Category Archives: Scotland

Scotch Whisky

Before arriving in Scotland I’d heard of something called the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE).  Other than reading it was worth visiting, and its near the Edinburgh Castle, I knew nothing about what it actually was other than it having something to do with scotch.  Also, I knew it would make all my scotch loving friends massively jealous and that was enough to make up my mind…I was going!  These types of tours are typically not as much fun solo, luckily I had met two friends (Andrea and Tim) in my hostel that also wanted to go.

Since we three were all traveling long-term, on a budget (Andrea, about 7 months and Tim, over 2 years!, and me, somewhere between), we chose to take the least expensive tour available.  While some tours included dinner and some other extras, ours was more basic…but still fantastic!  The tour guide placed us in a roller-coaster-like whisky barrel seat and we went on a 10 minute ride that explained the entire process of making Scotch.  Starting with ingredients, then going through the different methods used to create malt, on to aging, bottling, etc.  I knew most of the process already but they present the information in an interesting way and I think it would be easy for someone with no previous knowledge to follow along.  After the informational ride our guide took us into a room with about 25 tasting glasses set up, unfortunately only one was for me.  She explained the four main distilling regions for single malts in Scotland and the characteristics of each.  They include:

  • Islay – Has distinct smoky flavors that come from peat.
  • Speyside – Where most Scotch distilleries are located and the two best-selling single malts in the world, The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, are distilled here.  Speyside Scotch tastes either grassy and light or sweet and rich.
  • Highland – Has a wide range of flavors due to its large geographical size.  Tastes range from dry to sweet with a touch of smoke/peat.
  • Lowland – Light bodied with subtle malt and grassy aromas.

Along with the 4 main single malt regions there are also blended scotch whisky distillers (Johnny Walker being the world’s best selling) where they will mix several different single malts to create a unique blend.

After giving us the 411 on the single malt regions we practiced picking out the different aromas using a scratch and sniff card.  No joke.  After only a few minutes with the card, along with some tips/hints from our guide, we were (nearly) able detect fruity notes in Speyside Whiskies and the stronger smoky peat flavors from Islay.  We then got to choose a single malt from one region, or a blend to taste.  Since the night before I had indulged in a small, airplane sized bottle of 18-year-old Bowmore (an Islay scotch), I chose to try Speyside.  Tim picked Islay and Andrea went with the Highland region.  Out guide poured each of our drinks and led us to another room, the tasting room.  While she was unlocking the door I realized this was the only locked room on the tour, and for good reason as it houses the world’s largest collection of unopened single malt scotch.  Over 3400 unique bottles, no duplicates.  That’s three thousand four hundred bottles of single malt scotch, unique and unopened!  Owned by the parent company of Johnny Walker, and on loan to the SWE for 10 years, it’s the perfect place to taste scotch and end the tour.  Since Andrea, Tim, and I each chose a different scotch to taste we decided to taste each others also.  And with our new knowledge of the subtle flavors and aromas unique to each region it was quite easy to pick out the differences in the three, and I suspect if we were able to try whisky from the Lowlands on this day we could have picked out its characteristics as well.

Below is a video of the tasting room (apologies for the amateur-ish-ness, my cameraman doesn’t exist so I shot this with my iPhone).

You do not need to be a scotch connoisseur to enjoy this experience.  The historical and cultural information learned from the SWE stand alone as reason enough to visit, and the whisky barrel ride, while sort of kitschy, is entertaining.  The tasting at the end, in that tasting room, is just icing on the cake.  I think almost anyone, apart from someone who is against drinking alcohol altogether, would have a good time at the SWE.

This was a really enjoyable morning for all three of us (that’s right, we were doing this at 10 am!) and something I wish I could have shared with my brother and our scotch loving friends, but was glad to share it with two other solo travelers nonetheless.  It’s something I would recommend to anyone traveling to Edinburgh, and when I go back to Scotland I may do it again, just to see that collection!

A Travelers Life…

Sorry… no interesting pictures, amusing stories, or fancy travel advice today.  This post is all about me!…kind of, it’s actually more about my life on the road.  Where I go, where I stay, how I get there, etc.

Earlier this week I hit the four-month mark on the road and started thinking about all the places I’d been.  That thought grew into a whole list of things, places, people, etc. and eventually into this post.  So as of Sunday August 4th I had traveled/done/seen/visited/met…you get the idea.

I’ve watched bull fights in Spain, major championship golf in Scotland, and live Fado in Portugal.

I’ve been to the top of Cathedral bell towers in three countries, the top of mountains in two countries, and the top of the 199 Steps in Whitby, England.

I’ve dipped my toes in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, swam in the Caribbean, and surfed in the North Atlantic.

I’ve drunk cheap and awesome local wine in Spain and France, four different brands of Irish stout in Ireland, whisky and whiskey in Scotland and Ireland, respectively, Real Ale in England, a Belfast Bomber in Belfast, and moonshine adega wine in a Portuguese Adega.

I’ve slept in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…and buses.

I’ve learned to think in Celsius, Euro’s, British Pounds, kilometers, and the 24 hour clock.

I’ve randomly been in cities that had some of their biggest yearly festivals and events when I was there but also been to places that had absolutely nothing interesting going on.  Both situations have been great experiences.

I’ve been on walking tours, bus tours, museum tours, castle tours, and pub tours (pub crawls).

Travel by numbers:

Time Away

  • .345 Years
  • 18 Weeks
  • 126 Days

Places Visited

  • 8 Castles/Palaces
  • 10 Countries
  • 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • 47 Cities/Towns/Villages

Places Slept

  • 1 Cruise Ship
  • 1 Hotel
  • 1 Surflodge
  • 10 Houses
  • 24 Hostels
  • 37 Different Beds

Transport

  • 1 Cruise Ship
  • 1 Cable Car
  • 1 Gondola
  • 2 Taxis
  • 2 Funiculars
  • 3 Airplanes
  • 6 Subway Systems
  • 9 Cars
  • 14 Trains (plus a few I’ve forgotten about)
  • 22 Buses (plus several I’ve forgotten about)

Met and Talked With People From

  • 47 Countries

Events

  • 2 Sporting Events
  • 4 Concerts
  • 6 Festivals

…and this is just the stuff off the top of my head.  I’ve seen and done all of this in only four months….and I’m just getting started!

Scotland in Pictures!

Edinburgh Castle vs. Stirling Castle: Where Should You Spend Your Vacation Dollars?

As travelers we’re drawn to certain things; the vast, beautiful expanses of rugged mountain ranges, serene secluded beaches, the ruins left by ancient civilizations and the world-changing architecture in modern cities.

The list goes on and on and everyone’s list will be a little different.  I think, though, something on every travelers list of places to visit will be castles.  There is something inherently appealing about them.  Maybe it’s the fact that many are in idyllic settings; high on hilltops overlooking forests or river valleys.  It could be because there is so much history we can learn about the people who called these places home and the battles fought to protect their surrounding lands.  Whatever the reason, something steers a traveler’s compass towards castles.  But our fascination with them is where their similarities end.

Over three months I’ve visited many castles while traveling in Europe and one thing I’ve learned: all castles are not equal.  Some are dark, others very colorful.  Some near present day city centers, others much more secluded.  Some look the part of a picturesque Disney fairy tale castle, some aren’t so beautiful, and others, just plain ugly.  Some overlook small rural communities, other urban sprawls.  Many show the scars of countless battles, some never saw one.  And some, after centuries of life, lie in ruins, while others stay well-preserved.

On my way to Scotland, and with this castle dichotomy in mind, I faced a decision.  Edinburgh Castle or Stirling Castle?  They are the two most popular castle visits in Scotland and located near each other. Some say Edinburgh is best to visit, others Stirling.  Since I’d be staying in both cities I decided to compare the two myself and tell you all what I found, then, if you find yourself traveling in Scotland, you can decide for yourself where to spend your vacation dollars.

I visited Stirling first and from the cemetery that sits next to the castle there is a decent view of the hilltop it sits on.  From this vantage point there are two big buildings and part of a castle wall visible.  ‘That’s it?’, I thought.  There didn’t seem to be a lot going on, but when walking towards the entrance gate you’ll realize there are several buildings that make up this castle.  They range from small to very big and were built by many generations of royalty that ruled there.  I rented the audio guide while touring the castle grounds and went to every room in every building that was open.  After spending about 17 pounds for my day at the castle (about $25 USD) I wanted to get my monies worth!  Also, I wanted to have the full experience so I could compare Stirling to Edinburgh.  The audio guide was very informational and interesting.  It told the story of each building on the castle grounds, the people who built them, as well as a lot of Scottish history.

Like Stirling, Edinburgh Castle is not a typical Disney-esque looking castle with one enormous main building complete with towers and battlements that dominates a landscape and is surrounded by wall and moat.  It too has several buildings that were built over centuries.  Also like in Stirling, to get the full castle experience, I rented the audio guide and went into to every area that was open.  Again, the audio guide was filled with great historical information about the castle and interesting facts about the kings and queens who ruled there.

Below is my comparison of Stirling and Edinburgh Castles.

Tour

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle
  • Stirling – It is interesting to walk through all the buildings including the Royal Palace (which recreates how it would have looked in the mid 16th century), the Great Hall that is the largest ever in Scotland, and the Chapel Royal (built-in 1594 for the baptism of James VI’s first son).  The complex also houses the Regimental Museum which tracks the history of the Argyll and Sutherlands British Army regiment, formed in 1881 and based at Stirling Castle, the Stirling Heads Gallery which showcases much of the carvings from around the castle complex, and the Castle Exhibition that shows a timeline and information of all monarchs that shaped the castle.  To me it felt more like a museum then an old castle.
  • Edinburgh – Like at Stirling, the Edinburgh Castle has Regimental Museums, a Great Hall, an old chapel, and a Royal Palace.  It also has some interesting extras like the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Scottish National War Memorial, and Prisons of War.  There is also the One O’clock Gun, which supposedly fires nearly every day at precisely 13:00 since its inception in 1861 as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth.  I say supposedly because of the 8 days I was in Edinburgh I did not hear the One O’clock Gun once.

Advantage, Edinburgh

Beauty

  • Stirling – There are many buildings in the complex all built at different time periods and in a mix of building styles.  The visual differences of the buildings make going through the castle ‘village’ an interesting and beautiful walk.  My favorites are the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal interior and the old gatehouse.
  • Edinburgh – Again, many buildings make up the castle grounds.  Unlike Stirling Castle, there’s not as great a visual contrast in building styles.  I’m sure someone more versed in architectural styles from these periods would see dozens of differences from building to building but to a layman they seem similar.  It is still a beautiful setting for sure; there just aren’t the striking variances you see at Stirling.

Advantage, Stirling

View

  • Stirling – The castle sits on a hill on the edge of Stirling.  There is a good view of the city and the River Forth.  Looking east you can see The National Wallace Monument and the Ochil Hills a few miles away.

    Edinburgh Castle View Towards the Firth of Forth
    Edinburgh Castle View Towards the Firth of Forth
  • Edinburgh – The castle sits on a high point in the center of Edinburgh, thus has a great view in all directions.  This includes a view of Arthur’s Seat to the east and the Firth of Forth to the north.

Advantage, Edinburgh

Price

  • Stirling – 14 pounds + 3 for the audio guide
  • Edinburgh – 16 + 3

Advantage, push (I think they’re both overpriced, just like seemingly everything in the UK)

So, two votes to one for Edinburgh Castle over Stirling Castle on my personal comparison.  Both were very interesting and there’s a lot of information to soak in.  History buffs would have a great day just reading information and listening to the audio guide at either site.  I think they are definitely worth visiting but if you’re in the area pick one.  Going to both is slightly redundant.

And there is one last reason I have Edinburgh Castle edging out Stirling Castle, and its something I haven’t seen in person.  It has nothing to do with a daily visit to the castle but is something I personally want to witness sometime.  It hosts the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August.  The tattoo is a series of performances that concludes after two weeks with the Lone Piper playing high atop the castle ramparts.  Unfortunately I can’t attend this year but some year I will be there!

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

 

Luck of the….British!!

After 5 minutes in Stirling it was clear I’d come to the right place.

Needing somewhere to spend a few days between leaving Newcastle and when I was due to arrive in Edinburgh I chose to spend some time in Stirling, Scotland. At the time I knew little about this city in the northern part of the Scottish Lowlands, actually I only knew about the castle there and depending to who you ask; the Stirling Castle is as good a site to visit…or better…than the Edinburgh Castle. And since I’d been having good luck traveling places in the UK I knew next to nothing about (e.g. Norwich, Whitby) I used airbnb.com to rent an inexpensive room in a family’s house in a town called Tullibody (about 5 miles east of Stirling), bought a train ticket and set off.

Old Stirling Bridge
Old Stirling Bridge

Upon finally arriving at Stirling Station (I’ve had delays on nearly every train in the UK, including both on this trip) and getting picked up I knew my British luck had continued. I immediately saw two interesting things previously unknown to me that made me glad I came. One is a very old, and very cool, bridge crossing the River Forth that snakes its way through the northern part of the city. The second is the National William Wallace Monument that rests high atop the Abbey Craig. Standing guard over the river valley and tidal area west of the Firth of Forth this monument, in honor of the 13th century Wars of Scottish Independence hero Sir William Wallace, is 220 feet in height with 246 steps (I counted), mainly in a narrow spiral sandstone staircase, to the viewing gallery at the top. Luckily there are three interesting levels for pit-stops along the way.

The National Wallace Monument
The National Wallace Monument

The first level is ‘The Story of Wallace’, sort of life history of William Wallace complete with a talking Wallace figure/mannequin (it sounds cheesy but when you see how they pull

William Wallace's Sword
William Wallace’s Sword

it off it’s actually pretty cool, and at the right angle a little creepy!). There’s a lot of interesting information in this room and it displays William Wallace’s personal two-handed broadsword. Its massive at 5 ft. 6 in. in length and stands proudly in a glass case. Its said Wallace must have been a very strong man standing at least 6 ft. 6 in. to have used such a large sword. Move up to the second level and you’ll find the ‘Hall of Heroes’ which houses the busts of many famous Scotsmen from throughout history. And on the third level the controversial story of the monument itself gets told (like many public buildings that are now considered pieces of art themselves, when the Wallace Monument was being built, it was thought of as an ugly scar on the Lowlands landscape by some). Once adequately rested from the first 210 or so steps climb the few remaining and arrive on the viewing gallery where you have panoramic views for miles in every direction. In the photo below you can see Stirling Castle on a hill below the horizon and above the river bend.

View towards Stirling from National Wallace Monument
View towards Stirling from National Wallace Monument

The Wallace Monument, while not as heavily advertised as some attractions, to me is easily the best in the area. It is not too expensive, it is historical and informational, it will be your daily workout (you have to hike about 20 minutes to the top of the crag and then climb 246 steps to get the top), it is beautiful and offers by far the best vantage point in the area, and it is just plain cool! It’s the best monument I’ve visited in Europe.

I learned many interesting bits of history while visiting the Wallace Monument and I also learned that the portrayal of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart was fairly close to a historic representation. He was a patriot in every sense of the word and left a lasting legacy few can match. Think about this: the monument was built in 1869…564 years after Wallace’s death in 1305. Five Hundred Sixty Four Years!

Wallace Monument with Scottish Flag Flying at its Base
Wallace Monument with Scottish Flag Flying at its Base