A spring so­journ in Scot­land

With the sun out, the Scot­tish coun­try­side is all the more en­chant­ing.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By S.S. YOGA star2­travel@thes­tar.com.my Old Pul­teney is whisky heaven to con­nois­seurs.

AS LUCK would have it, there were lots of blue skies and sun­shine this spring in Scot­land, de­spite the almost daily fore­casts of rain, over­cast skies and chilly tem­per­a­tures.

We felt lucky be­cause Scot­land is of­ten dis­counted as a travel des­ti­na­tion be­cause of its rather damp and gloomy weather. It was in­deed chilly even with the sun out, but the cold only ac­cen­tu­ated the haunt­ing beauty of the Scot­tish high­lands’ rough and wild ter­rains.

In spring, Scot­land’s coun­try­side is a glo­ri­ous sight to be­hold, with the bright greens of its val­leys and moun­tains dot­ted with the bril­liant yel­low of wild gorse in full bloom. Smell the flow­ers with their fra­grance of co­conut oil, and switch your kilts for beach­wear.

We didn’t see the iconic Scot­tish this­tles in the wild be­cause it was still early in the sea­son. The clos­est I got to this­tles was a shop sign in Ed­in­burgh that says, “This­tle will do”. Guess it would have to do.

Birdies, col­lies and sheep

Our merry In­sight Va­ca­tions group of 37 tourists from the United States, Canada and Aus­tralia, a Sin­ga­porean jour­nal­ist and yours truly started this Coun­try Roads of Scot­land tour at the end of April from the Scot­tish cap­i­tal city.

Ed­in­burgh is a neat, com­pact city filled with ar­chi­tec­tural won­ders, rich in his­tory and con­nec­tions to lit­er­ary greats.

While it has a gar­den-feel and nat­u­ral at­trac­tions, it was still a cityscape and our coun­try ex­pe­ri­ence only started on the third day of our tour when we made our way through the Firth (Scot­tish for es­tu­ary) of Forth over the Forth Bridge into Fife. As we “un-twisted” our tongues, our eyes met with soon to be fa­mil­iar land­scapes – un­du­lat­ing rich green farm­land, craggy cliffs and rocks, and sunny, deep blue skies.

Our first brief stop was at the home of golf, St An­drews, lo­cated some 50km away from Ed­in­burgh. The golfers in our group were vis­i­bly ex­cited when our VIP-coach – with comfy seats and Wifi – parked next to the iconic golf club one chilly morn­ing.

I quickly made my way to the ru­ins of the St An­drews Cas­tle on the head­lands nearby, along the coast of the rough wa­ters of the North Sea. The first cas­tle was built in the late 12th cen­tury and de­stroyed many times as it changed hands be­tween the Scots and the English.

My at­ten­tion was drawn to a glimpse of spires and I hot­footed over to an­other set of ru­ins, St. An­drews Cathe­dral, the largest in Scot­land. Its vast grave­yard is filled with many in­ter­est­ing tomb­stones.

We passed many beau­ti­ful towns and vil­lages as we headed to Pit­lochry.

Our ex­pe­ri­enced Tour Direc­tor Michael Doughty (Big Mike), who has the gift of the gab (and blar­ney), in­formed us that our first op­tional ex­cur­sion (guests need to pay an ad­di­tional fee for op­tion­als) was up next, the Blair Cas­tle. Its his­tory dates back to 1269, and in­volves notable names and events in Scot­tish his­tory – the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, Mary Queen of Scots, the Civil War and the Ja­co­bite Cause. Learn also why Queen Vic­to­ria’s se­cond visit in 1844 led to the cre­ation of Bri­tain’s only pri­vate army – the Atholl High­landers.

We could not take pic­tures within the cas­tle but ex­pect to be wowed and over­whelmed by how beau­ti­ful, elab­o­rate and fancy the in­te­ri­ors and the fur­nish­ings are, as well as by the sto­ries of its oc­cu­pants.

From a royal abode, we pro­ceeded to Leault Farm in Kin­craig, a sheep farm where we were given a unique and en­ter­tain­ing les­son on how sheep­dogs are trained.

There was also a sheep shear­ing demon­stra­tion.

Top sheep trainer/breeder Neil Ross cer­tainly loves his craft, “I’ll do it for noth­ing,” said Ross whose pas­sion for his craft was ev­i­dent as he put the eight bor­der col­lies through their paces in a highly ed­u­ca­tional yet en­ter­tain­ing demon­stra­tion. He also in­vited us to try our hand at shear­ing sheep.

Bat­tle­fields, hid­ing places and Scotch

The next day, we had a nice walk along the calm shores of the serene and pretty Loch Ness. The gen­tle “wa­ter horse” Nessie did not come out to greet us though. It didn’t mat­ter as the scenery was breath­tak­ing.

Back in 1746, an im­por­tant bat­tle for Scot­land took place, which ended on April 16. The Ja­co­bites led by Bon­nie Prince Char­lie were seek­ing to re­store the Stu­art monar­chy to the Bri­tish throne. The Ja­co­bite forces were dec­i­mated bru­tally on the fields of Cul­lo­den.

The site of the tragic event is now pre­served and so are the mass graves and the Cul­lo­den Bat­tle­field.

At the Vis­i­tor’s Cen­tre, an in­ter­ac­tive dis­play takes vis­i­tors through this his­tor­i­cal event. Vis­i­tors end up on the bat­tle­field it­self and it’s a grim re­minder that vi­o­lence begets vi­o­lence.

I needed a stiff drink af­ter the his­tory les­son and it so hap­pened that we ended up at the Old Pul­teney Dis­tillery in Wick for a tour to see how whisky – or what the Amer­i­cans call scotch – is made.

Most peo­ple might be fa­mil­iar with blended whisky but con­nois­seurs know that sin­gle malts are a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter an “in­tox­i­cat­ing’ sniff around the dis­tillery, I savoured my long awaited dram of a 12-year-old Old Pul­teney. It was manna from heaven.

Our base for the next two nights was the pretty lit­tle town of Thurso, our base to ex­plore the Orkney Is­lands.

Af­ter that, our tour route would cut across stunning, pris­tine land­scapes that in­clude the bogs to the west, for a look at the Isle of Skye. There were more beau­ti­ful and glo­ri­ous vis­tas to be ad­mired as we ended up at the stunning Loch Lomond.

Our tour ended in Glas­gow. The last day was a quick city tour. We saw the re­main­ing parts of the city that have not been bombed out, in­clud­ing one of the most beau­ti­ful ceme­ter­ies in the world, the Ne­crop­o­lis.

For a long time, Glas­glow’s rep­u­ta­tion was less than savoury but it has since trans­formed it­self into a city of arts and cul­ture. All the mu­se­ums in the city do not charge en­trance fees.

The Scots are also gen­er­ous in their food por­tions and we were well-fed through­out the jour­ney.

My big­gest take­away food-wise is that I tried Scot­land’s in­fa­mous hag­gis and not only sur­vived the ex­pe­ri­ence but loved it to bits.

And just like the ver­dict for the hag­gis, our tour group pro­nounced the tour a suc­cess­ful and sat­is­fy­ing one.

To book your hol­i­day with In­sight Va­ca­tions, visit http://in­sight­va­ca­tions.cit.travel, or call +603 2091 9988/email in­sight@cit.travel.

— S.S. YOGA/The Star

Glo­ri­ous yel­low gorse bright­en­ing up the hills at Lairg.

— Photos: S.S. YOGA/The Star

Ne­crop­o­lis in Glas­gow is said to be one of the most beau­ti­ful grave­yards in the world.

You can watch Ross do a sheep-shear­ing demon­stra­tion and try it your­self.

Part of St An­drews Cathe­dral and the beau­ti­ful graves in its court­yard.

The fa­mous ru­ins of St An­drew’s Cas­tle in Fife ... it’s not just about golf here in this fa­mous sea­side town.

There was no sign of Nessie at the peace­ful, serene and beau­ti­ful Loch Ness.

Blair Cas­tle has very well-main­tained and ap­pointed rooms filled with a trea­sure trove of his­tory.

Beau­ti­ful Helms­dale on the north-east of Scot­land in the high­lands is typ­i­cal of the lit­tle towns that dot this area.

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