December 2012

The stones of Sgurr Alasdair thunder over me like forgotten gods of the earth. Through the scudding mists wreathing the peaks, the Old Man of Storr, the Zeus of this lot, is a claymore buried in the sky. My ragged breaths swirl away, mirroring what looks like the mountain’s exhalations, as I leave the woods behind. The air grasps with cold, clammy fingers and clutches the climber in claustrophobic embraces. Lichen-splotched rubble peeks through the turf like old, exhumed bones of a titan beneath its burial wrap. The Storr resembles a wrinkled middle finger, a monument of defiance.

I am lost in a landscape of such magnitude that every thought and fear I’ve experienced amounts to less than the residue in a pan after the water has boiled off.


Trochelhill Country House B&B in the Heart of Moray

The drive north from Pitlochry was long and beautiful. Through the northern stretches of the Perthshire forests, along the western edge of the snow-capped Cairngorm Mountains, and into the rolling hills at the heart of Speyside, my dad and I finally found ourselves near the Moray coast at Trochelhill Country House B&B. I pulled through the stone gate and heaved a great sigh: I had returned, a year later, to one of the enduring favorites from all my trips to Scotland, and I would be spending the next five nights here as my base for the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.


The road from Royal Deeside northwest to Speyside is little more than a trail swallowed in the folds beneath the Cairngorm Mountains. The centuries have yet to surmount these highlands where the capricious winds slash and thrust like rapiers in winter’s dark. The sound in my ears is the sibilant language of lost souls gliding over the barren hills and dry riverbeds. Far below in a sheep-flecked valley stands the shining countenance of the star of the Strathdon, Corgarff Castle. This 500-year-old tower house with its eight-point-star curtain wall will be an alien wonder in the distant future.

The history of this place blows like leaves from the branches of my memory.


Mortlach Distillery, Dufftown, Scotland

People often ask me to name my favorite whisky. I think it’s a plea for help, to have an “expert” cut a swath through the jungle of single malt Scotch whisky bottles lining store shelves and say, “DRINK THIS,” like whisky Moses stumbling down the mountain (hmm, there’s a post in there somewhere).

I can’t do it. I can’t pick one ultimate favorite whisky. Instead, I provide handfuls of favorites or I go up a level and pick can’t-miss distilleries. Ardbeg, Balvenie, Highland Park (coming soon), to name a few. Oh, and this other one, Mortlach. Many people don’t know it. Read on for the remedy.

Mortlach is the oldest of Dufftown’s many distilleries and arguably the most desirable in Diageo’s portfolio. Read more...


My sole day in the Granite City before sailing north to Shetland is an hallucination of sunlight and sleep deprivation. I stumble into lush parks where college students strum acoustic guitars and pass someone in a giant chicken costume. Seagulls circle in cloudless skies over the harbor heavy with the scent of a baking sea. There are Chinese restaurants and off-track betting shops, cobblestones, a mercat cross, and a white palace from the mind of Vance or Zelazny. I pass an old man sketching, his cane balanced against the bench he sits on. I am sun-blind as I glide between cement walls into a small, ramshackle graveyard in the heart of Aberdeen.

This is a familiar sight, all the gravestones, tombs, and crypts cheek by jowl as if the dead might get lonely…