Postscript

I’ve been home for about 40 hours now, and little by little my body is readjusting to the eight-hour time lag between Ireland and the west coast of Canada. Before my thoughts on my trip recede too much into the distorting waters of memory and forgetting, I thought I’d dash off a few observations in postscript, and post a few more pictures from some of the places I visited.

The bike

Whe I first started planning my trip, I had intended to ship my own motorcycle across to Europe. The more I looked into this, though, the more I realized that it made more sense to hire a bike that was already there. This was mainly about cost-benefit. The relatively short length of my time overseas meant the total cost of renting a brand new bike wasn’t much greater than the cost of shipping my own. When I included the various fees and taxes, insurance costs, and what I would need to do with my bike to get it ready for the trip, it was more or less a wash. My wife pointed out that I was less likely to have  expensive and frustrating mechanical issues with a brand new bike than with my ageing warhorse, and since the chances of finding a qualified BMW mechanic in remote areas of the Highlands didn’t seem good, and since the hire bike included roadside assistance in the cost of the rental, I decided she was right (as is often the case).

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My hire bike: a 2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XRT.

I’m glad I made that choice. The Triumph Tiger 800 is a fantastic bike, and while I don’t like it better than my old R1150GS, certain features definitely came in handy. I’m quite sure that cruise control, for example, helped save me from speeding tickets, especially in Scotland, where speed cameras are ubiquitous. Over time I got used to working with – and more often around – the ridiculous number of controls on the left handlebar, although I’d still suggest Triumph take a look at how this is all arranged. I suspect that something like BMW’s thumb wheel would be easier to use, and help prevent unwanted selections (like inadvertently switching on the heated seats when turning on the fog lamps).

In retrospect, I should have inquired more carefully about luggage capacity. I packed an appropriate amount for the cases I have on my bike, which are admittedly enormous. The aftermarket bags on my GS – Happy Trails side cases (35 and 40 litres), and a Givi top box (52 litres) – can comfortably hold more than enough for a three to four week trip. The much smaller OEM bags on the Triumph are better suited to one week. It’s my own fault for not enquiring. If I ever hire a bike again, I’ll do so.

I would also strongly recommend bringing your own riding gear, or at the very least, your own helmet. The gear I was provided with was mostly high enough quality (I’d even consider buying some RST gear if I could find it here), but it took nearly the full length of the trip for me to remember to put motorcycle pants (or ‘jeans’ as they call them over there, since ‘pants’ means underwear to them) first, then boots. My own gear has nearly full-length side zips, so I can (and usually do) put my boots on first.

The helmet was more of an issue. It fit a little snugger than my helmet, didn’t have a flip up chin bar (which meant I had to remove my glasses every time I wanted to put the helmet on or take it off) or a sun shade (so that I had to decide whether to wear my sunglasses or my regular glasses, something that can’t be changed on the fly). It also didn’t come with internal speakers, so I couldn’t get audio instructions from the GPS and had to look away from the road more often than I would have liked.

The GPS (or sat nav, over there) was an excellent thing to have, and worked well when using Google Maps (or other apps) on my phone wouldn’t have. Even though I had to look at it more than I would have liked, it was much easier to do so quickly than would have been the case on a paper map.

SIM cards

One of the best decisions I made was getting an Irish SIM card, rather than using a ‘travel plan’ from my Canadian provider. The travel plan would have cost me $150, and not even provided me with the meagre amount of data I normally have access to at home. The SIM card (which I got from 3 mobile) gave me “all you can eat” data (60GB!) in Ireland, and 6GB of roaming data for the UK, for €30 (less than a third of the cost of the Canadian travel plan). I ended up using about 17GB total, including 4.5GB in the UK. If you’re a Canadian travelling abroad for any length time, you should seriously consider getting a local SIM card when you arrive. The only downside is how ripped off you’re going to feel you are when you’re at home and paying more than twice the rate for about a tenth of the data you get in Europe.

Ireland

Ireland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s ridiculous how pretty it is, nearly everywhere.

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A typical view in the Irish countryside. This was near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The Irish people, especially in the Republic, are friendly and welcoming. Dublin is an incredibly cosmopolitan place, with people from all over Europe – and around the world – working and attending university and visiting there. The whole of Ireland is an incredible blend of the new and old. History is on display everywhere, and yet it’s very forward looking as well, especially in cities like Galway and Dublin.

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Thoor Ballylee, near Gort in Co. Galway, is the tower that Yeats lived in with his family. Irish literary history is rightly celebrated throughout Ireland.

Ireland has punched well above its weight in literature for more than a century, producing such important writers as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, Louis MacNeice, and Seamus Heaney, to name just a few.

Musically, too, Ireland has provided the world with more than its fair share of artists, especially in rock and pop music. Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore, The Boomtown Rats, U2, Sinnead O’Connor, The Pogues, Rory Gallagher, and many others have made a huge impact on popular music over the past 50 years.

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A statue of Phil Lynott, the bassist and lead singer of Thin Lizzy, stands near Grafton Street in the centre of Dublin. In the 1970s, Thin Lizzy paved the way for many other Irish bands, like the Boomtown Rats and U2.

Scotland

Scotland has a different kind of beauty than Ireland. More rugged, less lush, but equally stunning. It’s astonishing just how much the landscape changes as you travel through Scotland. There is as much variation in geology and flora as there is in the many styles of whisky produced there.

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The road from Applecross to Shieldaig in the Scottish Highlands.

I would like to have spent more than the week I had in Scotland. It is too vast to really see much of it. What I did see, I loved. From Loch Lomond to Inverness, Moffat to Shieldaig, Elgin to Edinburgh. The beers are different from those in Ireland, and of course single malt whisky is very different from Irish whiskey (which is almost always blended). As was the case in Ireland, many of the road signs, at least in the Highlands, are in both English and Gaelic (although Scots Gaelic isn’t exactly the same as Irish).

In fact, a person could easily spend a week or more just in the Highlands. Or just in Edinburgh. And, I’m sure, the same would go for Glasgow, which I sadly didn’t get to this time around. I hope Adele and I will visit Scotland in the future, so I can see more of it.

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A lane in Edinburgh’s Dean Park neighbourhood.

England and Wales

I didn’t spend much time in England or Wales. A couple of nights each. The highlight of that was the time I was in the tiny village of Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived and is buried. For such a small place, it packs a lot of beauty and history into it. It would be worth a second visit, if I’m ever down that way again.

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The ruins of the castle at Laugharne, on the south coast of Wales.

Midlife non-crisis

All in all, it was a fantastic journey, and an excellent, adventurous way to celebrate being 50. If I were doing it again, I’m not sure what I’d change. Add more time, maybe, if I could, and have Adele accompany me for at least part of it. Traveling alone for that length of time was a very different experience for me. I’m glad I did it, but I think I prefer having someone to share the experience with.

I don’t really have a lot more to say. I do, though, have many more pictures. Here is a sampling from them.

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Farms in the Dingle peninsula.
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Cliffs of Moher
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Connemara
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Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
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The road to Applecross, or Bealach na Ba, Scottish Highlands
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Highland cattle
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Sculpture near the National Gallery in Edinburgh
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Washback stills (the tall ones) and spirit stills at the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Scotland
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Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
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Scarborough Castle, Scarborough, England
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Waiting for the tide to come in. Laugharne, Wales.
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Lake District, England.
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Sandycove, Dublin, Ireland.

Winding down

I don’t know if Belfast has an inferiority complex about Dublin, but it probably should. From what I have seen of the city, it lacks it’s southern neighbour’s charm, confidence and vibrancy. In fairness, I’m sure I have not seen the city’s best.

I am just back from dinner, in a restaurant housed in the basement of an old prison, or ‘gaol’, which is now a sort of museum. I thought a couple of the other buildings nearby were jails, but it turned out they were all part of a hospital. It seems strange to see a hospital with all that fencing and security around it. But that is part of my spoiled North American privilege, probably. Car bombs have never really been a thing in Canada. They haven’t been here for a long time, either, but you wouldn’t know it looking around. The police still drive around in armoured cars, and prominent buildings (i.e., churches) have crash guards in front of them. It’s been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, but the place feels on tenterhooks.

It was fitting that I had dinner in a disused jail, since my room at the most regrettable B&B I’ve encountered is about the size of a cell. I’d be surprised if it were much more than 2 m wide. I can stand beside the single bed (occupies the length of the room on the wall with the window), and stretch my arms to either side, and nearly touch both walls at once.

Worse, when I arrived, there was no one to greet me or check me in. The proprietor was ‘in town’ shopping with her gran. She’d be back when she could. She had sent an email with the front door code, and told me where I could find the key for my room. Only it wasn’t there. I called to say there was no key, and she said it must be in the door to the room, no worries. I checked, and it wasn’t. She said she’d be by within the hour. She wasn’t.

I spent about an hour working to get the blinds shut. I finally did, and used my things to block the door, so I could have a shower. Eventually she arrived, young, blonde, and I think Australian, and tried every key should could find to no avail. At last she said, ‘I’m going to give you the skeleton key. Please don’t rob us.’ What would I steal? Some people shouldn’t try to run a business.

If it weren’t all but impossible to find another place on a Saturday night, I would have done so.

But before all this, I had risen early back in Moffat, and packed my things on the bike, and had breakfast before taking off on the two hour ride to Cairnryan to catch the ferry. I had to arrive no later than 11 for the 11:30 sailing. Luckily, I made good time.

The ferry ride was pleasant an uneventful. When we docked, I made my way down to Lisburn, got briefly lost trying to find the bike shop again. (The GPS really doesn’t like Lisburn, and who can blame it, really?) I brought the bike back. They had a quick look, decided everything was in order, and drove me to the train station once I’d transferred everything over from the panniers to my duffle bag. (Note to self: in the future, either bring a suitcase with wheels or a backpack.) I caught an express train to Belfast, and grabbed a cab to the B&B, where I now sit. And wait. Wait for morning and the return to Dublin.

Dublin will be more relaxed (I hope and expect), and I’ll have part of Sunday and a full day on Monday to explore at my leisure. And then it will be time to return home.

One of the great things about traveling is how it makes you more appreciative of what you’ve left behind, what you get to return to. I’m looking forward to being with Adele again, to having her presence bring so much warmth and meaning to my days. I’m looking forward to being in our place. To cooking for us. To our everyday lives. And to the next time we step out of those lives for a short time. Next time, together.

M roads, Lake District diversions, and toffee

I’ve been riding around Britain and Ireland for the past nearly three weeks, and for the first time today, I encountered an asshat. Not once, but twice he rode up behind me and lurked, and then when I decided to overtake the car in front of me, passed me in the same lane as me. Anyway, I came to no harm, because one of us knows how to drive. And that one of us muttered a string of expletives inside my helmet and then did my best to let it go.

I think that was just before I reached Chester, so I’d probably left Wales. It’s funny. When you enter Scotland or Wales, they put up signs. The English, well, they think the whole thing is theirs, so why bother.

It was still fairly cool when I set out this morning. My weather app said 11 C, and predicted only a few degrees better in Scotland, so I dressed appropriately. The thermometer on the motorcycle told me it was 14.5 C when I set off, and I worried I’d dressed too warmly, but once on the highway, going 70 mph, I was fine. At least for the first while. Eventually, I stopped to get coffee and delayer, as the bike’s display screen told me it was 19 C, and not even noon.

It was mostly M road again today. In these last days, there’s more of a sense of urgency about getting to places. Still, when I got to the turnoff for the Lake District, I took it, and I’m glad I did. While the towns (especially Windermere, the former home of Beatrix Potter) are chock-a-block with tourists, there are long stretches of winding mountain road with relatively few other vehicles on them. They were a very welcome diversion. Sadly there were very few places to stop along the way where a decent picture could be taken, although I did get a couple.

Stone walls meander along the mountainside like rivers of rock

All good things come to an end, though, and soon I was back on the M6 heading north. On the plus side, I was heading back to Scotland for the night, before taking the ferry back to Belfast and returning the bike tomorrow. And while I was riding up the M6, with signs starting to announce that SCOTLAND (their emphasis) lay ahead, I looked up and – no word of a lie – two long, thin streams of high cloud were crossed in the mostly clear blue sky, making it look like a Scottish flag.

And so now I am in Moffat. Because I have two friends named Moffat, and Valerie told me I had to come here, and I had to bring her some Moffat Toffee. (I have no idea what’s special about it, other than it shares her name. Maybe that’s it. What more do you need? If there was a Milner whisky, I’d probably buy it.)

Moffat is a small place. Not really much more than a village. It has more than its share of B&Bs and Guesthouses, one of which I’m staying in, as well as a Best Western hotel, it’s own police station, a “general surgery”, and of course a shop that sells nothing but toffee. There are other things, too. A church whose tower dwarfs every other building in town, a handful of pubs, a couple of gas stations, grocery stores, etc. It’s a nice enough place to spend the night.

They’re having a classic car show here this weekend. I’ve seen Rovers, MGs, Jags, Singers, sadly not a Morgan. The pubs and restaurants are full of the English. The pub I ate dinner in was full of Manchunians watching football, shooting pool, playing the jukebox too loud.

One of the prettiest Jags I’ve ever seen.

Now I’m back at the B&B. To say the WiFi is dodgy is an understatement. I’ve had a lot of dodgy connections on this trip. Half the time here, though, I cant find it at all, no matter where I stand in my room. Luckily I have lots of unused data on my Irish SIM card.

Tomorrow I’ll say goodbye to Scotland for the last time on this trip. I’ll have a last few days in Ireland, and then I’ll fly home. I’ll be bringing a lot of good memories home with me. Oh, and some toffee, of course.

South

It’s probably a good thing I walked over 28 km yesterday. I slept like a log, and didn’t wake till seven.

After my solo wandering yesterday morning I met up with Gillian at her flat in the Stockbridge neighbourhood. Fantastic but spendy area. Lots of cool little shops, pubs and cafes; a Sunday market in a public garden; old, winding, narrow cobblestone streets. The sidewalks were buzzing with people.

We set out first to Dean Park, and walked past Saint Brendan’s Well, and along the towpath by the Leith until we reached the section the Council (pronounce it coontsul) closed down for repairs five years ago, and hasn’t worked on since.

We wound our way past churches and monuments, through an old graveyard, and stopped in at the National Gallery of Scotland. I really enjoyed the sculpture garden outside, the modern masterpieces inside. After a while we were feeling hungry. As luck would have it, the gallery has an excellent cafe. A sandwich with two salads, americano and a slice of cake layered with marscarpone and pistachios for me. Two salads, black velvet cake and coffee for Gillian. We left stuffed.

We headed back to one of Gillian’s locals and had a pint before exploring further. Then we made our way to one of the better viewpoints in the city.

We walked to the top of Calton Hill, where the 18th century philosopher David Hume is buried. He left instructions for it in his will, including a stipulation that it not cost more than £100. “Typical Scot,” Gillian said.

We descended the hill, and walked round toward the Royal Mile, which was thick with tourists, and then down past the one-time house of John Knox, the father of Scottish Protestantism. Looking at the plaque outside, I noted a striking similarity to a friend of mine, and sent him a picture of the dour old bastard. “He didn’t like women much,” Gillian said. “I’m sure it was mutual,” I added.

It started raining, and we stopped in at a pub to get out of the rain. We timed our wait with a pint. As you do.

We walked down to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. It’s a spectacularly modern building, designed by a Spaniard who has since died, and decorated in places with quotes from Scottish poets, from Burns to Hugh MacDiarmid. Across the street is the Queen’s residence in Edinburgh. I looked, but couldn’t spot the MI5 watchers. Maybe it’s all done remotely now

It was getting on, so we started back toward the west end of the city, ultimately finding ourselves at the Cambridge Pub (just a few doors down from the Oxford, where we’d been the night before). Gillian said they have the best burgers in Edinburgh, and based the venison burger I had that seems like a credible assertion. This was accompanied by another pint. And one more for good measure.

Afterward, we said goodbye for who knows how long. I’m hoping Adele and I get over again sometime soon, but who can say? I told Gillian she’s welcome to crash at our place if she comes back to visit Vancouver.

This morning I discovered some enormous and possibly prehistoric bird shat all over the Tiger’s gas tank, and I spent about twenty minutes cleaning it off, and another five minutes oiling the bike’s chain. I’ve put more than 1,500 miles on the bike since picking it up what seems like a lifetime ago, but is really just over two weeks.

I rode south , once bike was cleaned, along the dull and efficient A1 for most of the way. I’m in Scarborough now, and the weather is… fair. Okay, fine, that was a bad pun. Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be off again, this time down to Bath, before exploring Wales.

The end of my journey is approaching quickly now. I’ll be flying home again in just over a week. But I have many miles to go before then.

Edinbrrr

I arrived in Edinburgh cold and wet after a nevertheless brilliant ride. After a shower to stave off hypothermia, I met up with my friend Gillian near Haymarket Station, and we walked through the last gasps of the rain showers to a fine pub nearby called Au Bar for a pint.

I haven’t seen Gillian in about five years (give or take), since she moved back to Scotland from Vancouver. We caught up over pints and then set out to the Oxford pub, famously the haunt of Iain Rankin and his equally famous character DI John Rebus. The author wasn’t in attendance, which is just as well since I haven’t got round to reading any of his books yet. I’m told, by several people, that they’re excellent, so it’s something I’ll get around to correcting soon.

Gillian’s friend Gavin joined us at the Oxford. He’s an excellent fellow, quiet for an engineer, with a sharp wit. The three of us talked for the time it took to finish a couple more pints, and then we set off toward Edinburgh Castle and Old Town.

We had dinner at an excellent Nepalese place called Gurkha. Karai Lamb, rice pilau, naan and a good, light Nepalese beer. The food was fantastic and plentiful, and the service was excellent.

Justin, Gavin and me at The Bow.

We walked deeper into Old Town after we’d stuffed ourselves, and wound up at The Bow, where we stumbled on Gillian’s pub quiz partner Justin. He has family back in Surrey. Small world. The four of us talked and sipped our beer until they rang for last orders. None of us had realized it was as late as that. Gavin, Gillian and I ordered a whisky each. Caol Ila is a nice, medium-peaty Islay malt, very smooth, with just enough smokiness.

The whisky helped for the walk home. To say it’s been cool in Edinburgh would be an understatement. It was almost autumnal in the walk back to the hotel. The faint glow to the south reminded me just how much further north I am than Vancouver is. Even at half twelve, as they say here, it’s not completely dark.

I woke this morning at half past six, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up and breakfasted in the hotel, then set out to acquaint myself more with the city and take some photographs. The architecture is beautiful in every neighbourhood I’ve walked through.

I’ve wandered around a fair bit, and wound up in a cafe on George Street, where I’m writing this. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Edinburgh today, and wish I had another week or more just to spend here. Adele and I will have to come back here someday.

Apres le deluge

No pictures today. It was just too wet, and cold, to stop for that.

I left Elgin around nine and rode south along the same route I took yesterday, through Rothes and Dufftown. When I reached the junction at Glenlivet, though, I turned left instead of right.

A series of B roads ensued, winding through Cairngorms National Park, passing a ski hill, closed for the season. The sky was grey and the air was cool, and it was pretty much a certainty there would be rain on my ride down to Edinburgh. Eventually the B roads have way to the A93, which could itself fit Iain Banks’s definition of a “great wee road.” I followed it down to a small, pretty town in Aberdeenshire called Ballater, where I stopped to get gas. The station didn’t have a WC, which was becoming necessary, so I looked for a place to have coffee and maybe a bite to eat.

I found a great coffee shop attached to a hotel in a disused church and ordered an Americano and a cranberry, apricot & ginger scone. It was a damned fine coffee and the best scone I’ve had in a long time, served with butter and raspberry jam. I chatted with an older couple who had stopped in for tea.

It had rained while I was in the cafe, although the worst seemed to have passed. I got back on the A93, and all I can say is: what a spectacular motorcycling road, and what a gorgeous environment to place it in. Aberdeenshire is stunning. Stone houses crouched on rolling hillsides,. Green fields with boulders protruding at irregular intervals, and rocky streams burbling through them. Even in a pissing rain, it was beautiful.

And, yes, it had become a pissing rain. Rivulets of rainwater runneled down my visor, inside and out. The seal on this lid is all but useless in keeping the water out, while perfectly up to the task of keeping fog in. Note to self: always bring your own helmet.By the time I reached Braemar all pretence of waterproofing had been abandoned by the gear. I was cold and wet, and there seemed to be no end in sight to the weather, so I pressed on for Edinburgh.When I finally arrived, I was too early to check in to my hotel. I sat in the guest lounge alone, drinking a pint of what has become my regular beer in Scotland, Caledonia Best. When the room was ready, I brought in my things from the bike and had a shower to fend off hypothermia.Soon I’ll be heading out with Gillian and her friend Gavin to have dinner, likely some drinks, and to see a little of the city. I’ll see more of it tomorrow.

A quiet day in Speyside

This will be a relatively short post. I was feeling unambitious today. It’s two weeks since I left Vancouver, and tomorrow will be two weeks since I arrived here. Maybe that has something to do with it. I’m having a great time in Scotland, as I did in Ireland, but I’m missing my wife, my friends and family, even my cat. About the only thing I’m not missing to some degree is the daily commute to and from the North Shore. I also miss the variety of foods on offer in Vancouver. Here, most places offer variations on a theme. Maybe that will change in Edinburgh.

That sounded complainy. It shouldn’t. As I said above, I’M HAVING A GREAT TIME here. There are just things I miss about home. And the main one is Adele.

One thing they have in abundance here, but which we don’t have at all back home, is malt whisky distilleries. I could spend a week just visiting distilleries in the Speyside region, and still not get to all of them. Given that I can’t do everything – I never did get to John o’ Groats, for example – I’ve had to be selective. To date, I’ve toured two distilleries: Glenmorangie, which I wrote about a couple of days ago, and earlier today, Glenfiddich, which was my father’s favourite.

The Glenmorangie tour was very good. The Glenfiddich tour was excellent.

They’ve been making Glenfiddich for about 120 years in Dufftown, and it’s still owned by the same family, and largely made the same way they began in 1887. Like most other distilleries, they no longer malt their own barley, but buy it from maltings. Unlike most other distilleries, they have their own cooperage on site, and do their own bottling. They now sell to 184 of the 196 countries on earth, which makes them the biggest of the single malt whiskies on the planet.

Biggest isn’t always best, and to be honest, although I like Glenfiddich, especially the 18 year old expression, I’m more of an Islay malt guy. I like a bit of peat. Ok, a lot of peat. And even among the Speyside (and other Highland) malts, it’s not my first choice. Not far down the list, but not the top, either. (Sadly, The Glenrothes doesn’t have tours, or even a visitor centre, at their distillery.) But as they say, there are two kinds of single malt whiskies: good ones, and better ones. Glenfiddich belongs in the better group, just not necessarily at the top.

I do think it’s cool, though, how many of their employees are lifers. They have one cooper, for example, who’s been with them for 50 years.

And their tour would be hard to beat, even by a whisky I prefer. (Laphroaig and Lagavulin, Bowmore and Bruichladdich, Ardbeg and Bunnahabhain, among the Islays I’ve sampled.) It was surprising how different their approach is to whisky than, say, Glenmorangie. Using wooden washbacks, for example. (Made from Douglas Fir from British Columbia – just saying.) Or the fact they age their whiskies in both sherry and bourbon barrels for the full 12 (or more) years, and then blend those together to make their end products, rather than using bourbon barrels exclusively for the first ten years, and then “finishing” their whisky in sherry (or port, or Sauternes) barrels.

As I went their on the bike, I couldn’t partake of the tasting at the end. Scotland’s drink-driving rules are even stricter than those in British Columbia. The legal limit is 0.02, which is as close to zero as you can get and still have a test. Careful what mouthwash you use here! They gave me a wee bottle of the 12 to take with me.

The tour lasts 90 minutes, and afterwards I didn’t really see the point of visiting another distillery today, so I rode off into Cairngorms National Park. I didn’t set a destination on the GPS, just followed the road that led into the park on the assumption that all roads lead to somewhere. This one certainly did. Not only did I pass the Glenlivet distillery on the way to the road, it led me (after close to an hour) past the Tomintoul distillery, too.

The beautiful little B road also led me through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever ridden through. I stopped and took pictures along the way, although I haven’t transferred them over from the camera yet, so you’ll just have to take my word for it for now. It ran beside the Avon and Spey rivers (at different points, of course), through farmland filled with cattle and sheep, along steep hills and through green valleys.

And of course, like all roads, it did lead to somewhere, in this case to a junction with another, larger road, which ultimately brought me back to Elgin.

Tomorrow I’ll be off to Edinburgh, where I’ll meet up with my friend Gillian for a while. After that, I’ll be down to England and Wales. I can’t believe my time in Scotland is almost at an end! It’s been fantastic. The only thing that could make it better is having Adele here with me. Next time!

O Western Wind

O western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ! That my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

Anon.

Well, the damned wind blew today. Did it ever! Damned near blew me right off the highway. The rain wasn’t small at that point, though, and if it had succeeded the last two lines would have been very unlikely ever to occur again.

I woke up with the sound of the wind outside my window, howling down Crown Street in Inverness, shaking the small trees, and making them bend, but not break. It had rained in the night, but wasn’t raining when I got up. I showered and dressed and made some breakfast. I washed the breakfast dishes, and brought the cases in from the bike to pack my things into them (everything fits like a charm now), and then waited and read the news online for a while, since checkout wasn’t for another couple of hours.

When it was time to go, I dropped the key with Malcolm and Maggie, and thanked them for being such great hosts. I had set the GPS to hit a couple of distilleries on the way to Elgin, which Google Maps said was only about 90 minutes away from Inverness. There were four hours between check out and check in times, and that left me with 2 1/2 hours to kill. I might as well use the time productively, I thought.

As I got the Tiger started and waved goodbye to Inverness, the rain began. Just a mizzle at first, then more and more insistent. The wind picked up, too, and by the time I was on the A9 heading south, it took effort and concentration to keep the bike upright and going in a more or less straight line. The rental helmet doesn’t have an anti-fog shield (note to self: always bring your own helmet!), and I had to keep it cracked open to let in enough air to keep it clear. Unfortunately that meant water running down the inside of the visor. There was just no winning.

After a half hour or so of this, I decided to pull at a roadside parking area and reset the GPS to come straight to Elgin. I’d find someplace to hang out until I could check in if the weather wasn’t any better there. I pulled a u-turn, as instructed, at the first safe opportunity, and then the GPS sent me down some B roads heading east. The GPS said the speed limit was 60 mph, but you’d have to be mad to do that on a nice day on these roads, and this wasn’t a particularly nice day. I kept to about half that. Gradually the wind died down to merely blustering, and the rain all but stopped altogether. Overhead the clouds raced furiously across the sky. No type of weather was going to last long, except windy.

I saw a sign for the Culloden Battlefield historical site, so I took the road in that direction. When I got there, I discovered the National Trust wanted £2 for parking and £11 to access the site. I’ll all for preserving heritage and history, but I’ll be damed if I’m paying £13 to hike through a muddy moor in the rain. In wet motorcycle gear. With that wind.

A taste of what I missed not stopping at Culloden.

I found a gas station and filled the bike up, and then found my way back to the gloriously deserted B roads, which it turns out are part of the Tourist Route of the Highlands. Who knew? I didn’t stop at any of the castles along the way. I like the architecture fine, but I could give a fuck about the asshats who used to occupy them, literally lording it over the local population. (I find the idea of aristocracy and royalty offensively undemocratic. You may disagree, and I’m not going to try to persuade anyone otherwise who wants to be subservient to those whose ancestors killed someone else’s ancestors and took their land. It’s just not my idea of how the world ought to be.)

Anyway, the GPS by hook or by crook will take you back to a highway eventually unless you’ve expressly told it not to, and even then it might not recognize A roads as highways, and just keep you off the motorways instead. So, after a while, I was on the A96, whether I liked it or not. I should have tried harder to defeat it. For a long stretch we crawled along at under 30 mph anyway. Our progress was slowed by trucks hauling enormous propeller blades for wind generators, which we eventually passed when they took up the entirety of the left lane during the brief mile or so that we had a passing lane. (Note to North Americans: the right lane is the passing lane here.)

The wind began to pick back up again when I was about 10 miles from Elgin, although still not at the speeds it had been earlier. Storm Hector, as I’ve since heard it’s called, followed me eastward.

When I got to town, I found my hotel quite easily, and they were kind enough to let me check in early. The storm is supposed to blow over this evening. I’ve been out walking around, and the wind is still quite blowy, but it hasn’t rained in a couple of hours.

Elgin is a nice enough town. Almost like a miniature of Inverness, with a lot of old stone buildings and narrow streets. The lanes here are for walking only, or maybe you can cycle down them; they are far too narrow, and their widths too varied, to risk a car in them. There are a lot of shops in the centre of town, and a few pubs. I plan to eat at one of them tonight.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll head out to the Glenfiddich and Macallan distilleries, and explore The Cairngorms a bit, too. Maybe I’ll even take some pictures, something I’ve done much less of than I’d planned. If the weather is like today, though, I’ll find places to hang out and read. David has inspired me to take another crack at Ulysses. I can think of far worse ways to spend a day.

Tomorrow’s whisky

“Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky. ” – not a Chinese proverb

The forecast has been calling for rain, and today it finally came, although so far still not in massive quantities. Just showers here, really, but a solid break from the weather Ive had for most of this trip. More is coming overnight, I’m told. With luck, the worst will be past by morning.

I had already decided to take a break from riding today. I’d booked a tour of the Glenmorangie distillery, and looked up the best way to get there without driving. The bus looked pretty straightforward, even if it was a long trip, so I walked down to the bus station for 9. The intertubes had suggested a cost of between £4 and £6, but it turns out it costs £10.50, which isn’t really all that outrageous for an inter urban trip.

The trip required two transfers, and I made the first one fine. Unfortunately I missed the second one, although I discovered it only covered a distance of about a kilometre. No biggy, I could add that to the 1.3 km I was going to have to walk anyway. I still had just enough time to get there for the start of my tour.

I discovered that just over half the distance was along the side of the A9, part of which I’d ridden on the day before. Yesterday’s bit was mostly dual carriageway, with no place for pedestrians. I assumed it would be similar here, so I called a taxi. She came in under two minutes, and I was at the distillery in about five minutes afterwards. I noted on the way that there was a gravel footpath along the side of the road, which was an ordinary two-lane road with sparse traffic. I could have saved the fiver and walked easily enough, but who knew?

The tour itself was an excellent walk through of the process of whisky making, and its many attendant aromas, not all of them pleasant. The height of the stills was astonishing. Nearly 17 feet!

Glenmorangie (and their sister distillery on Islay, Ardbegh) is owned by Louis Vuitton. Yup, that one. The ugly handbag company owns two of the world’s best whiskies. They’ve got an orange Cadillac with a snakeskin roof as a result.

I met a retired couple from Cowichan Bay, and we talked a little about whiskies, and about home, and our respective holidays. They’ve been all over Scotland, as far north as the Orkneys, and will be heading south in a few days time to visit family in Yorkshire. They were a lovely couple, and were kind enough to offer me a ride back to Tain, where I was planning to catch a train back to Inverness (as there were no buses until after 4). Since it had begun raining, I accepted their offer.

I’d read that it’s better to by Scotrail tickets online, so I did, and provided my email address as prompted, they said, so they could send me ticket. Then I went for lunch at a cafe at the station, since I had over an hour to kill before my train. While I was eating I received an email from Scotrail confirming my ticket purchase, but not my ticket. I could use the redemption code, the email said, at the self-serve kiosk. Except none such are to be found at the Tain station. “But your ticket on the train” a relatively small sign on the platform unhelpfully suggested. Whatever. I explained the situation to the conductor when the train finally arrived, and he just shrugged. “Show them that email in the station so they’ll let you out.” Good advice.

While I was a still waiting for the train, a lone Japanese tourist joined me on the platform. He saw the bag with the Quinta Ruban I’d purchased and asked in broken English (but far less broken, I assured him, than my extremely limited Japanese) if I’d done the tour. I said I had, and said he had, too, but he hadn’t bought anything. We exchanged as many more pleasantries as we could without me saying, “hello goodbye thanks delicious,” which aside from menu items is about all I can say in Japanese.

I was regretting not coming on the bike. It was raining a little harder now, but still just lightly, really. Tomorrow. I have time to kill between checking out of my B&B here and into my hotel in Elgin. There just happen to be a number of distilleries on the way. Sort of. I could stop in and see who’s got a tour.

Right now, I’m sitting in what I’ve decided, in my extremely limited survey, is the best pub in Inverness, the Number 27. I had an excellent pork chop for dinner, with potatoes and gravy, wilted spinach, carrots and turnips that didn’t suck. Who knew such a thing existed?

Soon I’ll head back and start arranging my packing. Again. I should have it all figured out by the time I bring the bike back. But that can wait a little longer, I think.

Applecross, like a boss

Some things have to be experienced. The best descriptions, videos, or other forms of depiction can’t really do them justice. The bealach na ba is like that. I apologize in advance that this post will be inadequate to the task of conveying to you what it’s like to ride the ‘road to Applecross’. I’ll try to do my best, and hope you’ll be forgiving readers.

I set off this morning under a mostly leaden sky, with just flakes of blue here and there overhead in Inverness. It felt warmer than I was expecting, although that didn’t last. But although it was cloudy, the forecast indicated there would little if any rain today, and so it seemed like a good time to attack the famed road. (You can see how famous by looking it up on YouTube. There must be hundreds of videos posted of people riding and driving on it. As I’ve mentioned previously, I decided not to GoPro my rides, so… You’re welcome.)

I took a detour down to Dingwall to fill up the Tiger, since I wasn’t positive I’d find another petrol station before I needed it. Anyone who’s ever run out of gas on a motorbike in the middle of nowhere can tell you just how much fun it is. I’ve done it once, and waited well over an hour at the side of a desert road for my friend to return with a jerry can. I have no intention of letting that happen again, especially when, like now, I’m traveling alone.

The detour resulted in a fascinating zig-zag through Highland villages, along narrow roads canopied by tree branches. Eventually the small, all-but-empty country roads led me to a point on the A835 I would likely have reached much earlier had I not diverted. But what would have been the fun in that?

The breeze grew brisker as I headed west, becoming blustery in places, and I pulled over into the a lay by to switch into my warmer gloves and to zip closed the vents on my jacket. The clouds thickened and lowered, and soon there were small drops of mizzling rain on my visor. I could almost hear voices whispering, Go back! It’s too cold, and starting to rain. It will only get worse. Fortunately I know the sound of my own nonsense when I hear it.

Dual track gave way to single track roads for stretches, and it seemed like the traffic engineers had been trying to prepare people for the real challenge ahead. Vehicle traffic had thinned, but there were still more cars and vans than I’d expected, or at least, hoped.

I stopped briefly in Lochcarron to stretch my legs and back (I’m old, and can’t ride for as long at a time as I used to), then hopped back on the Tiger, and soon reached Tornapress, and the real beginning of the ride. If I had needed a sign from the motorcycle gods, I found it. The only thing it lacked was a statement that road was reserved only for two-wheeled vehicles.

I snapped the picture above, and then put my gloves back on and the bike in gear. I didn’t come all this way not to ascend “The Pass of the Cattle”.

To put things in their proper context, Bealach na Ba, according to Wikipedia

is a winding, single track road through the mountains of the Applecross peninsula…. The historic mountain pass was built in 1822 and is engineered similarly to roads through the great mountain passes in the Alps, with very tight hairpin bends that switch back and forth up the hillside and gradients that approach 20%. It boasts the steepest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level at Applecross to 626 metres (2,054 ft)….”

Challenge accepted, I said.

And it is a challenge, not primarily because of the road itself, although some of the “hairpin turns” are as tight as U-turns on a side road. The main challenge, as with so much else in life, is other people. More specifically, other people driving anything bigger than a motorbike. For while motor coaches and heavy commercial trucks have the good sense to take the lower road (more on that later), apparently drivers of motorhomes do not. Nor do they understand that motorbikes don’t have a reverse gear, and really can’t move much closer to the edge of the road without beginning a rapid and involuntary, not to mention inelegant, descent. The car drivers are not much better.

It’s not a long drive over the mountain from Tornapress to Applecross, but it is a slow one. Even if you removed the other vehicles – and, oh! how I wished I could! – it is still a very technical road. By the time I reached Applecross, my adrenal glands had been working at maximum effort for more than half an hour. And, as Heraclitus would have wished, the way down was not much different from the way up. It is the kind of road motorcyclists dream about. The kind of road that is a destination in itself.

And that is a good thing, because Applecross would be utterly forgettable if not for the road. Not that the location isn’t beautiful. It is. Just like almost anyplace you can name on the Scottish coast. But it’s the road that makes it worth going to. That’s the only reason why there were so many motorbikes in the parking lot across from the Inn. You can get a beer almost anywhere, after all.

The only other thing that stood out about Applecross was that I saw two stags grazing by the roadside, tame as the ubiquitous sheep. They were still young, their antlers only partly formed, and still covered in fuzz. I’d seen signs warning of them from Strathpeffer to Lochcarron, but only saw sheep. When I saw signs warning of sheep, there were cows (thankfully, not on the road), but now when no signs to warn of any wildlife, here they were.

I had a quick and not particularly satisfying lunch while I waited for my adrenaline levels to subside. I decided there wasn’t a lot of point in going back over the way I’d just come, so I took the longer way round, through Fearnmore, Shieldaig and Torridon. I’m glad I did. That unnamed, unsung, un-YouTubed route may be less challenging than Bealach na Ba, but in some ways it is a far superior ride. So much more scenic, so many fewer cars. At times it hugs the shoreline of the lochs, at times it cuts inland, past old crofts where rams and highland cattle stand by the roadside, or in their fenced-in fields, and slowly chew their grass. This road, too, is single track. This road, too, has twists and curves (though none as tight as the hairpins on The Cattle Pass). Although it’s a longer road, you can make pretty good time on it.

I stopped at a place called Nanny’s Cafe in Shieldaig. They make a mean Americano, pretty good scones, and some ridiculous homemade jam. I didn’t stop again, except to stretch and to take the occasional picture, until I got back to Inverness.

Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain, so I’ve booked a tour of the Glenmorangie distillery. I’ll take the bus there, so I don’t have to worry about the drive back. Then Thursday I’ll be off again, although not so far this time. I’m going to camp out in Elgin for a couple of days, and try to get to a couple more distilleries in Speyside, before heading down to Edinburgh. And then… and then…. But let’s not look too far ahead. Today is in the book. Tomorrow’s chapter – and each chapter of every future tomorrow – will write itself when it’s ready.