Hoots mon ... picturesque Inverness
My wife and I took the low road* to Scotland. I don’t really know the difference between the high road and the low road, but I always loved the song, and knew that we would get there faster on it. Our destination was the Scottish Highlands.
Everyone knows how beautiful the Highlands are (or should I say “is”?). My wife certainly knew. She was oohing and aahing throughout our driving tour in our rented car. But, if I chanced to look left or right, she would sternly say, “Keep your eyes on the road.” In Scotland, you see, they drive on the wrong side.
What is there to do in this wild, mountainous region, the northernmost point of the British Isles? A great deal, as it turns out. One may climb Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles, or fish for salmon in the clear mountain streams, or rock climb or hike or go camping. One may do all these things, but not us. True to our cultural heritage, we are city mice, lovers of the indoors, people who appreciate a fine home when they see one. For us, then, it’s a visit to a castle.
The Highlands abound with them and for good reason. There are few places on earth where there have been so many wars and battles. Do you remember the movie Braveheart? Historically, castles were built as strongholds and places of refuge. But over time they also became the homes of the very rich. Our favorite castle, the Castle of Mey, was originally built in the 1500s. In 1952, while mourning the death of her husband, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, happened upon this small, isolated castle. Learning that it was going to be abandoned due to disuse and disrepair, she bought it, restored it and renovated it. It became her summer home for the next fifty years. Now registered as a Scottish Trust property, the castle is open to the public. The elegantly furnished rooms, the beautiful gardens and the touching story all combine to make it a wonderful place to visit.
After many hours of driving on the narrow, curving mountain roads, we arrived in Inverness, the capital city of the Highlands. We were thrilled to find this enclave of civilization. Inverness has everything we love – charm, atmosphere, a sense of the historical. The Old Town is small and compact, easy for us to get around in. The buildings are made of gray stone; the streets have simple names that hearken to another time, like Church, Bridge, River; an ancient cathedral looms over the low-lying buildings, and a castle, of course, overlooks the city from on high. Legend has it that Macbeth killed King Duncan there. But don’t bet on it. Inverness means Mouth of the River Ness, and so for us, after a good night’s sleep at the Royal Highland Hotel, it was on to the famous lake.
Arriving at Loch Ness, the theological term “creatio ex nihilo” – creating something out of nothing – comes to mind. It’s impossible to do (except for God), but somehow they succeeded in doing it here. They took a body of water with nothing in it and turned it into a multi-million dollar tourist industry. It’s hard to find a parking place amid all the tourist buses. The place is frenetic with activity: lake cruises, restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, shopping malls, souvenir shops. We bought a green ceramic replica of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, whom nobody has ever seen. We were told that more than 400,000 tourists arrive here every year. Jackie Mason, the comedian, once quipped that he was in awe of the genius that created Sushi bars – restaurants without kitchens. What would he have to say about Loch Ness?
At the Glenfiddich whiskey distillery
The world’s only Malt Whiskey Trail is also located in the Scottish Highlands. I must digress for a moment. Although I enjoy a shot of liquor if it is offered to me, I simply cannot bring myself to buy a bottle of it in a store – it goes against my grain (pardon the pun). But here you are given a free taste in return for supposedly being interested in the distillery guide’s explanation of how his whiskey is made and why it’s better than the whiskey of the distillery down the road. Now, this is my idea of fun. After visiting the Glenfiddich, the Glenlivet and the Glen Moray distilleries, I was really grooving. My wife, however, put an abrupt end to my whiskey tasting after I failed to correctly answer her question on which side of the road the Scots drive.
I always look for a Jewish connection to the places we visit abroad. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a connection here. The closest thing we found to a kosher restaurant was the ubiquitous fish and chips shop. Very tasty, actually. There are no synagogues in the Highlands,so that if one is so inclined, one must practice the Bratslav tradition of praying alone, (b’hitbodedoot). And, finally, whatever happened to reciprocity? There is no Jewish equivalent in the Highlands to the Scottish Hotel in Tiberias.
We took the high road to return to England. To pass the time, I suggested we play a game. On our visit we learned a number of Scottish words. “I will say the word in Scottish and you say the word in English.” My wife reluctantly agreed to play. “Loch,” I said. “Lake,” she replied. “Ben,” I continued. “Mountain,” she responded. Glen: valley; Bonnie: pretty; Heather: purple flower; Whiskey: feeling tipsy; Men’s skirts: what were they thinking? As you can see, the game deteriorated completely. And the high road is the long way back.
*Proofreader’s Note (David Chester)
“The Low Road” is an imaginary underground way by which Scottish peoples’ bodies are reputed to find their way back home, after burial elsewhere. In Jewish mythology a similar transit system is supposed to become active for our arrival in the Holy Land, at the time of the arrival of the messiah, but those buried in Jerusalem get first priority for resurrection.