After throwing my bags in my room at the Scotsman newspaper offices turned historic hotel, I set out to wander Edinburgh. Traveling at least once a month for the past five years of my writing career, I couldn’t help but look forward to feeling the old stones beneath my feet.
I jogged the Royal Mile, a one-mile and 107-yard route that runs from the Edinburgh castle atop an inactive volcano to Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s not-so-humble abode when she’s in town). Usually, I can’t wait for a run to be over, but captivated by historical sites like St. Giles Cathedral, the Parliament House, and Canongate Tower, I didn’t want it to end.
At sunset the silhouette of the spire of Sir Scott Walter’s monument, cathedral bell towers, lofty tenements, and looming fortress against the pink-orange sky, was bring-a-tear-to-your jet-lagged-eye beautiful.
For a writer, walking Edinburgh’s streets where literary giants such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott had walked was akin to a religious pilgrimage: home to the Writers’ Museum, the world’s largest monument to a writer, a Scottish Poetry Library, and where J.K. Rowley penned the first Henry Potter novel. No surprise, in 2004, Edinburgh was deemed the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature.
Boath House, was built more than 200 years ago. The Georgian mansion—now an eight-room bed and breakfast—is on twenty-two acres of manicured gardens, woodlands, and streams.
The restaurant, helmed by Michelin-starred chef Charlie Lockley, is an ode to the Slow Food Movement. A sophisticated, three-course lunch began with a dram of Scotch in the drawing room outfitted in purple and green striped velvet couches, paintings by Scottish artists, and a roaring fire. Each course was fancifully prepared, yet not overly fussy … despite being escorted by a suited maître d’ from the drawing room into the sundrenched, crimson-walled dining room.
“Would you like a wee dram?” asked Kenny Hanley, my driver and guide, pointing to the central console in the van as we loaded up our luggage the next morning. Confused, I opened it, letting out a squeal. Inside, there were three bottles of fine Scotch along with classy snifters.
Drinking Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: It is a toast to civilization and tribute to the continuity of culture. “Ya’ never know when a nip may be in need,” the spry, seventy-something Scotsman replied with a grin and a wink. Best. Tour Guide. Ever.
Kenny was outfitted in full Highland regalia, including a tartan kilt, a sporran (Scottish man-purse), hose (knee-length kilt socks), a sgian-dubh (a small knife tucked in one sock), a decorative kilt pin, and tartan cap. He showed up each day with a variation of the same outfit.
I had to ask if it was simply tour guide shtick. “Pants aren’t for me, I feel all bound up in them. I even wear kilts kicking around the house,” he replied, in a lilting Scottish accent.
Driving in the Cairngorms—Scotland’s largest national park—of rust-colored rolling hills dotted with verdant green pine trees, we pull over for some photos. Kenny wanders off in a nearby field. Looking out to the distant mountain range, it was Scotland.
Inevitably, the culinary moment friends warned me about arrived as I take a seat at the bustling Balgove Larder and farm shop. Hellooooooo haggis.
A steaming plate of the country’s signature dish arrives: haggis, tatties (mashed potatoes), and neeps (mashed turnips). Did I like it? Not exactly. I’m not a big fan of gamey flavors or munching on vital organs—finely chopped lamb or beef organs such as heart, tongue, and liver. The meat is then seasoned with herbs, spices, and onions, mixed with suet (beef or lamb fat), and stuffed into the stomach lining of a sheep and boiled.
“Every region of Scotland has a slightly different version of haggis. You have to keep trying them to find one that you like,” Anderson said. At the moment, I’ll stick to sampling the country’s variations on shortbread cookies, I thought.
Scone Palace, pronounced “skoon,” was built in 1580 and is to Scotland as Versailles is to France. A line in Macbeth, “So thanks to all at once and to each one, whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone,” reveals the palace’s cultural significance. Walking through the rooms filled with needlework (including the one Queen Mary of Scots completed in jail), jeweled crowns, gilded furniture, and fine china reveals its opulence.
In fact, the stone of Scone is where Scottish kings like Macbeth, Robert the Bruce, and Charles II were once crowned.
The gardens—complete with monarch-named peacocks, a topiary maze, and butterfly sanctuary—are worth a stroll as well.
At this point, I had slurped down local oysters, like Carlingford and Creran, in Edinburgh at Ondine; sipped on multi-sensorial cocktails at Balmoral Hotel bar, also in Edinburgh; lunched at the stately Boath House in Nairn, known for its adherence to Slow Food practice; and dined like royalty on a five-course meal of local specialties, such as trout, venison, and salmon, at Ballathie House Hotel’s restaurant in Perthshire.
Nothing prepared me for what came next. Some have to sing for their supper, I had to hike. After roughly a mile on a trail shrouded in huge Douglas Firs at the Natural Trust Hermitage Center, I rounded a corner and found my host Tom Lewis: award-winning chef and hunter of food—from foraging chanterelles to fishing for trout—for Monachyle Mhor, his Perthshire boutique hotel and restaurant.
Along with his two dogs, Tom had hiked in with a rudimentary cooking stove atop a card table. The table was filled with edible goodness: a thick-crusted loaf of bread, a bowl of plump blackberries, a slice of raw salmon, a jar of local honey, a freshly foraged giant mushroom, and a bottle of fifteen-year-old Glengoyan. Tom was not a pedestrian picnicker.
“The wine industry has had wine pairing dinners for fucking years. It’s time we have whisky paired meals,” he said, blessing the four-course, Glengoyan Scotch paired meal.
Working at lighting fast speed, he whirled knives for slicing and dicing, violently shook the pan’s ingredients over the camp stove, and threw in herbs, spice, and copious amounts of whisky.
“Everything’s better with whisky. In my glass and in my kitchen,” he exclaimed.
And the forest feast ensued.
Ceviche salmon. Pan-seared venison served with sautéed pea pods. Sliced flank steak atop chanterelle mushrooms in a whisky-butter sauce. Trifle dessert layered with blackberries, and a Scotch and fruit consommé.
Standing, we ate in reverential silence. How could food served in paper plates and cooked with rudimentary equipment be this divine?
“The bounty of this great land’s larder,” the Welsh chef answered.
Combine the country’s dozens of Michelin-starred chefs using local farm-raised or organic ingredients and you’ve got a culinary scene. Whether I will ever truly love haggis is debatable. What’s not is Scotland’s epicurean landscape.
Who doesn’t want to go to a place called “Kingdom of Fife”? I imagined a population of elves, sprites, and fairies. According to Brenda Anderson (my guide) Fife is less about fairies and more about fish. With a rich fishing heritage, Fife was one of the major centers of landing herring in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s still an important fishing region complete with picturesque piers and world-class langoustines, crab, prawns, and lobster.
As part of the Pitsch Kingdom in the Dark Age of Scotland, Fife is ripe for history buffs and tadophiles. We made a quick stop at St. Andrew’s stunning twelfth-century cathedral and cemetery filled with ancient tombstones on a bluff over looking the sea.
From the outside, it looked like a retro barbershop — striped pole and signage advertising twenty-five-cent shaves and haircuts. Descending stairs and entering through a door posing as a bookshelf, I quickly understood the only things being cut were jokes and fruit garnishes. After a few drinks (either lit on fire or smoked in a cloche) I paid the bill and said goodbye to Maggie, a woman sitting next to me whom I had been chatting with.
“If this is too forward, I’m sorry. But do want to keep going?” she asks.
“Keep going?” I reply.
Maggie worked in the restaurant industry. A nightlife guide by a complete stranger with insider connections? I enthusiastically agreed to the plan.
Linking arms, like long lost friends, we walked to three more bars: a Hob-Nob cookie cocktail and sans-tomato juice Bloody Mary at Lucky Liquor; a classic, eighties-era Bramble of gin, lemon, blackberry liqueur poured over a heap of crushed ice and topped with powdered sugar at Bramble Bar; and a boozy version of an Orangesicle served with a side of Pop Rocks at gin-themed bar Heads & Tails.
Heads & Tails is also home to Edinburgh Gin distillery that opened in July 2014—the city’s second gin distillery in over 150 years. Since writing travel guides about distillery tourism is one of my beats, I made a mental note to return to do a tour and tasting.
Like a true bar-crawl champ, Maggie asked again, “Wanna keep going?” Aware of a fast approaching morning and a jam-packed itinerary, I waved the white flag.