Doug Kuebler (jazznut)
Cigar Weekly Managing Editor
Monday November 30, 2009
Last time (in the November 2nd installment of A Rich Pour), I recounted the first two days of my friend's and my autumn trip to Scotland, as we explored the western region of the country from Glasgow through Loch Fyne and Oban on up to Glencoe. Here, in Column No. 20, our adventure continues...
Day Three: Tuesday September 29
Ian and I awoke a little bleary-eyed. Anticipating an earlier than normal start, we had asked our kind host Beverly to leave a cold breakfast ready and waiting in the dining room the night before. As it happened, she and her husband David both popped in first thing Tuesday morning to offer further nourishment. I focused on getting more coffee into my system, having already consumed plentiful quantities of cereal and fruit.
Out the door, into the car and down the driveway we bolted, momentarily forgetting Scottish lane protocol as well as a dangerous blind spot where the entranceway emptied onto the road.
“Left!” I shouted. “Left!”
Near miss. Ian and I were startled into total awakening, certain we had provided ourselves and the occupants of the oncoming vehicle a near-death experience.
The first leg of our planned route led us northward across the Ballachulish Bridge and on to Nether Lochaber, where a quick ferry ride conveyed us over the Corran Narrows to the other side of Loch Linnhe. Here, we bore south and then west, our sights set on Loch Sunart and the Sound of Mull.
The previous day in Oban, Ian and I had booked the ferry from Kilchoan, on the western mainland, over to Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull. The ferry was due to depart at 10:15 A.M. We had a bit of a race on our hands. Not only that. The rain refused to relent. And the width of the bobbing and weaving road upon which we found ourselves hardly exceeded that of a laneway. I thought the passenger side mirror would be torn off at any moment, if not the door. Yes, passing spots did appear at regular intervals. But so too did speeding local drivers, tractors, a tour bus, cattle and, as forewarned, sheep! Heart palpitations alternated with breathtaking scenery, and the two of us decided to pull over for a brief respite beside the Sunart Oakwoods Forest Reserve.
Rounding a final few bends in the road, we descended Pier Road toward the kelp and rock strewn shoreline at Kilchoan. We were early.
An atmosphere of remote isolation fused with the dampness and seeped into our bones. Off in the distance, the melancholic ruins of Mingary Castle kept silent watch over their namesake bay. If I listened closely, perhaps I might make out the 800-year old whispers of the MacIans of Ardnamurchan wafting upward from the stone walls. Such thoughts were quickly put to rest by the horn blast of the approaching ferry, however.
Only two other automobiles accompanied ours on the way over. I played sentinel on the upper deck during the entire crossing, braving the mist-laden breeze and relishing it. Slowly, inexorably, the hilly coastline of the Isle of Mull came into view. The ferry shifted starboard, passed the lighthouse and rounded a bluff. Tobermory’s docking ramp lay directly ahead.
Apart from the geographical constraints of its setting, you’d never guess that Tobermory is home to less than a thousand inhabitants. Over the years, this picturesque little fishing community has broadened to encompass a museum and an art centre, as well numerous shops and eateries. Needless to say, there is also a distillery, dating back to the late 1700s. When the tour buses begin to pull into the civic parking lot, the population swells unimaginably.
Thankfully, our early arrival allowed us to wander Main Street for a little while before the hoards descended. Ian and I grabbed a couple of coffees and some pick-me-up sweets at a local café before strolling over to Brown’s.
What exactly is Brown’s? Not an easy question to answer, this one. Suffice it to say that should you be searching for hardware or household goods, camping gear or computer servicing, radios or bug repellents, fishing permits, bicycles, guitars, wines or spirits, Brown’s is your place. Although we were there solely to procure green fees and hire clubs for the local golf course, my eyes couldn’t help but scan the multitudinous whisky bottles lining the shelves behind the cashier’s counter. Restraint, my dear man. Restraint.
The prospect of getting in a round of golf at Tobermory had smitten Ian long before our leaving for Scotland. Sited on a headland overlooking Tobermory Bay and the Sound of Mull, the town’s undulating course harks back to a David Adams design, circa 1935. However, the original Tobermory Golf Club was founded in 1896, its layout reputedly the work of the famous golf pioneer Old Tom Morris. Whatever the precise history, the nine-hole course we played definitely possessed an Old-World feel.
Ian and I knew we were in for a challenge from the moment we stood on the first tee. Where to hit the bloody ball? Not into the fescue, that’s for sure. And so it went, with uphill, downhill and blind shots succeeding one another. The greens were no less difficult to fathom. Why did my bag contain two nine irons and no putter, by the way? Well, at least we weren’t keeping score. And serendipitously, muted sunlight began to pierce through the odd patch of pale blue sky as the precipitation that had plagued us for the better part of two days dissipated. The golf gods were apparently smiling upon us.
By the time we reached the fourth hole, a local member by the name of David Hewitt had caught up with us. David looked younger than his 76 years, and possessed a graceful golf swing to boot. He proceeded to regale us with tales of his days as a Staff Inspector, and introduced us to the finer points of the course. Unfortunately, the latter didn’t help us much. No matter. We were enjoying ourselves too much to care. And the views from the fairways!
Back in the parking lot, we bid farewell to David and headed south from Tobermory toward the Isle of Mull’s main ferry terminus at Craignure. Ah, yes. Another one lane road.
“Piece of cake,” we thought to ourselves, having by now become accustomed to this peculiarity.
Ian and I approached Craignure with an hour or so to spare, and elected to push onward to Duart Castle, renowned as the seat of Clan MacLean.
The castle, sited at the end of a long, curving road atop a promontory overlooking the juncture of the Sound of Mull, the Firth of Lorne and Loch Linnhe, presented a stunning sight. And although we hadn’t enough time to ante up for the full tour of the premises, the two of us took great pleasure in walking the perimeter of the castle, parts of which date from the 1300s. The forbidding stone walls of the exterior, not to mention the cannons seemingly still poised for firing, made it easy to imagine the ruthlessness and glory of past battles fought here.
I talked for a short while with the lady in the ticket booth, who did her best to fill me in on the chronological history of the place. She was wearing a MacLean kilt.
Skirting Duart Bay on our way back to the ferry pier, Ian and I caught a brief glimpse of Torosay Castle, a large 150-year old Scottish baronial style house featuring extensive terraced gardens.
We pulled into the queue at Craignure the required half hour before departure time, and watched as an untold number of automobiles, trucks and buses joined the line-up. In this neck of the woods, ferries offer the only means for vehicular travel from one island to another, or to the mainland.
Our forty-five minute return voyage afforded magnificent views of the mist covered mountains of Mull, the lonely lighthouse of Eilean Musdile and Lismore beyond, the northern tip of Kerrera, with its unusual obelisk dedicated in 1883 to the memory of David Hutcheson, manager of a firm that introduced steam ship service to the western seaboard, and the harbour of Oban.
Ian and I disembarked the ferry at Oban and, realizing that the daylight hours were fast fading, decided to scoot back to Ballachulish. Our car pulled into the driveway of Craiglinnhe Guest House just as twilight descended. We were in adrenalin overdrive. We were also starving.
The Ballachulish Hotel stood a mere twenty minute trek down the road. Why not simply scurry on over there for dinner? Good concept. Not such a good result. For one, we should have packed a flashlight to brighten our path. And when Ian and I finally stepped into the lobby of the hotel, the roadside lounge appeared packed with people.
We inquired about the availability of a table. The clerk informed us there were none, and that another tour bus filled with expectant customers was on its way. He suggested we try the Loch Leven Hotel, a ‘five minute’ walk away on the other side of Ballachulish Bridge. Our stomachs protested, but we didn’t.
Off my friend and I marched, dejected yet determined, into the driving drizzle of the evening. We arrived at the doorsteps of the Loch Leven Hotel some twenty-five minutes later, waterlogged and a tad weary. The dining room looked oh so warm and inviting. Even better, there were empty tables. A waitress seated us and provided us with menus.
“Should we order a half or a full bottle of wine?” I asked Ian.
“Full bottle,” he replied in a millisecond.
Dinner that night more than made up for our minor ordeal. A sip or four of South Australian Cabernet whisked away the dankness of the night in no time flat. My main course of braised lamb shank tasted simply fabulous. And the dessert platter of assorted Scottish cheeses we shared, which included a delectable Arran infused with tomato, paired perfectly with some Late Bottled Vintage Port.
“I feel much better now.”
We practically flew back to the Craiglinnhe on our feet.
Day Four: Wednesday September 30
The last morning of September dawned, and cool mists still clung tenuously to the slopes of Glencoe. Ian and I felt a tinge of regret at not being able to explore the passes and peaks of the area on foot. But this disappointment eased with the anticipation of adventures yet to come. We also sensed that sunshine might beam just around the next bend.
After eating a hearty breakfast at the Craiglinnhe and thanking Beverly for her hospitality, the two of us packed up our bags and hit the road. We didn’t get far. Approximately two miles beyond the cut-off to the Clachaig Inn, the car slowed.
“I’m sorry,” Ian apologized. “This is just too spectacular. Let’s pull over.”
Who was I to argue?
We were far from alone. Many other motorists had done exactly the same. And hikers of all ages could be seen heading from the parking overlook out onto numerous trails that led up into the hills.
“Next time,” we consoled ourselves.
The route eastward swerved and rose, carving its way through the mountains past the tiny wooded enclave of Altnafeadh to a barren, exposed plateau of scrub-grassed mounds, meandering brooks and ponds. I imagined how hard living here in the winter would be. Appearances suggested few did.
Curving toward the south, the main road threaded between Lochs Ba and Nah-Achlaise, hair-pinned and descended alongside Loch Tulla, then carried on to Bridge of Orchy. A picturesque valley off to the east nestled between the conical summit of Beinn Dorain and the ridge of Beinn a’ Chaisteil. Ian and I weren’t out of Highland hill country yet. Nor did we wish to be.
We continued on our way toward the Trossachs, a region of lakes and mountains made famous in the poetry of Sir Walter Scott. Town after town whizzed by – Tyndrum, at one time a major cattle drive juncture and mining centre, Crianlarich, lying in the shadow of Ben More, Lochearnhead, not coincidentally located at the head of Loch Earn, and Strathyre, a popular resort hamlet. Lochs Dochart and Lubhair also caught our eyes for short moments. Thankfully, the sun had, by this time, gained a firmer grasp on the day.
As we entered the northernmost portion of the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, the beautiful, still waters of Loch Lubnaig came into view. Ian and I turned off the main highway at the tiny village of Kilmahog, heading in the direction of Loch Venachar. There was method to our meandering. For we had our compass aimed at Ben A’an.
Following a brief lunch-hour pit stop at the Harbour Café, which occupies a lovely spot on the north shore of Loch Venachar, the two of us pulled into the parking area opposite the entrance to the Ben A’an trail. A busload of Scandinavian students assembled next to us. Ian and I wished to have the trail a little more to ourselves, and decided to let the youngsters get a head start. Up the path they disappeared, their lively conversations gradually fading into the woodland foliage.
At approximately fifteen hundred feet in height, Ben A’an doesn’t even begin to compare with many of Scotland’s more lofty mountains, never mind the mighty Ben Nevis. And the walk to its top – Scots always speak of these sorts of outings as walks rather than hikes or climbs – counts among the more universally accessible in the land.
Like they say, however, “The proof is in the pudding.”
The climb – I’m sorry, I mean the walk – began innocuously enough, as the well delineated path gently twisted and turned its way through the moss coated trees. Worn stone surfaces alternated with boggy soil along most of this part of the trail. Our heads and hearts told us we were steadily gaining altitude. Yet the surrounding forest seemed to camouflage this fact. Where the heck was Ben A’an, anyway?
Then, right before our eyes, framed by tree branches on either side, Ben A’an finally revealed itself. Three thoughts raced through my mind – how steep the upper slopes looked, how much farther we had to go and how hot I felt. I stripped off my outer jacket and vest, exposing a totally sweat saturated tee-shirt.
Over the last stage of our ascent to the top, we negotiated imbedded stone steps and gravel paths. A wee bit of rock scrambling was involved as well.
Nearing the peak, Ian and I met an elderly couple descending. They each clasped walking canes and smiled at us. Both were well into their 80s. The lady described to Ian how she had fallen in her garage the previous winter and broken a number of bones in her lower limbs. She then proceeded to express her passion for walking. Darned if this feisty soul was going to deny herself the great outdoors!
“Fine day for viewing,” the gentleman remarked to me. “Not too far to the top for you now,” he added encouragingly.
I suddenly felt so young and so spry.
How to best describe, in words, the vista from the summit of Ben A’an? Awe inspiring will have to do. Offering virtually unobstructed sight lines in all directions, the view from the peak of Ben A’an embraces Loch Venachar and Loch Achray to the east as well as Ben Venue to the south. Ben Vorlich and Beinn Chabhair rise beyond Loch Katrine to the west, while Ben More pokes its unmistakable pointed peak into the sky further to the north. On a reasonably clear day, the distant mountain ranges of the western coast can be discerned.
Ian and I made plans to scale Ben A’an long before we arrived in Scotland. Fortunately, the day cooperated weather-wise, and we were privileged to partake in all of the splendour the mountain had to offer.
Amazingly, only two others shared the summit with us. The man and woman reposed comfortably against a rock face, gazed casually out over the eastern tip of Loch Katrine toward Ben Venue, and softly murmured to one another while basking in the afternoon sunlight. For us, however, the hours now marched on, and we reluctantly decided to head back down the slopes.
A short drive around Loch Achray and over Duke’s Pass landed us in the quaint town of Aberfoyle, where we had reserved accommodations at the Bield Bed & Breakfast. Alison Jennings welcomed us at the front door, showed us our room, invited us to relax in the living room while she tended to family matters, and then brought us tea and tasty sundries.
Re-energized, Ian and I trekked down Trossachs Road to Main Street, which represented the only commercial road of consequence in Aberfoyle. We wandered over to the Scottish Wool Centre, perused a pair of sheep outside on the front lawn, and then browsed through a multitude of articles, woven and otherwise, inside. Unable to find any Clan MacLaren woollen goods, I ventured into the rear of the store to nab three miniatures of single malt Scotch – Aberfeldy 12 Year Old, Ben Nevis 10 Year Old and Edradour 10 Year Old to be precise. Afterwards, I snuck into the local sweet shop and purchased some traditional wine gums and jelly babies. Whisky and candy – talk about a healthy diet!
We were both hungry, in fact, and in need of proper sustenance. The choice of eateries being somewhat limited, Ian and I elected to take a window table at the Clachan Lounge. Given that we were the only customers in the place at the time, our waitress was able to provide us with a very attentive yet not intrusive level of service. My main course of grilled salmon in a Jalapeño cream sauce worked, as did a decent, refreshing pint of Tennent’s Velvet on draught. Dessert consisted of an unusual, open-face apple turnover, which I paired with a dram of the always dependable 12-year old Highland Park from the Orkneys.
The two of us wandered around town for a little while following dinner, watched as darkness descended upon Aberfoyle, and then returned along the quiet, lamp-lit streets to our well appointed suite at the Bield for a good night’s sleep.
Over the course of the next two days, we would leave the Highland countryside behind and head southward to, amongst other activities, ‘attack’ a trio of Scotland’s finest castles.
To be continued...
Doug Kuebler (jazznut) is an inveterate aficionado and collector of wines and whiskies from around the world. Doug has organized wine and food seminars as well as written extensively on wines and liquors. His well-received book set, The Tumbler's Guide to Single Malt Scotch Whisky, is available from Topeda Hill Publishing.