Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Scottish Potpourri

Are You Here Again?
This spring’s trip to Scotland will be our twentieth since our first trip in September of 2000.  Friends, relatives, and even strangers ask why we go back to Scotland so often.  The answer is extremely simple and complex at the same time.  We love Scotland--the people and the land.  What makes that answer complex is when they ask, “Why do you love it; what is there about Scotland to love?”  The short answer to that question is that we love the history of the country and being able to visit that history whether it’s Stirling Castle, Bannockburn, Culloden, the Ring of Brodgar, or a local distillery.  Mostly though we love the people we met on our nineteen trips.
One special group is the people we’ve met on golf courses--over and over again.  At Tulliallan GC on Fife not far from Dunfermline we met George the first time we played the course.  He’s a prominent member of the course and we were introduced to him by the club secretary who was our host as we toured the course to write about it.  A year later we went back for a second visit and George caught up with us as we waited on the eighth tee for a slow group of blind golfers in front of us.  No joke, the golfers were all legally blind, though most had some sight.  They helped each other aim and then find their shots, and that’s why we ended up waiting a bit that day.  As we were standing on the eighth tee George came up and introduced himself and then said, “I remember, I met you last year.  You were writing about the course.”  We visited as George finished the round with us.  Fast forward two years.  Anne and I returned to Tulliallan to give them a copy of Hidden Gems II: Scotland and Wales.  As we were getting our gear together for a third round on the course, George came out of the clubhouse, spotted us, waved, and said, “You here again?”  What are the odds of seeing the same person (who doesn’t play the course every day) on the three days out of four years when we visit the course?  
                                  Tulliallan Golf Course

George isn’t the only repeat meeting we’ve had.  At St Fillans GC in Perthshire where we are members, we’ve run into the same English family (father, mother, handicapped adult daughter) five or six times over the years.  They visit the Perthshire area for a few days each year and we’ve managed to play golf with them (or in front or behind them) several times.  They’ve even become good customers, buying our books and promoting them to others.  
                                          St Fillans Golf Course

That’s a profitable repeat meeting. Several years ago we played Boat of Garten GC in the Highlands behind a group of four average golfers (not that we are that much better).  We waited quite a bit on that round.  The next day we were to play Fortrose and Rosemarkie GC on the Black Isle north of Inverness.  When we arrived we learned that we had been scheduled to play behind the same four chaps as the day before.  When they saw it was us going to follow them they kindly let us go first.  They said, “One day of slow play is enough.”   It was very nice of them, and we enjoyed our round and a bowl of soup in the clubhouse before they got finished.
In writing our three golf travel guides we’ve met more than two hundred secretaries, managers, professionals or captains of golf clubs.  It’s almost always a pleasure to meet these locally important people.  Several of them we’ve met more than once, and a few not in the same location.  One year we enjoyed a round and lunch in the company of Andrew Shinie, golf manager at Inchmarlo GC along the River Dee west of Aberdeen.  
                                  Andrew Shinie and Anne at Lunch, Inchmarlo GC

A year and a half later we were heading into the golf shop to check in for a round at Blairgowrie’s Lansdowne Course when we were hailed, “Bob and Anne.  Fancy seeing you here.”  It was Andrew who was no longer managing Inchmarlo, but was guiding golf tours of Scotland.  It seriously impressed us that after one meeting he would recognize us so quickly.  Bill Baird was managing Kingussie GC on the edge of the Highlands when we played the course.  A couple of years later we got a nice message from him about our first book which included Kingussie GC.  This past fall when we took a copy of our first book to Carrbridge GC in the Highlands the (volunteer) manager was the same Bill Baird who had retired from Kingussie GC.  He said, “I already have a copy of that book, but that was from a different course.”  At Gleneagles we had a special thrill when we were guided around the Queen’s Course by John Murray, the Gleneagles’ Head Teaching Professional.  A couple of years later we were surprised when we showed up to play Moray Old GC in the north of Scotland and the professional said, “I know you two.  We played together at the Queen’s.”  John had left Gleneagles to take the position of Head Professional at the Moray Golf Club.  We keep going back to Moray Old, one of our favorite courses, but keep missing John as he’s either off competing somewhere or on vacation.  We miss visiting with him, but we’re getting to know his able assistant pro, Andrew.
                                          Anne with John Murray at Gleneagles

Whether it’s the clerk in the local whisky shop in Crieff, the barber who trims my beard when we’re in Aviemore, or a golfer we’ve met before, we highly prize the Scots we meet more than once in our travels.
As I update our first Scotland travel guide, Scotland’s Hidden Gems: Golf Courses and Pubs, I am trying to check the accuracy of the information I put in the book.  We have replayed many of the courses to pick up any changes the course has made.  We’ve stayed again at several of the B&Bs so that we can be sure we note any differences.  When we can’t go to a place or talk with them we use the web to make sure the place is still open, or still owned by the same people, has the same menu, etc.  Even with all the checking we can still miss some.
 I have managed to discover some drastic changes  to make to the revised edition of the book.  For example, we are sorry to have to leave out the Taymouth Castle golf course in Kenmore at the edge of the Highlands.  I tried to book a round for this year’s spring trip, but found I couldn’t.  Ownership of the course has changed.  The new owners who also bought the castle (originally built for the Earl of Breadlebane in 1842) which has been abandoned for a couple of decades are refurbishing the castle into an upscale resort or condos.  They are also doing significant redesign work to the 1921 James Braid designed Taymouth Castle golf course.  The saddest part of all this is that the course will no longer be public, instead it will be for development owners and renters only.  They are now out of the book.  Another change we  have to make was discovered last autumn when we visited one of our favorite pubs, Kimberely’s Inn in Findhorn on the Morayshire coast in the north of Scotland.  We had played golf at Moray Golf Club, one of our favorites, and were looking forward to the great seafood chowder served at Kimberely’s.  The inn is still there but so were the flies.  The owner apologized and said something about their fly control system was waiting for the repairman.  He then wandered through the bar’s two rooms with a rolled newspaper swatting at and smashing on the tables the offending flies.  If that wasn’t unappealing enough, the chowder we got was watery, lacked flavor, and significantly lacked fish.  We left saying we would have to seriously rethink our recommendation.  We’ll give Kimberley one more chance, but our revised book tells readers to check with locals before planning to stop.  
                                             Storm Clouds over Findhorn Bay

Sometimes our checking isn’t enough.  We recommended Trevose B&B in Dornoch to our B&B family in Crieff when they were going north to play Royal Dornoch GC.  We had stayed several times and liked the B&B which has a lovely garden and is in perfect location next to the cathedral.  The report of our friends was disconcerting.  The bedrooms were shabby, cold, and not very clean.  The breakfast was average at best.  Everything about the place seemed tired, including the owner.  As we thought back to our last visit to Trevose a few years ago, we thought that everything was all right, but the owner had said she was thinking of retiring.  I guess she should have.  It too is now out of the book.  We try to check that our comments and recommendations are accurate, but with restaurants and B&Bs particularly things do change.  And in a few cases we couldn’t keep up with the changes.  
On our first trip to the Isle of Arran, Scotland in Miniature between the Ayrshire coast and the Kintyre Peninsula, we took the tour of Isle of Arran Distillery in Lochranza in the northwest corner of the island.  We were early enough in our travels that we had taken tours at only two or three other distilleries--we’ve now taken tours at 31 distilleries in Scotland and Ireland.  The distillery tour was very interesting --Isle of Arran Distillery was quite new having opened in 1995--and we learned a great deal.  At one time there were more than 50 distilleries on the small island, most of them illegal, but now Isle of Arran is the only one.  As usual the distillery tour ended with a dram of the local product, in our case an eight year old Arran Single Malt.  We thought the whisky tasted a little young--most single malts are bottled after ten years more in oak casks--and decided not to buy a bottle.  We also passed up on a special offer to participate in a Cask Owner’s scheme: buy a cask (about 250 bottles when mature), and after ten or more years, sell the cask back to the distillery or bottle it for yourself.  The cost at that time was about $1200-1500, and even after paying excise duty and storage, after ten years there should be some profit, or so the sales pitch went.  We thought about it for a few moments, but decided we didn’t have that kind of money to throw away on a whim.
                                  Browsing the Whiskies

Fast forward ten years to 2012.  A cask of Arran Single Malt we could have bought for $1500 in 2002 would now bring about $15,000 when selling it back to the distillery.  That’s a thousand percent profit in ten years!  Where else could you find that kind of return on your investment?  The money may have sounded dear on that first visit, but the quality of the product and the reputation of the distillery would have turned a pretty profit.  Oh, if we had only....