Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail

A fabulous tour of some of the best distilleries in the country.

Scotland has long been known as a land of superior whisky, producing some of the best spirits in the world.  The Malt Whisky Trail is a celebration of that tradition, offering tourists an easy way to travel across Scotland and experience the best of what their distilleries have to offer.  It’s like a wine tour, but for lovers of whisky and it can be found in the region of Speyside.

It’s not a traditional tour, such as when one might hire a guide and be led by the nose.  Instead, it’s more of a marketing program where the region posts signs and makes available information on which distilleries are open to the public and where they’re located. 

Many famous names that whisky lovers will recognize are along the trail, including two of my personal favorites, Chivas Regal and Glenlivet.  And since you’re not on a paid tour, you’re given the freedom to visit these houses of glory in any order you wish, stopping at other great attractions along the way and resting off your hangover at leisure.

Each distillery presents to visitors a unique experience, highlighting their own history and distinct traditions.  Best of all, each location will provide visitors with samples of their drinks.  In addition, there’s devotion among many of them to provide an educational experience that will leave you appreciating the malt beverage more by the time you leave.  They talk about their distilleries, the types of whisky they specialize in, the processes involved to get the results you taste and even the proper way to have a whisky tasting.

If you manage to hit the trail sometime in May or September, you’re in for even more of a treat.  These are the seasons when the whisky festivals take place so it’s easy to double your drinking experience in the tourist-friendly towns of Speyside.  The Malt Whisky Trail can be a great way to focus a vacation while still leaving you the freedom to do as you please.  For lovers of Scotch whisky, there are few experiences better in this world of ours.

The Overtoun “Dog Suicide” Bridge

A Scottish supernatural mystery or just some over-anxious canines?

This one is for the spook-hunters out there, a strange and foreboding bridge just outside of West Dunbartonshire in Scotland.  The thing that makes this bridge so peculiar and of interest to those with a taste for the supernatural is the repeated dog suicides that take place there every year.  So many dogs are said to have taken their own lives by leaping from this bridge that it’s acquired the nickname of “Rover’s Leap.”

Nearby the bridge is the Overtoun House, a granite structure that resembles a castle in many ways and now serves as bed and breakfast.  In order to cross a creek to get to the house, a bridge was built.  Since in the 1950s, this byway has proven to have an unusual effect on the local dogs.  They randomly jump over the edge, at a specific spot on the bridge, and the landing often ends in their deaths.

Why it happens is up for debate.  Those who choose a less traditional explanation have several theories.  Some say that since the areas nearby have a high human suicide rate that the dogs pick up on it and mimic the actions of people.  Others say it’s a less supernatural phenomenon, akin to animals finding a place to die when they get old.  And, of course, there is a fair share of people who claim the bridge is haunted and that the dogs are lured into jumping by ghosts.  This last theory is further reinforced by an event that took place in 1994, when a man threw his baby over the edge of the bridge and then attempted to follow suit.

A more scientific explanation has also been addressed.  The fact is, the wall is just high enough to block the vision of most dogs, yet the presence of wildlife nesting in the area is very high.  Some believe that the dogs smell these critters and then go chasing after them, not realizing that when they jump the wall they’re leaping straight into a long drop.

Whatever you choose to believe, Overtoun Bridge has taken its place as a local urban legend, being responsible for more than 50 dog deaths over the last few decades.  Though the legends and supernatural presence at the bridge may be called into question, it is certainly an interesting place to visit if you happen to be a fan of the strange and unusual.

Hogmanay Festival

A pagan tradition of New Year’s, with plenty of music and fire.

Hogmanay is a way for those taking a visit to Scotland during the time of New Year’s to celebrate the holiday in a new and unique way.  As can be expected, it takes place on December 31st every year and is honored in many places throughout the country.  Hogmanay’s traditions are taken from Viking roots, incorporating pagan practices associated with worship of the sun and fire.  Over the years, this holiday has gone through many incarnations, eventually evolving into what it is today.

Despite its differences, Hogmanay has most of your typical New Year’s stuff going on, such as drinking, eating and partying 'til dawn.  It starts up in the early evening and continues through the night (and into the morning for those with enough endurance).  There also is the standard singing of Auld Lang Syne when the clock strikes midnight.  The rest of the festivities depend on which region of Scotland you happen to be in when the event is taking place.

Some of the more common events on the list are the singing of folk songs, dancing, processions of torch bearers, swinging balls of fire around from the ends of chains, bonfires and various concerts.  Edinburgh boasts the best-known of these festivals and features such iconic events as The Loony Dock - in which people in fancy dress take a nice winter swim in the middle of the half-frozen river - and The Keilidh - a giant outdoor dance floor set up just for Hogmanay.

If you want to experience New Year’s in Scotland, the biggest of the celebrations occur in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  This festive ringing in of the New Year is a great way to meet the people of Scotland while dancing, drinking and having fun.  Who knows?  You might even get lucky and earn yourself a midnight kiss from a Scot.

The World Stone Skimming Championships

What was once a way to kill time and relax is now a competitive event

Stone skimming is usually considered to be a quiet pastime, spent on the shore of a river or lake while enjoying a drink and doing nothing important.  People who happened to have stones and flats surfaces of water nearby enjoyed it indiscriminately. 

But some people decided to take it more seriously than others.  In Scotland, that evolved to become the World Stone Skimming Championships, an event that brings people in from around the world to test their stone-hurling skills.


While there are other events that take place throughout the year and in various areas of the world, there is only one championship event.  It takes place on the last Sunday of September of each year in Argyll, on Easdale Island, a tiny place that is known for having one of the smallest populations in the country.  Around 200 people show up each year looking for a chance to take the title.

Stone skimming has been going on since man first figured out how to throw a rock, but it wasn’t until 1989 that it began to get official.  Now there are rules, regulations and all that come with them, though they’re pretty basic and easy to understand.  Stones must bounce at least three times and each person gets three tries. 

The stone that goes the furthest is declared the victor.  People of all ages and skill levels are encouraged to try their hand at the title, as this event does not require qualifications or other such nonsense that many sports deal with.  To make the competition more of a festival, there is a Saturday night “Pre-Skim” party, filled with music and drinking.

Competitive stone skimming isn’t just relegated to Scotland, however, so you can likely find an event somewhere near you that lets you battle it out with other enthusiasts.  Still, the biggest and the best go to Easdale Island, including world-record holders - the best of which sent his stone about 213 feet.  So if you’re serious about being the best, you’ll have to take a journey to Scotland.

Highland Tories

In The American Revolution


In the American Revolution, many of the Scots-Irish or Presbyterian Scots settlers were active participants in the Revolution, while most of the Scottish Highlanders in America were committed Loyalists. The political reasons for this were quite complicated, but even Jacobite rebels exiled to America generally took the British side in the Revolution, while one of the only Highland settlements to join the rebels (upstate New York's Argyll colony) was settled by the members of anti-Jacobite clans like the Campbells. Whether Scots-Irish or Scottish Highlander, Presbyterian religious faith was closely associated with support for the Revolution, but most Highlanders from regions other than Argyll were not Presbyterian.

Loyalist Highlanders in North Carolina staged a classic Highland Charge with drawn broadswords at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, but it ended in disaster because the rebels had tampered with the planks on the bridge. Broadsword charges depend entirely on momentum and psychological impact to scare the enemy into retreating so he can be cut down from behind. When the Highlanders were slowed down by the missing (or, in some accounts, greased) bridge planks, they were gunned down by musket fire.


Highland loyalists in New York's Mohawk Valley had much more success with guerrilla warfare tactics as members of the infamous Butler's Rangers. In Boston, a Highlander who had been offering broadsword instruction to the local young men was forced to flee the city, after which he became a Loyalist officer. Because so many Highlanders took the Tory side, there was considerable prejudice against Scottish Highlanders in America for a time.


Hints of Clan History

In The Crofter's War

The Crofter's War is the name historians often give to the civil disturbances of the 1880s in the Scottish Hebrides, where the local people finally began to use force to resist the Clearances. One interesting point about the Crofter's War is that it was expressed in terms specific to Gaelic culture and history. When policemen threatened to enforce an eviction, the crofters would send the fiery cross around the island, the same method that had been used by their ancestors two centuries before that to gather for a clan fight or a Jacobite uprising.

Once the crofters had assembled, they were sometimes led into battle by bagpipers, and the crofter's most typical weapon was the cudgel or bludgeon, a thick piece of wood. Back in the clan era the “tuatha-ceatharnach” or “armed peasantry” were the militia of the clan, lower in rank than the sword-wielding gentlemen but still expected to help defend the clan against raiders from rival clans. The most typical weapon of the tuatha-ceatharnach was the cudgel.


One big difference between the Crofter's War and earlier Highland uprisings was the issue of class. In earlier rebellions, the chief and his gentleman retainers led the armed peasantry into battle, but the Crofter's War often pitted the peasantry against the chief, who was seen as having turned his back on the people. Another big difference was the role of women. There were, generally speaking, no women warriors among the old clans, but in the new battles between crofters and policemen women took a prominent role. In fact, it was sometimes noted that the women were fiercer fighters than the men, and more willing to openly defy authority!



Up Helly Aa

Fiery Folk Festival

“Up Helly Aa” is a traditional Shetland festival, harking back to the days of the Vikings, in which a replica Norse longship is set on fire in a spectacular display. Except that it really isn't, because Shetlanders have only been doing the longship thing for about a hundred and twenty years, not since the days of the Vikings at all.

Up Helly Aa existed before that as the local midwinter festival, which was basically an excuse for the young men to get crazily drunk and set things on fire, particularly tar barrels. Then they would pull the burning tar barrels around through the streets while whooping it up. It was a seasonal festival- and as such, could possibly be quite ancient- but it was mostly a drinking binge and a reason to go a little crazy. The hilarity of drunk young troublemakers dragging burning tar barrels through the streets was lost on the more “respectable” members of the community, who managed to get the practice banned in the 1870s.


They relented a little bit a few years later, allowing a procession of people carrying torches, which is a little less chaotic than the flaming tar barrels. When the Duke of Edinburgh visited in 1882, the torch parade was played up quite a bit and turned into a spectacle. In 1889, someone first had the bright idea of burning a Viking ship, and the Shetlanders have done so ever since.


Festivals and customs like this one derive their meaning from their role in the community life, not from how ancient or “authentic” they are. By burning a Viking longship, Shetlanders are able to assert and confirm the island's traditional Norse connections and their own unique identity as a Scandinavian-Scottish community. The fact that their ancestors really burned tar barrels is not particularly important.


Glasgow's Razor Gangs

And Their Modern Heirs

Glasgow, like many large cities, has a history of gang culture, including the infamous “razor gangs” of the 1930s. The razor gangs were so called because of their preference for the straight razor, a weapon used primarily to disfigure the opponent by slicing the face. Most people think of the razor gangs as a thing of the past, but many of the 1930s gangs still exist in some form today.

For instance, the San Toi Boys of the “razor gang” era developed into today's various “Toi” gangs still active in Glasgow, including the Young Torran Toi, Young Blackhill Toi, etc. The “Baltic Fleet,” another old Glasgow gang, became the Duke Street Fleet, Young High End Ziggy Fleet and Young Cranhill Fleeto, while one gang in Dalmarnock still retains the original name of Baltic Fleet.


One strange characteristic of Glasgow gang culture is a seeming preference for outlandish and whimsical gang names, including “Tollcross Wee Men,” “The Boig,” and even “Wild Young Chumbly.” The modern gangs no longer rely primarily on the straight razor (which is not to say its use is entirely unheard-of), but the association of the razor with Glasgow street gangs is so pronounced that fictional portrayals of Glasgow gangsters almost always depict them as favoring this weapon. For instance, the original graphic novel of “V For Vendetta” includes a Scottish organized crime figure who uses a straight razor in preference to a gun, saying he “wouldnae waste the bullet.”


Scotland Before The Clans

Cinneal, Tuath and Mormaer

The first tribe or “tuath” of Gaelic Scots was known as the Dalriada. The territories of the Dalriada spanned what is now the western Highlands as well as eastern Ireland, and the political and cultural affinities of the Dalriada were clearly Irish. Because all of the Gaelic Scots initially belonged to the same tuath, the political divisions in early Gaelic Scotland were not based on the tuath but on the “cinneal” or kindred.

A cinneal was like a clan, but smaller- it didn't refer to all of the people of a territory but just to the ruling family of that territory. “Clans” as we would now define them had not yet developed. Over centuries of warfare as well as more peaceful interactions with the neighboring Picts, the Scot eventually merged with them. The new Gaelic kingdom was known as Alba, or “Scotland.”


Because Alba was not conceived of as a land of many regional tuath, each with its own king, there could be no institution analogous to the Irish “high kingship.” Instead, there was only one king in Alba- the King of Scots- and powerful local magnates were referred to as “mormaers”. A mormaer was essentially a regional king without the title, and a mormaership was something like a tuath, but without as much shared identity. The different cinneal or kinship groups within a mormaership did not think of themselves as being members of the same tribe or “tuath” except insofar as they were all Scots. Over time, the common inhabitants of the district ruled over by a particular cinneal began to think of themselves as the children or “clann” of that ruling family, especially because they were often related to the ruling family, however distantly. As this sense of shared kinship grew, the early cinneal became the clans.




The Strathclyde Britons

Scotland's P-Celts

Ancient Scotland was part of the Celtic world, but there were distinctly different Celtic cultures within it- the Gaels, the Picts and the Britons. The Gaels and the Picts get a lot of the attention, but the Britons of what is now southern Scotland were every bit as “Celtic,” as their language of Cumbric was in the P-Celtic branch of the Celtic language family.

Cumbric was essentially a dialect of Old Welsh, and the culture of these Scottish Britons was part of what we would now think of as ancient Welsh culture. Merlin and Arthur featured heavily in their legends, and the Old Welsh poem “Y Gododdin” describes a battle in what is now Scotland. Their kingdom was known as Strathclyde or Cumbria, and in the early middle ages it was under constant pressure from both north and south. The invading Anglo-Saxons threatened its territories in what is now northern England, while the Gaels of the Highlands pushed down from the north.


When Cumbria fell at last, it was to the Gaels, and Cumbria became part of the new Kingdom of Scotland. Some families retained an awareness of their original identity as Strathclyde Britons even when they drifted northward over time and developed into Highland clans. The name “Galbraith” literally means “a foreign Briton,” while the MacArthur clan claims descent from King Arthur himself. The mighty Clan Campbell claimed descent from the Gaelic warrior hero Diarmaid, but also from the Strathclyde Britons. Even though the Scottish Britons eventually disappeared as a distinct culture, these clans preserved at least a hint of what once was.