03 January 2010


While Mark and I have made a few trips to Wales and Ireland, there was one remaining corner of the United Kingdom we had yet to visit – Scotland. And since both our offices were shutting down between Christmas and New Years, we had the perfect opportunity.
Mark was drawn right away to the Western coast of Scotland, which had been recommended by a colleague at work. There’s also a fairly well known whiskey distillery there… Coincidence? I somehow find that difficult to believe.
We were able to find a great ‘Twixmas’ deal at a lochside inn that accepted dogs, so the family packed into the car on Tuesday after Christmas and we headed north. As the drive was going to be quite long, we decided to stop along the way at Hadrian’s Wall. This barrier was erected around 125 AD, either to demarcate the boundary of the Roman Empire, or to serve as fortification from the unconquered wilds of the north (apparently people still argue about this sort of thing). As an interesting factoid, Mark claims it was also the first spot/time that passports were used for entry into and exit from the Roman Empire.
We delayed lunch to visit the site, and proceeded to drive in seemingly endless circles around snow covered farmlands until literally stumbling over a parking lot adjacent to one of the Roman garrisons along the wall.

Miller checks out what all the fuss has been about.

The wall

The wall was… Underwhelming. And it probably didn’t help that Mark had been getting me excited for a Hadrian’s Hamburger Hut that he hypothesized would be right next door… In reality, there was just a whole lot of ice and a Roman fort that was closed to the public for the season.
Not to harp on Mark’s unfortunate way of tantilizing me with dreams of food, but he then assured me that there was a McDonalds in the train station adjacent to the motorway where we had gotten off, so we then headed in that direction. I say unfortunate because it was only after getting lost in the one-way maze of Carlisle and its random traffic congestion in the middle of Christmas break that Mark admitted that he had never seen the train station before, and he didn’t think there was a McDonalds anywhere nearby.
Basically, all these delays meant that we didn’t reach our final destination until hours after dark. We had been in the car for nearly 8 hours, the last two of which were meandering A roads (imagine: Rte 123 in Norwell, or Rte 151 in Falmouth/Mashpee) covered in snow/ice/slush, poorly lit, with alternately majestic and menacing mountains at every turn.

The view's not half-bad, huh?!

This is Mark's new favorite face to make when I take pictures. He thinks it makes him look like a certain celebrity...

But we did arrive, which was the important part. While the inn wasn’t quite as nice as the website had led us to believe, it was warm and Miller settled right in. We glanced outside at the loch, with a snow covered mountain in the distance, and collapsed into bed.

The next day, we had a lazy morning reading by the space heater (that sounds so sad, but if you closed your eyes you could almost imagine it was a little fireplace) before getting back in the car. We headed another 20 miles north, to the town of Oban, for lunch and a tour of its distillery.
OK, so there’s definitely an alcohol/distilling/brewing theme to many of our trips, but I have to say that this was the coolest tour thus far. The Oban Distillery was founded in 1794, and the process and equipment has literally remained almost unchanged, with the exception of repairs and replacements to the stills and pipes. They employ only 7 people, one of whom gave us the tour; they work 24 hours a day, 5 days a week (2 people to an 8 hour shift), and shut down for 4 weeks a year (in order to make repairs). We were visiting during the shutdown, so we didn’t get to see the distilling in-process, but were able to see all the equipment and learn about each step in greater detail than anywhere else we’ve visited thus far. We were able to taste the whiskey at various stages in its development, including a 68% alcohol sample that had been aged 13 years in a cask; this final product is watered down and bottled after 14 years.

Oban Distillery

The gift shop; we weren't allowed to take photos in the distillery.
I really can’t recommend the tour enough, and we spent a pretty penny in the gift shop after savoring our ‘drams,’ including another scotch whiskey, Talisker, which I was informed ‘was not for girls,’ though I kind of liked the rollercoaster flavors. It’s a bit smokey, like the Oban, but there’s also a fiery pepper taste as you swallow before it mellows again to honey. Definitely worth a taste, though I think you could only have a bit at a time.
The village of Oban itself was nice, but the cold weather meant that we preferred ducking into cafes and the warmth of the car, rather than exploring much further. In fact, that was probably the only bad part of our trip – the wintry weather made the scenery all the more breathtaking (and Christmas-like) but it also meant we were confined to indoors for most of the time.

It's tough to see in the photo, but there's a pretty awesome mountain in the background...

The town of Oban.
We had another quiet night in the hotel before heading home the following day. Again, it was a long trip (with a shorter stop, this time in the town of Inverary, where Miller was welcomed into the guest shop and flirted with the lady behind the counter) but we made it fun with a bit of silliness and a stop to play in a brief snowstorm that hit at lunch time. Well, at least Mark and I were able to entertain eachother… I think Miller was a little sick of us.

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