2000s Archive

Highland Fling

Originally Published June 2004
Myth conspired with nature to create Scotland’s rugged northern realm, but civilized pleasures are the rule today. And those wild landscapes just won’t go away.

If you drive a few minutes west of Inverness, a city whose name is as lovely as its streets are not, you will find the Bunchrew House hotel, a tree-enshrouded 17th-century mansion on the shores of Beauly Firth, a narrow North Sea inlet whose waters shine like golden oil in the late afternoon sun. With its horsey tweed clientele and proximity to Loch Ness, it’s the kind of place where, not so long ago, one would have expected to be served hearty country fare cooked to the traditional gray. But that was Auld Scotland, whose contribution to world cuisine was haggis and the deep-fried Mars bar. These days, the country is following in the food-mad footsteps of England and Ireland. Even at this small hotel, the restaurant menu bristles with worldly ambition: pink breast of wood pigeon en croûte with Port and black truffle sauce; poached fillet of sea bass with prawn and caper couscous; papillote of seasonal fruit served with homemade jasmine ice cream. I had a tender piece of venison, just in season.

The hotel’s chef is Walter Walker, a tall, russet-bearded man with the self-effacing calm of a good jazz musician who has found freedom playing at a tiny club in a small city. Over a postprandial nip of malt whisky, one of 200 offered by the hotel, he told me he’d come to Bunchrew House about ten years earlier, back before visitors to Loch Ness expected, or even wanted, serious cooking. “They didn’t trust it,” he said sadly. In his first month as chef, they sold exactly three dinners. But all that seems long ago. Now he’s happily settled in and growing his own herbs, smoking his own meat and fish, and, like virtually every-one you meet, boosting the homeland. With the burning eyes of a less manic Billy Connolly, he insisted that Scottish chanterelles are “the best in the world,” waxed eloquent on the rich flavors of Angus beef and local potatoes, raved about the “stunning” venison I’d greedily devoured earlier—killed specially for him in the west Highlands. Still, when I asked about the state of Scottish cooking, he shook his head: “We have the world’s best ingredients,” Walker said. “But we’re still learning what to do with them.”

He might well be talking of Scotland itself. After centuries of being governed by the condescending English—Lord Byron notoriously dubbed Scotland “a land of meanness, sophistry, and mist”—this country of 5 million souls now feels a brand- new sense of freedom. It got its own parliament in 1999, as part of the Blair government’s policy of devolution, and this sudden lurch toward home rule has fueled both a resurgence of national pride and an identity crisis in a country renowned for obsessively pondering what it means to be Scottish.

While Edinburgh may see the true Scotland in its artists, inventors, and thinkers (the Royal Mile boasts a goofy classical statue of David Hume), for many Scots and most foreigners, the “real” Scotland lies in the Highland world of tartans and bagpipes and battle cries and the whole Braveheart thing. This is not a little ironic, for during most of Scottish history, the Highlanders were despised by their Lowland compatriots for being poor, ignorant, dishonest, and rebellious. Indeed, our current concept of Scottishness, known as Highlandism, is based less on reality than on a consciously created myth whose pivotal moment came in 1822, when King George IV became the first English king to visit Scotland in 170 years. To amuse His Majesty, novelist Sir Walter Scott decided to stage a spectacular panorama filled with romanticized Highland rituals and costumes. The king was dazzled, and so was the world: Scott’s glamorized image of Scotland became part of the world’s collective unconscious—including my own. Sir Walter was my mother’s favorite novelist, and ever since I was a boy, she had filled my head with dreams of traveling to the Highlands.

I’d driven to Bunchrew House from the Edinburgh airport, heroically eschewing the distillery-lined Malt Whisky Trail in the interest of the pedestrians and livestock known to saunter alongside the Scottish roads. Although London friends had jovially warned me about the Highlands weather (“It’s really lovely up there. You’re going to love those ten minutes it’s not raining”), the day had been resolutely sunny as my car headed north on the A9 highway, the Monadhliath Mountains to my left, the Cairngorm Mountains to my right, swaths of pine forest glowing with the radiant green you find only in the British Isles. I found myself recalling Robert Burns’s famous old rhyme, “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here, My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer.”

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