Blind Man with a Pistol

Ten Things I Will Miss About Scotland

It’s been a busy month for BMWAP. Yesterday morning I woke up with the sun rising over the Forth Bridge, grabbed my bags and took a taxi to Edinburgh airport. Yesterday evening, I found myself driving down Highway 2 through the cornfields of Ontario. As I work through the trauma of leaving behind the old country, please indulge me. Blind Man with a Pistol presents: ten things I will miss about Scotland.

10. The Roads

The A9 Highway through the Highlands

The A9 Highway through the Highlands

A Canadian tourist from Nova Scotia once complained to me about how long it took to drive from Edinburgh to Aberdeen (3 hrs) considering the short distance between the two great cities (200 km). I told him he was missing the point. Scotland might not have the ten-lane monstrosities that infest the 401 corridor, but if you want to get quickly from the lowlands to the highlands, take the train. Otherwise, relish the winding roads through rugged, barren landscapes where your only company may be a few sheep who have strayed off the heather. The stunning drive between Ullapool and Achiltibuie takes an hour even though the two towns are only 10 miles apart as the crow flies. But, as my 80-year-old cousin from Aberdeen says, sometimes, ye just cannae go as the crow flies.

9. Cask Ale
This is the first of three alcohol-related entries, but a necessary one. Cask ale (or ‘Real’ Ale’) is unfiltered and unpasteurized beer fermented in the barrel and hand pulled directly from the cask without the use of gas. The result is a splendid thing, a diverse beverage that can be light and citrusy or dark and brooding. And there are dozens of great choices throughout Scotland (some of my favourites: Cairngorm, Skye Breweries, Fyne Ales and Kelburn). Wherever you are in the nation, pull up to the local and expect anywhere from one to twelve cask-conditioned options brewed within a few miles of where you sit. It might not have the punch of a good Bohemian Pilsner or the depth of a Belgian Trappist, but damn, it is wonderful stuff.

8. The Sea
The wind is fierce in Scotland, year round, and on it you can taste the sea, even if you are miles inland. But it is only when you are on the coast, or on one of Scotland’s hundred isles that the force of the sea overcomes you. It’s not like Canada’s lakes, or the calm of the Pacific West. Surely our maritimers know a thing or two about the Atlantic, and its colder, rougher cousin the North Sea, but it was Scotland where I first understood the sea. Scotland was built from its waters: fishing, shipbuilding, and now off-shore oil drilling, and this history is evident throughout. Fishing for mackerel while standing on a rock in the middle of the north Atlantic, casting my rod directly into the sea, is one of my fondest memories of the past two years. Whether you’re on the Victorian holiday resort of Portobello beach, the Fife fishing harbour of Anstruther, or the evocative, prehistoric rocks of Skye and Islay, the Scottish sea’s call is compelling and unforgettable.

7. Football
It’s simply everywhere. Withdrawal will start soon. I lived a few blocks away from Easter Road stadium where Edinburgh Hibernian FC play. On Derby day, when the Leithers play the Jam Tarts (that’s Heart of Midlothian FC, natch), the entire neighbourhood heaves. On any day of the week from Spring to Autumn, I can head over to the Links or to the Meadows in a t-shirt and trainers and withing five minutes I’m accosted and propositioned by someone looking for a few more players. It doesn’t matter where you go in Britain (and, indeed, with the exception of Canada and the United States, the world) football crosses all barriers of language, culture and class. Did you see Nakamura’s free kick? Aye, what a cracker. What about Mulgrew’s red card? An absolute disgrace. Lafferty should be ashamed. From the wit of supporters’ songs to the grace and grit of the beautiful game, this is a void that hockey can scarcely try to fill.

6. The Forth Rail Bridge
I f’n love this bridge. And I’m not ashamed to say it. Completed in 1890, it will have to wait until well into the 22nd century before it needs to consider retirement. Its neighbour, the Forth Road Bridge, on the other hand, a wee bairn in comparison, opened in 1964 and will need to be closed by 2020. I’ve spent many hours in South Queensferry admiring the Victorian elegance of this beautiful, Industrial-age construction.

5. Accents
If someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, and someone who speaks more than two multilingual, what do you call someone who only speaks one language? British, the old joke goes. But this isn’t entirely true (save in Benidorm). While the chance that an English speaker from Halifax and one from Vancouver sound pretty much the same is fairly good, the chance that a Rangers supporter from Govan and a Banker in Morningside have the same accent is virtually nil. Indeed, two people born and raised at the top and bottom of Leith Walk in Edinburgh are likely to have completely different brogues. Geography, education, and class are so tightly knit up in the accents of the British Isles that just hearing a Scot speak releases a highly wrought narrative of place and time.

4. Fresh Seafood
I used to think I liked fish. I had no idea. When mussels and scallops that were swimming happily in the North Sea in the morning are on your dinner plate by sunset, you realize that you have been deceiving yourself all these years. At the fishmonger, you’re overwhelmed with a spread of creatures you’ve never heard of before, with evocative names that may as well be a different language: coley, witch, sea bream, plaice, razor clams. Served up simply and fresh, little beats the fruits of Scottish seas. Even the common chippy assumes a certain elegance when they can serve up freshly battered haddock, with chips and mushy peas, like the Anstruther Fish Bar.  I’m not sure I can ever eat fish again from a place where I cannot see or smell the waters from which it came.

3. The Hills

The Red & Black Cuillin Mountains, Isle of Skye

The Red & Black Cuillin Mountains, Isle of Skye

From Arthur’s Seat that rises majestically over Edinburgh, to the evocative, desperate hills of Glencoe that still weeps with a century-old tragedy, to the primeval, fantastical mountain of Skye, the hills of Scotland are singular and magnificent.  In the spring, the ewes bring out their lambs, who can barely walk, and who express a playfulness and curiosity that delights the soul. In the late summer, heather splashes rich purple wide and far across the deep-chrome green of the highlands, releasing its unique spicy, honeyed scent to the breeze. In winter, the hills are unforgiving, lashed with maritime wind and rain over long, dark nights. And they wait just outside the major urban centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh, a short drive or train ride away. I never felt more connected to the story of Scotland than when I was on the hills.

2. Whisky
Not ‘Scotch’, never ‘whiskey’, but maybe usige beatha, whisky flows through the veins of Scotland. It’s just that no one in the world does it like the Scots. The world beverage industry is overrun witm multi-mationals: Diageo, owners of Guinness and Seagrams, oversee some of the best whiskies in the world. Only three distilleries in Scotland, out of hundreds, remain independent. So whither the romance? No matter how hard capitalism might pressure whisky towards broad appeal and blandness, whisky, more than any other beverage, is rooted to the land. The way the water supply runs over peat grass, the way the sea salt seasons casks aging on the docks, the way Border-grown barley is malted and dried, the distillation of Scottish whisky cannot be reproduced and cannot be rushed. Lagavulin now sells almost every single barrel it produces as single malt, rather than dishing off extra to make cheaper blends, but Diageo cannot increase the distillery’s production.  I make this much whisky, Lagavulin says, and I cannot make any more. And the land is there, in the glass, when you drink it: the peat bogs of Islay, the heather of the Orkney islands, the volcanic rock of Skye, the sweetness of the River Spey and the crystal-clear burns of the bright Scottish Lowlands. I might miss the whisky, but as long as I can find a dram of Talisker, Ardbeg or Glenfarclas,  I will never miss Scotland.

1. The Pubs

Port o' Leith Bar, Edinburgh

Port o' Leith Bar, Edinburgh

Let me tell you something, America. A pub does not need retro replicas of Guiness adverts. It does not need faux-oak pannelling or overpriced imported beer (N.B. Tennents Lager? NOT A LUXURY ITEM). It might need a fire place. A pub (it’s short for ‘public house’, remember?) need only be a meeting place for a group of people tied perhaps by geography, perhaps by philosophy, where they can rest, talk, decompress and love. Some pubs in Britain are known as ‘free houses’: pubs that owe no bond to breweries, landlords or holding corporation. They are for no one except themselves and those they care for. Some pubs open at 6am to serve the dockworkers coming off the late shift (and, admittedly, a few wishing to wash their mouths out with whisky before work). Some pubs serve (generally bad) espresso and a choice of wine for their upscale clients with different tastes. Some are folk music meccas where musicians sit in amongst the clientele, because we’re all, after all, just out at the pub. Some are out-and-out boozers that offer one lager, one ale, house spirits and cider, so drink up because we’ll take no hassle after last orders. All are vibrant, wonderful places, where you can bring your dog and North-American-style booths are eschewed for walls lined with benches on which you might have to sit beside someone you don’t know. A pub is a place for young men and old women, and everyone else in between. There are a few public houses in Canada in this tradition (and very few of them advertise ‘Extra Cold Guinness’) but in Scotland there are thousands, a land spoilt for choice. There is nothing I will miss more than a bright Scottish pub with my favourite cask ale on offer, a freshly stoked coal fire, and a green-eyed lassie with an empty glass. Cheers.