Sunday, 19 October 2008 Sometimes I think my iPod is pretty smart. I have it on shuffle play as I wander around the
countryside, and I get some interesting transitions and juxtapositions. I suppose you can put it down to my own
musical tastes--I did load the thing, after all--and a normal dose of coincidence. But it really surprised me the
other day when it followed Sinead O'Connor's rendition of Lord Franklin--an old folk song about the British
naval officer who sailed into the high arctic in search of the Northwest Passage in the 1840's, never to be seen
again--with Yes' South Side Of The Sky--"Were we ever colder on that day, a million miles away...?" Brrr.
This morning, the iPod matches the dismal dreich weather with a long string of tunes ranging from the contemplative to the melancholy, starting with the mournful keening of Lévon Minassian's doudouk. I stop in Lochcarron to pick up The Scotsman and a couple of postcards at the Spar, as I usually do on my way north out of Plockton. Here now is the Highland shop that I was lamenting the other day in Broadford, reminiscent of Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon-- "If we don't have it, you can probably get along without it." Groceries, stationery, hardware, toys, what-have-you. I walk up and down the aisles, not because I'm looking for anything in particular, but just to hang out for a bit, and maybe to see just what they do have, what people in Lochcarron can't get along without. Economy is vital in places like this, and yet I come away with the impression that a few frills, at least, are necessary to keep a spare life from feeling like a desperate one. Well, you can get everything else online now, can't you?
From there, the question is whether to take the side trip up over the pass to Applecross, or head due north. Given the bad weather, I'd about given up on the idea of taking the Applecross trip, but as I approach the turnoff, the sky seems to break up a bit. The iPod eggs me on with a foot-stomper from the Québecois band La Volée d'Castors, the first remotely upbeat thing I've heard all morning. Up I go. Of course, the top is entirely socked in with cloud. The iPod gets all sarky now, mocking me with a cheerful ditty by Penguin Cafe Orchestra.
Judging from the number of cars out front, the Applecross Inn is doing a heavy trade in Sunday lunch. I drive off around the peninsula, and the wind picks up. By the time I get to Shieldaig, it's howling. It might be the windiest day I've seen in eleven trips to Scotland, outside the Northern Isles, anyway. There is a wind-whipped mist over the water, and up on the mountainsides, the wind blows waterfalls back up over the cliff tops, a phenomenon I haven't seen since I was in the Faroes. Driving through a wooded area, I stop dead in a gap between the trees--a gust rocks the trees so hard, I'm sure that one or another will fall across the road.
Eventually, I arrive safely in Aultbea and check in at my B&B in nearby Mellon Charles (a friend of Blind Lemon Jefferson's, no doubt), on the shores of Loch Ewe. Then it's back to Aultbea and Drumchork Lodge, overlooking the loch and the euphoniously-named Isle of Ewe (does anyone remember Jimmie Spheeris?). I'm greeted by proprietor and distiller John Clotworthy, who gives me a tour of the tiny Loch Ewe Distillery. It's essentially a bootlegger's set-up, and stands in fact in a diorama representing an illicit distiller's hideout. He explains the legal loophole that allowed him to license his far-undersized still--a loophole that was immediately closed up, assuring that there will not be another distillery like this in Scotland. He also explains The Whisky Experience, a five-day program including lodging and meals, tastings, and a practical seminar in distillation. Guests go home with a five-litre barrel of spirit they have made themselves. Mr Clotworthy is obviously very knowledgeable and enthusiastic; he gives me a great deal of detail on the process, from malt to water to wood, mashing and distilling and making cuts. He shows me how toxic methanol clouds when mixed with water, key to making the first cut, and talks about seasoning the tiny barrels with sherry and other wines. I'm thinking that if I were to do this, I'd want to use virgin wood, which I'd then reuse for second and third fills...don't think I'd get even a five-litre barrel past US customs, though.
I get to taste new spirit, some that's been in the cask just a few days (surprisingly well-colored and flavored), and some that's been two or three weeks. It's tantalizing; I'm told that it's best at about six weeks--in the small casks, it takes on too much wood after that-- but at the moment, there is nothing quite so mature in stock, so I'm reluctant to judge. The law, of course, requires spirit to be at least three years in wood before it can be called whisky, so Mr Clotworthy is careful to call his product Uisge Beatha.
After, I settle in for dinner, and then take advantage of Drumchork's wi-fi to upload a few things. I'm the only guest in, and it occurs to me that I ought to have a blether with Mr Clotworthy about life in the wild northwest, or whatever else springs to mind. Mr Tattie Heid is not, alas, the most socially adept person on earth; if it's up to me to keep a conversation afloat, it's like as not to founder. If only Bobby were here, we'd know all about Mr Clotworthy's ancestry by now.
Oh well, I'm sure I'll be back. There are 700 malts behind the bar, overlooking the Isle of Ewe.