The second part of our holiday happened in the Highlands, which accounts for most of the northern and western part of Scotland. It is a terribly romantic place. Relatively uninhabited, unindustrialised and quite remote (3 hours drive from Edinburgh), it is dominated by lochs and mountains. The waters in the region are very pure, they go towards making the national beverage that is Scotch whisky. The whisky from this area, in particular Speyside, have beautiful and long notes of floral, citrus and fruity aromas, mirroring the splendid countryside of its origins.
Here I found the Scotland of my fervent imagination- brave warriors with flying ginger hair and distinctive plaids defend their beautiful lands against the bad, greedy-assed English invaders, in their castles their women are called lasses and their dogs westies, the land marked by exotic growths of heather, gorses and thistle flowers where grouse fly and dignified broad-antlered deers survey the magnificient lands. Aye, can you hear the wail of the bagpipes and the lilting harps? When you stand in the grounds of a long-ago deserted and much crumbled castle like Urquhart you most definitely can. They say it is more beautiful at night, when the tourists like us are gone and the former inhabitants return to their haunt. I don't know, I was plenty carried away myself that day.
Back to the present, the café at the castle Urquhart was bang on trend with their cupcake selection. Here we had a cupcake with butterscotch frosting and toffee bits, particularly delicious eaten with force 10 winds howling in your hair and the coffee risking premature dilution with the perpetual Scottish rain overhead, all dead romantic really.
Speaking of another Scottish delicacy, we were much taken with Scottish marmalade, in particular that of our b&b. The Westbourne Guest House in Inverness is a 4-starred establishment because among other things, it provides tea-making facilities in the room, fan (no air-con), shirt-presser and shoe-shiner machine. We think. It can't be because the toiletries are supermarket brand,or because of the plain dormitory furnishings and a blown-up dishrack doing double-duty under the sink as bathroom shelves and basically lack of any natural stone, chintzy swags, swivelled mirrors or Grohe amenities. Their lounge has a common PC, every time someone opens the fridge in the adjoining kitchen the PC reboots itself, very Monty Python.
On the plus side, it was clean, the room was roomy enough for the three of us and they didn't complain when V left her bed all bloody one morning after having a nosebleed in her sleep. They did laundry too, i.e. I gave the landlady a bag of clothes and she ran it through her machines and returned them folded though not ironed, all for the rather reasonable price of 6 pounds.
Well, back to breakfast. Lots of choices in terms of cereals, yoghurts and fruits etc etc. Bacon, ham and haggis of ordinary quality which meant we stuck to toast for most of our stay. They use good grainy bread and the homemade marmalade was one of the most delicious we have ever tried. Terribly good stuff, packed with flavour and the texture was just right-thick yet spreadable, really much better than some award-winning marmalades we later brought home as souvenirs. The landlady also made sure we got two fingers of her home-made shortbread in our room every day. Two may sound a bit mean but these were outrageously rich biscuits, really buttery, flecked with tongue-tingling citrus peels (presumably from making the fabulous marmalade). Every evening when we returned from our excursions V and I take turns biting from the cookies and say to each other how good it was. Sometimes we couldn't finish them so we eat leftover chunks for breakfast.
Besides exploring castles, including Cawdow where the real Macbeth had ever stayed, there were other activities. Like visiting farms and picking strawberries. Rain had spoiled most of the crop, but V thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The better specimens were available for sale, and they were big, deeply red and tasted very sweet and vibrant like high summer.
Just another view of the placid lakes. Until I read the little plaque at the side of the river which documented that this was a site of some bloody massacre in the great bloody past.
We took the old Jacobite steam train on the western side of the country. Run on coals and puffing white smoke as it chugs along the rugged mountain ranges, it thrilled all the train buffs in the carriages including a shy terrier lass sitting next to me. The seaside town where it ends, Mallaig, is small and touristy. I did well to have packed sandwiches from Tesco for our lunch on the pier.
The eating options in this area are not as great as in the larger towns. In Inverness itself there are a few cookie-cutter bistro types that didn't really appeal to me. A foray into the Indian restaurant scene was even more disastrous- the newly opened Jaipur actually offers a menu of different sauces poured on tandoori meats, it was the worst meal of our trip.
In terms of Chinese food, all we saw were takeaways, not exactly something I wanted to take back to our airless room (even if we got past the landlady). One evening we took a random turn into Academy St, off the city centre, and I spotted Gathering Place. It seemed like a mirage, there is nothing else of note along this drab street, but there it was, a sit-down restaurant that would not be out of place in Gerrard Street, London. The menu is predictable and their takeaway business was going on non-stop while we ate our dinner. The waiters are from Malaysia! The food was good and cooked with practised skill, we had a happy feed of fried rice, sambal kangkong and a prawn stir-fry. I reckoned this was the best Chinese option for miles around, heck I don't think there is any other Highland competitor, still, to do better, the waiter recommended going up to Aberdeen where they have the largest immigrant Chinese population in Scotland.
In Part 2, we get acquainted with the truly Scottish food icons i.e. haggis, black puddings and the mythical Scottish salmon.
Gathering Place 87 Academy St, Inverness T: 01463 713 244