Fancy a wee pint?

Scotland is a country that far too many people regard as merely a part of something else. The worst offenders are the ones who somehow think of it as a part of England. This is a bit like saying that France is part of Spain, or that chicken is part of Turkey – it’s not just wrong, it’s so wrong that anyone who says such a thing deserves a tender Glasgow kiss. Others may regard Scotland as a part of Britain or the United Kingdom, both of which are true – at least until the next time Scotland votes for independence – but it would be a mistake to assume that this means that Scotland is not a proud nation with a long and turbulent history of its own, and a culture, mindset and dialect that differ distinctly from other English-speaking peoples that live south of various borders.

Scotland was for many centuries completely independent – even the Romans gave up trying to conquer this remote country – and fought many wars with their arch enemy, England, before somewhat unexpectedly entering into a political union with the very same enemy about 300 years ago. Before that time, the royal crown of the two had been united through the English adoption of the Scottish Stuart king, James VI, who then became better known south of the border as James the FIRST. These little oddities persist to this day – the current Queen is commonly referred to as Elizabeth the Second, but since the first one was never queen in Scotland, many Scots will insist on referring to her as Elizabeth the First.

There are many stereotypes associated with Scotland, from anything to do with men wearing heavy woolen skirts known as kilts (and not much underneath) to barren, windswept mountains, rugged coastlines, heavy whisky drinking and caber tossing, the latter being a sport that involves throwing an entire tree trunk as straight (distance apparently does not count) as you can, making sure it flips at least once so that it does not land on your own toes. What isn’t currently a stereotype is Scotland as a fantastic place for beer lovers, so it was with curiosity and anticipation that my lovely wife and I boarded the flight that would take us to Aberdeen one warm and sunny July morning.

Scotland - green, remote, scenic - and sometimes even sunny!

Arriving in Aberdeen was a little bit of a shock to the system. Central Europe had been basking in a sunny heatwave for a couple of weeks, so when our plane finally emerged from the cloud over Scotland only to find that the distance between the rain-soaked ground and the cloud was about 5 metres, we knew that the shorts and sunglasses we had carefully packed at the top of the backpack would perhaps not be urgently needed. What I had forgotten to pack was, of course, a rain jacket – a schoolboy error if ever there was one. First stop, then, was the shopping centre conveniently located next to the bus station where they had a fantastic selection of wet weather gear at exorbitant prices. Apparently, demand is high.

Our mood was not at all affected, though, because I had already from the airport bus spotted one of Scotland’s main tourist attractions – the original and first BrewDog pub. For those of you unfamiliar with BrewDog, here’s a little bit of background: In 2007, two industrious gentlemen (and their dog) decided to bet everything they had (including the dog) on the beer revolution, which was starting to take off at that point (unlike the dog). However, instead of doing what most other budding brewers in Britain did at the time, namely brew traditional beers only in smaller batches, they tossed the rulebook (but not the dog) out the window and started the process of redefining what beer is about. Borrowing some ideas from the US craft beer scene, they quickly started brewing beers that pushed the boundaries of taste and decency, and they also came up with some interesting and adventurous concepts in marketing. Fast forward 8 years or so, and BrewDog is the most successful brewer of craft beer in the UK, with more than 20 own-brand bars, significant export and a turnover in excess of 30 million pounds. Does this mean that they’ve become one of the big bad boys? We set off to find out.

One of Scotland's finest tourist attractions
We rolled into the BrewDog bar around 2pm and found the place pleasantly full of people and beer. They had 8 or so of their own brews on tap, and 5 or 6 guest brews, all of which looked really interesting. Beware, though, that if you’re a die-hard cask beer fan and the first thing you look for when entering a pub is the number of hand pumps, you will be disappointed – all beers are dispensed pressured. Although I personally like cask beer as well, I have nothing against the slightly colder and fizzier beers dispensed with the help of some CO2, so I went ahead and bought the beer sampler, which included 1/3 of a pint of 4 beers of your choice. These are then placed on your sampler tray in order of alcoholic strength, typically between 5% for the weaker ones up to perhaps 12% for the humdingers. You can also buy a tiny sample of the whopping 41% beer they made for the latest installment in a tit-for-tat beer strength contest with the German brewery Schorschbräu, which was given the less than politically correct name “Sink the Bismarck”. Their beers vary in quality, but since the scale goes from “very good” to “amazing” this wasn’t much of an issue. To top it off, the pub has board games instead of TVs and therefore a lovely atmosphere, so it was with heavy hearts that we had to leave to catch the ferry to Orkney.

This sampler was worth a trip to Aberdeen
Orkney is a group of islands situated immediately to the north of the Scottish mainland. It is Norwegian territory, having been “settled” by the Vikings in their own unique and charming way a thousand or so years ago and then pawned to Scotland by some retarded Danish king in 1468 for 50,000 Florins, so I felt very much at home. The locals are very friendly, the scenery fantastic, the summer temperature marginally above freezing, and the rain less horizontal than in winter, so there really was nothing to stop us from having a great time. However, this fantastic situation improved dramatically when we entered the first pub: I discovered that Orkney has not just one, as I had anticipated, but TWO great breweries, thereby unexpectedly doubling the amount of drinking I had to do. However, as the old saying goes: it can’t be a coincidence that there are 24 hours in a day and 24 beers in four six-packs, so I grabbed a stash of cash and got down to business. The beers were simply great. The most famous one is called “Skull Splitter”, apparently named after some Norwegian Viking gentleman who acquired this nickname from his tendency to use his axe to settle arguments conclusively, and this was a barley wine that certainly hit the mark at the top of my head. However, the outstanding beer is one called “Dark Island”, a wonderful dark concoction of roasted barley, coffee notes and the mystery of what goes on in the dark winter evenings up on these remote islands. All in all, the two breweries had around 20 different beers and every single one we tried was very good. The final bonus: some beers were available both bottled and from the hand pump, allowing the lucky drinkers to choose between the fridge-cold and slightly fizzier version and the cellar temperature, smoother version.

This is Stromness in Orkney. They had beer there too.
The biggest disappointment in Scotland was the fact that the Scots themselves don’t seem to like their own beer very much. After the holiday I attended a conference in Glasgow, and at every social event there was beer on offer… from Italy, of all places. Now there are good beers in Italy as well, but they don’t send those to Scotland, no Sir, they send mediocre ones that are, if my memory serves me right, called Craponi and Crapetti. These are then presented to the thirsty hordes at truly astronomical prices. The main problem, I think, is that Scots nowadays are so polite that they smile stiffly and force this stuff down instead of doing the sensible thing, namely to start a riot – and thus, this travesty is allowed to continue, at least until the majority of the population has read this blog post.

Well, it’s time to come up with some kind of conclusion before I start rambling on in ridiculously long sentences that simply go on and on without actually containing any sort of sensible information that you may or may not find moderately interesting or entertaining. My advice is unambiguous: go to Scotland and check this country out for yourself – unless your idea of a holiday is to lie at the beach, slowly letting the sun cook your own flesh whilst sipping sickly sweet drinks with tiny umbrellas in them, I think you’ll have a great time. There’s also that other famous drink, in Scotland referred to as whisky (or “a wee dram”), which is also worth sampling – it is, after all, just distilled beer (without hops) that’s been allowed to slumber in a cask for a dozen years or so. And, oh, lots of historic sights, great scenery, good (if perhaps a bit wet) mountain walks, friendly people and fantastic pubs. Did I mention that you can also find very good beer? Good! As the Viking probably used to say: Skull!