and I’ll sell you a gallon for a five dollar bill

After Culloden, we stopped by Inverness for a mediocre fish and chips by the coach station, and on to the Black Isle (which is a green peninsula), past the seemingly endless fence of a cattle show, spying oil rigs out in the Moray Firth in the slanting rain. At Cromarty town we watched tugs escort an oil tanker out from the deep water terminal, and made a six-pointed trace italienne sandcastle with bastions and ravelins (without the bucket and spade our cottage came equipped with, which had been left in Elgin). In Cromarty, we found a lovely second-hand bookshop/cafe hybrid thing, whose gimmick was having walls and ceiling coated with signatures from past patrons. (The most famous one they could name was “Tolkien’s great niece”, though.) We bought a lot of tea, several excellent biscuits and a little interesting-looking literature, and headed on back to the cottage.

The following day we did the whisky industry.

The Speyside cooperage is one of the few functioning places of its kind left in Scotland, supplying dozens of distilleries, and they’re justifiably proud of it. There are thousands of casks piled up behind the place. The tables and chairs in the cafe are made of casks. There are rain shelters in the car park, made of half-tuns on their sides with little windows and chairs. Made from casks. We got shown around an interesting history of the cask industry (they being the go-to break-bulk container for literally thousands of years), watched an educational video about casks, were shown the cooperage floor full of manly coopers doing manly things, had the general cask-making process explained to us with helpful diagrams and examples of tools and cracked staves.

Casks are an essential part of the whisky-making process, the ageing being what gives whisky a lot of its flavour, and the wood and what it’s previously been used for (whisky is only very rarely aged in casks that haven’t had another kind of alcohol in them) are very important. The coopers we saw were rebuilding casks, which is the main work done by Scots cooperages (their master coopers do actually make casks from scratch on occasion, but they’re bespoke and thus rather expensive.) Used bourbon and sherry casks are broken down and shipped from America and Spain. US law forbids re-using bourbon casks, a law presumably passed due to the influence of a cooperage magnate, or the owner of a lot of prime forest. It looks like back-breaking work; they do twenty, twenty-five of these a day, earning a respectable salary (in the master cooper’s estimation, anyway). Apprentices train for four years, and there was a special area laid out for them, but there weren’t any in attendance the day we came. At the cafe we were given some wine made from oak leaves (me neither) and bought some tablet.

Just down the road from the cooperage is Glenfiddich distillery, which prides itself on being one of the few left with its own cooperage, and brags about its professional coopers rebuilding seventeen casks a day. Glenfiddich was much more slick than the cooperage; a bit too slick and commercial, which is slightly weird given that the tour is free. Once we’d got past the appallingly gushy, overwhelmingly desaturated, slow-mo-blurred-smiling-crofter-faces-littered, one-too-many-twists-on-a-catchphrase video (with headphones in many languages! I amused myself by twirling the language dial around; simple things please simple minds, like having a single sentence go from Japanese to Russian via pretty much the entire Indo-European family) introduction video, we got to the distillery itself. It was a lot like Bushmills – various immense vats oozing exotic odours, spirit safes built according to brass-and-glass sensibilities that would give steampunkers screaming orgasms, funny-shaped copper stills radiating heat, dark, busy warehouses redolent with the angels’ share. I’m pretty sure all distilleries are about the same inside; in Raw Spirit (one of his best books for the simple fact that the plot was dictated to him by the world) Iain Banks tours more distilleries than I’ve had hot dinners, and comes to the same conclusion.

It all makes me almost wish I were interested in alcohol. At the end of the tour they sat us down in the bar and gave everyone sample drams in 12, 15 and 18-year-old incarnations, but they all just tasted like fire to me.

After the tour, parents discussed Highland Games (some were playing on screens in the bar; I always thought caber-tossing was some sick joke thing that didn’t actually happen, like haggis running around, or Baba Yaga, or Swindon) with the nice German guys in our group, while I chatted up with our pretty tour guide (all tour guides in Scotland so far, despite having good Scots names like Donald and Morag, sound more English than the Queen; in her case it was because her dad was in the army, though I haven’t heard any excuses for Culloden Duncan). The day was yet young, but we needed to get Dad back to an appointment with the spinemongler in Elgin. On the return journey, collectively musing over printing and bandwidth and sati-themed nursery rhymes, we stopped at a bridge by ol’ Tom Telford, arching over the turbulent Spey with plaques proclaiming its proud Welsh heritage, and helpful signs explaining why Telford loved his Welsh ironmonger so much, though I can’t remember why now. Thundering pairs of RAF Tornadoes swept overhead the whole way home (carving parallel lines into the sky, until they turned off near Sandford and were lost).

On the Saturday, with Dad’s spine thoroughly mongled, and he in considerably higher spirits, we set off on the long road south to Edinburgh. On the way down we espied a ruined church lurking by the roadside, and explored. There were death’s heads on half the gravestones, among various other highly morbid symbols; the church had no roof, and the weathering inside suggested it had lacked one for a long time; it all reminded me somewhat of Marienkirche in Lubeck (so it was with wry amusement I noted it was called St. Mary’s). Beyond it all, there was a pervasive, distant buzz, like a thousand beehives. Mum suggested midges. If that was true, it was terrifying.

Craigievar Castle was the spitting image of the tower houses I’d been hoping for, save for being pink. It had straight-up walls and loopholes for shooting at cattle rustlers, and an almost stereotypical highland toff’s interior. It was pink. It had a minstrel gallery containing a spindle and a bunch of Civil War-era (ours, not yours, any Yanqui devils reading) lobster-tail helmets, pikes and muskets, all lurking threateningly as if daring you to play them; but it was pink. It had glorious, sweeping grounds with ancient trees, monkey puzzle and funny grey cows. But it was pink.

Really, really pink.

Castle Kellie, our last stop before Edinburgh, was a deeply Civilised country house, brimful of nannyish guides and down-the-centuries ephemera (children’s picture books of the late 19th century look both hilariously racist and Uncanny Valley creepy). Most hilariously, a couple explained (in character) how to Keep Up With Appearances as a fifties family celebrating the coronation, while short on money but attempting to be long on class. It… it was the most unexpected, and the most priceless, moment of the holiday so far.

Crossing Fife we had a perfect view of the glorious Forth Bridge in the dying sun, on the last leg into Edinburgh.

(The word “cask” appears in this post thirteen times.)


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