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Whisky and Woolen Mills – Exploring the North East of Scotland by Rail

Tours of Scotland - Aberdeen
Aberdeen

Think of a holiday in Scotland and you’ll likely think of Edinburgh, the Western Highlands and the Isle of Skye. And why not? Scottish culture and dramatic scenery in abundance. But if you want to get under the skin of Scotland, you should consider lingering longer, touring some of the lesser-known towns ad indulging in some real Scottish culture. That’s why after a recent travel trade event in Aberdeen in April, I took the opportunity to remain in Scotland for a few days and meander my way back to Glasgow at a leisurely pace. And what better way to travel than by rail?

My start point, Aberdeen, lies on the North East coast of Scotland so the plan was to do a counter-clockwise loop in to the Highlands then South through the heart of Scotland to Glasgow from where I’d fly back to South Wales.

So, coffee in one-hand, suitcase handle in the other, it was a fresh Highland Spring morning that I headed for the station in Aberdeen. My first train was spot on time and the service quiet which meant lots of space in the luggage racks and plenty of seats to choose from – the journey was both relaxing and beautiful as I passed through the rolling hills of Aberdeenshire, a region punctuated by remote Highland farms and the occasional castle ruin or baronial manor in the lush green landscapes. My first destination; the Highland town of Elgin.

Johnstons of Elgin, Newmill, Scotland

A very Scottish town, Elgin has enjoyed Royal burgh status since the 13th century and is famed for its dramatic cathedral ruins, now under the management of Historic Scotland. The aim of my visit however was to experience some (slightly) more modern culture at Johnstons of Elgin, a traditional woollen mill and weavers. This family enterprise have been producing tweeds, knitwear and woven accessories for around two centuries using methods that have been passed down through the generations of the locals who work here. I was lucky enough to enjoy a tour of the historic mill which run regularly throughout the day and provided a up-close and engaging insight in to the history of wool production, the local community and the traditional production methods. The operation is, if you pardon the pun, woven in to the fabric of the local Highland community and the locals are incredibly proud of the finest goods that are produced here to this day – so fine in fact that they recently won an award from King Charles himself! There are various tours to enjoy, an amazing gift shop and a coffee shop offering locally produced lunches and afternoon teas. Or, if you’re looking for something special, you can enjoy a private personal shopping experience or even a whisky tasting on-site…! Well worth a visit for anyone with a passing interest in fabrics, the crafts and local Scottish heritage.

Cullen Skink Scottish soup

After a large bowl of Cullen Skink (a hearty Scottish soup of seafood and potato) in the coffee shop, it was back aboard the train for Inverness, capital of the Highlands. The journey here passes over the flatter Terrain of the Nairnshire coastline with expansive views over the brooding waters of the Moray Firth before descending in to Inverness. After dropping my suitcase in to the luggage store in the train station, I was free to roam this riverside highland town.

The clouds parted here and I was treated to a gloriously sunny stroll down to the river where the daffodils were out in abundance on the banks. First-up, I attended a presentation by Inverness Castle on their upcoming plans.

Scotland Tours - Inverness
Inverness

Although the castle site has been home to fortifications for hundreds of years, the castle that stands there today is far more contemporary than most of Scotland’s ancient castle ruins, dating back only to the early 1800s. Until recently, the structure was in use as a county courthouse but redevelopment plans mean the imposing building will re-open in 2025 as a stunning visitor attraction. Whilst works are still in progress, plans are to tell the story of Inverness, the region and its people in their own words with fresh gardens, multiple interactive exhibition rooms and a rooftop terrace for panoramic views over the city, surrounding countryside and up the River Ness to Loch Ness.

Uilebheist Distillery & Brewery, Inverness, Scotland
Uilebheist Distillery & Brewery, Inverness, Scotland

 

 

My second destination in Inverness was the Uile-Bheist Distillery – probably Scotland’s youngest distillery. The distillery and brewery have been twenty years in the making, an idea that owner Jon Erasmus finally brought to fruition in 2023. The centre certainly brings a contemporary twist to the one of Scotland’s oldest traditions in Whisky making. I was granted a tour of the ultra modern facilities which offered a fresh insight in to age-old whisky and beer producing processes. There’s no doubt the facilities are state of the art but the passion and presentation were from Scotland’s long-held story-telling traditions. Indeed, Uile-Bheist translates from Celtic as “Monster” in reference to Nessie, the fabled beast that lurks in the deepest depths of Loch Ness just a few miles upstream from the distillery. The mythical theme runs through the establishment with fantastically funky artwork relating to Scottish legends adorning the building and branding, and each of the their beers and ciders named after mythical characters or creatures from Celtic and Scottish folklore. I’m not a whisky drinker myself but I certainly made time to enjoy a couple of samples of their home-brew beers in the sunshine at the riverside beer-garden; my favourite – Forest Dweller, a flavoursome “Inverness” Pale Ale.

Scottish rail

After a long day on the rails – it was time to retire for the evening at my nearby hotel. But what a day soaking up some characteristic Scottish scenery from the comfort of the train and enjoying some cultural and gastronomic highlights. A day to remember but with more to come as I turn South for Glasgow which I’ll tell you all about next time…

If you’re looking for a vacation in Scotland, to tour the Highlands by car or rail or are interested in any of the destinations or cultural attractions that I visited on my journey, please do not hesitate to get in touch and we’ll be happy to help you plan your trip!

by Darryl Walters

Magdalena Glen

June 10, 2024

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