Scotland is and isn’t what you’d expect. There’s no denying that the endless moors blush purple when the heather is in bloom. From the ruins of Urquhart Castle, you scour Loch Ness for a glimpse of scaly, monster-size fins rippling the water. (You might as well admit it now: You will keep your camera ready…just in case.) In Edinburgh, the castle looms as high and mighty as you knew it would, as the ail of a bagpipe chorus spills over the city. But even as you check the sights off your list – Urquhart Castle, the Caledonian forest, Culloden Moor — you quickly start to sense what the Scots have known forever. Beyond the warm, homey glow of your fireplace, there’s a wild and beautiful land barely held at bay.
On tour, it begins with Davy, one of our expert local guides and as fine a Scotsman as you’ll find. You can talk rugby with him. And the hunting tactics of dolphins that have a taste for wild salmon in Moray Firth. And the nuances of kilt wearing (which he does regularly, not just for show, in three family tartans). You realize in a hurry that how the Scots live their lives today says a lot about centuries of creating islands of comfort where you least expect them.
Take Neil, a shepherd at Leault Farm in Kincraig. His vast flocks of sheep scatter over steep green pastures. When you stop for a visit, he puts his team of incredible collies through their paces. It’s tempting to think of it as a show-off exercise in precision training, but this is really a story of survival and ingenuity. Beautiful as it is, the terrain is mainly good for grazing; for centuries wool has been a linchpin of the economy. Neil is only the latest generation of Scots who’ve used patience and wits to tame nature.
You could argue whether or not they’ve really tamed nature on the Old Course at St. Andrews. Faced with unruly Scottish topography, how anyone could even conceive of the idea of golf here is a mystery. Talking to local golfers before and after a walk on the course, you probably won’t come up with a good answer. Still, the pairing of meticulously manicured greens and your-ball-is-lost-forever roughs is as a good metaphor as any for a country where the wild and the sophisticated coexist in natural harmony.
The suave side of the equation sits well on the shoulders of our friends at Eden Mill Distillery. It’s easy enough to imagine why monks bottled their first batch to counteract a winter wind blowing through the glen 400 or 500 years ago. When you sit down for a nosing session, it’s harder to imagine the rough dram created by a moonshiner, so-called because he ran his still at night to avoid the Malt Tax of 1725. Distillers will guide you to catch the peat and vanilla notes. Part of the skill is to feel a bit of the burn in your nose, then the smoothness on your tongue. Rough and smooth. Fiery and mellow. Invigorating and soothing. The Scots know that you never get one without the other. After your first day in Scotland, you’ll understand why they wouldn’t want to have it any other way.