Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Usher's Old Vatted Glenlivet

'Freedom and Whisky gang thegither', wrote Robert Burns in 1786. The fiery local spirit that he enjoyed so much now boasts worldwide brands, each with a sophisticated baggage of wood finishes and production techniques.
Burns would have been amazed!

So was I, by the schedule for a day guiding an Australian couple: Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenlivet. But all became clear, since Jarrod, bartender at the Castle Hill Tavern, Sydney, knew whisky and this was the highlight of his European trip!

They enjoyed each distillery, but The Glenlivet seemed to take the honours. Glenlivet is also a favourite of mine for different reasons.

In Scotland we don't use the expression 'single malt'. It's either malt (from one distillery) or it's blended (many whiskies including grain whiskies). But it was not always so. To produce a consistent, and palatable brand in 1853 was a challenge and led to the first mixture of malts, known as a vatted malt (as opposed to a single malt). It was called Usher's Old Vatted Glenlivet or 'OVG' and is arguably the only vatted malt ever to have become an established brand.

Andrew Usher established himself as the pioneer of whisky blending: he already held the exclusive right to distribute Glenlivet south of the Highlands and in 1885 he founded a grain distillery in Edinburgh, so building the twin pillars of his success. In 1890 the firm of Andrew Usher & Co. of Leith had the largest bonded warehouse in the world.

I have only seen one Old Vatted Glenlivet bottle, and that was in my sister's farmhouse kitchen in East Lothian where it was filled with paraffin. It may still be there, but its presence was no coincidence, as Andrew Usher was our great grandfather.

My connection with the great man promoted me, I think, from an average tour guide to an exceptional one in the view of these particular clients. And it may contribute to a good story one Burns Night, back in Sydney.

It seems 'Whisky' is still a little used word in the USA. I normally hear 'Scotch' or 'Single Malt'. So "Freedom and Whisky gang thegither" probably never resonated over there, even in 1786 when Freedom was quite an issue. But later, in the 1860s, whilst Andrew Usher was working his alchemy in Scotland, Abraham Lincoln was carrying a leather bound volume of Burns works with him wherever he went. When asked to propose a toast to the bard, he replied, "I can not frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius."

Some might say the same of Andrew Usher whose generous heart stretched to bequeathing the City of Edinburgh with its fine concert venue, The Usher Hall. All on the back of The Glenlivet!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Bannockburn to Culloden Moor

Why, I am asked with reference to my last post, is an apparently sane man bicycling 48 miles round the Highlands? Some may say that I am not actually sane, since in May I am bicycling even further - from Bannockburn to Culloden Moor (about 180 miles) in aid of Dr Graham's Homes in Kalimpong. I hope to raise £650 which will keep an orphaned Indian child at a boarding school for a year. Here is the link!

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Summer Road to Ruthven

'Atholl'. The signpost caught my eye. Ask someone in Inverness or Perth how to get to Atholl and they will look at you strangely - even though it lies about half way between the two on a main road through the Highlands. 'Atholl' is a bit like 'Mar', or 'Breadalbane': mostly used by historians - and by the tourism industry which thrives on the romantic resonance. Atholl was a powerful celtic earldom around the eleventh century when MacBeth was on the throne; today the name survives in the small town of Blair Atholl, the title 'Duke of Atholl', and a hill on the south of the Drumochter Pass called the 'Sow of Atholl' - which butts up against the 'Boar of Badenoch' to its north (a medieval joke still included on 21st century maps!).

Having parked the car near Kingussie at Ruthven (famous now mostly for the impressive ruined barracks) I checked the signpost and set off on my cycle ride to 'Atholl via the Gaick and Minigaig'. This route used to be known as 'Comyn's Road, since until the time of Robert the Bruce, this was Comyn country; later it was the MacPhersons who held sway. It is the shortest route south from Kingussie and all points north, and was the only one marked on maps until 1725, when General Wade chose the longer route by Drumochter Pass for his groundbreaking 'military road'. Now both the arterial A9 road and the railway follow Wade's route. He probably rejected Minigaig due to the incidence of avalanches there and I noticed (good excuse for a break from the saddle) that at Gaick there is still a monument to a Captain John MacPherson of Ballachroan who was killed in an avalanche along with four 'companions in the chase' in 1800. So Wade probably made a good decision, despite the old 'Comyn's Road' being fifteen miles shorter. And after the building of his smart new road through Drumochter, the Minigaig pass became, logically perhaps, 'The Summer Road to Ruthven'.

The route up Glentromie to Loch an t' Seilich is wild, beautiful, and easy cycling, but after about 12 miles, by Loch na Dun, the track becomes a footpath and a concealed boulder threw me off the bike and very nearly into that very remote loch. The next five miles was on a gentle downward track and soon I was through the mountains and transferred my loyalty to General Wade's road, (much of which is in use once again as a cycle track) for the homeward journey. Returning that way is of course much longer than 'The Summer Road to Ruthven' but easier going. Pedalling up and through the Drumochter Pass, scene of so much history, was satisfying, but it was a weary blogger who took this shot of Ruthven Barracks late that afternoon.

General Wade built 240 miles of military roads in the Highlands. He is also the only commoner to appear in the National Anthem:

"Lord, grant that General Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King."

...which is an interesting reflection on English attitudes to the Scots forty years after the birth of the 'United Kingdom' - once again under threat (we are told) if the Scottish National Party win the election in two weeks time on 3 May.

Anyway, General Wade certainly has his place in history even if poor old Atholl still needs historians, tourist guides, weary cyclists and the Scottish Rights of Way Society for its survival.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Rock Stars and the Scottish Highlands

It was Paul McCartney who started it with his hideaway in Argyll, prompting 'Mull of Kintyre', the first No.1 hit to feature the Highland bagpipes. John Lennon, a little surprisingly, had an attachment to Durness in the very far north - a magical mystery tour of Highlands like Lennon. Most celebrated of course was Madonna's wedding at Skibo Castle in December 2000 and the christening of her son Rocco at the medieval cathedral at Dornoch. Skibo is a private club but you can stay there for one night as a non-member to try it out (I did so in December and it is a memorable experience). But back to music (and fish): Ian Anderson, lead singer of Jethro Tull founded the Inverness-based salmon company, Strathaird in 1978; and it is still going strong.

And the latest rock star highlander is... Bob Dylan. He recently bought Aultmore, a fine mansion in Strathspey - Dylan 'buys £2m house in Highlands'. We sometimes used Aultmore House as an unusual B&B stop for our Clans and Castle guests, and I see there is still an old website up there. 'The Scotsman' newspaper has found some relevant lyrics - I'm not sure from which song but they go like this: "Well my heart's in the Highlands wherever I roam/that's where I'll be when I get called home". Well, Bob came 'home' to Scotland on Wednesday with a concert in Glasgow and it seemed churlish not to support him. Teenagers and grandparents alike enjoyed a fantastic evening!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Inverewe and Gille Dubh

I AM ACCUSED of starting too many topics and not following them through! Well here is a follow up to Osgood Mackenzie, creator of Inverewe Gardens and author of 'A Hundred Years in the Highlands', a charming account of the life of a Highland Laird in Victorian times. It is in part about the life of landed gentry, but more interesting are the accounts that are rooted in the land. I particularly like this one about the hunt for Gille Dubh, a black fairy who had apparently been causing some mischief.

"Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gairloch invited Sir George Mackenzie of Coul, Mackenzie of Dundonnell, Mackennzie of Letterewe and Mackenzie of Kernsary to join him in an expedition to repress the Gille Dubh. These five lairds repaired to Loch a Druing armed with guns with which they hoped to shoot the fairy. Most of them wore the Highland Dress with dirks at their side... They spent the night at Loch a Druing, and slept in John Mackenzie's barn where couches of heather were prepared for them. They went all through the woods, but they saw nothing of the Gille Dubh!"

In 1862, aged twenty, Osgood Mackenzie acquired Inverewe, a barren peninsular of rock and peat, jutting into the Atlantic; the only tree was a stunted dwarf willow. By the time he died in 1922, it was an internationally acclaimed garden, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

Yesterday I stood in some awe looking at a wonderful Magnolia tree (below and top right) planted there by Osgood Mackenzie in 1914. It seems to me, this Easter Saturday, that it would look more at home in Jerusalem than in Wester Ross.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sir Robert Grierson of Lag

THERE IS GREAT CONCERN here at the treatment of our fifteen naval personnel illegally detained by the Iranians, and anxiety about their ultimate fate. However I was reminded today, when researching the Griersons of Lag, that we have not always been models of decency ourselves. Lag Castle is in Dumfriesshire where people have traditionally subscribed to low church Christianity. This was a dangerous aberration in the reign of James VII, our only Catholic monarch since Mary Queen of Scots (also our last since a Catholic is prohibited by law from ascending the British throne).

Sir Robert Grierson of Lag was the king's man in Dumfriesshire and he took his duties seriously. When in 1685 he came upon an 'illegal' church service at Kirkconnell, he killed all those worshippers he could catch, some of them, reportedly, by rolling them down a hill in a spiked barrel. None was given a Christian burial. Small wonder that Dumfriesshire folk related that Sir Robert's spit scorched the earth where it fell, that he could turn wine into blood and that on the night he died a chariot surrounded by thunder clouds swept him away to hell! Makes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem quite cuddly.

Thankfully not all Griersons were of this mould. In 1898 Sir George Grierson produced the eight thousand page Linguistic Survey of India, and Dr John Grierson who died in 1972 was a film producer and Director of UNESCO.

Apart from Lag Castle, now a noble ruin, there are three Grierson castles in Dumfriesshire - Barjarg Tower, Capenoch House and Rockhall, all now private houses. Sir Robert Grierson used Rockhall as a base for persecuting his fellow Christians (of the 'wrong' sect). On his death his servants killed his pet monkey which still apparently haunts the castle, blowing a whistle. So far as I am aware this is the only castle in Scotland to be haunted by a monkey. Maybe someone out there knows different?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Treasure Fever Grips the Highlands!

Well, in a quiet, West Highland sort of a way it does.

The Duke of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell, whose family acquired most of Mull from the MacLeans of Duart in the 17th century, is hoping that the mud of Tobermory Bay will reveal the treasure chests of a Spanish Galleon, mysteriously scuttled there in 1588. More at: News - Scotland - Duke launches treasure hunt for Spanish Armada gold.

Meantime up in Arisaig they are hoping that improvements underway to the A830 Arisaig to Lochailort road (which is still single lane with passing places) will turn up some of the Jacobite Gold, donated (a little belatedly) by France and Spain to support 'Bonnie Prince Charlie's 1745 Jacobite Rising. The road goes past Loch nan Uamh, a beautiful but easily overlooked bay where the gold was landed and which saw both the Prince's arrival on the Scottish mainland in August 1745, and his departure for France in 1746. More about the treasure will be revealed on the BBC