Britain at its best: Turquoise skies, excellent oysters and 50 whisky distilleries, Speyside in Scotland promises barrel loads of joy
- Speyside stretches from Inverness and into the Cairngorms National Park
- There are 50 whisky distilleries in the region – go on the Glenfiddich tour
- Shakespeare located the murder of Duncan by Macbeth at Inverness Castle
Late on a Highland morning just outside Inverness, with its turquoise skies and whippet-fast winds, I’m standing in a century-old storage barn peering inside a barrel of single malt whisky.
It’s suspiciously empty. Someone seems to have taken a greedy sip from it. ‘Blame the angels,’ my guide tells me. ‘They always have to take some for themselves.’
Glenfiddich, the owners of the barrel, the warehouse and a fair few acres beyond where I’m standing, are more than used to this act of natural theft.
Wild wonders: A walker in the Cairngorms National Park, situated in the heart of the Highlands
‘The angel’s share’ is the phrase distillers use to explain the process of evaporation, which results in around two per cent of the whisky in any oak barrel disappearing for every year it is in storage.
It explains why the 21-year-old barrel we’re looking at is barely half full, and also goes some way to explaining why, in the gift shop, a half bottle of 50-year-old single malt is on sale for £25,000.
Having reopened this week post-Covid, the Glenfiddich tour and tasting makes for an easy introduction to the whisky-making industry that surrounds Inverness, the de facto capital of the Highlands. There are around 50 distilleries in Speyside, which stretches from Inverness, down the Moray coastline and into the Cairngorms National Park.
The stout grey buildings of Inverness’s city centre look initially rather stern. But I quickly warm to these compact streets, and its Victorian covered market.
The city’s pretty castle is where Shakespeare placed the murder of Duncan by Macbeth, but the one we see today is a 19th-century incarnation. Earlier versions were destroyed, first by Robert the Bruce, and, centuries later, by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites prior to their defeat at Culloden.
The somewhat staid reputation of dining out in the Highlands is slowly being rebuilt, too, and nowhere in Inverness is utilising the natural Highland larder to greater effect than River House. I pop in for a plate of oysters, sourced from Maorach Beag (Gaelic for ‘little shellfish’), a small cultivator located in Wester Ross.
They are the best rock varietals I have ever tasted. Plump and creamy in their glistening shells, they burst like egg yolk upon the first bite. A unique flavour of salt, copper, seaweed and brine floods my mouth and renders the usual oyster condiments of shallots and Tabasco unnecessary.
Spoilt for choice: The Speyside region is famed for its whisky
Loch Morlich may not possess the attractions that nearby Loch Ness and its mythical monster does. But it has long been described to me by my Scottish family members as the most beautiful loch. This part of the Highlands is not the shortbread biscuit tin version of Scotland. Its landscape is more akin to Montana or Newfoundland: vast, muscular vistas of black and bruise-coloured lochs and snow-blasted peaks.
Eventually, I turn into a deserted car park and pad onto the grainy mustard-coloured sands on the east end of Loch Morlich.
During a normal peak season, the huge wooden beach house is a hub for canoe hire and ice creams. On my visit, my only company is a couple walking an Airedale terrier.All else is silence, of the kind seldom found elsewhere in the UK.
There may not be such a swing to the Highlands in colder months, but there’s a steady beauty in this land of high peaks, deep lochs and very thirsty angels.