Uisge Beatha

Queen Victoria was a big fan of Scotland. During her reign, she decided that it would behoove her to see how the people of her nation lived. She also realized that her kingdom extended beyond England, and she traveled accordingly. In 1842, five years after taking the throne, she made her first trip to Scotland.

While she was in Scotland, she fell in love with the country. Sir Walter Scott was one of her favorite writers, and she loved the lifestyle his novels depicted. Despite what Scottish people today tell you about Scott’s Waverley novels, they were a major factor in bringing Queen Victoria to the highlands and, consequently, her campaign to revitalize Scottish culture (including, but not limited to, the wearing of tartan and kilts), which had been rather brutally suppressed by the English until then. Queen Victoria loved the highlands so much that she bought herself a castle, Balmoral, so that she could have her own home whenever she visited Scotland.

On one of her trips to Scotland, she stopped in a wee little town called Pitlochry (pit-loH-ree). Pitlochry has never been what you might call a happenin’ place. In fact, even today, its population is less than 3,000 and the entire downtown area is probably half a mile’s worth of one street. However, Queen Victoria thought it was pretty cute, and that one remark brought in the tourists.

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Today, tourists still flock to Pitlocry, but usually with bus tours. In the UK, bus drivers are legally required to take half-hour breaks from driving at regular intervals, which, quite frankly, is a great idea. Many bus tours stop in Pitlochry, especially on their way back to Edinburgh or Glasgow from a day tour in the highlands. Unfortunately for the people on the tours, the itinerary usually puts the buses into Pitlochry around 5:30, and all the shops close at five o’clock on the dot. Let me tell you, it makes for a bit of a dull walk around town. However, if you’re there during the day, it’s just as cute as Queen Victoria said it was.

I was in Pitlochry right as the leaves were starting to turn, and it was lovely. Just out of town there are several walking paths that go up into the hills that surround the town. The one that I followed took me up to Black Spout, a waterfall on one of the mountain rivers that runs down and into the River Tummel.

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I followed the river back down to the outskirts of town, where I found the Blair Athol Distillery. Now, if you know anything about Scotland, you know that the people have an affinity for distilling a certain spirit, which they call, rather poetically, uisge-beatha (oosh-ka bey-ha): water of life.

Naturally, that refers to whisky.

On a side note, I don’t know that Queen Victoria would have been amused by that.

Whenever you find yourself in Scotland, you should have yerself a wee dram of whisky. It’s part of the cultural experience. Every place you go you’ll be able to order some. The only question you’ll have to answer is single malt or blended?

The Scottish people have strong opinions on that question, being fine distillers of single malt whisky. Blair Athol in Pitlochry, for instance, brews only 12-year single malt whisky. However, they do sell a portion of their whisky to Bell’s, a major company here in the UK which makes blended whisky out of everyone’s single malts. The best way to go, though, is single malt. Each distillery’s single malt is unique to them, and will therefore have a unique flavor that you won’t get in anyone else’s whisky.

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Blair Athol is a fairly small distillery, and an entire tour of their production takes less than an hour. On the tour, you get to see the whole process from start to finish (unless you go on the weekends – then you’ll just see where the process takes places, as they don’t do any distilling on the weekends). At the end of the tour, you’ll have the chance to sample some of their single malt. That tasting comes complete with an explanation on how to drink whisky correctly, including warming it up in your hands and sipping in a civilized fashion, not just knocking it back.

I’m not sure what Queen Victoria would have thought about that, but I thought it was worth the trip.

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