Travel-wise, I’m deep but not wide. On the one hand, I’ve traveled in every U.S. state except Hawaii, which is more than most Americans can say, and have written fairly extensively about those journeys. But I’m pitifully weak on foreign travel. Yes, I’ve been to New Zealand twice, which always impresses people (I’m convinced it’s because the “Z” makes it sound more exotic), but I’ve never been to South or Central America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, or even Mexico. And until last week, my entire European experience consisted of a long weekend spent in London five years ago.
So when my friend and neighbor Amy Fritch recently booked a weeklong trip to Scotland and then asked if I wanted to come along, I jumped at the chance. We arrived Edinburgh on Sunday the 23rd and flew home a week later. In between, we drove about 700 miles in a big, clockwise loop around the Southern Highlands. Here are the highlights, organized by category:
• Haggis: Let’s put it this way: I didn’t go all the way to Scotland to not eat haggis. But haggis is sort of legendarily nasty, so I didn’t really expect to like it that much. Now that I’ve tried it, however (that’s the haggis in the center, flanked by the traditional accompaniments of neeps and tatties — mashed turnips and mashed potatoes), I frankly don’t understand its bad reputation. It’s basically just a lot of oats mixed with a lot of random lamb-y bits — what’s not to like? Reminded me of a cross between goetta (the oat-centric German-style breakfast sausage that’s popular in Cincinnati) and kasha, both of which I love, so it’s no surprise that I really enjoyed haggis too. I’m keen to try making it myself, but that’s gonna be tricky, because sheep lungs — a crucial ingredient — aren’t approved for human consumption here in the States. Bugger.
• Seafood: Langoustines — delicious critters halfway between crayfish and lobster — are native to Scotland but don’t travel well, so it’s almost impossible to find fresh live ones in America, and even the frozen ones cost a fortune. My plan all along was to eat them whenever they showed up on a Scottish menu, which turned out to be twice. They were everything I’d hoped for, and justified the whole trip right there.
We also ate scallops (tasty but not well seared, which I’m told is because Scots tend to cook by putting the food in a cold skillet instead of heating the skillet first); cullen skink (an excellent soup full of smoked haddock and potatoes); Arbroath smokies (superb wood-smoked haddock); mussels (a good option on any continent); fried prawns (ditto); some very nice salmon; a superb seafood bisque; a wonderful mixed seafood plate of hake, monkfish, squid, and some other stuff I can’t recall; and, of course, fish and chips (not bad, but not appreciably better than what I’ve had in New York). Oh, and Amy had kippers for breakfast one morning, but I just couldn’t eat fish to start the day. All in all, you could eat very well in Scotland simply by sticking to seafood. But then you’d miss out on the haggis.
• Shortbread: It was everywhere. Every room we stayed in had a few complimentary packets of it, every shop had big displays of it, etc. Of course, shortbread is basically a butter delivery device, so I gobbled up tons of the stuff. But none of it was as good as the homemade shortbread Amy had made for my birthday a few months back.
• The full Scottish breakfast: If you’re staying at a Scottish B&B or guesthouse, it’s basically a rule that they offer you a “breakfast” consisting of eggs, bacon, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, potato scones, black pudding (i.e., blood sausage), haggis, porridge, baked beans, oat cakes, and probably another thing or two I’m forgetting. Does anyone in Scotland besides tourists actually start the day this way? It was fun the first morning of the trip, but then I needed a serious nap right afterward. I mostly stuck to cereal after that.
• Food that wasn’t haggis, seafood, shortbread, or breakfast: At various points I ate wood pigeon (excellent); a mixed plate of lamb loin, lamb shoulder, and braised lamb heart (good but not life-altering); Guinness-braised beef pie (a Scottish staple that I found consistently lackluster); a spectacular salad of green apple, bacon, black pudding, parmesan, greens, and a fried quail egg (my favorite dish of the entire trip); and stovies (a splendid stew of meat, potatoes, and onions, prepared for us by the very wonderful Lindsay Hutton [of The Next Big Thing fame, don’tcha know]).
Oh, and we quite liked tablet, which is sort of a toffee-ish dry fudge, a bit like maple candy with a more toasted flavor. It’s traditionally served with coffee, but I’d happily eat it anytime, and I’m already regretting not having brought some back with me.
• Whisky: I don’t actually enjoy drinking Scotch, or any other whisk(e)y, but I know a fair amount about it and always enjoy learning more. Yes, I know that’s weird. Anyway, we visited the Talisker distillery (no tours were available, so we just checked out the visitors’ center) and took the tour at Glenfiddich, which was similar to the distillery tours I’ve taken in Kentucky. I’d hoped to see them drying their malt over a peat fire, which is the one thing that really sets Scotch apart from other whiskys, but it turns out they do their malting off-site. Bollocks.
Our best whisky-related stop turned out to be at the Speyside Cooperage, where we saw coopers busily reconditioning and restoring casks that will eventually be used by various distilleries to age their whisky. Pretty fascinating stuff, in large part because coopering hasn’t changed much over the centuries, as you can see here:
• Beer: Beer drinkers won’t go thirsty in Scotland. Amy got hooked on Tenant’s, a light Scottish lager, while I just kept asking for whatever dark ale was available on cask. Had many good ones but don’t recall any of the names.
• Accommodations: It wasn’t high tourist season yet, so we didn’t need any reservations and were able to find lodging as we went. Virtually every Scottish town seems to have an assortment of B&B’s and guesthouses (which are basically smaller, slightly less expensive B&B’s). They were generally fine — most of them even had free WiFi — but there were points when I found myself yearning for a cheap motel, a concept that apparently hasn’t made it to the UK side of the pond.
One place we stayed in deserves special mention: the Anderson, an inn in Fortrose (slightly north of Inverness). Really wonderful place — groovy old building, great rooms, excellent food, and two gorgeous bars. Highly recommended.
• Weather: May in Scotland is like April in New York — cool in the day, cold at night, and consistently rainy. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be. But we had almost nothing but sunny, relatively warm days (highs were mostly in the 60s, and a few days topped 70). It did rain a few times, but mostly at night or while we were inside a building. Oh, and there was this weird moment when we were briefly pelted by hail:
Mostly, though, the jacket and sweaters I brought along went unworn. And the sunny days were even better because Scotland is so far north that daylight in late May lasts until nearly 10pm (believe it or not, this photo was taken around 9:15). Amazing!
• Driving: The whole “wrong side of the road” thing is mildly disconcerting, but I’d done it before in New Zealand, so I knew what to expect. There are lots of small quirks to Scottish driving and highway signage, which I’ll save for another day, but for the most part we found the roadway culture to be pretty straightforward. Seriously, though, would it kill these people to have two cross streets meet in a simple intersection instead of one of those fecking roundabouts?
• Retail signage: An utter wasteland. It’s one thing to have your entire country be devoid of neon; it’s another to evince virtually zero signmaking or design skills whatsoever. Even restaurants and pubs that turned out to be good on the inside looked sadly nondescript from the street, and there were only two occasions on the entire trip when I pointed and said, “Whoa, cool sign!” Disappointing.
• Landscape: Then again, who needs signage when your entire country looks like a highlight reel of nature’s greatest hits? I had read that virtually any drive in Scotland turns out to be the scenic route, and it’s true. Every bend and twist of the roadway seemed to give way to another jaw-dropping vista (cliffs, meadows, hills, pastures, lochs, plateaus, mountains, waterfalls, etc.), and we quickly ran out of ways to express, “That is SO awesome!” I’ve been in one place that’s more beautiful (Glacier National Park) and taken two sustained drives that are at least as spectacular (down the Oregon and California coasts), but those are all localized, specific trips, whereas this journey covered a wide swath of landscapes and terrains, all of which were equally wonderful. Very, very impressive.
• Livestock: Sheep were omnipresent, and pretty damn cute in that endearingly awkward way of theirs. This being spring, many of the ewes had young lambs tagging along behind them. Mostly they all just munched away in their pastures, but every now and then we’d see a few that had gotten loose along the roadway, like this group we encountered on the Isle of Skye:
We also saw lots of dairy cows, along with one small group of magnificent Highland cattle. Mostly, though, it was all about the sheep.
• Crops: If you drive around almost any rural part of America east of the Rockies, you’ll see fields and fields of corn. The Scottish equivalent of this is rapeseed, which is used to make canola oil — it’s everywhere. But rapeseed doesn’t look like a typical planted crop — it looks like a flower. So you’ll be driving along and you’ll see these huge emerald fields of green grass overlaid with the yellow rapeseed. Nice!
• Bagpipes: Yes, there are actually people playing them, but only for formal occasions and/or to amuse the tourists. Basically, it’s reached the level of shtick, and most Scots I spoke to sounded like they’d be happy if they never heard the bloody things again. Which means they shouldn’t watch this little video I shot of a guy who was playing during a wedding procession:
• Kilts: Kilts, on the other hand, appear to be more than just shtick. We were told that most Scottish men have at least one of them (indeed, most of the men in that wedding procession were wearing them), and lots of them were featured in shop windows. Naturally, I’m mostly interested in the socks.
• Castles: You can barely spit in Scotland without hitting a castle. Of the three we visited, Stirling was okay, Edinburgh was better, and Dunnottar was fairly mind-blowing, mainly because it’s situated on a wind-blown cliff and pretty much in ruins. No words of mine can do justice to this place, so I’ll just point you toward these photos and add that I later hiked down to the beach below the castle and saw a seal swimming in the North Sea.
• Other attractions: We went for a swell hour-long walk around the Hermitage, which is just outside Birnham (a notable locale if, like myself, you’re a fan of Macbeth), along with a few other stops. Plus the countryside was so magnificent that just driving from here to there was pretty compelling.
But one stop stood out: the House of Automata. It’s basically a workshop where Michael and Maria Start repair and restore 19th- and early 20th-century automata (mechanized figures driven by springs and gears), plus it doubles as a de facto automata museum that can be visited by appointment.
The workshop is situated in remote nook of a secluded estate, and just finding it was a bit of an odyssey (Michael’s directions, which he had e-mailed to me about week earlier, included notes like, “Turn right at the triangle of grass”). By the time we found the place, it felt like we’d gone far, far off the grid.
Just as well, because the next 90 minutes were like a trip to another world. I’m working to create a highlight reel of the various video segments I shot during our visit, but for now take a look at the two short clips shown below and you’ll start to get the idea:
• Harbours: We stayed in several small harbour and marina towns — one on the west coast, two on the east — a couple of which had an odd sight: The low tide appeared to be so low that several boats had ended up beached (additional photos here). I thought to myself, “Hmm, I guess they’ll be floating again when the tide comes in tomorrow morning,” but that wasn’t the case — the boats were apparently perma-beached. I meant to ask someone about this but forgot to do so. Odd.
• People: Unfailingly friendly, and their accent sounds like music. Count me as a fan.
• Pets: Everyone in Scotland is apparently required by law to own at least one dog. You see them in every town, out for walkies with their owners, most of whom didn’t seem to mind when I wandered over to give their pooches a friendly scritch. Oddly, though, we only saw one Scottie.
• Shopping: Barely did any, although I did score this regimental striped scarf at a vintage shop. Cool.
• Sports: We had planned to see rugby, but it didn’t work out, and nothing else was taking place. So the closest we came to a sports experience was staying up late one night to watch a Mets/Phils game on my laptop (first pitch was a little past midnight Scotland time). Made it through six innings before we conked out.
• Loch Ness: Look, it’s just another lake. Except unlike all the other lakes, it’s surrounded by mobs of idiot tourists and kitsch vendors. We made a point of avoiding it.
• Irony: I kept reading in guidebooks that the Scots have an ironic sense of humor. Didn’t really see much evidence of it, but I tried to play along.
• The UK’s biggest Chicago Bears fan: My original itinerary called for an eight-hour layover in London on my way home, so Uni Watch reader Ben Isaacs, who’s an editor at Time Out London, generously volunteered to show me a cracking good afternoon of city highlights. Unfortunately, a series of airline and subway snafus left that plan in tatters, but I still had time to meet Ben for a quick beer before having to dash back to Heathrow. Thanks again for the swell time, Ben — you’re aces.
As for Uni Watch, I promised myself not to look at the site even once while I was away, and I was able to keep that promise. So before I give you some actual uni-related content today, let’s have three cheers — hell, make it twenty-three cheers — for Mr. L.I. Phil Hecken, who made it possible for me to enjoy all the above-outlined adventures without having to worry about my beloved web site. Can’t even begin to thank you enough, big guy — you’re the best. Now please, take a vacation of your own, because you’ve earned it.
Uni Watch News Ticker: I haven’t yet caught up with all the info Phil published while I was away in the land of the moors and the peat bogs, so forgive me if any of the following was already covered last week. … Lots of continuing controversy about the World Cup soccer ball. … Another day, another amazing Portland Beavers photo from Dave Eskenazi, this time from 1940. Look closely at the pant legs on the guys in the front row and you can see some of those back stripes that we first saw a few weeks ago. Also, look again and you’ll see that most of the players appear to be wearing men’s dress shoes, not cleats. … Speaking of Dave, in addition to being the world’s foremost archivist of Pacific Northwest baseball imagery, he also has a nifty collection of Northwest sports jacket patches. “The red/green ‘S’ crests are circa-1920s Seattle Metropolitans, from the old Pacific Coast Hockey League,” he says. “The beaver is a 1930s Portland Beavers jersey patch. The Seattle Sicks Stars patch is probably from the Emil Sick/Rainier Brewery-sponsored basketball team (late ’30s, early ’40s), which featured Fred Hutchinson and Dewey Soriano (Fred’s boyhood chum and teammate, and future PCL president and Seattle Pilots owner). The rest are pretty self explanatory.” … Interesting stacked TV number on the sleeve of this old Maple Leafs practice jersey (good find by Mike Hersh). … Fun historical survey on soccer cleats here (with thanks to Mike Kelley). … True story: Several years ago I was all set to become the first journalist to test-drive a set of heated hockey skate blades called Thermablades, which were supposedly going to be the next big thing in the NHL. But then the manufacturer bailed on the product demo at the last second. I never heard from them again, but my ESPN.com colleague Paula Lavigne has now written a big story on the current state of Thermablades — recommended reading. … Not often that you see a pitcher wearing a batting glove under his fielding glove, but Tyler Kepner notes that Rollie Fingers once did just that. … It’s hard to see in this photo, but Paul Soto spotted a fan wearing an odd Bears/Cubs combo jersey at Wrigley the other day. He also spotted a guy wearing a White Sox road jersey with a 2005 World Series patch, Kosuke Fukudome’s name, and uni number 01. “Wrong on so many levels,” he says. … MLS news from Markus Kemp, who writes: “The Portland Timbers have started a unique campaign in advance of unveiling the team’s new logo for its entry into MLS in 2011.” … A NBA report: “I’ve heard from some friends that work for the Phoenix Suns team shop that the Suns might be switching their orange alternate to their road primary and making the purple jersey the alt. They would also swap the ‘PHX’ with the ‘Phoenix’ wordmarks on the two jerseys. They’ve been using ‘Planet Orange’ as their motto for the past few seasons and at the home playoff games they’ve been blowing out their purple jerseys for $25.” … Aaron Bell sent some links to some incredible 1929 Chicago-area home movie footage. First up: Bears and Cardinals games at Comiskey and Wrigley (watch the ref practically dive into the pile after each play). Next: the 1929 World Series. And then some Blackhawks footage. Completely amazing stuff. … Michael Princip has taken a bunch of reader-submitted Seahawks uniform concepts and gathered them onto this page. … I know Phil posted this photo of new NHL anniversary patches yesterday, but I’m not sure if you guys have seen this larger version of the Blue Jackets design. Do we have larger views of the Sharks and/or Canucks patches yet? … Best hoops jersey ever? I think it can at least be part of the discussion. That’s the Oklahoma City University Chiefs, circa 1970s (awesome find by Warren Humphrey). … Very nice article on the silks room at Belmont Park. For those who missed it, I did my own column on this same subject two years ago. … Here’s a really nice little slideshow that tracks the intersection of baseball and the Supreme Court.
Tomorrow: Back to standard uni-centric material. Thanks for indulging me today.