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June 06, 2017

On a Scottish high

The Highlands’ stark beauty, calm pace of life and wide open spaces are a balm for weary city dwellers like Michelle Chin

Michelle Chin

A WEEK spent in north-western Scotland’s countryside is the perfect antidote to the congestion and noise of a busy city. I certainly felt recharged both in mind and body.

Vast, never-ending stretches of openness in the sparsely populated Highlands were a treat for the eyes, and the abundant fresh air invigorated my city-bred lungs.

I was part of a group on a well-organised escorted tour by Insight Vacations, which had everything running like clockwork, including navigating the Scottish countryside’s well-built but narrow roads.

Tour director Michael Doughty, who doubled as a walking encyclopedia of everything-related-to-Scotland, was full of joie de vivre and dispensed heaps of travelling tips.

A tale of two lochs

One of our stops was the famous legend, and, more importantly to me, the purported home of the eponymous monster.

A frisson of excitement crept through me as I walked along the shoreline of the lake.

Its surface was still, and the mist hovering above the waters complemented the shroud of mystery surrounding the story of Nessie, as the Loch Ness monster is fondly called.

Like so many others before me, I did not sight Nessie — she remained elusive.

But the area did live up to its hype with its stunning landscape — the deep blue lake stretching into the distance, with high hills on either side.

It was a photographer’s dream, but also lent itself for a perfect Instagram moment for those with a tour bus to catch.

If you have time, take a bracing walk along the loch’s shoreline, leaving your footprints there for bragging rights — with photographs to show for it, of course!

The Scottish Highlands is also home to Loch Lomond — the United Kingdom’s largest inland stretch of water — more than 200km away from Loch Ness.

We cruised on the lake — which inspired the well-loved Scottish traditional song of the same name — with the weather smiling kindly upon us.

There was plenty of sunshine and clear blue skies, Lake Lomond’s water was pristine, and along its “bonny, bonny banks” was the rich foliage of trees in varying hues.

Rich history

One of the tour’s highlights was exploring the Orkney Islands off the north-eastern coast of Scotland, and I arrived there by boat, excited by the wealth of history awaiting me.

Down the centuries, the Orkneys have been inhabited by the Scots, Norwegians and the Vikings.

The largest island, simply called Mainland, is famous for its well-preserved, 5,000-yearold Neolithic human settlement called Skara Brae.

Nothing quite compares to the experience of walking in the footsteps of the people who lived in this ancient site, with the wild sea in the background, and the wind whipping my hair.

Through radiocarbon dating, it is believed that Skara Brae was inhabited for about 600 years between 3,200BC and 2,200BC.

It was an eye-opener to know that even thousands of years ago, the people of Skara Brae were quite advanced, living in an organised society in well-built dwellings that had fireplaces and furniture.

Haggis, neeps and tatties 

Who says British food is boring and bland?

I sampled a variety of local fare like roast beef with gravy, salmon terrine, haggis, and fish and chips, as well as tea staples such as scones with strawberry preserve and clotted cream.

I even asked for a second round of scones, they were so delicious.

Haggis, a savoury pudding made from sheep offal and oatmeal, is Scotland’s national dish.

Little of the animal goes to waste as its heart, liver and lung are minced and mixed with spices, suet, onion and oatmeal.

My serving was drizzled with a brown gravy, and I took a forkful a little hesitantly.

I found haggis quite agreeable: warm, peppery and a tad gamey with a comforting, slightly chewy texture.

The pudding is commonly served with side dishes of swede (a type of root vegetable), known locally as “neeps”, and potatoes or “tatties”.

A wee dram of whisky

And what’s a visit to Scotland without a nip of its famous whisky?

On our tour through the Old Pulteney Distillery in Wick, Caithness, grown men in the group began to resemble children in a candy shop — eyeing bottles of the alcoholic beverage with a gleam in their eyes.

To whisky connoisseurs, this distillery — which produces a single malt whisky — is the equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory to chocoholics.

As part of the guided tour, we started off by sampling some of the golden liquid.

After that convivial activity, we were introduced to the whole process of how it was made: barley malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.

My nose was hard at work during the mashing process, taking in the sweet fragrance that filled the air as the sugars were extracted from the grain.

At the maturation process, the alcohol is aged in oak casks and we saw hundreds of them being stored in the cool warehouses. It was a memorable sight.

A minimum of three years of maturation is required before the drink can be called whisky in Scotland. Besides other factors, the flavour of the whisky is also affected by the wooden cask it is stored in.

I left the Old Pulteney Distillery a tad more rosy-cheeked and a lot more knowledgeable about one of the world’s favourite tipples.

The writer’s tour, Country Roads of Scotland, was sponsored by Insight Vacations.

GuideLines

I flew from Singapore to Edinburgh on British Airways, with a transit at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Book your stay at The Principal Edinburgh on George Street for a deluxe hotel experience.

August is one of the best times to visit Edinburgh because  taking place all in the same month are the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

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