They call me Ishmael. I will probably never read these words first hand, though I would very much like to read Moby Dick. There’s just not enough time to read every book you want to read. Scotland has so far been a destination equivalent of literary classics for me. In my view Highlands would surely be beautiful, wild and almost romantic – but I just had no good reason to go there.
So it is without a good reason that I landed in Aberdeen one beautiful evening just after the sunset and headed off to Royal Deeside, about 50 miles away. The landscape on both sides of the road was beautiful. It’s a pity as it was dark as the humour of Scottish comedian Jerry Sadowitch outside and none of that beauty was to be seen.
Travelling with three British lads you would expect a weekend of football shirts, drunk shouting on streets and slapping of waitresses’ asses. None of this was on our travel agenda however. It were majestic outdoor activities like swimming in refreshing mountain rivers, golf, clay pigeon shooting and other such awaiting us. Perhaps a whisky distillery or a few thrown in as well.
We stayed at Hilton Craigendarroch. Judging by the name you’d expect a castle where you can feel the centuries gone by, exchange polite formalities with the butler and expose myself to spookiness of local ghost stories. What we got was Duran Duran, Blondie and bright coloured silk ties. The hotel just outside the small town of Ballater is a prime example of eighties yuppie culture. I bet that back in the day its dry slope, pool filled to floor level and ensuite Jacuzzy sparked standing ovations. Now it sparks little more than smirks. We downed our mandatory glasses of scotch, smirking and hit the bed to be in good shape for our morning adventures.
First we went swimming. You can find absolutely picturesque places for swimming in the River Dee. Unfortunately none of them contain even superficially warm water. It’s so cold that the more experienced people we met were swimming in wetsuits. Heck, I wouldn’t have been surprised had I met a few trout dressed in these.
After a quick swim (I mean it. Quick. Very quick) and a lengthy lunch we thought we’d go ask the tourist information centre about local swimming facilities. I guess we were expecting at least one of the rivers or lochs to be warm enough to swim for more than two seconds at a time. Swimming in Scotland? The clerk dressed in the ultimately old-fashioned suit and who was yet barely 16 was genuinely surprised. He said it’d be very dangerous to swim in these and he couldn’t possibly take the responsibility for leading us there. His face expressed concern if not fear so my imagination quickly produced images of underwater currents, needle sharp rocks or even good old Nessie herself. But when we asked about the source for these great dangers he just went: It’s very cold. Basic health and safety, this oldest 16 year-old boy ever lived added. My understanding of Scots as fearless wild bunch shattered to pieces so violently it was almost audible.
We returned to the river on our own, without any words of wisdom from the tourist information dude. We thought we’d seen interesting places for swimming when driving around. Or rather interesting places, period. The thing is, the River of Dee passes through a 300 metre gorge at one point and it just happened to be the place which had looked swimmable. There actually were a few places there that didn’t seem to involve immediate dangers. Our only concern was that despite the water being the clearest on the Northern hemisphere there was no bottom in sight. The rocks begun about six metres above and blurred into blackness just ahead of us. Still we pushed ourselves off the edge to take a swim above this abyss. When a second later two snake-like creatures started to spiral upwards I set the new record of getting out of the water, at least for people with only nine functional toe bones, the crippled man I was back then. Must be eels, we thought later but suddenly basic health and safety sounded a much more reasonable expression.
A round of heads and tails decided clay pigeon shooting was to be our next entertainment. Being a man, shooting a real gun was obviously fun. I just wasn’t sure about the fact that it’s not clay discs they were shooting when they invented this noble activity. It was more like real pigeons. My observations of the density of pigeon population seemed to confirm this theory. I saw no pigeons during my four days in Scotland.
We spent our afternoon on a 9-hole golf course in Aboyne. I’ve never been much of a golfer. Maybe back in the day, when bored shepherds were rolling pebbles down rabbit holes it made all the sense but there’s just not enough meaning in the activity for a grown man. Instead of chasing a tiny ball along a huge field one could go surfing, go for a ride of mountain biking or even mow a lawn for lack of better plans. However, walking in a landscape shaped after postcards with the sun shining, it seemed like a pretty reasonable activity. Surviving the water hazard suddenly seemed much more important than the wind forecast, global warming or wars around the world.
The weekend of our majestic stay in Scotland coincided with Highland Games. Games for rugged-looking men in kilts to throw huge stones, logs and other inventory around. During shot put, which as we all know need revolving around one’s axis, which further raises some requirements for clothing I discovered that the legend that Scots don’t wear underwear with kilts is true. There wasn’t even a hint of underwear. Just don’t ask about sports shorts under kilts, Adidas seemed particularly popular.
Over the centuries a perfectly normal athletics competition had developed in addition to throwing big things around mindlessly. Maybe just the democracy involved was a bit out of the ordinary – everyone could compete. And perhaps the level of competition. One of us four signed up for running the mile in a condition that probably wouldn’t have allowed him to drive – and won third place.
The Highland Games was obviously filled with the sound of bagpipes. There’s something great about a large orchestra marching between mountains and playing a Scottish tune. But if many bagpipe players play many different tunes around you the greatness turns into something that drives you mad, as if a fly had flown in your ear. Scottish soldiers apparently always played bag pipe before a battle – no wonder they were considered a wild and crazy bunch.
Talking of soldiers it’s an interesting factoid that Scotland has never ever been conquered. The above mentioned fighting spirit and the mountainous terrain probably played a key role in this. But I reckon the reason can be something much simpler. Perhaps at some point the invaders realized that why bother when the food gets progressively more tasteless and rain as well as women get progressively stronger.
The nightlife of Ballater, or rather the total lack of it, is something to be seen and experienced. It is about as lively as a wounded sloth. In one of the two bars there was karaoke on Fridays and there was beer available. In the other one some guy played bagpipes to a bunch of other guys in kilts, and there was beer available. In small town bars like this, where air is filled with above average curiosity towards strangers you’ll start noticing details such as knives in socks that apparently are part of traditional Scottish costume.
In such vibrant atmosphere it was only logical that the three pounds we won from the “Who wants to be a millionaire” terminal became one of the highlights of the Saturday night. Who needs Las Vegas when such festivities and rushes of endorphin to the head can be experienced in Highlands!
And the fact that we ended up at an after party both nights probably deserves a medal. Both of them reminder me of a large family reunion. No-one was actually invited, there was some old beef in the air – and yet everyone was conversing, smiling on the outside. Parties to remember, definitely. Especially for those of us that had to escape through the window. (Not to mention any names, but don’t worry Tim – what happens in Ballater, stays in Ballater)
We absolutely could not have left Scotland without visiting a whisky distillery. This hour left my personal health exposed to great dangers. You see, I like calvados and cider since my visit to Normandy, I smoke a cigar every now and then ever since I’ve been to Cuba and I like bubbly, especially after staying in Champagne with a friend from school a few years back. I wasn’t sure my liver could take on yet another guilty pleasure. Nevertheless we bravely entered the Royal Lochnagar distillery and I’m relieved to announce that so far so good – just a few sips have disappeared from the bottle I bought back.
And that’s it really. In conclusion Scotland is a gentleman’s paradise in which to play golf, shoot clay pigeons, take long walks in fresh air and discuss global (or should I say colonial) matters in old castles. It’s not so good for stag nights. In fact, the latter would probably be much more fun in an empty car park.