I’ve been thinking a lot of the concept of “Clock Time,” a term coined by Joe Zadeh in his excellent essay “The Tyranny of Time.” (It’s great, read it.) It was partly invented by John Flamsteed’s founding of the Greenwich Observatory, which birthed “Mean Time,” a concept that was eventually spread worldwide by the British Empire and its citizens. Everywhere the British went, they brought clocks, centering their colonies around them, and adhering schedules to the rotations of those pernicious little hands. So, it’s fitting I found myself musing over Clock Time as we spent much of this past April in Scotland, the northernmost country in Great Britain—the birthplace of Clock Time.
If you’ve been reading my blog and trip reports for a while, you’ll know this was a second visit for us. Our first was in 2017. The trip was initially supposed to happen last year as a gift from Kari-Lise to celebrate my 40th birthday. But COVID, which doesn’t adhere to Clock Time, had other plans, and the trip was delayed several times. As we were to learn, this was for the best. So, when the time finally came, on the heels of yet another COVID spike in the Pacific Northwest, we packed our bags, donned our masks, climbed into and out of several airplanes, and made the trip. I’m thrilled we did. It was long overdue. If revenge travel is a thing, our trip was a dish best served cold in two graves. This time, we returned to some favorites, allowed ourselves time to explore, and visited some new locals covering much of Scotland.
Our return visit began in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh—It’s a stunningly beautiful city, modern and convenient, but still jam-packed with history in every nook and cranny. We had visited before but felt we barely scratched the surface, so we dedicated a bit more time this go-around to seeing more of the city, choosing to walk, and allowing ourselves more time to soak up the town. Unlike home, spring had been delayed in Scotland, so while the days were warm, the flora was more in its late winter/early spring transition. By the end of the trip, that would have changed, but for much of our visit, as we moved further north we chased the tail end of winter.
With an apartment in Haymarket serving as a base, we had plenty of access to museums, gardens, parks, food, pubs, galleries, and more. Edinburgh is a modern city built on the bones of an old city, and I find the layers of elevation and the interplay of the present intermixed with antiquity inspiring. It’s a recurring theme in my work.
Bopping around Edinburgh and exploring its nooks and crannies was a relaxing way to begin a long trip, even if we walked over twenty-five miles before grabbing a rental car and heading out of the city and into Scotland’s vast reaches.
I am drawn to the smoke and brine. I want complexity in a dram I sip. So it makes sense that much of my interest in scotch whisky indubitably settles on the malts of Islay, with occasional forays into Island and Campbeltown whiskies. Perhaps this was where my musings on Clock Time first started to percolate. After all, whisky isn’t a process that can be rushed; it’s ready when it’s ready, and that could take decades, according to our measurements. In some ways, the more complex the dram, the more we are tasting time itself.
This wasn’t our first time here. We had been to Islay once before but left with plenty of unfinished business. On our last visit, our days were limited. So our second trip to Scotland again brought us on a return pilgrimage. This go around, we had four full days and took the opportunity to visit every one of the open distilleries on the island and sample a swath of expressions.
Our base on Islay was Port Charlotte, a lovely little seaside village with a fantastic central location allowing quick access all over the island. (And an easy 1-mile walk to Bruichladdich.) Islay is divided into two sections among the locals, the “light” northwestern side and the “dark” southeastern side—separated by the River Laggan. Depending on where you’re at and who you are talking to at the time, those nicknames can flip, but the teasing is all in good fun as the community on Islay is tight-knit and friendly.
There weren’t many places on the island we didn’t visit, but much of our time was focused on its whisky. Most of the distilleries had only just reopened to the public. So that eight-month delay in our trip erred for our benefit. We did tours. We did tastings. We explored warehouses. We sampled the weird, the rare, and the unattainable. (If you can get your hands on an Ardbeg Dark Cove, treat that beauty as a precious gem.) We made friends with the staff and got to know Islay through its chief export. After nearly a week on Islay, we came away with an ever-deepening knowledge about whisky and the island.
Of course, we expanded our collection, and this time we went big, returning with ten bottles that are difficult to find in the PNW. (We also picked up three more when we got home to round out the collection.)
- Glen Scotia Double Cask (Campbeltown)
- Glen Scotia Victoriana (Campbeltown)
- Springbank 10 (Campbeltown)
- Kilchoman 100% Islay (Islay)
- Bruichladdich The Biodynamic Project (Islay)
- Bruichladdich Octomore 11.2 (Islay)
- Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2021 (Islay)
- Bunnahabhain 12 Year (Islay)
- Caol Ila Moch (Islay)
- Scarabus (Islay) – The distillery on this expression is kept secret, and it’s also pretty common and affordable, but we didn’t know it at the time. Ah well. Decent malt, regardless.
And the three “local” additions:
- Springbank 15 (Campbeltown) – Funny enough, we couldn’t get this at the distillery, so imagine my delight in finding a bottle available in Seattle.
- Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Heavily Peated 10 (Islay)
- Ardbeg Uigeadail (Islay) – My favorite scotch.
History is everywhere in Scotland. Ruins four or five hundred years old are common. You find them on farmland, in the middle of a city, or next to the village pub. They constantly serve as a fixed reminder of impermanence. But on the Orkney Islands, there is a shift. Ruins there extend far deeper into human history. In the presence of deep time, something as pedantic as modern Clock Time appears trite, maybe even a little gratuitous. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a relaxed approach to schedules and the clock as one moves away from population centers.
Sites representing thousands of years of history are scattered among the sheep pastures, cattle farms, and rolling hills of King Lot’s old stomping ground. Ruins like the village of Skara Brae (older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids) sit only a few miles from the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and several chambered cairns. One can start five thousand years in the past and move slowly through eras visiting sites from the Stone Age, the Picts, the Vikings, the Renaissance, and eventually into our present day. And it was moving among sites and seeing the remnants of the ancient past that roused my reflection on our harried modern life and worshipful adherence to the clock. Perhaps this confrontation with deep time constantly returned my focus on how we spend our moments, what we let bother us, and how much time we give to unimportant things.
In college, road trips were grueling marathons, with drives between fourteen to seventeen hours a day. For some reason, I did this for fun and was even proud of it. I’m older now, and I refuse to do that anymore. It’s not how I want to spend my life. So, between our major destination stops (Edinburgh, Islay, and the Orkneys), we gave ourselves loads of time to explore Scotland, stopping whenever we were inspired and seeing what was to see—and there is a lot to see.
As you would expect, much of that was history, and much of that history was ruins, but there were also moments of intense natural beauty. Scotland is an ancient and rugged landscape, and it’s impossible to ignore. Coming around a corner or emerging from a forest can introduce vistas that will take your breath away, and often some of the most stunning pieces of natural beauty are tucked away in hidden corners. Like any country, you’ll often find the more fulfilling places off the beaten path. The reality is, I have never regretted stopping and exploring vs. spending more time on the road, and that goes doubly in Scotland.
Advice and Tips
- If you’re going to be in Scotland for some time and, like us, you’re into castles, gardens, and ruins, I recommend getting a National Trust membership. None of the sights are expensive, but they add up, and going this route will save you some bucks.
- Deep-fried pizza is terrible. While it might sound intriguing, it’s not. It’s a grody soggy mess. Skip it. Now haggis, on the other hand…
- Since COVID, most distilleries are moving to reservation systems, so be sure to book early if you want special tastings or tours.
Clock Time might have been a British invention, but American capitalism distilled it and turned it into a rigid hustle-culture grind that seems to haunt our society. While there are obvious benefits, it took me stepping away from US soil and facing the presence of deep time that tuned me into our strict adherence to clocks and schedules. I’m sure the reflection on time also came from this trip being a celebration of a milestone birthday. It’s easy to reflect on our past and our future in moments like this, and I clearly welcomed it as we journeyed around Scotland. It’s part of what makes travel appealing to me. Lessons like these, even ones without actionable takeaways, excite me for travel. After several years of the pandemic, travel is what helped me reexamine the portions of my life that leaned too far into Clock Time and look for places for improvement.
It took me longer than I expected to assemble this Trip Report. Life has been chaotic in both good ways and bad, and sometimes that can step in the way of our own goals. But, after being back for a few months, I am starting to feel like I’m re-establishing myself into a routine.
I didn’t write as much as I hoped on my trip, but I thought about it and worked through some complex knots that I hadn’t known existed. As with all travel, I came back feeling both refreshed and inspired in ways I hadn’t expected, and that’s enough for me to call this trip an astounding success. Couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate turning 40. Thank you, Kari-Lise.
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