Whisky, friends, and the best bus driver ever

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm on the train from Oban* to Glasgow after a couple of successful days. Oban was quite good, with some notably excellent moments, a few of which I will relate here.

I hit town at about 3:30 on Thursday, with enough time to check in to the hostel and head to the 5:30pm tour of the Oban Distillery. I'm not a big whisky drinker, but the tour was excellent. Unlike a lot of tours in bigger distilleries or bigger cities, this one went through the actual working areas of the actual plant where they actually produce every bottle of Oban whisky in the world, (and have done since1794). We got to see each stage of the process and learn about it. We saw the mash tun full of sloppy glorp. We saw the 4 big wooden casks where they add the yeast and ferment. And we saw the two big copper stills and the new, clear spirit pouring through the "spirit safe". Then we got to taste a bit of cask-strength 13-year old Oban, right from the barrel (a spine-straightening 56% alcohol). And of course we got to taste the finished 14-year old Oban (a tame 43.5%). Here's a big tip for anyone who might do this tour in the future: Hang around the tasting room at the end while everyone else has gone into the shop. The guide had twelve different Highland single malt whiskys on display and if you seemed interested, he offered samples of them too. I had a Dahlwhinnie, though I should have tried the Distiller's Edition Cragganmore, which was purported to be most wonderfully smooth (alas, not available in North America).

Me, outside the distillery

After the tour I decided to take a chance on "The Skipinnish Highland Music Experience" which Rick Steves said was touristy but fun (and what else, pray tell, would you do on a Thursday night in Oban anyways?). The evening was sort of predictable: piping, accordion, Gaelic singing, highland dancing, etc...**, and the venue was a bit meh (I couldn't quite buy in to the presence of the traditional Highland mirrorball and Martin effects equipment) but at least they had a bar and a piper whose name was actually Angus MacSporran or something equally local. They did a lot of audience participation folk dancing, and I even ended up in one dance at the invitation of a woman at the next table, who saw I was by myself. The dance turned out to be lots of fun and a bit dizzying (anyone who has done a "Strip the Willow" will know that it might have been unwise to attempt on top of two cans of Guinness). Anyways, the dance turned in to a bit of a conversation with that woman and her husband, and that's how I met Debra and Tommy from Northern Ireland!

It was another Nigel-and-Margaret kind of moment, and was perfectly excellent. It turns out that the phrase, "Actually, I'm on a year-long trip around the world" is a great conversation starter***. They'd traveled some too, and were suitably impressed with my plan, and gave me tips on where to go in Ireland. We had a grand time talking about all kinds of things until we closed the place down and parted reluctantly at midnight. I gave them my email and blog address, and Tommy gave me his card and mobile number, and I beamed and bounced my way back to the hostel. Great night.

On Friday a did a tour over to two of the Inner Hebrides islands. The ultimate destination was the tiny island of Iona, which is the place where Christianity first came to the UK in the 6th century, and so has an pretty important abbey, and a nice ruined nunnery, and the usual assortment of tea shops, pubs, and twee tourist craft shops. But it's a long trip to get to Iona. There's a 45 minute ferry ride from Oban to the large island of Mull, then a 75 minute bus ride across Mull, then another 15 minutes on a smaller ferry to Iona. Then you've got about 2 hours on Iona, whereupon you retrace your steps for another 135 minutes and end up back in Oban in time for a pint.

The ruined Nunnery. I do like a good ruin...

In future, I may restrict myself to sights that take longer to tour than they take to get to and from, but on this occasion the long bus ride turned out to be the highlight of the day. The bus came (thankfully) with a driver named Stevie**** who was also a local guide, and who kept up a running commentary for the entire 75-minute trip across the island.

Stevie is a resident of Mull for 8 month of the year, so he knows the place well and had an astonishing breadth of knowledge about the area, along with a wit so dry I'm surprised it didn't simply blow away in the not inconsiderable Highland winds. Stevie's monologue covered a truly impressive stream-of-consciousness range of topics delivered in a quiet, almost musical way that was completely captivating. Here's a sample of the areas he touched on:

The smallest post office in Britain ("It's a bit of a challenge if you've got a large parcel. There's either room for you, or room for the parcel."), local Afghan war casualties, the difficulty of pub-crawling on the island (noted after the 30-minute drive between the two nearest pubs), deep-fried Mars Bars, poaching, policing, geology, munro-climbing, bird identification, the particular markings and habits of bird-watchers (trousers tucked into socks, along with the inability to admit to not being able to identify any bird asked about), passing places, the burial place of MacBeth, Maj. Gen Lachland McQuarrie (the "Father of Australia"), thence to the unlikely existence of an Australian National Trust sight in the Hebrides, Viking long boat winter storage practices, mussel-farming, water purity, Gallic place names (pronouced with a satisfying serving of gutturals), meteorology, celebrity tax-dodges on Mull, cattle grids, deforestation (upon passing a clear-cut area: "If that had been perpetrated by a bunch of youths wearing hoodies there would have been a great hue and cry..."), architectural obscenities (particularly a spectacularly out-of-place solar-powered, glassed-in bus shelter that lights up at night, at which we were assured no on ever waits for a bus), island-spotting, bronze age crannocks (man-made islands), eco-tourism, the evils of black-faced sheep, the highland clearances, Yorkshiremen ("just Scots with the generosity kicked out of them"), Duarte Castle, modern-day Lairds & Chiefs, Torosay Castle, and the delightfully named Hugh of the Small Head.

The sea shore at Iona, waiting for the ferry back to Stevie.

What can I say? Stevie was an absolute delight. Here's my favourite story, which I was actually clever enough to capture with the voice recorder on my phone, so you get it word for word. Sadly, you are lacking the lovely, smooth, almost sing-song delivery and, tragically, the Scots accent full of funny vowels and throat-clearing rrrrrs without which this transcription is but the palest imitation of the real Stevie. Try to imagine it as best you can:

"You can see the peat banks here on the left... they've been cutting the peat over the years... Heh, I was having a bit of a laugh about that the other night. Somebody was recalling, I guess it was about last August, almost a year ago. A cruise boat came up - we get several of these a year, this particular one was quite big - and they hired six coaches. They may be back too... the thought sends a shiver to the spine. They bring their own guides with them, you see? And the people who organize the cruise, well, we are regarded by them very much on these occasions as just sort of a component of the coach situated somewhere between the steering wheel and the gearstick.

We're all sittin' up there at the harbour, waitin' for the coach to come ashore, and I saw this guide approach the bus and my heart just sank. It was this kilted apparition from Edinburgh who, well, he sat in the jump seat here, and it was all the usual rations of sporrans and tartans and that nonsense all the way from down the road. Well the passengers were American, perfectly fine people, but the point being that they really had no other point of reference. Most of them, perhaps, would have no other point of reference regarding the Highlands other than what this lad was telling them, and he was, well, he had a kilt on so he must know about the Highlands.

And we got as far as the peat banks there and he started telling the folk how the poor people of Mull, you know, they are just so poor here you know, and they have to dig away in the dirt there just to get a wee spark of heat in the winter time, and I thought, "Well, that's about enough now". At this point I'm nearly putting him off the bus to just leave him standing by the roadside in his kilt. Absolute nonsense! You know everybody's got double-glazing and central heating and this kind of thing. You may have noticed even on the newer houses, many of them have chimney pots. People have retained the idea of an open fire as a, well, it's a lovely feature - the hearth - isn't it? If you have friends 'round on an autumn evening or a winter's night, apart from whatever heating systems you have in operation, it's rather nice to set a fire, sit around, have a dram or two, tell stories, throw another log on the fire... and if you do so it's nice to have a bit of peat to throw on the fire because a peat fire has a nice, earthy aroma...

According to some of these lads, I think, we all get up in the morning and have our porridge, and then we're out to round up the sheep and gather up the peat. Then 15 or 20 minutes cursing Clan Campbell. You'd stop for lunch; haggis, I would imagine, or possibly a deep-fried Mars bar. Then in the afternoon, well, there's bagpipe practice to attend to, followed by, well, the all-important task of ironing our kilts. You know that's pretty much the day done isn't it? There's not much time for anything else. And it's just nonsense! You mustn't believe all that stuff. It seems we've got an endless market for this idea of the Highlands as some sort of tartan theme park..."

Beautiful. The whole ride was like that, both ways. Although at the start of the return trip we got this particularly lovely offering:

"It's a different view of the island on the way back. You see everything in reverse. The sheep are all pointing the other way, for instance."

Stevie, Stevie. I hardly knew ye.

And that was Oban. You should go some time. And say hi to Stevie for me.

* It turns out that Oban is properly pronounced just like "open", but with a B. Please stop pronouncing it Oh-BAN right now. Thanks.

** At the end of the night they got everybody up to sing "Auld Lang Syne", which I guess isn't just for New Year's here. Hands up anyone who knows the words to the second verse of that... yeah. Well everybody knows them here. And there are actions to go with it all. Who knew?

*** In fact, I'm thinking about replying to any question with that response. "So, where are you from?" "Canada, but actually, I'm on a year long trip around thwe world...". Or: "Have you been traveling for long?" "About a month, but actually..." Or: "Will that be to eat on or take away?" "Well, actually..."

**** Or possibly it was just Steve, but Stevie sounds more colourful, so I'm going with that.


JBJ said...

Thanks for the proper way to say Oban.....

How do you say: fykemaleeries?

Pam said...

@JBJ: If it's anything like the Brits pronounce most odd, multi-syllabic place names it's probably "Fs". They tend to leave out annoying or troublesome syllables at will.

Karen said...

Stevie sounds lovely. The adventure Oban (now pronounced properly) was most excellent.

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