A Tour of Scotland

It was over a few amber elixirs with my friend Margaret Swaine that the idea for our Highland fling was born. I should explain that Margaret, an expert on all things distilled and fermented, makes her living writing and opining on wine and spirits. She was keen to do Scotland’s fabled Malt Whisky Trail. I’m a golf fanatic. I took up the game years ago after a lecture where Professor David Foot, who wrote about boomers in Boom, Bust & Echo, extolled the virtures of the sport for our generation. So we thirsty travellers headed for the Highlands. Upon arrival, we drove north from Glasgow, past Inverness, over the Moray Firth and arrived at the Royal Burgh of Dornoch in the late afternoon.

Malt Stop
Margaret reserved a tour at Glenmorangie Distillery near Dornoch, where I gleaned the basics of whisky making – and tips on drinking it, too. (Adding just a wee nip of water, for example, enhances the flavour.) The tour ended with a taste of the company’s 10-year-old malt, The Original, in which Margaret detected a nose of luscious fruit and vanilla.

In Speyside, Margaret was on a mission to get to the Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel to sample some of the roughly 700 single malts arranged in alphabetical order on shelves around its snug walls. Prices for a dram (25 ml) range from ‘2.35 for a 10-year-old Aberlour to ‘275 for a rare Black Bowmore that is no longer made. For a Scotch aficionado, the Quaich is amber heaven.

Further south, on the Glenlivet tour, our guide informed us that Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Charles Dickens were all partial to the brand. After viewing the various interactive displays and stills, we were invited to a tasting culminating in a 25-year-old vintage. ‘It’s the Sean Connery of whiskies,’ our guide remarked while swirling the nectar in his glass, ‘mature, sexy, rich and debonair.’

The Nature of the Beast
Royal Dornoch is said to be the third-oldest golf course in Scotland. After golf journo Lorne Rubenstein’s glowing accounts, and noting that Golf Magazine ranked it 18th in the world, I had high expectations. Usually such lofty hopes meet with disappointment, but not on this masterpiece conceived by designer Old Tom Morris. If ever a golf course felt like the ultimate, natural collaboration with Mother Nature, this was it. From the elevated third tee, a majestic vista unfolds of seemingly limitless sea, dunes and linksland. The lull of the North Sea and the choir of the shorebirds give one a sense of calm. By the time we hit the eighth hole, we were almost on the beach and in golf nirvana. If I’d spotted a little old Scot in a red coat hitting a feathery, it wouldn’t have surprised me.

A Hole in One
After Dornoch, Nairn and Tain, Cruden Bay Golf Club, just north of Aberdeen, certainly provided a grand finale. From the height of the parking lot, we looked out over one of the most awe-inspiring stretches of linksland ever dedicated to the game. Against a backdrop of North Sea whitecaps, the dunes rise to 18 metres, their shaggy slopes covered in golden fescue. Beyond the first fairway, the ruins of the 16th-century Slains Castle dot the beach. We’ll never forget the intriguing eighth, ninth and 10th fairways. Massive bowl-shaped dunes frame the green on eight, creating an optical illusion that the pin is closer than it is. From the 10th tee, the panorama is breathtaking, with sea and farmland stretching into the horizon and the fairway beneath your feet. A winding burn, crossed by two bridges, protects the green. As James Finegan writes in Where Golf is Great, ‘This is links golf to dote on.’

Where to Stay
Dornoch Castle Hotel: Said to be haunted, the hotel’s Cathedral View room holds the distinction of housing its toilet in the castle’s 15th-century turret. More recently, in 2007, the hotel’s master of the kitchen at the time, Grant McNicol, won the Young Chef of the Year award from the Scottish Chefs Association.

Craigellachie Hotel: After experiencing the hotel’s Quaich Bar, walk it off with a stroll through Speyside. Looking for local lore? Head to The Fiddichside Inn, where nothing has changed since the 1950s. Sepia photos of salmon fishermen and illicit distillers cover the walls of this tiny one-room bar where the 80-something owner, Dorothy, recalls the good old days.

Minmore House Hotel: Jack Russell terriers Bella and Jock hold court in this quintessential Scottish country house. Each of the 10 rooms is named after a Glenlivet single malt, and amenities include miniature bottles of Glenlivet to tide one over until dinner. Also try the lavish afternoon tea and a hike on one of the area’s Smugglers’ Trails.

Planning Tools
Visit Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail website to help you plan a tour of the only malt whisky trail in the world, covering more than half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries. Also check out High Road Golf Expeditions to arrange a customized tour of the Scottish and Irish links.