last looks: glasgow

My last full day in Scotland 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 the persistent 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.

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let there be light

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on the great caledonian macbrayne

So long, Oban. At last I’m off to mull things over on Mull, one of the Inner Hebrides. For an island with only 3,0000 full-time residents, however, it warrants a quite impressive ferry. The journey to the port of Craignure is little over an hour, and on a clear, calm afternoon it’s the most pleasant of boat trips. It’s also a picturesque harbinger of what’s to come.

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secret whisky agenda

Confession time: the true reason for my wanting to stop off and spend a bit of time in Oban is the distillery, which – you guessed it – makes one of my favorite brown liquors. Oban also happens to be one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland – physically and spiritually at the heart of the town. In fact it predates the town. Founded by local brothers John and Hugh Stevenson, who established a boat building yard, a tannery, and in the 1790s a brewery which by 1794 would become the Oban distillery, the town of Oban is largely a byproduct of the brother’s business enterprises. By the late 19th century it had become a busy port which shipped wool, whisky, slate and kelp to Liverpool and Glasgow. The arrival of the Victorian railways brought further prosperity, revitalising local industry and giving birth to local tourism. In 1883 the distillery fell from family hands when it was bought by J. Walter Higgin. He dismantled and rebuilt it bit by bit, carefully replicating the famously small stills and other traditional features in order to preserve the quality of the whisky. Today the distillery buildings and their internal arrangements are substantially the same as they were following Higgin’s refurbishment. The distillery has only two pot stills, making it one of the smallest in Scotland, and the whisky it produces perfectly echoes its coastal location: briny on the nose with a background of heather and peat. It’s a distinctive West Highland flavor which falls somewhere between the lighter, sweeter Highland malts of Glenmorangie and Dalmore and the dry, smoky island-style of Talisker and Laphroig. Single malt whisky has been made here for over 200 years; by contrast it’s only recently that very exceptional malts were bottled and sold as ‘singles,’ as opposed to blended. Guided by senior site manager, Mike Tough, I was lucky enough to be taken through the whiskey making process and given a bit of insight into Oban’s unique profile: made using barley malted to the distillery’s particular specification, the partly germinated kernels are gently dried in a kiln where a light peat smoke gives the malt its distinctive character. The particularly addictive malty dryness in the flavor and finish of Oban whisky owes almost as much to how the grain is handled as it does the small-batch distillation process and a stillman’s attention to detail. It’s no cliche to say you can taste the tradition – and the finish is ever so smooth.

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today’s special

There’s fast food and then there’s food served fast. One of the beautiful things about Scotland is the pride they take in the bounty of seafood that’s locally available. Local in the literal sense, that is: either just off the boat or even within eyesight. Today’s special along the Oban strand: massive king scallops seared in garlic butter with the meaty orange foot still attached. A crusty baguette and heap of cheesy coleslaw on the side made this the freshest, tastiest bargain in Scotland to date – not to mention the fastest.

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the prettiest little bay in all of bute

Oban is a little resort town in the Firth of Lorn. It has a perfect horseshoe bay, protected by the islands of Kerrera and Mull, and in summer – which, strictly speaking, is often a relative term in the UK – it becomes a gateway to the many isles along Scotland’s western coast. Later on, I’ll meet friends and we’ll board the ferry, but now all I can think about is strolling the strand and soaking up the sun while it lasts.

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this train for oban

The train from Glasgow to Oban, where I’ll eventually meet my friends and catch the ferry to Mull, is a two-carriage “dinky” which seems to hug the shore of every loch in its path through the Highlands. If there’s a journey that could be described as lilting, this is it. As mellifluous and rolling as the Scots accent, it’s a pleasantly relaxing two and a half hours. Thankfully Oban is the terminus of this particular train, leaving me free to nod off with impunity.

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