On my previous vacations to the MoraySpeyside region of northern Scotland, I spent most of my time inside distilleries to the detriment of seeing the thriving small business and artistic communities of this beautiful corner of Scotland. My Best Holiday in the World prize week in MoraySpeyside ensured I wouldn’t be doing the same old thing in northern Scotland.
It was busy, and I mean that in the busiest sense of the word.
Rene guided me from one stop to the next with the kind of passion you can only muster when you love a place so deeply that you need others to experience it and understand it the same way. By the end of the week, I’d come to see what Rene loved about the area and I found a bunch of fun and interesting ways to spend time there as well.
Get crafty at Cullen Crafts
The little town of Cullen tumbles beneath a series of aquaducts to the North Sea coast and is renowned for the seafood stew Cullen Skink. Small artist shops peak out from the gray stone streets, including Cullen Crafts, an orderly shop specializing in jewelry-making, scrap-booking, and card-making. Geraldine, the owner, took me into the adjoining workshop where she often hosts classes and workshop nights. Under her patient tutelage I managed to make a pair of earrings for Sarah. I won’t say I’m a natural, but Sarah actually wears the finished product.
Sample drams at The Whisky Shop
Dufftown, the self-proclaimed whisky capital of the world, is home to such blockbuster brands as Glenfiddich and Balvenie whisky. It also serves as the backdrop for one of the best whisky shops in all of Scotland, simply named The Whisky Shop. Mike Lord runs a tight ship but with an open hand: I counted nearly 30 open bottles of single malt whisky for visitors to try. As varied and complex as the whisky industry is, it can be difficult to find the right bottle for purchase. Mike makes it easy by suggesting malts and letting you try them. I can’t thank him enough for introducing me to Mortlach 16.
Browse the wares at Gordon & MacPhail
If you’re a whisky pilgrim on your way to Mecca, look no further than Gordon & MacPhail in Elgin. Their retail shop is packed to the gills with all manner of high-end produce, cheeses, meats, oils, and, of course, whiskies. It’s a little morsel of foodie heaven. Gordon & MacPhail are considered by many to be the world’s leading malt whisky specialist. They independently bottle whiskies under their name and own the Benromach distillery. If you’re looking for a particular whisky, chances are you’ll find it here. Don’t miss out on a glimpse of the world’s oldest bottled whisky – Glenlivet 70-year.
Tour the mill at Johnstons of Elgin
Johnstons of Elgin have been venerated for their Cashmere for more than 200 years. All of the Cashmere and other products are produced on site, and the mill tour is full of eye-opening insights, such as the fact that Cashmere is made from goat hair. Yeah, I didn’t know that either. Amazingly, one of the most important elements of the Cashmere-making process is the use of the dried head of a teasel. This is used near the end of the process to render the Cashmere silky smooth. Now I understand why Cashmere is so pricy.
Explore the Findhorn Foundation artist community
Since the early 1970s, the Findhorn Foundation just north of Forres has been a spirituality-focused enclave of artistic, eco-conscious citizens. Inside the foundation is an ecovillage, arts center, shop, pottery, bakery, and other businesses that seek to further the vision of the foundation. The arts center in particular has been home to famous exhibitions on loan from museums in Edinburgh and London. I particularly enjoyed the barrel houses – massive whisky washbacks that have been recycled into green homes.
Savor handmade Belgian chocolate at Olive Tree Chocolates
Kev and Lee Barton of Olive Tree Chocolates in Fochabers have been handmaking Belgian-style chocolates since 2004. I first heard of them during a whisky and chocolate pairing at the Aberlour Distillery, and it turns out Olive Tree makes many whisky-flavored chocolates for the various distilleries throughout MoraySpeyside. I had the singular opportunity to make a load of chocolate, including whisky-infused truffles, with Kev during my visit. Lucky for Sarah, this was just days before she arrived to Scotland so there were still some left.
Enjoy lunch at Brodie Countryfare
In the small town of Brodie just west of Forres lies the Brodie Countryfare, an unexpectedly upscale Scottish department store, specialty food store, and café. I stopped in for lunch one afternoon and enjoyed a succulent slab of roast gammon (i.e., ham) with a parsley cream sauce and roasted vegetables beneath the conical ceiling of the sun room. Afterward I browsed the specialty foods and nearly left with a jar of locally-made bramble jam.
Get schooled at the Keith Kilt & Textile Center
The kilts, handbags, and brooches of the Keith Kilt & Textile Center are all produced in the traditional, non-automated way. Linda, the woman behind the operation, has a vision for the center’s future which includes holding classes and workshops designed to share the traditional skills across generations. A good kilt is very expensive and should last a lifetime. What better way to cut back on cost and impart a little extra meaning than to sew one yourself for someone you love?
Learn from the king at The Whisky Castle
The sleepy, elevated town of Tomintoul hovers on the northern range of the Cairngorms National Park along the Malt Whisky Trail. I visited it for the first time in 2006 when I heard it had a whisky castle. What I found when I arrived may not have looked like a castle, but The Whisky Castle was certainly ruled by the king-like figure of Mike Drury. His shop vies for the title of best whisky shop in Scotland and leans toward rarer, independent, unadulterated whiskies. Mike is uber-opinionated and delivers his beliefs with a healthy dose of sarcasm. It’s worth a visit simply to chat with the man and sample a dram.
Have you visited any of these places? Have any recommendations of your own?