Belgium might be best known for its beer, but it also makes a special spirit called genever (pronounced jen-EE-ver). Produced for over 500 years, this drink is to Belgium as whiskey is to Scotland. Many of today’s classic gin cocktails were originally made with genever, and with good cause: English gin evolved from this Belgian forebear. Belgians generally sip and savor genever ice cold in shot glasses that have just been pulled from the freezer, butÂ why not shake things up and swap out gin for genever in a cooling summer cocktail? I’ve suddenly got a hankering for a new-style Pimm’s Cup.
Actors consider it bad luck to say his name, but a Scottish Member of Parliament hopes that a new tourist trail dedicated to Macbeth will bubble, not trouble, the fortunes of Scotlandâ€™s tourist industry. “Apart from boosting tourism, I would also hope the Macbeth trail would put some facts behind the myths about Macbeth,” said Alex Johnstone, who represents Northeast Scotland. And with this latest initiative, any plans dedicated to the rehabilitation of a villainous British monarch through tourism shall henceforth be known as The Richard III Effect, after the notorious Duke of York, who was slain at Bosworth while calling for his horse and recently discovered buried ignominiously beneath a Leicester car park. The proposed trail is expected to include sites such as Lumphanan, the village in Aberdeenshire where Macbeth was killed in battle in 1057, and Cairn Oâ€™Mount where he took his supporters en route to his defeat. Famous sites such as Glamis in Angus, where Macbeth died in Shakespeareâ€™s play – written around 550 years after the king’s death -Â are also likely to be included. Other sites include Spynie Castle in Pitgaveny – where the battle between Duncan and Macbeth took place – and Dunsinane, the hill fort in the hills above Perth, where the Thane of Cawdor fought a battle with Earl Siward of Northumberland. Notably absent is the tiny island of Iona, part of the Inner Hebrides, and at one time the burial ground of early Scottish Kings. (Macbeth, Malcolm, and Duncan are all known to have been buried on the grounds of Iona Abbey, though none of their graves are now identifiable.)Â As many of the locations are spread out, consider the trail a good pretext for a â€œfair is foul and foul is fairâ€ golf holiday. Then again â€œa tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,â€ seems a tailor-made complement to Edinburghâ€™s annual arts festival. Or there’s my favorite justification: the â€œtoo full o’ the milk of human kindnessâ€ crawl across the Highland’s whisky distilleries.
My last full day inÂ ScotlandÂ is an abbreviated – if typically Scottish – one, marked by lashing rain. (It is the first real rain since I arrived in the UK, incidentally, so I really cannot complain.) I part ways with my friends in Paisley – they have an epic 10-hour drive south to Cardiff – and make my way to the modish Malmaison on Blythswood Square in central Glasgow. Tomorrow’s flight is an early one, so I take advantage of theÂ persistentÂ mizzle to pack (then repack) my accumulated bits and pieces in anticipation of an early dinner and even earlier start. Mission quickly accomplished, I couldn’t let an afternoon in the city pass without a good dose of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It seemed fitting to revisit a pair of nearby architectural triumphs, one high and one low: the glorious Glasgow School of Art and the delicious Willow Tea Rooms. As has so often happened to me in this city, one appetite was spoiled and another thoroughly whetted.
This being the UKÂ traditionÂ generally dictates that breakfast at a B&B is equally important, if not more so, than the bed. To be considered proper it must be cooked, too: eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms and invariably some type of fried bread. But if you look at the small letters at the bottom of the breakfast menu at Harbour View B&B you can also opt for a Thai Breakfast, which turns out to be a mutable thing, dependent on the whims of the market and the chef for that matter. (This being an island off the coast of an island off the coast of continental Europe, creativeÂ substitutionsÂ for certain Thai ingredients must often be made) After expressing an interest in Thai food, however, my hostess, Swan Tomkinson, took a certain vested interest in me. “It’s spicy, you know,” she told me on the first morning, trying to warn me off a plate of scrambled eggs with rice and curried rashers. “I love Thai,” I countered. “The spicier the better.” And with that she recognized a kindred spirit:Â “I will cook you real Thai food.” Over the next five days a challenge ensued. Each day I would ask forÂ somethingÂ unattainable for breakfast theÂ followingÂ morning -Â green papaya salad one day, pad prik king another – and she would counter with a pretty good approximation,Â for exampleÂ substituting cucumbers in place of the green papaya and adding an extra dose of the Thai basil which grows prodigiously in her garden. OnÂ day four I was surprised with a plate of larb, the spicy ground pork salad popular in northeastern Thailand. “I’veÂ been craving larb but had nobody to share it with,” Swan confided, revealing aÂ pang ofÂ longingÂ every stranger in a strange land must eventually feel. “Cooking for people makes me happy,” she was quick to add. “Especially food that they like.” Like Thai, I gestured, pushing a plate of freshly picked herbs out of the way, inviting Swan to join me in the most unexpected – and tastiest – Â breakfast of my life. “One time, a Russian couple came into the kitchen as I was cooking dinner for me and Alan,” she began. “I was making Beef Stroganoff and they said the smell reminded them of home. ‘Could we have the leftovers for breakfast,’ they asked me.” She laughed at the memory. “Yes,Â I said, I will make you Beef Stroganoff for breakfast.”
For a hiking trip there’s been aÂ suspiciousÂ lack of physical activity noted on this site over the past two weeks, wouldn’t you say? Time to fix that today with a straight climbÂ upÂ highest hill on Mull. AllÂ mountainsÂ have a certain magnetic attraction for those who enjoying a good harrumph, but Ben More has more than you’d suspect. At 3,172 feet, the peak is a true beauty because every inch of it is climbedÂ fromÂ sea level and that’s a rarity. Plus, the views fromÂ theÂ top are spectacular. Beneath the summit are the glens and table-lands carved by retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago. Eastwards across the sea are the serriedÂ mainlandÂ mountains; to the north, the sawtooth peaks of Rum and Skye; southwards, the Paps of Jura; and if you lookÂ westwardÂ on a clear day, you can almost seeÂ as far as Ireland. Bound by lochs on either side – and Iona and Staffa seemingly close enough to touch – theÂ panoramaÂ is superb. (Double click each image for a greater sense of scale.) Many hikers mistakenly assume Ben More is a volcano. It is not,Â despiteÂ the picturesque “smoking” that often appears near the summit. In fact, it is a much rarerÂ phenomenon: a highly magnetic mountain. Extruded 55 million years ago, the iron-rich basalt is so strongly magnetic thatÂ chippingsÂ will jump on to a proffered magnet. MoreÂ importantly, compass readings can’t be trusted, particularly at the summit, whichÂ has been struck by lightning and remagnetized so often that readings vary enormously even within a few feet. AnotherÂ surpriseÂ is the lack of a well-marked trail, which led to more than a few heated discussions on the extended hike up – all of which evaporated into thin air once we had summited and, more to the point, returned back to ground level unscathed.
Have you ever heard of squat lobster? I hadn’t until today. Tiny little buggers the size of langoustines, they’re not lobsters at all. In fact, they’re more closely related to hermit crabs. At a small cafe on the ferry pier in Tobermory, however, a waitress assured me they were good and indeed, she was more than right: Â poached then tossed in a light Marie Rose sauce and served on a warm baguette with a spritz of lemon, theÂ sweet and tender squats made for the most satisfying sandwich I’ve had in recent memory. Later that evening I ventured back to visit the Cafe Fish directly upstairsÂ and noticed razor clams featured on the specials board. Who could resist?
Staffa is another of the uninhabited Treshnish islands. Like Lunga it is home to hundreds of seabirds, yet it’s better known for the magnificent basalt columns which at first glance seem to rise out of the sea like pilings. The effect is almost overwhelming at An Uamh Binn, or Fingal’s Cave as it is more commonly known, which is formed completely out of hexagonallyÂ jointed basalt. In the 8,000 years humans have inhabited Mull it is safe to say that Staffa’s columns and caves have been viewed as something special, possibly sacred or mythical in origin. According to one legend, theÂ Gaelic giant,Â Fingal, got into a quarrel with the Ulster giant, Finn McCool. (Over a lady giant, no doubt.) In order to fight each other they built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. When the causeway was destroyed only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other at the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. (Having visited the Giant’s Causeway several times, it is remarkable to see how both locations share an almostÂ identical geology.) The truth of the matter, however, is much less colorful:Â as Britain and North America were being pulled apart by continental drift, huge amounts of magma rose up through the Earth’sÂ crust, erupting as lava and volcanic ash on the surface. As the 1,200 degree molten rock cooled, it hardened, shrank, and fractured into a regular series of stone pillars. The caves came into existence as waves crashed against the soft layer of ash underneath the columns, slowly eroding into the formation we see today. Of the five sea caves on the island Fingal’s is by far the largest. It came to the attention of the wider world at the end of the 18th century as the Romantic Movement was spreading across Europe. With its emphasis on wilderness and naturalÂ splendor the island quickly became one of the must-see sights on the Highland Tour. Part of the cave’s appeal lies in the Â remarkable symmetry of the cavern – Â fractured columns form a crude walkway just above the high water mark, allowing easy exploration of the interior. Equally beguiling are the strange colors and sounds inside what is, in effect, a natural cathedral. If you’ve heard of Fingal’s Cave before reading this, it’sÂ likely due to Felix Mendelssohn, who composed his concert overture,Â The Hebrides, following a visit to the island in 1829. His inspiration came from standing in the cave and listening to the roar of the waves.
It seemed a propitious omen for the day that as soon as our boat sailed out of Tobermory harbor and past the lighthouse it was greeted by a pod of dolphins eager to swim along in our wake. Soon afterwards we saw seals, too, and the rare storm petrel which spends most of its life at sea. We were bound for the Treshnish, an archipelago of uninhabited volcanic islands and skerries west of Mull. The largest of the islands, Lunga, is known for the puffins that arrive each summer to breed en masse. In fact, shortly after making landfall on the rocky coast I was in the company of those adorable, torpedo-shaped seabirds, as well as eider ducks, cormorants, and crested shags. I had expected to see a few other nesting birds as well, yet nothing quite prepared me for the sight of thousands upon thousands of razorbills, guillemots, and gulls nesting up the coast in the crags of a guano-drenched pinnacle of rock. It was like a scene from a horror film: half of the birds nesting, the other half circling the sky, and all of them cawing at a collectivelyÂ deafeningÂ pitch. The puffins were docile by comparison. In pairs they burrow underground to lay a single egg, in groups they sit together quietly and preen. I sat and chatted with a rook of about twenty puffins while I ate my lunch. They watched me and I watched them. We got along famously. I was sad when the time came to leave – for the record, they didn’t seem to take any notice – Â but other islands and other adventures called.
The one thing I never expected to find on Iona: a glistening white shell sand beach and crystal clear water to rival the Caribbean. Granted that water is colder than a witch’s tit but still, lovely to look at. Two of the nicest stretches of sand are at the north of the island, tantalizingly close from a perspective atop Dun I.Â Traigh an t-Suidhe or Beach of the Seat on the western flank of the headlandÂ is stunning and secluded. Even on a sunny day like today there are few people about andÂ it’s easy to pretend this is my own private strand.Â Traigh Ban Nam Monach which is Gaelic for â€˜white strand of the monks,â€™ is equally beautiful and its eastern-oriented bluffs are very popular with the sheep population.
As anÂ aficionadoÂ of livestock, I naturally took great interest in the local IonaÂ sheep. They have massive, deep-pile coats – the kind into which you just want to dig your fingers – and seem to roam unrestrained, though the greatest concentration of the wooly beasts are to be found at theÂ northernÂ tip of the island, where the turf – and the view – are more agreeable. There they also doÂ somethingÂ really curious: they burrow into cutouts between the grass and the sand, asÂ thoughÂ seeking shelter fromÂ theÂ wind. The sight of it only serves to reinforce the anomaly of today’sÂ calm skies andÂ bright sunshine. It must be aÂ wildly inhospitableÂ environment when even the sheep are seen ducking for cover.