. I knew that if we could make it through that, though, we’d be able to make it through the rest. On the morning of Day 5 we sent HJ’s pack along to our next destination, Aberlour, with a taxi driver who was very confused as to why we were only sending one pack. He did have a point—it would have cost us the same to send both packs to our next B&B. It was the principle of the thing, though, and as long as I was hale and uninjured, I was going to carry my pack. We did compromise by putting a few of the heavier items in my pack into HJ’s pack, which probably brought the weight of my pack down a kilo or two. The walk to Aberlour was shorter than the previous two days (~16 km), and it was a fairly painless leg that followed the river and didn’t involve much climbing, so it was a nice break.

Day 6 was originally going to be a short walk (7 km) to Dufftown, but HJ decided that she had had enough walking for the time being and was going to take the bus. After a tour at the Aberlour Distillery in the morning, though, it began to rain fairly steadily, and I decided that I would just take the bus as well. My plan was to make up for this by walking back to Aberlour along the way I had originally planned to take to Dufftown and then walk from Aberlour to Craigellachie along the Speyside Way (instead of doing the Aberlour-Dufftown-Craigellachie triangle). So there was no (trail) walking on Day 6, nor was there any walking on Day 7: We spent the entire day visiting distilleries and relaxing.

Day 8 saw a return to the trail for me, while HJ took the bus back to Craigellachie. This should have been a fairly straightforward walk, but somehow I missed the trail along the way—there was a turn-off along the way that I was looking out for, but I never saw it, even though it should have been a fairly visible track. By the time that I realized I was not on the right track, though, I had gone too far to turn back. I suppose I could have turned back—and if I had known exactly what awaited me I might have—but I didn’t. What awaited me was a walk of several kilometers along the busy A941. Road builders in the UK don’t seem to care too much about shoulders—I had maybe 30 cm of shoulder at best to walk on, and sometimes none at all—and the whole time I was on that road I prayed that I would not get smushed by a car. (As you can probably tell, I did not.) So there was the stress of having to walk on a busy road with no shoulder, but I also have to admit that a lot of my stress came from being angry at somehow having missed the trail, as I’m generally pretty good at finding my way around. I eventually made it onto a back road that led to a halfway point between Aberlour and Craigellachie (it’s only about 3 km between the two towns) and walked the Speyside Way into Craigellachie. So, technically, I missed out on about a mile of the Speyside Way, but considering what I had to go through, I’m willing to call it even. I didn’t lose any sleep over it, and in retrospect I still would have taken that over the flies on the Tomintoul Spur.

At this point, we are nearing the end of our walk, but one final challenge remains: the Day 9 walk to Fochabers. HJ also took the bus for this one, as it was a distance of 21 km, and after finishing it I was so glad that she did—I don’t think she would have made it. There is quite a bit of climbing along the way, including a few brutal switchbacks, but what made the walk so difficult was the fact that it was mostly on paved roads, which wreaked havoc on the bottoms of my feet. My feet were already tired from all the pack walking—I’m a very light guy, and even a 10-kilo pack is a significant fraction of my body weight—and this nearly killed me. Oh, I should add that the 21-km walk was preceded by a trip of roughly 6.5 km to and from the Macallan Distillery in the morning. Granted, we didn’t have our packs for that, but that was primarily on paved roads as well, and it didn’t help my feet. That being said, this leg also offered the most beautiful views of the Spey Valley that I got the entire trip. And it also had the most dramatic ending. HJ had of course gotten to our accommodations, the Red Lion Tavern, first, and she was waiting in the pub for me. When I opened the door, standing there in my poncho (it had rained the last half hour of the walk) and completely exhausted, a cheer went up from the small crowd of people gathered inside. Apparently HJ had spent the past hour telling everyone that I was coming. It was like walking into Cheers.

The final leg, Day 10, was comparatively easy, a 16-km walk first to Spey Bay and then along the coast to Buckie. The wind was obscene, but thankfully we weren’t walking into it—this is one of the advantages to starting the Speyside Way in Aviemore. And finally seeing the ocean at Spey Bay was quite an awesome feeling. HJ was determined to walk this last section, and with her pack as well, and she did it. And, with the exception of that one mile between Aberlour and Craigellachie, I had done what I set out to do. I had dinner with Kevin last week, and he asked me if the walk was harder or easier than I thought it was going to be. Although I think I told him that it was a little of both, having had time to look back on it now, I would have to say it was harder. There were more climbs than I thought there would be, and even though they were nothing compared to the type of hiking we do in Korea, we also don’t do such long distances with heavy packs on. That being said, with the exception of temporarily aching feet, I didn’t really have any problems or suffer any injuries—I made it through unscathed, and I’m pretty proud of that.

Of course, we were not doing the walk just to do the walk. We wanted to see and do things along the way, which is why we had that extra day in Dufftown when we didn’t do any trail walking at all. In Ballindalloch, at the Cragganmore Distillery, we met three young German guys who were doing the entire Speyside Way (minus spurs) in four days. This may sound like an incredible pace, considering the fact that it took us ten days, but it is doable if you’re used to walking long distance trails and are willing to maybe not do as much along the way as you might otherwise. For us, though, stopping at numerous distilleries and doing a variety of other things along the way was important.

As I mentioned in the pre-trip entry, we scheduled visits to six different distilleries: Glenlivet, Cragganmore, Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and Macallan. It might seem like overkill to visit six different distilleries; I mean, how different could they be, right? Well, the answer is “quite different!” True, the process of making whisky is essentially the same no matter where you are—and with six distilleries under my belt I can take you through every step of the process from start to finish without having to look at my notes—but there are differences in each distillery’s process that produce a unique whisky, and each distillery has its own way of approaching the tour. Also, there is a lot to take in on a distillery tour, and at first I was just trying to absorb all of the information. The more tours I went on, though, the better I understood the process, and once I properly understood the process I could start asking intelligent questions to deepen that understanding even further.

That being said, I do have my favorites. Number one for me, without a doubt, was the Balvenie tour. It is true that Balvenie is my favorite whisky, and I’m sure that biases me, but on the other hand my expectations were very high, and I was not disappointed in the least. Being able to see the Balvenie floor maltings (where they malt some of the barley that goes into making the whisky—very few distilleries do this anymore, and even Balvenie only malts a small portion of the barley they use) and the on-site cooperage were special treats that set the tour apart, but it was also a very exclusive and very personal tour. There were eight of us in total, and going around the distillery with our guide David was like being shown around by a very knowledgeable friend. As you might expect, the tour is very popular. If you’re going to be in the area and would like to take a tour—if you have any interest in whisky at all, it is a must—you’ll want to reserve months in advance to make sure you get a spot.

Also excellent was the Macallan tour. Like David at Balvenie, our guide Graeme was very knowledgeable and had a passion for whisky that was clear to see. Macallan was also our last tour, meaning that I was able to ask the most meaningful questions, and Graeme answered them all fluently and intelligently, even going into the chemistry behind the process of maturation in charred or toasted oak casks. Macallan is also unique as a whisky because they have a hand in the production of the casks they use as well. They originally used sherry casks or butts exclusively (although they now have an expression that includes whisky matured in bourbon casks), meaning that they had to ensure a constant supply of them. It would take too long to explain here the level of effort and care that goes into everything, but I can sum up our experience on the tour by quoting (or at least paraphrasing) Graeme. At the tasting at the end, I commented that the tour had really been special, and Graeme said that they pride themselves on making a premium whisky and wanted the tour to be premium as well.

I don’t know if I can really assign places to the remaining tours, but I can say that they were each excellent in their own right. I had never tried either Cragganmore or Aberlour whisky before, so getting to taste those was a special treat, and I am familiar with both Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, so it was nice to get to know more about these two very popular whiskies. If I would do anything differently next time (and I’m really hoping there will be a next time), it would be to go for a more in-depth tour at Glenfiddich. Due to time constraints, we chose the standard hour-and-a-half Explorer’s Tour, which felt a little rushed; there were so many people in our time slot that we were split up into three groups, and it almost felt like we were being run through an assembly line. This is not to say that the tour was bad—and you have to remember that we had just done the incredible Balvenie tour that morning, so the bar was set rather high—but if I get a chance to go back I definitely want to try one of the other tours, either the Solera Deconstructed (2.5 hours) or the Pioneers Tour (4 hours).

There were so many other things that I could talk about—people that we met, delicious things that we ate (oh, and haggis, too), pubs and taverns where we stopped for a pint, the charming little museum in Grantown, the Dolphin Centre in Spey Bay, and on and on—but there’s no way I can get to all of that here. And I haven’t even mentioned Edinburgh! Unfortunately, I think I will have to leave Edinburgh out of this entry, otherwise I will never finish it and never post it. I’ll just say that Edinburgh is quite an amazing city, if a bit hectic at festival time (though still not as hectic as Seoul on a typical day). We had a great time there, we enjoyed the festival events that we attended, and we’re looking forward to going back when the Royal Mile isn’t a sea of people (you know, like Myeong-dong on any given day). So I’ll have to leave it at that for now, but I’ll end this entry with a photo of one of the most impressive castles I’ve ever seen: Edinburgh Castle.

That will be all for now, I think. We miss you already, Scotland.

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