Drink anything with enough alcohol in it and you’ll start tasting almonds, oranges, coconuts, pine needles, Christmas cake. But there’s no pretence in the tour at the Scotch distillery: our guide, who wears a badge saying Team Leader, points to a pile of peat in the corner cut months ago, still hasn’t dried, says their whisky isn’t as smoky as the island peats down south because they haven’t got any trees up here in the Orkneys, it’s what’s in the soil, the roots, that makes the smoke.
And it’s true, I thought about pitching stories to see if I could manufacture a way to get paid to write about the distilleries but it didn’t pan out to think of it that way, as I’m here with my family and the only one who drinks Scotch, my kids being 10 and 8 and my wife, more sensible, also working, which means she has to get on conference calls and get secure WiFi connections at night, and it doesn’t add up, but I don’t know that I’ll be back, so here I am.
The outline of Scotland resembles Jack Frost with a slow-motion still of him blowing his brains out, the shrapnel of it islands off to the west, a jagged cut of the Loch Ness running northeast to southwest like a scar, and on the narrow causeways they’ve built to connect the pieces of land it all feels thin as a slice of cheese with as many holes, and frightening to drive across when the wind really kicks up and your car is about the same level as the sea, and the waves and spray cross the road and the signs say basically, you’re on your own.
At the hotel bar I meet a rugby referee from Edinburgh on his first visit to the Orkneys, aglow with an all-expenses-paid work trip, says he’s sure to get drunk tomorrow night and it could happen tonight, too. And then excuses himself to a group of older men huddled in the corner grunting and laughing, and that’s that.
The colour and flavour from the Scotch comes from the casks they age in, and Highland Park uses Spanish oak, American oak, and puts sherry in first to season the casks, toasts the inside of the barrels to make them more absorbent, which draws out the natural vanilla and tannins in the wood, and that’s what you taste in your drink, and I’m in love.
We have a budget, for as extravagant as our times here sound, and though this is reckless and kind of bad logic, we’re not spending more than we would in Seattle in any given month; we’re averaging $120 USD/night on lodging, which includes an extravagant ferry ride from Amsterdam, and doing our best to control our spending so we can travel more when we’re back in the Schengen next year.
On the Orkney Islands we blew our budget the first couple days though, and had to see if we could live off £60 our last day, which meant three meals out, some attractions, and incidentals. So I took to the Tesco to buy our breakfast and lunch, ready-made meals, and got the marked down ones because they were going off, and managed to do it — discovered the Scotch Egg (hardboiled egg wrapped in a breaded meat compound, good cold), some wraps and smoothies for the kids, and no one’s gotten sick yet.
Actually said aloud in the car today I’m ready to go back to work, as a matter of pride and self-esteem, a way of keeping the strain off our relationship with Dawn acting as sole breadwinner now for almost a year. Passed some sheep and posited what do they do with them, all these sheep, everywhere, sheep? I said they must eat them after they use the wool, but Dawn said you have to get to them young otherwise they get old and bitter, start blogging.
In two days, we take the kids to six archaeological sites, older than Stonehenge, the Pyramids — really intriguing stuff. Not great weather, but not a lot of tourists either, this time of year — and the last, Skara Brae, is a 5,000 year-old farming village preserved beneath a sand dune, discovered in 1850 after a terrible storm ripped the head off the dune, revealing the village below. It marks the end of the Neolithic Age, the new Stone Age as it were, as they moved from communal burials to individualised ones.
What I liked most is the fact they took all their garbage, their compost, to a community area and reused the material to rebuild their houses: picture structures made out of bones, seashell, animal dung, everything they didn’t have use for, but managed to reuse in the most vital sense, for shelter. How far we’ve strayed from that practicality, how simple their lives seem, crouched down behind rock walls, out of the wind — how invigorating to imagine a hard life like that, and how queer for them to look upon ours now, and how far we’ve come.