“Fuck, we’re missing the meteor shower.” Words I never expected Philippe to be shouting out at any point in our friendship. Especially not through the crisp Scottish Highland air on an August night, whilst we both wore kilts.
We’d been having shots at the hotel bar. I say hotel, but the Mains of Taymouth is more of a loose assortment of what I’m pretty sure are time-share bungalows for well heeled Londoners heading to Scotland to play golf. The main giveaway is that there are more golf carts than cars in the parking lot. Anyway, we’ve had a lot of shots, and running out to witness a meteor shower seems like a good idea. A group of us, visiting from Lebanon, have been ‘tasting’ (read drinking) whisky for most of the three previous days, so running towards the Tay Bridge is a challenge. Once we get there we all sit on the ledge. In my stupor, I’m very aware that we must look like very punchable tourists in our kilts. Then I notice one of the group – not sure who – lying on the pavement looking at the sky. I stare up. Besides an obscene number of stars, I can’t see anything.
I’ve been told on the run over here that the annual perseid meteor shower is supposed to be happening. Then a streak of light brushes over the Scottish night. Then another. And another. With each one we let out childlike oohs and aahs. We’d later read somewhere that every streak is a piece of the Swift-Tuttle comet hitting the atmosphere, creating over a hundred meteors an hour rushing before us. I’m happy no one Googled that at that moment in time though, because a scientific explanation found on an overly bright smartphone would have killed what we were experiencing. We were all thousands of miles away from our noisy lives. A ramshackle bunch of Lebanese and Scots staring at something celestial that we’d rather not understand.
I remembered that in my pre-trip research (actually a Google search on the minibus from Edinburgh Airport), I’d read that Robert Burns once stood on this bridge and wrote a poem, The Birks of Aberfeldy. The next day we would pop a couple of Neurofens and post Facebook statuses.
The Scottish Highlands are a good place to suspend your disbelief. While I’d lived in the UK for 22 years, and the idea of heading up to Scotland to go on a whisky tasting tour came up about 3,458 times, I’d never actually made the trip. It seemed so near, so readily available, that of course the trip kept getting put off, and I eventually moved to Lebanon. So when someone called up from Dewars in Lebanon asking if I’d like to join a group of Lebanese writers, directors, DJs, TV hosts and musicians on a trip to the Highlands, I gave it some thought – a full 7 seconds – and said ‘yes please’.
Getting from Beirut to anywhere normally involves a stop somewhere. As we boarded our first flight to Paris at 4am and spent 3 hours finding flat surfaces to sleep on at Charles de Gaulle on the way to Edinburgh, it struck me how little I know about Scotland. It’s shameful really. Being British and knowing nothing about the such a significant part of the island you were born on. Like everyone, I’d read a lot during the independence referendum, and we even published a piece by Patrick Ward on Gate37. I’d read, but I didn’t know anything.
Aberfeldy rests on the upper bits of the River Tay, which begins up-valley from Aberfeldy at Loch Tay and continues southeast until the estuary east of Perth. The town lies in a u-shaped valley, common to Scotland’s glaciated landscape, and the terrain in and around undulates gently. The entrance to the Birks of Aberfeldy lies on the southern outskirts of town. The Birks is classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and there’s evidence the Romans built a fort several thousand years ago in the area. The next-door village of Fortingall is the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, you know the guy who crucified Jesus (although he appears to have another dozen possible birthplaces). JK Rowling also lives down the road. It’s clearly a place steeped in historical significance, a fact that isn’t immediately clear given how quiet and removed from modern urban life it seems.
Early into our first day, we’re given a crash course into the whisky tasting world and put into three cars to with the guys from Highland Safaris. I made a bee line towards a mid nineties Land Rover Defender, arguably one of the most beautiful cars in the world after the Jaguar E-Type. We headed up a dirt track to the what’s left of the house John Dewar grew up in. The old house isn’t there anymore, and a nice couple lives in a new place on the land and they stare at us while we play around with their labrador and annoy our guide Fergus with questions about the place. And about when we get to drink some more.
We head down to the distillery next, where the gold-rich waters of the Pitilie Burn provide the traditional water source used to make the whisky since 1898. We’re skeptical about the gold content of the stream, so we’re given pans to go prospecting. We didn’t find any huge nuggets that’d allow us to retire – and even if we did I wouldn’t be telling anyone – but we found enough gold flakes to shut up.
We made our way to the atmospheric warehouse next, and learnt a lot of stuff about distillation which I forgot pretty much immediately. I do however remember the bit about the angels’ share – the whisky that evaporates during the aging process – and how the whisky is married in oak casks for a richer flavor. Shockingly, we also found out that whisky actually starts out as a clear spirit and gets its brown hue through contact with the wooden barrels. The whole process is half poetry, half science. I now have a newfound appreciation for whisky when it’s resting in a hastily washed glass at my favorite dive.
At the heritage centre we get told a bit about the Dewars family, the most interesting of whom is Tommy – the founder’s son. He seems to have been some form of 18th century Richard Branson, a dilettante living at the Savoy and traveling the world with barrels of whisky. He also looks uncannily like a Shoreditch hipster and created some iconic ad campaigns that were decades ahead of their time. There’s something almost unsettlingly contemporary about him.
On our last night in town, we went to Castle Menzies to have a traditional Scottish dinner. Of course, there was haggis, which was ceremoniously serenaded with an indecipherable poem before being stabbed open. And contrary to every preconceived idea I had, it was delicious.
The castle itself is a spectacular sixteenth century structure, restored during the twentieth century by the Menzies Clan Society. Architecturally, it’s emblematic of the transition in Scottish castles from rugged Highland fortresses to mansion houses. It was the seat of the Chiefs of Clan Menzies for over 400 years. Situated in a strategic location, it was involved in much of the turbulent history of the Highlands. We added to its turbulent history by disastrously attempting some Scottish dancing.
On the bus back to Edinburgh, we could all agree that Scotland was a truly special place. A place where we thought we knew what to expect, but we clearly didn’t. From the hospitality and the friendliness of absolutely everyone we met, to the stunning landscapes, and proud history, everything moved us. It may have been our first time there, but it certainly won’t be our last.