14 October 2010--We have an appointment at the Aberlour distillery today. There was the choice of either a 10:00 or 2:00 tour.
The morning one is tempting--whisky tastes so good before noon--but Aberlour does a pretty comprehensive tasting at the end of their
tours, and I know the day will be shot after that, so it'll be the afternoon one. For the morning, I've planned to take the boys to
see some sights in and around Elgin--Duffus Castle, Spynie Palace, Elgin Cathedral, the Gordon & MacPhail shop. But prior to the trip,
I lent them both my copy of Local Hero, to put them in the mood. Now they wish to see Pennan, where the exteriors were filmed.
I'm always up for a trip along the Moray coast. Away we go.
The weather is more typically Scottish today, cloudy with some occasional drizzle or worse. One would always hope for better, of course, but I have to think that it's only appropriate for visiting this part of Scotland. The villages we will visit are now picturesque venues for holiday cottages, but they began life as fishing ports, dangerously exposed to northern gales. They must have been extremely bleak in the dark months, with their backs to the low winter sun and their faces to the north wind. I imagine they still are. The photos of Pennan on the Undiscovered Scotland website show a beautiful sunny day, with tables and chairs set out by the famous phonebox in front of the little hotel. It's hard to imagine that, from my limited experience.
It's about an hour and a quarter drive to Pennan (for pronunciation, think "Pennan ink drawings", or "Pennan Jerry's ice cream") if you don't miss the turn in Keith, which I have done before and do again today. Poor signage. Once there, we stroll along the one street, pick over the pebbly beach, and walk out onto the jetties of the tiny harbor. A couple of commercial boats still call this home. Small as the harbor is, it's more than would have been there a century ago, when a bad storm could be catastrophic to the fishing community.
The phonebox, incidentally, is not the one that was in the movie--that was only a mock-up. The real one was installed later, in a more sensible (but much less photogenic) spot off the pier, next to a shed. It is nevertheless a listed structure, so iconic was the movie image. I imagine that, unlike the box in Denholm, this one does a nice little business in the course of a tourist season. I've never called anyone from it myself, but have long wanted to. "I'm calling from the Pennan phonebox," I would say, "and there's something I want to tell you about it: It's red all over! It's red all over!"
We drive back up the hill and west, then down again to Gardenstown. Park at the eastern end of town and walk the shore path to Crovie (rhymes with privy). As small and exposed as Pennan is, Crovie is so much more so. There's a single row of houses, gable end to the water, partly to squeeze as many in as possible, partly to reduce exposure to the sea. There is room only for a footpath between the buildings and the water. There is no real harbor here, just the one straight jetty. At the far end of the village, the strip of usable land is so narrow that the houses are fit in lengthwise. The heavy wooden shutters are not merely ornamental, but vital protection against the elements. A single devastating storm in 1953 ended Crovie's tenuous viability as a fishing port once and for all, and it's all holiday cottages now. I sometimes think it would be very romantic to take one for a week, walking the path into Gardenstown for evenings in the pub...weather permitting. Doubt very much I'd ever really want to do it.
It would be nice to explore Gardenstown, the largest by far of these three villages, but we don't have time. We are back in Craigellachie in time for a short rest before catching the local bus to Aberlour. Our guide at the distillery is an affable Englishman named Julian. If his jokes seem a bit well-rehearsed, they are nonetheless equally well delivered. We are amused as well as informed. The tasting at the end is generous, as promised, and includes samples from the two casks sitting at the far end of the room. As always, I fill myself a bottle from the bourbon barrel. Aberlour's regular bottlings are all sherry-heavy, so this bottle represents a unique opportunity. (For the uninitiated, Scotch whisky is usually matured in second-hand casks, either sherry butts from Spain, or bourbon barrels from the US.)
After, we take a walk down along the Spey, the Whisky River, and watch salmon leaping from the water. Dinner is at the Mash Tun, right in Aberlour, and it's another fine one. I knew we would eat pretty well during Scott and Win's time here, but even I have been pleasantly surprised by our culinary tour. The George, the Anderson, the Plockton Hotel, the Plockton Inn, the Highlander, the Mash Tun-- all top-notch stuff, at least once we left Edinburgh, where I steered the boys toward bog-standard pub food. Scotland has a reputation for questionable cuisine, and undoubtedly there's plenty of that; but the situation seems to improve by the year, the islands of excellence multiplying, and rising ever higher out of the sea of mediocrity.
After having our fill of food and pints and drams at the Mash Tun, we catch a cab back to Craigellachie, and have an early nightcap in the Highlander. What can I say, another great day.