A taste of uisge-beatha
June 21, Culloden Moor Inn, Eastern Highlands, Scotland
I walked into the empty pub and tried to adjust my eyes to the shadowy interior. The Culloden Moor Inn was silent, but it did not look closed. Frequenting pubs in the middle of the afternoon wasn’t a habit of mine but that particular afternoon I was in need of a stiff drink and that said a lot about the emotional state of someone who rarely drinks.
I had always been fond of small Scottish country pubs, like this one with its low ceiling, well weathered by time, darkish woodwork interior and deep green tartan patterned carpet. There was no mistake about the name or location of the Culloden Moor Inn; its walls, covered with old prints, paintings, crest badges, sporrans and other decorative items, were all an homage to the historic Culloden battle of 1746 that still echoed in post-independence referendum Scotland. The White Rose Cockade, the emblem of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite supporters was prominent among them. The Inn evoked alcohol rich memories of another little pub, in a small town that I had called home a few decades earlier.
There were only two people I could see in the room, a man in his 50s standing behind the bar busy with drying pint glasses, the other some years his junior, younger but not young, sitting head down, nursing his drink. I felt like an intruder, my voice cut the human silence in the room like the light coming through a dark room when you pull aside a dark and heavy velvet curtain.... hazy at first but stark in its contrast to the shadows in the room.
"Hi, ahhh…. excuse me” I put hesitantly and then somewhat more decisively “are you serving?”
My inquiry managed to get the man behind the bar to acknowledge me with a node. After a small pause came a single word of some unidentifiable sound in strong Scottish brogue that I took to mean something along the lines of 'aye, now that you are here' or 'why else would we have the door open for'? Who knows, but I did sit on the bar stool anyway because I just then realized what I really needed, to be with a fellow human being - any living creature for that matter - talk to someone even on trivial matters because I was feeling sick and lost and full of sadness.
The man behind the bar had a sullen face that offered hopeful glimpses of kindness if the two can go together as expression at one given time. He looked at me, properly this time, with a pair of translucent almost blue eyes shadowed by greying bushy eyebrows, and came up with the following more clearly articulated pronouncement:
"You seem in need of something strong lass ... what's it going to be?"
I felt instantly better. What was it with barmen the world over, I thought, they seem to possess a sixth sense with people in need of rescuing, invariably with a strong drink. This one came with a Scottish accent, a plus in my books of barman qualities. At that moment, I felt like a woman drowning to oblivion in a barrel of unspecified alcoholic liquid.
"Tequila is my drink of choice, especially when I feel real shit and if not available then a brandy but since I am in Scotland, I should honor the local drink, right?"
“Right”, he mirrored back and posed in waiting for a more specific order from this woman who seemed to assume that there was only one local drink in the land of drinks...foreigners... the silent sigh visible in his gruff and almost patronizingly patient expression. He was not going to make it easy for her.
"Could I have a Scotch please?"
Ah...the woman means business, he seemed to think. I saw his expression and rushed to qualify my order with an apologetic shrug.
"Well, as you astutely observed, I need something strong...I don't usually drink, ahhh...yes, you hear that a lot I assume...never mind...what would you suggest? Something young perhaps, fresh, smooth, light? I don't want to burn my guts, it's not even 2 o' clock yet".
I was sure I was making a laughingstock of herself with this rather improvised Beaujolais nouveau sounding order, but I would not be seeing this man again, so I might play up my accent a bit more and get away with it. To my experience, foreign accents never failed to make locals think the barbarian intruders lack in intelligence and were thus more inclined to be forgiven for offending remarks.
He turned around and started taking down several bottles of amber liquid from behind the counter shelves and then proceeded in lining up, in a neat order, four glasses in front of each bottle. He seemed to enjoy this, relishing on the opportunity to demonstrate to this ignorant foreign woman, with an accent hard to place, that in the land of drinks, my drink choice had far too many variations to be left off the hook that easily, now that I got him into the mood of Scottish drinking tourist education.
I looked at the glasses lined up in front of me and decided with no hesitation to play along ...after all, I was starving for human interaction and something told me that this man was coming to my rescue, even at the price of inebriation.
"Not sure if I asked for a whiskey dégustation but it seems you will be giving me one anyway.... sooo, what do we have here then?"
Her taciturn Scott started pouring with measured gestures, adding just a dash of water, naming the first of the bottles and its provenance, a three-year-old coastal single malt and then waited for me to take my first sip. I was obviously not qualified to be served my Scotch neat, and I was not going to complain. As if reading my thoughts, he explained that the alcohol was too strong for someone not used to it and would anesthetize my taste buds which would rather defy the purpose of the tasting exercise. Anesthetizing my emotional buds was rather what I needed but I kept quiet.
“If you drink it neat, you risk losing the ability to truly taste the drink”, he continued. “Now, we don’t want your tongue to grow numb, do we?” he added with a wink that transformed his sullen face to one of mischief. But water was all he was going to use, anything else, like the offending Scotch on the rocks or with coke were an anathema to this true Scottish barman.
I decided this was going to be fun and thanked the Goddess for having a generous breakfast at my B&B in Inverness before I set out, because I would otherwise be drunk within the space of two sips, this drink was lethal. The first one was smooth, light and almost fruity with sweetness to it, it went down really easy.
My confidence bolstered, I moved to the second glass, another single malt from the Lowlands this time. I sniffed and sniffed again and sipped a bit and savored it in my mouth and sipped again. It tasted light and gentle, quite dry, nutty, and delicate with floral notes and I said so one identified flavor at a time, sure he found my descriptions too flowery for a man’s drink. It seemed to evaporate through my nostrils...real nice - Glenkinchie the label said, who knows how it was pronounced but better write that name down for future reference.
I made appreciative sounds along the way but offered hardly any other comments. I knew instinctively it was a crucial part of the game not to talk much at this stage...besides it was safer not to talk at all… and the longer this interlude was lasting, the bigger the delay would be of going out and into the moors....
So, more relaxed now, owned mostly to the intoxicating effect of my first two tastings, I proceeded to my third glass. This one came with a bite and a strong oaky flavor to it, and wait...what was this aftertaste left in the mouth? I must have shown my puzzled thought on my face because he seemed to acknowledge it in a node of appreciation...of the sort of 'you are doing better than I thought'.
And then the fourth one came, a Western Highlands single malt with a very pungent and smokey taste to it, an explosion in my mouth with a burning sensation going down my throat that felt like liquid fire.... wait, wait, he seemed to say with his palm coming up indicating patience, wait till the burning goes down... so, how does it feel now, his hand indicated with an assumed question mark kind of gesture. Ah, yes...there was a magnificent aftertaste...perhaps one pronounced with relief that you did not really burn your lungs after all. I said so and he laughed out loud, saying only the brave deserved the reward of the aftertaste.
“Sounds like a good motto for the afterlife too”, I commented back, and he laughed even louder.
“Did I pass the test”, I asked playfully. “Could I now qualify as a Scotch connoisseur?”
“Hardly”, he replied bluntly but I did well, given my lack of exposure to the liquid of all liquids. “You appear to have the right appreciative buds for it”, he added as an afterthought. I felt like a little girl padded on the head with approval. “Would the fact that I am vegan be of help” …I suggested. He looked at me perplexed; veganism might not be part of this Scotsman’s vocabulary.
“Perhaps my taste buds are cleaner as a result of no animal flesh eating, so I can feel the nuanced flavors of Scotch”, I offered as an explanation. He still looked at me with the same unaltered expression, since when did one require clean taste buds to enjoy a Scotch? Bloody foreigners …vegans and all.
By this stage, fumes of evaporated alcohol were reaching my brain, very swiftly disarming and switching off several key stubborn neurons, those of the pestering, over-analytical, incessant muttering gremlin nature, a particular feature of academic brains but also natural inhabitants of my brain. I looked up at the man who seemed to wait for me to come up clean and show up my proper appreciation by ordering a proper drink now that I was given the benefit of his education. What's it going to be? I was half tipsy as it was, but I could not back down now, it was a matter of keeping my dignity and demonstrating my appreciation of his efforts.
So, I pointed to the second bottle. He proceeded in pouring me a proper glass of Glenkinchie that he placed on the other side of the bar, next to the man still sitting there in an aura of silence, stating that he needed that side to empty the dishwasher with freshly washed glasses. I moved along and sat two stools away from the silent man who at closer inspection looked rather gloomy, in an overpowering kind of way. He was a big man, the big-boned sort, with a scruffy, not bothered look at him and with a rather intense, or was it tense, energy around him. I could not help it; the aforementioned evaporating fumes had shut down some of my inhibitions and so I went with it:
"So, what's the matter with you then?"
He looked up, a bit annoyed and surprised too as if he was interrupted from some deep thought. Large was the qualifying adjective of this man’s physical character. He had a broad, bearded face, with strongly set cheekbones and large gray eyes, …was there a hint of green or blue in them – the dim light of the pub was not helping - a long strong blade of nose and a wide mouth; and an abundance of hair in his large head, going in different directions like a hand had ruffled them over, and more than once. One of those faces that required a second look, I observed. Unable to back away, I added pointing at the lonely and, from the look of it, rather untouched glass, "you have been staring at your glass for a while now....”.
"I am trying to decide whether I should drink or not," he said in a rumbling kind of lightly Scottish accented voice. "Unlike you, who does not really drink but drinks after all, I have not had a drink in years".... the rest was left unsaid, the implications of drinking quickly becoming apparent.
He looked like a man with a propensity to addictions, all that compact energy he was emitting must be channeled somewhere, I thought. I offered my sympathy, just a sound of acknowledgment that implied understanding. His tension seemed to ease off for some reason.... He looked up again, scratched his bearded left cheek with his right hand and asked the man behind the bar for an irn-bru, Scotland's other national drink. Hamish, the man behind the bar had a name after all, obliged.
"What brings you to this side of the world, if you don't mind me asking?" Hamish put in while replacing the offending alcoholic drink with the fluorescent orange drink that came with a unique bubble gum, gingery iron taste; an acquired taste, as many would say for a lot of Scottish things.
"Visiting some dead relatives," I replied without thinking.
"Oh, you have Scottish roots then?" Hamish looked puzzled.
"Ahhh...sorry, I was just kidding", I tried to cover up quickly my mistake. "I lived in Scotland years ago, you see, down Stirling way. I have been visiting friends nearby this week and since I had not visited Culloden when I was living here and had a few days to spare, I decided to pay my respects to your dead heroes" I blurted out.
Both men were now looking at me with interest...the small but predictable ensuing conversation filled them in with my international career and traveling pedigree, standard fare when I wanted to make a quick impression and be left in peace. “My "I come from many places, how much time do you have and how far back should I go" never failed to act as a successful deterrent to chatty and curious people. Why do people with accents must always account for the geographical location of the origin of their physical existence? Yes, human curiosity and all that but when you have lived all your adult life elsewhere of the said geographical location of physical origin, and your existence accounted for more layers than any local can experience in multiple lifetimes, the conversations were bound to be predicable and claustrophobic – of the ‘what crudely labeled box am I now placed into’ nature.
Hamish did not seem bothered or put off, "no need to embark on your childhood life story lass, just the juicy bits...like how you came to live in Scotland."
So, I told him I lived in Scotland another life away. I came to study and then got stuck with an obsession of epic proportions named Colin, with a set of pale winter sky blue eyes whose close encounter with one fateful night at the student pub, had been burned in my inner vision for ever; I did not tell that last bit though. I did not want to be seen like a woman whose destiny was shaped by a man.
Hamish asked where I was living now and when I replied that it was in New Zealand, predictably so he announced he had relatives down under - him and a few other thousand Scots of course I commented, since the country was full of their descendants – remembering those two south islanders in the Chapel pub on Auckland’s Ponsonby entertainment strip one night who I was convinced were Scots because of their accents, only to find out that they were not after all. That’s just how some southern islanders sounded like, with their strong rhotic accent known as Southland burr. It did make sense as most Scottish immigrants in New Zealand settled in the South Island. After all, wasn’t the south island’s city of Dunedin named after Dun Eideann, the Scottish Gaelic for Edinburgh? I was so amused when I first heard of the Tartan Day celebrated in New Zealand on 1 July, the date of the repeal proclamation in 1782 of the Act of Proscription that banned the wear of Scottish national dress. But then it was not so long ago that about half of the population of this country counted off a Scottish origin.
I told him my house in Auckland backed on Scotland street, one of the many reminders of Scotland in my life, not to mention the Scottish bagpipes band practicing at the nearby Victoria park on Sundays transporting my thousands of miles away; never failing to bring back the still vivid memory of that lone bagpiper in full Scottish regalia playing his bagpipe in the middle of nowhere, the sound echoing in the empty landscape of light reflecting green hills and heather fields, on that car trip to Loch Lomond that summer all those years back. I told him of my trip to Nova Scotia for that conference on islands that I decided to go to only because I liked the sound of the location and its apparent links to Scotland - I omitted that bit, nobody likes obsessed people - where I discovered the epic migration journey of Reverent McLeod and his clan people spanning from Scotland - after being forced to leave their homes during the infamous post-Culloden Highlands Clearances - to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia and then to Australia only to end up in Waipu, a small town in New Zealand. Hamish was truly entertained with this story, he also looked very proud of the resilience and adventuring nature of his people, not an easy feat to survive migration across continents and oceans and the perilous travel conditions of that time. “Aye, we are made of hard enduring stuff, us Scotts”, he concluded with gravity.
I jokingly told him how devastated I was that Sunday morning, back in September 2014, when I heard the results of the Scottish referendum for independence- the same day I had that fateful hypnotherapy session that had brought my here today. I was all geared up to visit Scotland again as an independent country, I added with a touch of playful drama, to which Hamish replied with much feeling "weren't we all… weren’t we all, lass".
By now Hamish seemed very engaged with this rather unusual customer, his boring afternoon preparing the pub for that evening's crowd was turning to be more interesting with this woman and her weird Scottish jigsaw of connections. The man sitting next to me was clearly listening but still not engaging. Hamish filled in the natural role of the interrogating barman well. I felt I had passed some kind of acceptable pub customer test and that Hamish was now my newly acquired Scottish pal.
"So, have you been to visit the battlefield then?" the bearded man asked me with a hint of weariness in his voice. His head had just slightly turned towards me as if still deciding whether to fully engage with this stranger who seemed to know Scotland so well. I gave him a good look before answering; he seemed peculiarly expectant of my answer.
"Errr...not yet, I came yesterday evening by train from Glasgow. Courtesy of my jetlag, I did not get up till late and then when I set out to go down there, I felt unwell, a bit oppressed I would say, I don't know why, perhaps my lingering jetlag is to be blamed. It's a very sad place to visit I guess, so much has been said and written about it, a heavy legend to countenance".
Was it true that the birds didn’t sing at the site of the battleground and that heather didn’t grow around the mass graves of the fallen clansmen? I felt I was talking too much...drinking I thought...not good. The bearded man had now turned fully his head, looking directly into my eyes that seemed to avoid now his.
"Och aye, it's a sad place alright", Hamish interjected, "we are used to it, us locals, but it does have an overpowering feeling to it, especially if it's your first time. We lost our finest clansmen out there that day. Aye, a dark day for Scotland it was... But they shall rise again when we get it right with the next referendum...provided we get another one.”
His expression shifting from one of foreboding seriousness to teasing, knowingly glancing at my whisky he asked, “soooo... that's why we got your company then?" More of a statement than a question. He turned his attention then to the bearded man asking this time, "and what's your story? You came up here to visit the battlefield too?"
I turned my head with curiosity at the man who after scratching his head, a gesture accounting for the disorderly hair, he rubbed the end of his long nose, fidgeted in his seat for a bit in a funny sort of way for such a big man, before saying that yes, he was up here visiting the Culloden fields too but had not made it over there yet either, he's been postponing it since yesterday noon when he arrived in Inverness.
Hamish looked at us both and after giving it some thought he announced that we should both take each other by the hand and go over there and get done with it. “The dead are lying dead for over 260 years now, so no harm would come to either of you”, he said with that kind of Scottish matter of factness typical to the inhabitants of this land. In other words, he seemed to say, you either drink or go elsewhere for your funny business.
"I will go in tomorrow morning", the man said with some determination, "it's over 3 in the afternoon now, they must be closing soon", to which Hamish replied with a glint in the eye that they are open till 6 o'clock from June to August. He seemed to relish at his knowledge of the visitor’s center seasonal opening hours.
I decided then to take the situation into my hands, got off my stool and announced in a great pose that I was granting him the opportunity to act the role of the true Scottish gentleman and escort me to the battlefields. He looked unsure for a bit, but he smiled in good grace, got up, paid for our drinks, despite my protestations – but with Hamish’s endorsement who seemed to approve of men paying, and did an 'after you, my lady' before walking over to the door to pull it open for me. The compact and intense energy I felt while seating next to him was now fully stretched and emitting from across all plains and nooks of his body like a human tower. The image I was getting was the Colossus of Rhodes standing with legs spread on other side of the port’s entry.
Hamish called from behind to say that we should come back and report on our exploits on the battlefield.