Year(s) ago, while dreaming about this world trip, a number of destinations loomed clearly in my mind as anchor points–places that called to me, places I wanted to visit, no matter what. New Zealand, Japan, India, Italy, to name a few. In some ways, these destinations laid the foundation for the world route, bones and connecting joints of a larger journey.
Some of these destinations, like Japan and India, are based upon curiosity, interest, and fascination. Others, like Italy and Scotland, also include a curiosity of history, and family roots. Where do we come from. In typical American fashion, my ancestral blood is made up of a hodge-podge of European backgrounds, spanning from Hungarian and Italian on my mother’s side to German, British, Scottish, Irish and Norwegian on my father’s side.
In fourth grade, our teacher assigned us a research project on a country–any country of our choice. I chose Scotland.
I learned about Scottish history, culture, customs and geography. I found a bit of history on the Elliott clan, from which, of course, my last name and some of my paternal ancestors derive. I remember deciding, back then, Scotland is a place I want to visit.
And so, fast forward a few decades, from the very initial planning stages of this world tour, Scotland was on the agenda.
This past year, I completed the majority of the world adventure by myself, as a solo traveler. However, I also passed many stages of the trip with friends, strangers, loved ones and family. Smiling faces coming in and out of an ongoing story, inevitable meetings and partings of life.
Since Scotland holds family history, I really wanted to share the visit with family. To my great pleasure, my sister, brother and father were able to join the journey, and with a big smile I found them at the airport. Some of them I hadn’t seen in over a year.
After many hours of travel, a few false starts, a left-handed shifting manual rental car we named Moira, and finally a round of cheers, the four of us found ourselves settling into an impressive Victorian Airbnb in Glasgow, Scotland.
Our coordinated plan for the trip was to spend a few nights in Glasgow, travel by car and ferry to the Isle of Islay, drive north through the town of Oban, deadhead to the island of Skye, spend a few nights in the Highlands, and round off the trip with a few nights in Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.
And we stuck to the plan, mostly.
Except for the island of Skye, for which we ran out of time (though, that didn’t stop Dad from threatening, at various stages of the trip, and even after we left the country, to “deadhead back to Skye!” But we never had the time. Sorry, Skye. Next time).
The Island of Islay
While my primary desire to visit Scotland related to history, family, and heritage, a second, more tangible interest, shared by the rest of the group, emerged: the exploration of Scotland’s finest export, Scotch Whisky.
As a bit of background, whisky is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Whiskies can be made from various grains, including barley, corn, rye and wheat. Scottish whisky is generally distilled, twice, using malted barley. Whiskies are made all over the world, but the term “Scotch” is used for whiskies that are specifically distilled in Scotland, and aged for at least three years before consumption.
Decades ago, my parents visited Scotland together on an organized tour. While my mother will begrudgingly, yet comically recall the grittier details of group tour travel, my father honed an appreciated for the fine, malted liquid the ancients used to call the water of life.
Growing up, once in a blue moon, perhaps after a large dinner or during a celebration, my father would pour some of this amber liquid from old-looking bottles into a small glass. I remember smelling it a few times and thinking, whoooh! Although the odor is overpoweringly strong, I associated it with family, and the happy, sleepy hum of many people chatting late into the night.
Many years later, after college, I began to develop a appreciation for the stuff. At first my roommates thought I was crazy–who would pay $30 or $40 a bottle for hard alcohol, and then sip it? Inconceivable.
But, after some months, they came around. My two or three bottles turned into a collective collection, and Friday nights might have found us sitting around the living room, our noses stuck into thin glasses, trying pompously to detect hints of leather, oak or vanilla. When someone got a bonus at work or had a particularly good week, they might add a new bottle to the collection, and we would all taste it, making outlandish claims as to what flavors we could detect.
With that preface, Harry, Chels, Dad and I find ourselves on the calm, peaty, charming little island of Islay (pronounced, “eye-luh,”), one of the most famous Scottish sites of whisky distillation.
And, our initial plan is to stay only one night. Fools!
Within minutes of our arrival, we are so enchanted with the little island that we tell Nigel, a world champion bag-piper that also happened to be the maitre-d’ of our hotel, that we would like to extend our stay to two nights. Sorry Skye.
During the course of our three days, we make it to five of the eight distilleries on the island.
The distilleries–some of which have been in operation for over two hundred years–all welcomed travelers, offering tastings and tours. We had so much fun exploring and tasting that I decided to map the island out:
During the visits, we all tasted drams ranging from smooth to peaty (smoky) to downright diesel-esque (the less refined cask-strenth stuff). We stuck our noses into delicate glasses, struggling to detect hints of vanilla and oak and citrus. We toured the facilities, witnessing the process from barley germination to peat-drying to double distillation to cask storage.
After dinner on our last night, we went for a nightcap at the only bar in town. One of the locals, a girl who worked at the Ardbeg distillery, recognized us from our earlier visit and introduced us to her parents, who happened to be drinking there too. It turns out her father was the Ardbeg master distiller.
I chatted pleasantly with the distiller, hoping to collect any pearls of whisky wisdom he might bestow.
But, when it came to whisky wisdom, his wife left the most lasting impression, by way of a little a passing little comment:
“What most people don’t realize is that there’s two parts to whisky.
There’s the spirit, and then there’s the Spirit.
The obvious part is the spirit. Anyone in the world can distill a whisky spirit. That’s the easy part.
But then there’s the other part. It’s the brine of the ocean, the fresh water of the streams, the breeze from the sea, the Islay peat. It’s the people who put their heart and souls into making the whisky, and the people you ultimately drink it with.
That’s what gives a whisky true Spirit.”
And I think she hit the nail on the head. Looking back on our Scotch whisky adventures, it’s not really about the spirit. It’s not about the 40% versus the 56%, or the 20 PPM vs. the 300 PPM. It’s not about the vanilla vs. the oak vs. the citrus, the sherry cask or the bourbon cask. That stuff is all fun, and relevant, but it doesn’t really matter.
It’s about the warmth and happy hum of friends, of loved ones, of family, that gives a dram of Scotch true Spirit.
(This is Gaelic for “cheers!” complicatedly pronounced “Slan gee-vah.” Or, if you’re Dad, you’ll just cheers and say “Don Giovanni!” or “Jon Bon Jovi!” or “Dom Day Luise!”)
Of Castles and Cottages
After our adventures on Islay, we made our way back to the mainland, through Oban, up to the Scottish Highlands, and finally back down to Edinburgh.
Many areas are jam packed with Scottish history, from Neolithic remains to Ancient Roman ruins to the 18th century Jacobite rebellion. We managed to see as much as we could while en-route.
Here are the ruins of an 18th-century British garrison and stable used to subdue unruly Scottish clans to the north:
And here was our 18th century Highlands Airbnb cottage:
Finally, as with all things, even the good ones too must come to an end.
We spent our last few nights in Scotland in an amazing Edinburgh Airbnb flat right in the medieval center, with front-row views of Edinburgh castle and the Royal Mile. We ate a succulent dinner at the old-timey Witchery restaurant, cheered along as a pub performer sang Hotel California (to Dad’s great pleasure), and regretted allocating only 2 hours for the phenomenal National Museum of Scottish (for which 2 days would have been more reasonable).
On one of our last nights, we noticed a large map hanging on the wall of our Airbnb that depicted the ancient territories and clans of Scotland. After a moment Dad chuckled, and pointed to a little territory with the name “Elliots” written.
Looking at the map, traveling around Scotland, seeing, discovering, exploring, I felt happy and proud and connected all at the same time. Every place I’ve visited in my lifetime holds a place in my memory and my heart.
But I don’t know, there’s something about seeing a place where your ancestors came from, centuries ago, that makes it extra special. And what’s more, there’s something special about seeing it with part of your family, too. We did great, though I do wish the whole clan could have been there.
Thanks Scotland, you didn’t disappoint. Next time we promise, we’ll deadhead to Skye.