This is exactly what Jill McNicol has tried to avoid. The two-storey cottage with its spiral staircase is warm, cosy, thoroughly romantic and full of personal touches. She bakes a cake for her incoming guests and stocks the kitchen with fresh eggs from her hens, plus milk, butter, tea, coffee, porridge oats, bacon, and two meat products from a local butcher that we don’t recognise.
“The grey things that look like hockey pucks – what are those?” asks Mariah.
“That’s haggis,” says Jill.
“Of course,” I say. “And these ones?” I point to thick pink slabs of ground meat with something dark coiled inside them.
“Lorne sausage,” she says. “It’s black pudding and sausage meat. Very traditional, but please don’t feel under any obligation to eat it.”
We like to think of ourselves as adventurous eaters, but having fried the haggis and Lorne sausage the next morning, we decided a few bites were enough, and the rest hit the bottom of the bin with a heavy thud. Leaving the windows open to air out the kitchen, we went outside to explore our surroundings, and were soon escorted by a magnificently coloured rooster called Rocky Chop Chip and his clucking harem of free-ranging hens.
Laid out on a trestle table in the courtyard were eggs, potatoes and other vegetables grown on the farm, with a chalkboard price list and an honesty box. Venturing into the fields, still with our feathered escort, we encountered various sheep and ducks, and kept our distance from the shaggy, rust-coloured Highland cattle. In the top field, we admired a 4,000-year-old cairn and standing stone. Then a rainstorm came lashing in over the Cairngorms, and we went back to bed, done with sightseeing for the day.
Emerging languorous and hungry at sunset, we drove over to the Dores Inn on the shore of Loch Ness. The bar was full of Americans, crowding around the lone Scotsman and peppering him with questions. I was no exception. With three pints of the local ale on board, I shouldered my way into the throng and badgered the poor fellow about my family connections to this part of Scotland, telling him far more than he wanted to know about my Grant and Forbes ancestors.
He was a gentle, kind man and did his best to humour me. Then a waiter intervened and took us to our table, where we ate good, locally sourced steaks with chips and boiled vegetables. The food was a little plain for Mariah, who grew up on the Mexican border with spicy sauces and marinades, but far better than I was expecting from previous pub meals in Scotland.
The following afternoon, at the Benromach distillery in northern Moray, I found myself pondering a weighty philosophical question. What is civilisation’s greatest achievement? Some have proposed democracy, which Churchill said was the worst form of government except for all the others. Is there greater glory in the arts, or architecture? Our achievements in science, technology and medicine are extraordinary, and perhaps none of them has done more to reduce everyday human suffering than effective dentistry. Except distillation.
These were my thoughts as I savoured a glass of 30-year-old Benromach single-malt whisky. It was the finest, silkiest, most exquisite spirit I have ever tasted, and it made me feel genuinely proud to be human. Yes, we have an appalling history of war and genocide. Yes, we’re overrunning the planet and will probably destroy ourselves and many other species into the bargain, but look at the miracles we can achieve with barley, peat smoke and water.
Then I turned morose and resentful. A bottle of the 30-year was on sale for £180, far beyond my budget, even though it was my Highland ancestors who had pioneered and perfected the art of distilling single malt. Now the best of it was drunk by rich people who didn’t deserve it, and were probably just trying to impress each other.
“We’ll be tying you up now, Jim, and stealing a few cases of this,” I said to the man who had shown us around the distillery. He was an avuncular Englishman who had already given us tastings of the 10 year-old, the sherry cask, the organic, and the cask-strength. “No problem at all,” he said. “Just pour a couple of drams down my throat before you leave and they’ll untie me in the morning.”
We walked out of there with a bottle of Benromach 10 year-old, paid for at the cash register, and drove south through the ancestral Grant homelands. Pheasants strutted in the fields, a pair of otters gambolled on a riverbank. Autumnal sunshine alternated with scudding clouds and rain, and you could sense winter waiting in the wings. We put on our boots and walked out along the shores of a loch, breathing in the deliciously fresh highland air.
I was hoping for some sort of soul-twang in my DNA, connecting me back to my rawboned kilted ancestors who must have walked these shores and breathed this air, raided cattle and hunted deer in these hills and glens, sliced up their congealed porridge in the morning like proper Highlanders and talked to each other in Gaelic. Instead, the rain came pelting down and the wind turned icy. We rushed back shivering to the car, like the puny modern tourists we were, uncorked the bottle, took a warming sip, and drove back to bed.
Tordarroch Cottage is available to book through pureholidayhomes.com (ID 100820). The one bedroom cottage sleeps two and offers stunning views over the Monalaidth Mountains beyond. The cottage is available from £30 per person, based on two sharing (£420 per week).