Trip Report – Scotland 2022

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.


Edinburgh

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.


Islay

1665 Map of Islay by Joan Bleau

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.)

  1. Glen Scotia Double Cask (Campbeltown)
  2. Glen Scotia Victoriana (Campbeltown)
  3. Springbank 10 (Campbeltown)
  4. Kilchoman 100% Islay (Islay)
  5. Bruichladdich The Biodynamic Project (Islay)
  6. Bruichladdich Octomore 11.2 (Islay)
  7. Bunnahabhain Feis Ile 2021 (Islay)
  8. Bunnahabhain 12 Year (Islay)
  9. Caol Ila Moch (Islay)
  10. 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:

  1. Springbank 15 (Campbeltown) – Funny enough, we couldn’t get this at the distillery, so imagine my delight in finding a bottle available in Seattle.
  2. Bruichladdich Port Charlotte Heavily Peated 10 (Islay)
  3. Ardbeg Uigeadail (Islay) – My favorite scotch.

Orkney

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.


Hills Between

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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An Overdue Hiatus

It’s a little odd to post something like this during a lull in my blogging, but I like to keep my readers informed when I will be away from the internet for a bit (as much as you can realistically be “away” these days.) Anyway, this post is to announce that this blog will be dormant—I mean even more dormant—for the next month or so. Why? Well…

Kari-Lise and I are taking our second trip to Scotland! (Our first visit was in 2017. You can read about our experience here.) This trip is long overdue. It was supposed to be for my 40th birthday, but COVID did its thing, and everything was delayed and then delayed some more. But no more. It’s happening. Finally. We’re planning to visit some favorite places (Edinburgh and Islay) and hit up some new spots (Orkney) and generally get lost in the solitude of the open country. We’re really looking forward to it and it should be a good time.

We will be gone most of April, so my current plan is to resume blogging in May. I expect to be writing quite a bit while in Scotland, so I hope to have lots to share upon our return. While away, I’ll almost certainly post to Instagram, so I recommend following me if you’re interested in my travels. And as always, expect a trip report upon my return.


If you’re looking for something to read or explore in the interim, here are a few suggestions:

For more travel-related photos, previous trips, and trip reports check out:


Mar sin leat, and see y’all when we return!


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Trip Report - Scotland - Photo by Kelcey Rushing

Trip Report – Scotland

Last week, Kari-Lise and I returned from a two-week trip to Scotland. It had been over a year since our last holiday, and between work, Coal Belly, and multiple gallery openings a vacation was welcome. Once again we ended up taking a long road trip through the country. Starting and finishing in Glasgow and taking us all over Scotland. I’ve driven in Ireland and Australia, so the shift from left to right wasn’t a big deal. After a few weeks, it felt completely normal.


“See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask for no guarantees, ask for no security.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


For this post, I’m going to take a little time hitting the significant places we stayed and share a few photos from the trip. One resource I cannot praise enough is Atlas Obscura. Many of the strange places we visited were featured on their site, and I recommend checking them out anytime you travel. Proper research can make any trip significantly more enjoyable.

Okay! To the report! This is going to be a long post, so consider yourself warned.


Loch Lomond & Kintyre Peninsula

I can’t sleep on planes. Not sure why. Probably a combination of being both a big guy and a light sleeper. So we arrived in Scotland exhausted. Thankfully, we were traveling with our friends Kelcey Rushing and Jim Rushing. Since this was a road trip and I just got off from roughly 24-hours of travel, Jim volunteered to take the first shift driving. Thank goodness.

We didn’t have far to go for the first night, so we had a leisurely breakfast then made a pitstop at Buchanan Castle in Stirlingshire, just outside of Glasgow. It’s an incredible manor house that has slowly been overtaken by nature. The resulting ruins are nothing short of spectacular.

Kari-Lise captured this photo of me among the ruins
Kari-Lise captured this photo of me (still awake after twenty-six hours) among the ruins

We stayed overnight and the next morning, hit up Finnich’s Glen (also known as the Devil’s Pulpit) before we headed off to the Isle of Islay. Fans of the Outlander series will recognize this deep sandstone gorge as the Liar’s Spring from Season 1. Since it was an early Monday morning in September, we had the place to ourselves.


Islay

Port Ellen, Islay
Port Ellen, Islay

I love the ritual of scotch. The sound as it hits the bottom of a glass. The scents it carries that evokes the landscape from which its made. The complex layers of flavor inherited from the barrels in which it was aged. Few foods or drinks are as reflective of their history and heritage like scotch. Islay in a way was a pilgrimage and its hills and bogs holy ground for the scotch enthusiast. It’s the home of smokey malts that taste of brine, salt, and peat. It’s my favorite region.

The ferry to Port Ellen was long, a few hours but we arrived and quickly established a home base in an apartment. The following day, thanks to Jim’s planning, we began our scotch experience with a peat cutting for Laphroaig (my favorite Islay malt) which we followed with a tour of their facility. I have been a Friend of Laphroaig for nine years, and I collected the rent on my 1’x1′ piece of sod, and promptly set out to plant my flag in the bog north of the distillery.

My piece of Laphroaig was past a hillock and just beyond a depression, and while much of the field was solid, hidden springs lay everywhere sometimes many feet deep. I found my ground and turned to call to Kari-Lise stepped back and sank into what looked like a bunch of grass. It wasn’t grass. The grass had abandoned me, and I tumbled backward into a deep pool of cold, muddy water—it was a memorable cap on our visit to the distillery.

Thankfully, it was only a mile walk back to our apartment, and I changed into drier clothes, and we continued on, visiting Lagavulin (my 2nd favorite distillery) and Ardbeg before the day was over and wrapping up our visit to Islay. (I could have spent a few more days there. But there was more of Scotland to see.)

Since I know people will ask here are the scotches I added to my collection:

  • Clynelish 14 yr. (Highland)
  • Dalmore 15 yr. (Highland)
  • Ardbeg Uigeadail (Islay)
  • Ledaig 10 yr. (Island – New favorite)
  • Edradour 2002 (Highland – 14 yr. Sherry Cask)
  • Lagavulin Fèis Ìle 2017 (Islay – My ultra-special bottle)

Skye

The Stoor, Isle of Skye
On the northeastern side of Skye is The Storr

The trip to Skye was beautiful taking us through Glencoe and Glenfinnan. (Both would deserve their own section had we spent more time there.) But Skye itself was a wonder. Our cabin was off the beaten path far in the north, and it was here we spent time in the mountains and glens of the countryside. It also poured rain. Which was fitting for Scotland.

The Fairy Glen was stunning. The Storr was amazing. The Fairy Pools had become Fairy Torrents after all the rain. But the countryside was vast and open and made one feel small and insignificant. Skye is a draw for many reasons, and all of them are good.


Edinburgh

From Skye, we drove down to Edinburgh, pausing for castles and stopping at the Edradour Distillery. It was here we eventually split from Jim and Kelcey but not before we spent some time exploring the city. Many people often say Edinburgh ranks as a favorite and I can understand why. The mixture of medieval and modern creates a fascinating place of winding alleys and layered roads. Space is at a premium and nothing goes to waste. We were there only two days and just saw a fraction of the place. We climbed the Scott Monument, visited the National Gallery, toured Edinburgh Castle, explored Old Town, played in the Camera Obscura, had tea near the University, poked around Dean Village, and late at night we located the oldest Masonic Lodge in the world. All that and I feel like we barely scratched the surface. The city is impossible to grasp in a single visit. I have unfinished business in Edinburgh.


Northern Highlands

As the city faded behind us, we hoped we’d find something special in the far reaches of the Northern Highlands, and we were not disappointed. There is a vast wildness along the North Coast: tall mountains, twisting rivers, and expansive vistas that are difficult to capture on camera. Ancient castles perch above lochs that stretch to the horizon. Peaks and valleys fold into one another, and the roads that cross these spaces are windings and narrow. (See the video above.) We spent several days in the Northern Highlands exploring the coast, visiting castles, checking in on a few distilleries, eating cheese, seeing wonders, and experiencing much of the North Coast 500. In the end, we returned to Glasgow tired but fulfilled.


I cannot recommend Scotland enough, it was easily one of my favorite trips. A huge thank you to Kelcey and Jim joining us for the first week. We had an absolute blast, and it was an honor to experience Scotland alongside two of the best people I know. (Don’t be surprised if they don’t show up in photos on future trips.)

One other unexpected takeaway: outside of uploading a few pictures to Instagram I stayed off the internet for the most part, and it was grand. It really allowed me to absorb the experience and thoroughly lose myself in the rich history of the land. Standing in castles a thousand years old and seeing landscape and towns that are older than most cultures in the western hemisphere put a lot of things into perspective. It made a lot of the news happening in America (the reaction to NFL players protest in particular) look incredibly petty. I recommend taking an internet diet. The echo chamber is dumb, and the internet is not as important as we all like to pretend. Go out. Travel. Meet people. Listen to them. Get uncomfortable. (This is where I quote Mark Twain again.)


“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain


I’m a firm believer in travel and allowing yourself to get lost in someone else’s culture. (Important aspect there, as G. K. Chesterton once said, “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”) I think travel is important for the writer as well. As I said in the trip report from California: a cleft of rock can inspire a thousand tales, a family of marmot running across a subalpine meadow can spark ideas for plots, and meeting interesting people along the way can usher forth a whole civilization of rich characters.

So that’s our trip! Coming back to work Monday was tough, but I was excited to reestablish a routine. By now, I feel like I have conquered my jet lag and its time to dive back into work. I finished a manuscript before this trip, and I have pages to edit. Also, it’s nearly time to start writing the fourth book in the Bell Forging Cycle.


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