Searching for Castles in the Mist - Part 3

Scottish Drink

As I mentioned above, the main Scottish beverage is called a "Wee Dram". This is a shot of Scotch Whisky. In Scotland, they just refer to it as Whisky. Note the spelling. Whisky is from Scotland. Whiskey is from anywhere else. According to our guide books, there are dozens, or maybe even hundreds of small Whisky distilleries all over Scotland, many of which give tours and tastings. These distilleries produce thousands of different brands and ages of whisky, but the most sought-after ones are called Single-Malt whiskies, which are the product of one distillery and are not blends made from different distilleries output. There's even something called "The Whisky Trail" which is a set of roads you can follow to visit a number of distilleries. Following the "Whisky Trail" seemed impossible to me, unless you are on a tour bus. Driving from one distillery to another, trying a "Wee Dram" in each seems like a recipe for disaster, or a trip to jail at the least.

We did visit one of the distilleries when we were on the Isle of Skye, called the Talisker Distillery. They did give a tour, which included a "free" tasting of a "Wee Dram". Unfortunately, unlike the winery tours I have been on in California and elsewhere, these tours are not free. They cost around 5 pounds per person, which is about 10 dollars at this time, which seems unfair to me, since they are basically marketing tools, and they all end up in a salesroom where they do their best to sell you some of their product. Later in the trip, one of the B&B owners who we were staying with told us that most of these little distilleries were bought up by one mega-corporation and weren't the small privately owned enterprises they pretended to be, and he also lamented the fact that they started charging for the tours. He told us that after his usual day of walking the Scottish countryside for 8 hours or so, he used to drop into one or two of the distilleries for a free "Wee Dram".

Even so, the tour of the Talisker Distillery was interesting. The tour guide was very informative, and it was interesting to learn how whisky was made, using techniques that haven't really changed in centuries. At least that's what they told us. At one point they showed us an old victorian-age looking piece of equipment, made of mahogany and containing lots of glass and brass pipes and brass fittings and valves and we were told that this ancient device, called a "Spirit Safe", was used to control the flow of the various inputs and outputs of the stills, and that the whole thing was operated manually. They never mentioned the obvious process-control computer screens off to one side of the "Spirit Safe".

There are many, many places in Scotland where you can buy whisky, not just at the distilleries. Most tourist shops carry it, and there are even Whisky Stores in many places, but the airport security rules make it really hard to bring any home. You can't carry any liquid on board the plane unless it's in a little, tiny bottle, so a normal-sized bottle of Whisky is out. If you put it in your checked luggage, I can't imagine that it will survive the manhandling.

The real truth, I think, is that Whisky isn't really the main Scottish Beverage. The real main Scottish Beverage is a soft-drink, just like almost everywhere else. No, not "The Cola Drink". The Scots, being the independent people that they are, have their own soft-drink. It's called "Irn Bru". It's hard to describe -- sort of citrus-y, sort of vanilla-y. It was pretty good in fact. It's sold everywhere, and I read somewhere that it's more popular in Scotland than "The Cola Drink". Amazing!

Driving in the U.K.

Many potential travelers in the U.K. are frightened by the prospect of driving on the "wrong" side of the road. This fear is unwarranted. Driving on the left side of the road is relatively painless, and one gets used to it fairly quickly. Shifting a manual transmission with the left hand is easy to pick up also. There are two problem areas associated with driving in the U.K. The minor annoyance of always trying to enter the car on the wrong side, and the other, much more intractable problem of the roads.

The roads in the U.K. are designed, engineered, and constructed by people who hate drivers and cars. Imagine, if you will, any small country road in the U.S. It has two lanes, one in each direction of travel, and a shoulder alongside, usually paved, but sometimes just gravel, or even dirt. The lanes are wide enough for a truck or car, and the shoulder is usually wide enough to pull off the road so that traffic can still get by. Now imagine a U.S. highway, any highway. There are at least two lanes in each direction, wide, paved shoulders, and clearly marked exits, entrances, overpasses, cloverleaf's, etc. You get on the highway at the entrance nearest to your starting point, and get off at the exit nearest your destination, traveling at a high speed, usually 5 or 10 mph faster than the speed limit the entire time you are on the highway. Forget all that. Roads in the U.K. are different.

There are 4 major kinds of roads in the U.K.: Motor-ways, A-highways, B-roads, and the unnumbered roads. The vast majority of the roads are the A-roads. They have numbers, like A7, A87, A789, A9808. They will tell you that the faster, wider, major A-roads have fewer digits in the name, so that the A7 is faster than the A9808. This is only partially true. Lets describe a typical A-road in Britain. The traffic lane that you drive in varies in width from 6-inches wider than your car, to 1 foot narrower than your car. How can you drive down a highway lane narrower than your car you ask. Hah! We'll get into that shortly. How about the shoulder? Forget shoulders. The edge of your lane is the edge of the road.

Photo by D. Kravitz

What's beyond? Stone walls, buildings, or ten-foot-high, extremely dense hedges. Wait, you say, if the lane is narrower than my car, and the edge of the lane is a stone wall, what do I do when a huge lorry (that's U.K. for truck), or giant Italian tour bus is trying to go past me in the opposite direction? There are two choices; Choice one: You can stop, and hope that there's enough room on the other side of the road for the huge lorry or tour bus to pull to the side and pass you, or, Choice two: you die. This is on a normal A-road highway, out in the countryside. A-roads, however are unlike U.S. highways in several other ways. Another difference is that they almost all go through the little picturesque towns that dot the countryside. When they do, they become town streets. Narrow town streets. And what do people do on these town streets? They park. Now most town streets in the U.S. have a lane in each direction, and a place next to the lanes for cars to park. If they are too narrow to allow parking, they prohibit parking. Not so in the U.K. Cars park anywhere. If you are driving 60 miles an hour down the A86, and it suddenly enters the town of say, Balbeggie, you will suddenly discover a car, or van, or lorry parked in your lane. Not alongside your lane. IN your lane. Again, you stop, and go around the parked car when nobody is coming in the opposite direction. Of course, there are cars and lorries parked in the opposite lane also, so going through town on the major highway is like negotiating a mine field, zig-zagging between opposite lanes between parked cars, lorries, and tour buses.

Now, some of the big, fast, major super-highway A-roads start out looking like U.S. highways. They'll have two lanes in each direction, called Dual-Carriage-ways in the U.K. and big, paved shoulders. and you'll be able to travel at 60 miles per hour. Not for long. If you get on one of these roads, don't expect to go fast for very long. The road builders have other nefarious ways of dealing with the hated drivers. One is called the roundabout. We call them traffic circles. Very, very rarely in the U.S. you'll encounter a traffic circle. They are so rare, we consider them quaint. In the U.K. you will encounter thousands of them. Some highways have them every ten feet. There are virtually no overpasses, cloverleaf's, or conventional intersections. Almost every place a road crosses another road, or every time an exit is needed on the highway, there is a roundabout. When you come to a roundabout, you have to look to your right (not your left, stupid), to see if a car, or huge lorry, or giant tour bus is already in the roundabout and is barreling down on you. If it is, you stop. You wait until the roundabout is clear, and then enter the roundabout, going left , and get off when you find your particular exit from the roundabout. Many times, it is 180 degrees from where you entered, since you really wanted to just go straight. Some times we encountered 10 or 12 roundabouts within a mile. On a major highway.

The road builders have another way to thwart the highway driver. A fast, wide, shouldered super-highway dual-carriage-way will continue for say, half a mile. Then the dual-carriage-way will shrink back to one lane in each direction, and the shoulders will vanish, and the lanes will narrow and the road will become narrow, twisty, hilly, and the safest speed any sane person will be able to travel is about 20 mph. Sometimes, out of pity, the road builders will put up a sign that reads "Oncoming vehicles in center of road". This is nice of them. It tells you that the huge lorry or tour bus coming your way will be barreling down the center of the road, and that there is no hope of it passing along side you. Unfortunately, this is true on most of the roads, even if there is no sign.

I just gave you a concise description of the major A-roads. Let's talk briefly about the B-roads. Death, carnage, mutilation, torture. That describes B-roads. Take the narrowest, twistiest, hilliest, most dangerous A-road, and remove all hope of it every getting wider, and that's a B-road.

Sounds bad, you say. There's worse. Some places in England, and most places in Scotland, have something called a Single-Track road. Take a narrow, twisty, hilly B-road, and remove one lane. Did I hear you say "Wait, there's only one lane in each direction. How do you remove a lane?" Simple, I answer, you have one lane for both directions.Let's me make this clear, the road has ONE LANE for cars, lorries, tour buses, etc. going in either direction. Let me make it clearer, the total width of the entire road is one vehicle wide. Not two. How does this work, you ask? Just barely, I answer. The rules are simple. You drive down the road, and if you see a car,or huge truck, or enormous tour bus coming the other way, you pull over into a Passing Place. What's a Passing Place you ask? Well that depends on whether you are in England or Scotland. In Scotland, the nice, friendly, Scottish road builders have actually widened the road with a little place where one car can pull aside to let a vehicle pass by in the opposite direction, and they have these passing places every few yards and the have a little sign next to them that says "Passing Place". They usually alternate sides, so you'll have a passing place on your side, and then twenty or thirty yards further there'll be a passing place on the opposite side, and whichever vehicle gets to a passing place first is supposed to pull over, and stop, and allow the other vehicle to get by. Why go to all the trouble to build passing places every few yards, and put up signs? Why not just widen the road? I haven't a clue. Now, that was a Single Track Road in Scotland, which by-the-way usually is marked with a sign that says "Single-Track Road".

In England however there are no signs. There are no engineered passing places. If you are lucky, and you encounter a huge logging lorry coming the opposite way on a road about 3 inches wider than your car, with high, jagged, stone walls on both sides, there will be a spot just a little bit wider where the stone wall curves away from the road, and you can pull over, fold in your rear-view mirrors, wish that you had not taken the insurance-waiver when you rented the car, and watch as the huge lorry attempts to drive by, millimeters from tearing your fenders and doors off. If you aren't lucky, like we weren't, there is no wide place, and you have to back up, around twisty curves, between stone walls, until you come to the wide place. What fun! Oh, did I mention that some of these death-trap single-track roads have names like A7? That's right, a major highway can suddenly become a single-track tourist killer.

Now, I have to describe how the locals travel these roads. Twice as fast as a sane person, down the middle of the road. I am amazed that any native Scots are still alive. Very few tourists are.

Actually, this leads me to another theory of mine. While traveling in Scotland, along these single track roads, we frequently came upon establishments advertising venison for sale. We found very few restaurants that served venison, and few deer, but many places claiming to sell venison. Given the danger to tourists attempting to drive on Scottish single-track roads, I'm not so sure that it really is venison. Enough said. Well, just one more statement. They also serve a lot of sausage with Scottish breakfasts. That's all I'm going to say about it. Really.

I will also say this about drivers in the U.K. When they are not barreling down the middle of a narrow, twisty road at 60mph, ignoring any white lines that may, or may not, be in the middle of the road, they are very, very polite.

Oh, I forgot to talk about the unnumbered roads. Don't even think about them. Ever.

Another thing about roads in Scotland and England is that they are not photographer-friendly. What do I mean by that? Well, in the U.S., if you drive down a road known for its scenic beauty, chances are you will come to a "scenic lookout", or some place to pull over and admire the scenery, and maybe even take a picture or two. Even if there's no lookout place, there's probably room on the shoulder to stop, get out, and take a picture. England, and definitely Scotland have many, many places of scenic beauty. No place to pull over though. No shoulders, no pullouts, very narrow lanes. If you stop to take a picture, you'll likely end up as the hood ornament on a huge lorry. Driving through Scotland, I saw several hundred places that would have made lovely photographs. Didn't get a single one. I think that the Scots are afraid of people stealing their precious photons. England, however is different. They have lots of lovely scenic spots also, but they are even more protective of their photons. They line the roads with 6 to 10 foot high, dense, hedges, so you can't even see the beautiful scenery, never mind photograph it. We knew there was beautiful scenery because every once in a while there was a small gap in the hedges for a gate to allow sheep to cross the road, and we could just glimpse the beautiful countryside through the gap. I'm not kidding about the hedges. They are 6 to 10 feet high, and are trimmed to be vertical walls, exactly at the edge of the driving lanes. We even saw the machines they use to trim the hedges.

I could go on for a long time about roads in England and Scotland (I haven't yet been to Wales, but I doubt things are different there), but I will summarize: During our trip I drove over 2200 miles in Scotland and England, and lived to tell the tale, and our rental car was unscathed. I cannot say the same for my wife's peace of mind. She spent most of the trip cowering, screaming "slow down" (When I was doing 20mph), and turning various lovely shades of green. She refused to drive a single inch. In the U.S. she loves to drive.