Yes, its national language is English, but the wee country of Scotland has a whole different vocabulary when it comes to food. Cullen skink is not the name of an odorous animal, but a hearty soup (from the village of Cullen) made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. Heard of “neeps and tatties”? They’re not a schoolyard insult, but mashed turnips and potatoes served with another national favourite – haggis (which can be most succinctly described as a sheep innards meat loaf.) A smokie is a smoked haddock; a queenie is the fond term for the humble squat lobster.
The Scots have good reason for their linguistic affection. With its pastoral farmlands, deep woods, and winding coastline, Scotland teems with excellent and diverse produce. Game – venison, rabbit, pheasant – is plentiful. The coast offers succulent treasures, such as langoustines and plump scallops, from its depths; bucolic farms bear forth cheeses, Highland beef, and tender lamb. For some of the country’s best landscapes and cuisine, head to the Highlands and Islands; you won’t be disappointed.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but winter is the best season to sample Scotland’s seafood. Shellfish and fish grow plump and reach their peak in the colder months, breathing truth into the adage that they taste better in months with the letter “R”. And where better than in the Hebrides, the ancient archipelago that sits to the west of the mainland?
When the frantic summer season melds into winter, the island returns to its primordial condition of stillness.
The perennially popular Isle of Skye – with its fierce landscapes and fascinating history – is an obvious pit stop. Portree, the island’s capital, boasts a centrepiece of candy-coloured waterfront enterprises, most of which serve up groaning platters of just-caught brown crabs, lobsters, mussels, oysters, hake, langoustines and scallops. In the summer, the dependable Sea Breezes Restaurant (reservations necessary) is your go-to. In winter, dining locales are slightly more limited, but no less stellar. Warm your hands over a steaming bowl of Cullen skink, made with smoked haddock from nearby Mallaig, at The Rosedale Hotel Restaurant.
When the frantic summer season melds into winter, the island returns to its primordial condition of stillness: snow blankets lonely glens, deer venture out, and a mesmerising palette of purple, grey, green and blue colours the world. North of Portree is a wild and beautiful landscape of ancient landslips and rock formations; you’ll do good to make stops at the Old Man of Storr and The Quiraing, the latter being a dramatic escarpment that should be tackled only on clear days.
After a long day tramping about in the cold, reward yourself at The Old School Restaurant, a wood-panelled stalwart that serves up ever-changing modern Scottish fare by a roaring fireplace. Pair your local ale of choice with wild venison charcuterie and local smoked ham hocks, or tip back some red wine with a Scottish sirloin steak accompanied by the holy trinity of fried mushrooms, onions and chips.
The adventurous can head to the nearby Isle of Mull, Skye’s wilder, less developed cousin. Magnificent coastal drives amid soaring cliffs characterise a trip here, but remember to fuel up beforehand at charming Tobermory, the island’s main town. Seek out the gourmet Fish & Chip Van at the Fisherman’s Pier. Juicy scallops, fresh haddock and deliciously flaky cod are ensconced in a light, crispy batter and served with generous dollops of tartar sauce. The best way to enjoy them? Sitting outside, in crisp winter air alive with the briny tang of docked fishing boats.
Or, if budget and cholesterol levels permit, make a reservation at the excellent Cafe Fish, a restaurant with its own dedicated fishing boat. Favourites such as a platter of roasted shellfish bathed in a glorious garlic-and-herb butter sit alongside more imaginative offerings like Thai-inspired seafood chowder, or bamboo clams steamed in chilli sauce. Believe the restaurant’s motto: The only thing frozen are our fishermen. If it gets a tad too chilly, warm up at the 200-year-old Tobermory Distillery, by going for a tour and sampling of a wee dram of whisky.
Don’t miss the magnificent Glengorm Castle, a 19th-century monument converted into a luxury B&B. Perched on the northern edge of the island, the extensive estate affords breathtaking views of the Outer Hebrides and tranquil rambles among lowing Highland cows. Start your mornings right with the castle’s hearty Scottish breakfasts. Savour the intense woodiness of hot-smoked haddock with a perfectly poached egg, or get your haggis fi x with mushrooms, eggs and toast.
No trip to Scotland is complete without a pilgrimage to Loch Ness, a four-hour drive east of Skye. Situated in the Great Glen, an ancient 100km valley replete with hiking trails, lakes and forests, the loch is visited as much for its monstrous legend as for its beauty. For best views of the lake, go to Urquhart Castle, a majestic mediaeval ruin that sits on its banks.
Its walls – and well-curated exhibitions – narrate 800 years of bloody history rife with royal rebellions, religious uprisings and clan raids. It’s no wonder Urquhart remains the most visited castle in the country. Of course, world-class attractions are never without world-class food nearby. Two miles from the castle, in sleepy Lewiston, is the Michelin-star Lewiston Restaurant. Adjacent to the cosy Loch Ness Inn (we recommend at least a night there), the pub-restaurant showcases some of the country’s best local produce: Applecross Bay langoustines; wild venison from the Laggan region; fully matured Highland beef.
Cap your holiday with a return to civilisation – Edinburgh. The country’s capital is an intriguing mish-mash of old and new: dim sum restaurants sit on cobblestone streets; mediaeval castles and monuments are surrounded by Topshop and M&S.
One of the newest restaurants to check out is Norn, in the rejuvenated port area of Leith. Chef Scott Smith uses the best Scottish produce for his creative menu, which he changes at least once a week. If you’re looking for a satisfying lunch, visit the Le Roi Fou in the New Town. This small French bistro is helmed by chef Jerome Henry, who was formerly head chef for Anton Mosimann’s private club in Belgravia, London.
Needless to say, eating options abound, not least with the Scottish Market in St Andrew Square. Running from the end of November to January, this food and craft fair presents a convenient overview of Scotland’s best produce: locally made sausages, seafood cooked a la minute, handmade chocolates and cupcakes, Scottish ale, and more. Here, Christmas comes early for everyone – and it’s the perfect way to end a tour through the larder of the gods.
ON THE HARRY POTTER TRAIL
Everyone knows J.K. Rowling used Edinburgh’s fairy-tale backdrop as a blueprint for the Harry Potter saga. But they don’t always know by how much. Take a night stroll around spooky Greyfriars Kirkyard, and look for the headstones with names mentioned in the books such as McGonagall and Thomas Riddell. Or explore the medieval closes that funnel down from the High Street (an inspiration for Diagon Alley, no less). Even George Heriot’s School, on Lauriston Place in the Old Town, is the reputed inspiration for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Those hoping to spot Rowling on a city tour may be disappointed. The author now lives in the leafy environs of Barnton in the city’s affluent western boundary, her house hidden by giant hedges and firs. Still, it’s possible to stay in Suite 5523⁄4 at The Balmoral, the newly revamped Rowling suite where she wrote The Deathly Hallows, the final chapters of the series. Inside, it contains her writing desk as well as a marble bust of Hermes, the Greek god of travel, signed by Rowling herself. Potter fans may also spot a few unusual additions, like the door knocker reworked as a brass owl.
Finally, to see the birthplace of Harry Potter, make a beeline across George IV Bridge for The Elephant House, a student tearoom turned gourmet shop where Rowling plotted the first and second books. You’ll be able to spot it from a distance, because of the queues. Even though it’s 20 years since she introduced the boy wizard, his magic still captivates the world. TEXT MIKE MACEACHERAN
PHOTOS (CASTLE) GLENGORM CASTLE, (CATTLE) VISIT SCOTLAND, (BALMORAL) THE BALMORAL