Spirit in the Sky: Glenapp Castle
If I told you I was lying on a sun-lounger in the middle of the night, on a moor, in Scotland, in deep winter, and I was laughing with glee, you might assume I’d had a few drinks. You’d be right too. I was three sheets to the freezing wind.
But it wasn’t a drunken whim that had brought me out on this lonely night, it was meticulous planning. I was on a sun lounger because it happens to be a very good way of looking up at the night sky (provided you have enough blankets) at one of the best places in Europe to go star-gazing. I was gleeful because – thanks to Steven Owens, the professional astronomer sitting beside me – I was looking at eternity. I had a new idea of my place in the universe. Bright and clear, I could see the planet Jupiter and the North Star and The Plough – and I actually knew what they were for the first time in my life. Up until then I’d assumed that the whispy dark patches you sometimes see in the sky are clouds. Now I knew that I was actually looking at the Milky Way.
Okay, I was also gleeful because someone had just passed me a crystal glass full of one of the finest whiskies known to humanity. I was glowing from my toes to spinning head. But that too was part of the plan. I was in Scotland at the invitation of a whisky distillery to help them mark the launch of a new celestially-themed limited edition single malt called Dalmore Astrum. Their cunning idea was that if they put me up in a top-notch hotel, filled me up with food cooked by a Michelin-starred chef and let me swig rare whisky like it was coming from a tap, I’d be induced to write nice things about them – and, by God, they were right. But it also helps that they gave me so much interesting stuff to write about. Like the entire galaxy.
The star-gazing in this part of Scotland is good enough to have won it official recognition. A 300 square mile area has been designated Europe’s first Dark Sky Park, officially protected by restrictions on light pollution, and naturally protected by the fact that very few people live in this wild corner of the North. The night sky is so clear here, so unblemished by street lights and illuminated buildings, that it scores a two on the Bortle scale – a measure of darkness ranging from 1-9, where nine is equivalent to standing under the glaring lights of the strip in Las Vegas and one is equivalent bobbing around all alone on a lightless boat in the middle of the pacific ocean. Two is rare and special, especially in over-populated Europe. So special that the Galloway Forest has become an essential winter destination for astronomers.
The astronomer Steve Owens told me that the local people realised they had something special when the Forestry Commission started noticing that more than 200 cars were showing up in one of their car parks in Ayrshire every weekend. At first, they were worried and even asked the local police to check it out, fearing all kinds of dirty deeds must be going on under those dark skies. The law men launched an investigation, but happily were able to report back that the only extendible equipment they’d seen were nothing worse than a few big telescopes poking out of windows belonging to amateur astronomers. Ayrshire, it seemed had star-power.
To be frank, it’s a good job, too. Earlier that afternoon, I’d spent quite a lot of the drive from Glasgow wondering what I was getting myself into. The road swung around a coastline of dark empty beaches, past outcrops of huge black rocks and through bleak one-street, two-curry house towns. It was occasionally beautiful, but more often colourless and cold. When you factor in the 16 plus hours of darkness that isolated South Western Scotland enjoys in winter, you start to realise why it must have seemed so sensible to make a virtue of the night sky.
Mind you, the area does have other attractions. I was staying in Glenapp Castle, a hotel it’s safe to say, you have to really want to get to. It’s a healthy one and a half hours by car from Glasgow. But once you get there, it all starts to seem worthwhile.
It was dark when I arrived (naturally) and I was tired and slightly disorientated after the long journey. So it took me a while to work why the man who had taken my bags and led me through oak-panelled hallways had stopped walking. It looked to me like we’d just stepped into a new wing of the castle. It was only when I saw a huge double bed to my left that I realised this vast space was actually my room. It was easily big enough to stage a vigorous game of eleven-a-side football. It took my upwards of five minutes just to close the curtains there were so many windows – and they were all so huge. The bathroom, meanwhile, was bigger than some flats I’ve lived in.
If I have to register a negative, the style was (as my better half witheringly terms such chintz) “a bit Buckingham Palace”, but if you can’t get away with giant gold-tinged sofas and four-poster beds in a Scottish Castle, where can you? Besides, the real attraction in Glenapp Castle isn’t the accommodation, or the acres and acres of beautifully tended grounds, or even the glorious roaring open fires. The real attraction is the food.
I’m not a restaurant reviewer so I’ll spare you too much purple prose about the clever combination of Scottish tradition and modern know-how that made eating old favourites like black pudding and haggis such a new experience. What I can tell you is that if the chef had walked in as I was eating the fourth course on the menu (loin of hare with red cabbage, Brussels sprouts, spiced bread and sea purslane, if you’re interested) I’d probably have grasped him by the knees and started weeping in gratitude. Even now I’m fighting an undignified urge to write a sonnet about the airiness of his Cranachan soufflé.
Okay, at this stage I should pause and admit that my heightened emotional state could be attributed to the many glasses of Dalmore’s finest that the whisky men had been pressing on me during the meal. I was feeling fervent about just about everything. Even now, the glow hasn’t entirely worn off. There is a romance to drinks that were first barreled before most of us were born and were put together by men who have long since died. Where did they imagine the products of their hard work would end up? Possibly not in the hands of pampered journalists like me, but that doesn’t detract from the fun. Nor does it alter the profundity of drinking something like that. Part of the joy of good whisky is that it reminds you how transient such pleasures can be, even as it rekindles the fire inside you.
Small surprise that by the time we all bundled into Land Rovers and were driven out to our sun loungers in the dark park, I was feeling mighty philosophical. The feeling didn’t diminish when Steve Owens explained how many thousands of millions of stars there are out there, how many thousands of millions of light years they are away and how, in the greater scheme of things, our own watery part of the universe is strange and tiny indeed. It wasn’t just the wind that made me shiver. But experts always say that the best time to have a whisky is when you’re first starting to feel the cold. That way, you appreciate it all the more when the warmth of the dram cascades through you. The experts are right too. The glass I had under that astonishing sky was one of the finest I’d ever drunk. For a while, it set the whole world to rights. It didn’t matter that human life was insignificant. In fact, that’s what makes it all the more wonderful. Well, that and the whisky…