Another whistlestop tour of the country. I must stop doing this. Top of the attractions is Runcorn. Well, first at least.

Yep, actual work again. The Machine Evaluation Workshop is Runcorn's premier supercomputing conference, and all round excuse for meeting sysadmin types. It's still a good conference, and I remember very little of it.

The Tour hits Liverpool, Durham and Edinburgh on consecutive days, while the country is under biblical levels of snow. And because the country in question is England, the public transport system falls apart. My TransPennine Distress "service" across from Liverpool to Durham is replaced with Gloom, Delay and Waiting In Station Pubs.

My tour of Durham's rustic IT Service facilities is definitely work too.

Edinburgh of course looks lovely in the snow (compare Liverpool, which just looks like it stole it). I take the opportunity to have another go at the panoramic photo I attempted last year from the top of the Scott monument. One year on, I'm capable of using the little tricks my camera offers like actually getting the thing in focus. Unsurprisingly, it's perishing up here and I can barely see out of my right eye by the time I finish.

And that's it for this outing. By the evening, I'm in Heathrow waiting for a dude to finish spraying steaming deicer on a 767, and the following morning, I'm back in work in the desert. In body at least.

Posted Sun Dec 5 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Scotland

After the day's Mighty Breakfast of Fried Pig, I do my last drive; over to the airport. I even remember to drop the keys before I depart.

We leave Islay as the sun rises over the mountains, and have a stunning flight which climbs over the west coast of Scotland and quickly reaches the dreicht layer which obscures everything. After several seconds at cruising altitude, we start descending for an uneventful landing at Glasgow.

This is when I learn about the South's snow issues over IRC. My flight has arrived on time, and my hope is that having five different code shares, it's important enough not to be too badly delayed. Indeed, it's all looking good right up until it's sat on the runway for a little too long. That sinking feeling arrives as the plane slowly leaves pole position and taxis back onto the apron. We spend 25 minutes sitting on the apron as the pilot explains we've missed our takeoff slot waiting for "some figures" from ATC.

We finally get going, and while Scotland is free from snow, it turns out the South is telling the truth. Heathrow has just collapsed. We wait for half an hour for a gate and then another 45 minutes before bags turn up. My plan for the rest of the evening is to meet in the pub, and I spend an hour slowly clanking into London on the Piccadilly line.

I finally find folks following facts found from IRC and descend to the smokey overcrowded dungeon that is the marvellous Olde Cheddar Cheese.

My recollections of the rest of the night are unreliable. I think noodles were involved.

Posted Fri Dec 18 00:00:00 2009 Tags: Scotland

Today looks like a good day to visit the eastern distilleries. I decide to take the back roads, as I have no particular time to be anywhere. It's the first frost of the week, so the car needs a quick scrape and then I'm away. I take about an hour and a half to do what would take about 5 minutes on the main road. The time is pleasantly passed with absorbing the scenery and taking the odd photo. The highlights are definitely the two golden eagles I spot shortly after they've seen me and lazily flown out of photo range.

Once I get back on the main road, it's a short drive to the Bunnahabhain turnoff. The single track road winds through the hills and then pops out on the side of the Sound of Islay. The view across the Sound to the Paps of Jura is just magnificent in the warm, thin winter sunlight. The photos are unable to convey, however, quite how biting the frosty breeze is. Tempted as I am to stay in the car and document the view through the window, I continue to take every opportunity to jump out and breathe in the view. Happily, I'm in no danger of holding up the traffic. I only come across one other car on the road; stopped in a parking place with the passenger savoring the landscape through a viewfinder. Back in the car, her partner waits by the steering wheel looking Bored To Shit.

My guess that this is due to the distillery being closed turns out to be on the money, shockingly. In fact it's not just closed, it's completely dead. Still, the drive alongside the Sound alone means this isn't a wasted journey, and I don't intend to end it there. I wander between the whitewashed warehouses, catching little wafts of whisky on the breeze, down to the little jetty pointing out into Bunnahabhain Bay and bask in the scene of the northern opening of the Sound.

On the way back toward the main road, I note that the white-washed barrel which signs towards the distillery on one side, helpfully reads "Other Places" on the reverse.

I know for a fact that my next stop, Caol Ila, is closed to visitors. I still head down the road to peer at the scene, although there turns out not to be much exploring to be had. While I'm this end of the island, I stop at Port Askaig for a bite. There isn't much to the place beyond a road blasted through the hill down to the port, and an area to queue for the ferry.

Finlaggan is the ancient seat of the Lord of the Isles, historically a figure of considerable power in Scotland. The settlement was on an island in a loch, and my next destination. The island is now thankfully reachable by a wooden footbridge. Understated info panels give the lowdown on the crumbling remains of dwellings. It's a wonderfully remote and tranquil spot.

Alas, there's only so much time you can spend getting cold on a small island, and I drag myself away back to Bowmore for lunch. This time on the main road.

I've done pretty much everything I wanted to on Islay. The only part I haven't seen yet is the west end of the Rhinns, down to Portnahaven and Port Wemyss. So I do that.

Posted Thu Dec 17 00:00:00 2009 Tags: Scotland

Today I'm heading to the other end of the island to focus on the Southern distilleries. Of the three, however, Lagavullin is closed and Ardbeg has stopped doing tours. (This doesn't come as a surprise to me - I knew before I came out that this wasn't the best time of year to find open distilleries). I schedule a visit to Laphroaig after lunch and a walk on the cliffs before lunch.

The Mull of Oa is a rocky promontory on the southwest of Islay, and an RSPB bird reserve. The sign in the car park promises a circular walk through the reserve, which seems just the right thing to work up an appetite for lunch. After a brief wonder through a farm, it opens out onto the spectacular clifftops. There's a lazy wind howling over the cliffs doing its best to go through me rather than around. (It feels quite unreal recalling the sharp cold as I write this back in Saudi Arabia.)

The only break from the wind up here is the straightforwardly-named American Monument, erected to commemorate the loss of two ships in the seas off Islay, in 1918.

After a swift lunchtime snack in Port Ellen, I head to Laphroaig. It's still winding down for the winter break. I've missed the last malting again, however I do get to see the malt drying in a kiln. The stills have also shut down for the winter, so no more action there.

The 18 year old is the star of the tasting session. It has that rich Laphroaig smoke in a kinder, gentler package than the quarter cask. I also take the opportunity to become a Friend of Laphroaig, which entitles me to a free dram a year.

Posted Wed Dec 16 00:00:00 2009 Tags: Scotland

After a Mighty Breakfast of Fried Pig, I head out to explore Bowmore. It's a beautiful crisp morning with barely a cloud in the sky. The village is bathed in oblique, orange-tinged sunlight. There's just a gentle breeze in the frigid air, to encourage me to reduce the amount of flesh I expose to the elements.

I walk down the main street which is all of 200m long and leads from the Round Church to the village's small harbour. There's a small beach next to the harbour which is dominated by the white painted distillery and the smell of saltwater and seaweed.

Distillery tours are off, as it's closed for cleaning, so I'm offered a mince pie and a dram of their Craftman's Choice with the promise that it "tastes of Christmas pudding". It's a lovely rich spicy sherried number without the caramelly sweetness which normally put me off sherried whiskies, and it is indeed a lot like Christmas pudding. All in all, a good choice for a 9am whisky. It's also challengingly priced at £150 a bottle.

As I leave the distillery, at about ten, the sun's still low enough that most of the village is in shadow. I had planned to take an hour or so to explore Bowmore to walk off the whisky, but it turns out not to take that long. My next destination is the one I've most been looking forward to.

The Bruichladdich distillery tour is fairly familiar, but very intimate with only two people taking part. We get to watch a mashtun being repaired, breathe in washback fumes and intercept a sample of a rum-finished whisky which is in the process of being re-barrelled in the warehouse. It's stunningly good.

I let slip that I have a cask of my own somewhere in the warehouses. Normally cask visits are Fridays only, but given how busy they're not, they offer to do me a special. But first tasting.

It's still before lunch, but I'm sure the sun's over the yardarm somewhere in the Empire, so I duly embrace it to the extent applicable to my designated driver status. There are four drams on offer. The first is the bog standard bottling - pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary. Next is a valinch, a single cask available only in the distillery. This one was sherried, and my notes tell me that the flavours sat a bit uneasily together for my taste.

Third is their straightforwardly-named 'Peat'. It's quite strong, but tasty with it with a good rounded flavour. Finally, the last one is the latest Octomore release, their ridiculously strongly peated line. It's too single-minded for me, if I want that taste, I'll go chew some soil.

Bang on time, the warehouseman turns up, having located my cask. I'm shown to one of the bonded warehouses behind the distillery, with barrels piled to the roof in great long rows. With the guidance of his list, we get a row number, but the depth will need further research.

He lets me know that for Health and Safety reasons I'm officially not allowed to climb up the racks and sidle down between the barrels, so I make sure I do it in a particularly unofficial manner. It's not far in, and it's quite pleasing to see this thing I bought while 3000 miles away in the flesh.

And that's the end of the entertainment at Bruichladdich. I take advantage of a nearby coffee shop to treat my alcohol stream with coffee.

Next stop, in about an hour, is Kilchoman. As I've got time to spare, I take the scenic route around Loch Gorm and end up at Machir Bay, a wide sandy beach on the west coast of the island. I don't have long enough to enjoy the scenery before Kilchoman calls, and I head back down the road.

The distillery appears to be a farm. It's a small establishment, and I'm the only person on the visit. The whole place feels like it was built on the whim of a farmer who wanted a distillery in his barn. It has a small output compared with the other distilleries on Islay, and has a traditional way of working. It's one of only six distilleries in Scotland which does its own malting, and the only one which grows its own barley.

I'm told I just missed a malting (my guide grouses that she wasn't warned about the grind of turning the malt when she started work), so I'm forced to watch it drying over the peat instead. Everything here is on a smaller, less polished scale than Bruichladdich. In the next building, which houses the stills, I notice the spirit safe is unlocked. Tut.

The distillery has only been going since 2005, so there's no selection of aged whisky to try. They have only had two releases of three year old whisky. And it's remarkably good. It has the familiar Islay peat with some fruity hints and much more maturity than you'd expect from a whisky so young. It's also way too expensive, so I won't be investing.

The sun's getting low as I leave Kilchoman and drive over the hills back to the lochside. As I drive around the shore of Loch Indaal, the orange sunlight gives way to stunning firey reds and yellows as the sun sets over the loch.

Posted Tue Dec 15 00:00:00 2009 Tags: Scotland

My last day in Edinburgh. Alas etc. I get up at a reasonable time (i.e. in time for checkout) and do the needful. My first port of call is the Traditional German Market, staffed as usual by Traditional German Australians. It's also as packed as usual, tucked as it is along the side of the Royal Scottish Academy. I invest in a cheese and a waffle before I tire of pushing through the throng of people and pushchairs, and head off down Princes Street Gardens.

As I walk past the Scott Monument, I notice that it's open and there's a wee man sat at the bottom. I never managed to get up it when I was living here, and right now seems an ideal opportunity.

There are four levels, linked by narrow spiral staircases with nothing like enough room to pass. The decks are all exposed to the elements, and particularly the higher ones, absolutely perishing in the wind. Once I squeeze out onto the top level, I'm rewarded with a fantastic view out across Edinburgh, spoilt only slightly by the overcast weather. I take the opportunity, on the top level, to take a big panoramic set of photos of Edinburgh for later stitching. Post-processing the 128 images is still ongoing, but it's fair to say that I was bitten by not knowing how to use my new camera.

I've carefully allowed myself enough time for lunch at the Halfway House (nom, Clipper IPA) before I have to be away, and after a tasty meal of good meat and good beer, I say goodbye to Edinburgh and leave on what may be the world's mankiest train. Another manky train and a bus later, I'm at Glasgow Airport waiting for the puttputt plane to Islay. I've never flown in a Saab before. Well, unless you count that time I took the hump-backed bridge too fast.

Half the flight appears to be approach, and it's pretty lumpy on the way in. Sadly it's dark as I fly over the Western Isles. The flight is short and otherwise uneventful. Islay Car Hire take a suitably relaxed attitude to my lack of half my driving licence, and I'm soon behind the wheel of a right-hand-drive manual for the first time in ages. It's a short hop over to Bowmore and my bed at the Bowmore Hotel.

Posted Mon Dec 14 00:00:00 2009 Tags: Scotland

Bill Bailey Day. Also some other unimportant things like pubs. Mostly Bill Bailey.

Posted Sun Dec 13 00:00:00 2009 Tags: Scotland

My host for the night was in dispose the previous evening, but happily is available for bacon-based breakfasting, and good for a lift to the station with a car full of timps.

First class falls even further in my estimation. They're letting anyone in now. Some uncouth Northerner lurches into my table and spills coffee all over my stuff, then just mutters something in Northern and slopes off. Thankfully, I'll be leaving England behind before too long.

I'm returning to Edinburgh for the first time since I moved away about a year ago. I'm glad to be back, as well as a little sad that I no longer live there. The usual Winter Festival is on, and in contrast to the grey day, the streets are filled with colour.

Later on, I meet Go players in the SMWS for whisky and haggis.

Posted Sat Dec 12 00:00:00 2009 Tags: Scotland