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Telford Bridge
Craigallachie Hotel
Speyside Cooperage
Rothes Castle
Tor Castle
Dallas Dhu Distillery
Askelier Castle
Brodie Castle
Kilravock Castle
Cawdor Castle
Dornoch Castle
Dornoch Cathedral


May 08

Obviously the climate and food and whisky are agreeing with us; we're up bright and early. We met everyone at breakfast again. Leo and Petra are going to climb the Ben today, barring another day of hurricane force winds, of course. I don't think that anyone would prevent them from climbing, even if it was that windy, but the weather is very changeable and it would be risky to be caught on the slopes in a storm. The basic rules for climbing apply, even if you can manage the trek in sandals and a tank top -- tell someone where you are going and when you intend to be back, bring water and food, and be prepared for changes in the weather. It might look like a casual walk, but be careful.

We drove the wrong way out of town to see the Telford Bridge (which is only amusing if you consider that we could SEE it from the hotel parking lot) and ended up just parking and walking across to the river. Mark walked down to take a few pictures from the shore before we packed up. Based on recommendations from other guests, we wanted to go to one of the tours at the Speyside Cooperage (where we'd seen the storage yard yesterday). We showed up in time for their first tour, but we discovered that they had a different, "special" tour that we could still get one, but it didn't start for an hour. The tour is about two and a half hour (as opposed to half an hour), on the floor with the master cooper and a chance to put barrels together and be down in the factory when they toast and char them.

The importance of wood

We decided to wait, and we were so glad that we did! It was the best tour we went on during the Festival. It was very cool to be able to walk down among the coopers, Mark got to put a cask together (with a bit of help) and we got to ask a ton of questions of the master cooper, who has been doing this for nearly thirty years. I will never again underestimate the importance of the cask on whisky of any sort --it can be the defining characteristic of the whisky, changing the same new spirits into completely different things depending on the species of oak, the charring in the barrel, the previous use of the wood.

All the barrels are handmade - they have never found a way to machine-make casks in a way that is both cost effective and produces 'good' barrels. And, considering the cost of a trained cooper and the expense of a cask, we were assured that they had tried, many times. Coopering is one of the few industries that still uses a traditional apprenticeship program (basically an indenture for four years). The apprentices are paid for a six month trial period, and if they stick to it, sign on to remain in the program until they are 'graduated' as coopers. During that time, they are paid on a hourly basis (enough to live on, our guide told us, with the promise of well-paying work when they are finished. Coopers, although paid piecework, are among the highest paid workers in the region.).

Most of the casks that they work on here are 'repairs', or rebuilding the flat-packed casks that are shipped from the US bourbon market, or from the sherry market in Spain. The barrels are un-hooped and packed on pallets and the coopers trim, shape, and rebuilt the casks for the whisky distilleries here. The apprentices start on small casks (these are actually called barrels - - larger sizes are all 'casks') and work their way up to making new barrels. Coopers are not paid for the time if they make a cask with flaws - they have to fix the problem (leaks, mismatched ends, holes) without pay.

Each distillery has a 'recipe' for what sort of cask they are looking for -- what wood, what size, how much the wood is toasted/charred. We stood on the shop floor when Gary, our guide, charred two barrels. He just knows how long each one has to be on the burner, there really isn't any way to time things because every cask is different, each wood stave behaves differently. The completed barrels (minus ends) are placed over a gas flame and covered with a big metal plate. They are allowed to heat up and char inside and when the metal cover is removed, the wood inside flames up, charring the inside of the barrel. It's fun to watch.

One of the things that is very interesting is that tools used by a cooper -- maul, hoop driver, adze, shaver, croze plane, the like, haven't changed much. A museum display of a coopers tools would be just as useful to a cooper today as they were to the original owner - the same tools are used. In fact, Gary told us, some of the older tools are superior to the new ones, something to do with the steel in the blades. Making a barrel today is the same as making a barrel two hundred years ago (with perhaps a mechanical plane being used to trim the staves, or a band saw to cut the ends). It's amazing that a step that is so crucial to the production of whisky is so completely manual and dependent on skilled labor that is, unfortunately, waning. No one wants to commit to the apprenticeship and the long training period (which really are necessary due to the amount of hands-on training that has to happen).

Spending a couple of hours talking to a guy who has worked in all the stages of whisky making about how critical the barrel is -- every single aspect of it-- is eye-opening. It was a fascinating tour.

For about the forty-third time in the last two days, we drove through Rothes, and finally stopped to at least snap a long-distance photo of the squat little tower on the hill overlooking the main street. We skidded to a stop by the side of the road to snap photos of the tiny remaining corner of Tor castle (seriously, one finger of stone remains). Quite a lot of the less important (and less reachable) castles involve me pointing excitedly out the window, yelling 'stop! Stop!' and Mark trying to maneuver the car into some sort of safe parking position so I can leap out and try to get a few pictures. I'm sure that the passing motorists think we're insane. Or a the very least, horrible drivers!

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Dallas Dhu is a Historic Scotland site now, but it was a working distillery up until the 1980s. The old Victorian buildings have been retained as-is. It's interesting to see how little things have changed between this historic site and the currently working distilleries - the mills are the same, the vats are the same, only some of the mechanical things like transport and furnace burners have changed at all. The process certainly hasn't changed. Everything is shut down, carefully repainted, and the audio tour of the place explains the process at least as well as the tours at the other distilleries do. When we were at the Cooperage tour, Gary mentioned a specific name for the narrow-gauge rails that barrels are rolled on and we cannot remember what it is -- but the tracks roll all over the site here; no fork lifts in the 1800s!

The distillery is still bottling casks left over from the working day of the distillery. We had a dram of Roderick Dhu at the end of the tour. Nice, and it's in high demand, because of the finite supply.

It's been raining, then windy, then sunny, then rainy again today. We heard that it actually HAILED in the north, quite severely. But when we left the distillery, it was blue skies and sun. The weather is a bit schizophrenic this time of year. We tried to find Bervie Castle, but no luck. Quite frustrating, really --we should have been able to find it easily enough, it's a very tall tower. Instead, we stopped at Askelier castle in a farmyard as we headed west.

Too far up the coast, and the attendant crabbiness

We made the mistake of booking at Dornoch Castle for the night, though. We are generally heading north, eventually to the Orkneys, but Dornoch is a lot further than we should have bitten off today. We have no real reason to go through Dornoch, except that we enjoyed staying there before and they had a nice restaurant and suddenly I'm having anxiety about it. I have no idea why. It's not like we have any specific reason not to go there, or even that we wouldn’t eventually head north anyway, but the idea of another hour and a half in the car just set me on edge. Weird.

We passed right by Cawdor castle, stopped for a moment at Kilravock to get pictures (and see an enormous tree that looked remarkably like the Whomping Willow from Hogwarts. Mark didn't want to see Fort George again, and so we decided to drive up early and have a nap. I'm actually very unhappy about it and even more unhappy that I'm crabby. Perhaps we're having our 'middle of the vacation grumpy bit" earlier than normal. I should explain - when spending a month driving around with another person, there comes a point when you get in the car, look at the other person and think, "I really don't like you today and I don't know why I married you and if I have to be in the car one more minute I shall scream!" . For us, that usually happens about the third week.

The nap did us good--we arrived in Dornoch very early and simply passed out for a couple of hours. Usually we arrive in the nick of time to B&Bs (it's just polite to set a time to arrive when you're staying in someone's house, to arrive punctually or call as soon as you think you may be late), so we are rushing back out to dinner immediately. It was rather nice to have a couple of hours before walking through town.

Which closes at 5:30, as far as we can tell. Except the bars. It's nice town; Dornoch is a Royal Burgh and the wide street and public square are quite pretty. Everything is shut up tight as a drum, though. We wandered around looking at the town and the huge cathedral. We made a big loop and went back to the hotel to check out the dinner menu. Neither of us wanted foofity food (the restaurant is actually very good, very nouveau Scots-French but we're both just in the mood for chips and pie. We ended up in a little restaurant at the end of the main street, over the bar, eating what was probably pre-prepared frozen food, but it was ok and it was quick. I think I've had fish for the last four nights. Since we didn't see Knickerbockers Glory on the dessert menu, it was all premade 'frozen desserts'. Mark had a mint chocolate puck-thing anyway, which was actually pretty good. We closed the restaurant, though - they locked up after us.

(Perhaps I should explain the Knickerbocker Glory reference, eh? We discovered in Ireland that if a restaurant offered dessert, and Knickerbocker Glory was on the menu, it signified desserts that were mass-produced, shipped in little plastic cups with little plastic spoons -- the sort of things you might buy off an ice-cream truck. Knickerbocker Glory itself is a frozen sundae. Not bad, as frozen treats go, but not what you expect in a restaurant most of the time. So - if it shows up on the menu, the desserts are probably not fresh or homemade, are often overpriced, and should be avoided)

Rolling up the streets at dusk

At 8:00, the town is quiet, except for the ubiquitous group of teenage kids 'hanging around", riding bikes and kicking rocks. I can't quite imagine what it's like to grow up in a town like this. Dornoch is small, and there is nothing to do after things close up at supper time. It's the same everywhere, I know. Kids everywhere are just the same -- same ratty jeans, same tennis shoes, same stupid hats. Transplant them into any town in the world and they'd fit right in. We did see a girl standing on the corner of the square, probably waiting for her parents to pick her up, wheeling a full set of golf clubs in a pink bag. That was probably not the same as everywhere else...

The hotel is supposed to have wireless networking available and we got the password from the desk clerk, but no luck. We can see the network, but can't connect. No blogging tonight!

We're not sure where we're heading tomorrow, probably just up the coast and to the Orkneys. I have a feeling that the ferry schedule will not be conducive to weekend travel, but we'll check on it as soon as we get connected. We pulled the curtains to block out the still-bright evening and went to bed. I'm attributing the crabbiness today to sheer tiredness; a good night's sleep will probably solve everything.