- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

BOAT OF GARTEN, Scotland - There’s no boat at Boat of Garten, a village on the west bank of the Spey River in the Highlands of Scotland, but there’s a Royal Scotsman.

The Royal Scotsman is a splendid, luxurious “cruise on wheels,” as one of my fellow passengers, a vivacious gemologist from South Carolina, describes it. But no endless ocean vistas here. The original 17th-century settlement, Gart, changed its name to Boat of Garten in honor of the ferry crossing the Spey when a road and a rail system arrived with the Industrial Revolution.

Passenger travel ceased in 1965, freight in 1968. Today, the station, an iconic relic of the days when trains ruled the countryside, is an overnight parking place for the Royal Scotsman on tracks maintained by a private group of railroad enthusiasts called the Strathspey Railway.

The Royal Scotsman speeds through the wild Scottish countryside on iron, not brine, through deep-green forests of pine, moors that turn purple in August and September when the heather is in bloom, golden fern-covered hills, bright green meadows dotted with black-faced sheep and shaggy Highland cattle, remote castles steeped in mystery and romance, whitewashed villages and calm wide lochs that reflect the changing colors of the sky.

It rains a lot in Scotland; as the saying goes, “If you can’t see the sky, it’s raining, and if you can see the sky, it’s going to rain.” When the sun shines, though, magic takes firm hold.

Two-, three-, four- and five-day journeys on the Scotsman begin in Waverly Station in Edinburgh. The train heads north along Scotland’s east coast, and soon we are crossing the magnificent 1880s cantilevered railroad bridge over the Firth of Forth.

It was on the middle of this bridge that Robert Donat stopped the train and climbed out onto the girders to escape his pursuers in Alfred Hitchcock’s great early thriller “The 39 Steps.” It’s easy to see why Mr. Hitchcock chose this bridge for the scene; it’s one of the greatest engineering achievements of the Victorian age.

The Royal Scotsman takes on 36 passengers in 16 twin and 4 single cabins, all with private bathrooms and good beds, furnished in cozy country style. Two dining cars — the Raven and Victory, named to commemorate the end of World War II — and an observation car with a small platform at the rear of the train bracket our coaches.

The observation car is awash in sofas, chairs and little tables just right for holding the champagne and whiskey that flow throughout our journey. From the narrow galley between the two dining cars, chef Dan Hall and his assistant, Craig Grozier, produce a delicious array of dishes morning, noon and night: fish from the sea and the rivers of Scotland; lamb, beef and game from Scottish meadows; salmon smoked and baked; wicked desserts; and wines from around the world. Even the breads and breakfast croissants are baked on board.

The passengers are a mixed group, about half American and the rest from Switzerland, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. As mixed as the nationalities are the occupations of the travelers, including a charming nurse from New York traveling with her mother, an engineer who worked with the Danish underground during World War II, a screenwriter traveling with her son on the way to see if she can persuade Sean Connery to star in her movie, an international financier, a psychologist and a honeymooning couple.

The train races through the old Kingdom of Fife as we enjoy a Scottish tea with sandwiches and Dundee cake, and up the east coast to Keith, a small agricultural town where witches once were roasted with abandon.

We disembark and head by bus for the Strathisla Distillery, the oldest working distillery in the Highlands, where goblets of 18- and 12-year-old Chivas Regal await us. Like most of the 40 distilleries in the area, Strathisla is distinguished by its pagodalike chimneys. We’re told that whiskey is the only industry we’ll find north of Perth.

Two men are warming up drums and accordion when we arrive, and they furnish the tunes for a spirited lesson in country dancing, a traditional Scottish ceilidh (pronounced “kaylee”), which is much like American square dancing.

The next morning, we continue north to Elgin (pronounced in Britain with a hard “g”), an ancient viking settlement with ruins of a once-magnificent cathedral. The cathedral was built in 1224, burned in 1279, restored in the 14th century and destroyed in the following centuries; all that remain are a structural skeleton and the graveyard.

Elgin is also home to one of the Highlands’ best-known shopping emporiums. At Johnston’s, visitors can buy Scottish goods galore, as varied as soft cashmere sweaters and dresses, crunchy shortbread, colorful local pottery, candles, socks, and leather goods.

A few miles farther lies Glen Grant, another of the Chivas Bros. distilleries, where we watch spring water, yeast and malted barley being transformed into Scotch, bubbling in large vats before it finally reaches elegant copper stills and then the solid oak barrels in which it ages. Some of the barrels are sherry casks imported from Spain; others are bourbon barrels from Kentucky, as under U.S. law, bourbon barrels can be used only once.

The slow evaporation of the alcohol from the barrels while the whiskey ages turns the exteriors of the buildings black. The 10 percent of the whiskey lost through evaporation is called “the angels’ share.”

Chivas Bros. owns and operates 10 distilleries in the Speyside area, the waters of the river Spey being particularly conducive to making excellent whiskey. Four of the distilleries are open to the public from April through October.

Soon, we are speeding west by Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh and the delightful village of Plockton on Loch Curran. Once a bustling fishing village, this postcard settlement is popular as a summer resort and weekend retreat. Bed-and-breakfasts line the high street, and the Plockton Hotel serves fabulous mussels — small, plump and fresh as the waters of the loch.

In Plockton, we board Captain Colum’s boat for a trip around the loch. He promises seals and perhaps otters, but just two seals and no otters turn out to greet us. We console ourselves with another wee dram or two (or maybe it was three) of the “water of life.” The seals usually are so plentiful that Captain Colum will return his passengers’ money if none are sighted.

Up on the hill, we glimpse an imposing Victorian mansion, built by Jardine Matheson of Hong Kong, owner of many “go-downs,” as the Chinese workers first called the warehouses in that formerly British colony (as in, “Go down to collect a bale of hemp”). During World War II, the mansion served as a naval hospital; later, it was the site of a girls’ school, where 70 bonnie lassies learned to cook and sew.

Our bus ride back to the Royal Scotsman in the gathering dusk takes us past crofters’ villages. Several generations of these farmers worked hard to remove the stones and make the ground arable for vegetables and suitable for a few sheep.

After another splendid dinner (formal dress), we are entertained by a medley of Scottish tunes by Rowan Martin, from the Isle of Skye, and his fiddle. The train stables for the night across from the Isle of Skye at Kyle of Lochalsh, a small naval port that played an important minesweeping role in World War II.

The Royal Scotsman runs only in daylight hours, which means the rhythmic clickety-clack of the rails induces sleep only for afternoon naps.

Before moving on to Ballindalloch Castle the next day, we visit Eilean Donan Castle. The early morning mist embraces the castle at the end of the rocky promontory outlined against the mountains of the Isle of Skye. It’s too early for visitors, so we walk around the imposing castle while the first rays of the sun chase wisps of low cloud away from the kyle, as the Scots call the narrow inlet, and return to our bus for the ride back to the train.

The castle was built as a fortress against the marauding Danes in 1214, razed in 1719 during the Jacobite rebellion and rebuilt in 1912 by the MacRae clan. It’s now primarily a World War I memorial and museum. A plaque on an outside wall bears the words of Lt. Col. John MacCrae, who died in the war:

We are the dead, short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

We continue through the Highlands and drop in on Ballindalloch Castle, since 1546 the home of the MacPherson-Grant family (no connection to Glen Grant Distillery). This romantic castle is in the magnificent Spey Valley, an area known for farming, forestry, sporting and tourism. “Sporting” here means hunting deer and grouse and fishing for salmon.

Ballindalloch is one of the few privately owned castles continuously inhabited by the original family. The lady laird, Clare MacPherson-Grant Russell, and her English husband, banker Oliver Russell, greet us warmly. They have transformed their “Pearl of the North” into an elegant living space overflowing with handsome 17th-century Spanish paintings, delicate china and silver that glows in the soft northern light.

Outside, the rock garden and walled rose garden tempt us to tarry. Aberdeen Angus cattle, black as night, graze quietly at the end of the garden, separated by a ha-ha, an unseen low sunken wall. The lady laird explains that her great-grandfather started the line by mating an Aberdeen cow with an Angus bull. These bovine descendants are always called Aberdeen Angus, never black Angus. Pedigree is important in these isles, so much so that the late queen mother borrowed one of the Russells’ bulls for the royal herd.

Ballindalloch was to have been built on a hill, but according to family legend, a mighty gale blew down the foundation three times.

The third time, a voice said, “Build it in the coo-haugh (cow pasture),” and there it stands today. The architecture is typical, a defensive fortress with a square tower from which garbage and stones once were thrown down upon the enemy. The stone figure of a Highlander bestows good luck from one of the turrets.

After tea with the Russells — the lady laird’s new cookbook, “I Love Food,” has just been published — we return to the Royal Scotsman for another formal evening of food and entertainment by Ray Owens, who relates deliciously chilling tales of brutal Scottish clan warfare.

Mr. Owens arrives in 18th-century attire and explains the history of the Scottish kilt, which dates back about 1,000 years and is related to the Roman toga and Indian sari. He demonstrates how to pleat the eight yards of fabric and tells us that the white cockade in the cap is the symbol of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites in the 18th-century Battle of Calddean.

The Jacobites were the followers of James VII of Scotland, who ruled as James II of England until he was deposed in favor of his daughter, Mary II, and her husband, William III, in the Glorious Revolution.

The sporran, the curious pouch hanging in the front of the kilt, originally was used to carry oatmeal, still a staple of Scottish kitchens.

Women, too, wore long kilts.

The warring clansmen carried a targe (shield) with spikes and a dagger in the left hand and a basket-hilted broadsword in the right. Expressions such as “going off half-cocked,” “a flash in the pan” and “sideburns” all come from clan warfare, reflecting the dangers of an incorrectly cocked musket and the facial hair worn to protect the cheek from powder burns.

Kilt pins are a Victorian addition. Queen Victoria, who was never easily amused, reviewed one of her Highland regiments on a windy day. Pins were soon ordered to keep the slits in the kilts closed.

Two excursions mark our fourth and final full day on the train. First, a visit to the Highland Wildlife Park in Boat of Garten. Several passengers hurry away to golf; others go to the trout stream.

The wildlife sanctuary is a home on the range for animals and birds that have inhabited Scotland since the Ice Age: European buffalo and wild white Mongolian horses (depicted in the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux in southern France) roam freely amid herds of red deer. Snowy owls, arctic foxes, lynxes, giant grouse and reindeer, all discreetly fenced, live in a magnificent Highland setting.

Our last visit is to Glamis Castle, where witches chanted to Macbeth: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be/What thou art promis’d.” Birnam and Cawdor are not far away. Shakespeare never lived in Glamis or even visited so far as is known, but he wrote Macbeth at the time the ninth Lord Glamis went to London to receive the title of Earl of Kinghorne. The castle belongs to the family of the late queen mother.

Duncan’s Hall commemorates the slaying of Duncan by Macbeth; the event was real enough, but it actually took place near Elgin. A tiny room off the drawing room is where 17th-century gentlemen retired to repowder their wigs, and such places have been called powder rooms since.

The castle has no dungeon now, but it still has a small prison and a legend about a secret chamber deep in the castle crypt. It is said that one of the lords of Glamis played cards with the Earl of Crawford and refused to stop playing at midnight when the clock announced the Sabbath, whereupon the devil appeared and joined the game. When asked by the devil whether they would like to play cards forever, the noblemen replied in the affirmative. The devil sealed them in the room.

Glamis, like many castles in Britain, has a resident ghost, a beautiful young woman in gray who floats through the walls. She is thought to be Lady James Douglas, imprisoned with her children and burned as a witch in front of Edinburgh Castle by order of King James V of Scotland.

On our last night, the Scotsman puts up in Stirling, a place once called the “cockpit of Scotland” for the fierce fighting that took place there. Here, William Wallace, the “hammer and scourge” of the English, fought the battle of Stirling Bridge — a battle moved to a more convenient plain by Mel Gibson in “Braveheart.” The prospect of the ancient stone bridge and Stirling Castle, which dominates the town from its perch on basalt rock 250 feet high, greets us as we roll into the Stirling station.

By the time we return to Edinburgh, we have become a family on wheels, as Ian Gardiner, our knowledgeable and attentive host, promised. We say our reluctant farewells, each of us determined to return at least once to visit that piece of our hearts we leave in the Highlands.

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