Sustainable tourism is a new way to see Scotland

Blair Castle in Perthshire, which dates to the 13th century, was once home to a duke who had his own private army.
Blair Castle in Perthshire, which dates to the 13th century, was once home to a duke who had his own private army.

ELIE, Scotland — The weather in this lovely seaside village on Scotland's east coast, not far from the golfing mecca of St. Andrews, was about as inhospitable as it could be for early November.

The wind whipped the sea into a frenzy, sending whitecaps ashore; a misty rain leaked from a leaden sky; and icy pellets of hail showered down like miniature daggers.

So, what was I doing, layered up like the Michelin tire man, ambling along the beach with seven other women and a frisky black Labrador retriever named Hooley?

We were here with "Forage Ranger" Fiona Houston, a journalist and local-food advocate, to learn about the edible delights found on the coast this time of year, including oysters and varieties of kelp and seaweed. Our tour was intended to be a "walk, talk, taste" experience, but after 20 minutes of being buffeted by the wind and bruised by the ice pellets, we chose to talk while we walked to the nearest pub to do our tasting there. Only Hooley seemed disappointed.

Inside the cozy confines of The Ship Inn, a fire blazed, a pint appeared in my hand, and a gent sitting on a bar stool, nursing his own beer, swiveled around to address me.

"Are ye daft, lass, wandering around on the beach in weather such as this?" he asked.

For the record, I didn't think I appeared any more daft than the others, but he seemed to take a shine to me. After learning that I lived in Lexington, he allowed that he "knew a chap who knew a chap who once worked with horses."

I had come to Scotland for what was billed as a "glam, green experience," to discover that you don't have to sacrifice the glam to appreciate the green. Indeed, Scotland has led the United Kingdom in sustainability, alternately caring for and making use of the natural environment in unique ways.

During the next six days, I would meet a chocolatier who infuses her candies with rhubarb, wild mint, Scots pine, garlic and almost anything growing in the woods around her home on the southern shore of Loch Tay; a man who runs a "green" distillery in the picturesque town of Pitlochry; and an herbalist who dispenses natural products at Napier's, Edinburgh's oldest pharmacy. (Who knew that passion flower capsules are a remedy for restless leg syndrome?)

Beauty and splendor

Anyone who has ever been to Scotland can attest to its outstanding natural beauty: rugged mountains and deep glens, shimmering lochs and firths, heather-blanketed hillsides in the spring and summer, forests ablaze with color in the fall, and snow-capped peaks in the winter. From the Lowlands to the Highlands, spectacular vistas unfold.

That scenery is a source of pride for the British — why do you suppose the royal family keeps rushing off to Balmoral, in northeast Scotland? — and a source of endless fascination for the visitor. Amid the dramatic landscape of the Valley of Glencoe, I learned about the massacre of the ill-fated MacDonald clan. After lunch one day at the Victorian-era Fortingall Hotel, I wandered into the adjoining village cemetery and saw a yew tree that has stood for several thousand years, and under which, it is alleged, Pontius Pilate was born.

On a tour of Blair Atholl Castle — its gleaming white turrets rising against a backdrop of hills — I learned about the 19th-century Duke of Atholl, who, at one time, boasted Britain's only private army. The duke dispatched his army just once, in an effort to turn back a botanical expedition led by a certain Professor Balfour. He was unsuccessful, and the professor won the right to walk the area around the scenic Falls of Bruar in search of rare botanical specimens. In Fort Augustus, alongside Loch Ness, I didn't spot "Nessie," only three kayakers gently gliding through the loch's glassy water.

A safari and a sip or two

Scotland isn't the first place one thinks of for four-wheel-drive safaris to view animals in their natural habitats, but Highland Adventure Safaris offers that opportunity. Amid the majestic scenery of Highland Perthshire — called Europe's last wilderness — we boarded our Land Rovers and headed off in search of the Caledonian "big five:" grouse, mountain hare, red deer, golden eagle and red squirrel.

Colin and Andy, our kilted safari leaders, set up a high-powered telescope, allowing us a perfect view of three noble stags atop a rocky ledge. Afterward, they organized a Scotch tasting in a secluded mountainside cabin. You'd think that after a "wee dram" or two, I wouldn't have any trouble seeing things, but I have to confess I was the only one in our party who failed to spy the elusive snowy owl and the pine marten.

No trip to Scotland is complete without a distillery tour of its most famous product. The names roll off the tongue: Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Strathisla, Dalwhinnie, Talisker.

Edradour is probably not a name most Americans are familiar with, as barely 12 casks a week are produced by three men using the same recipe as their predecessors 150 years ago.

The distillery, nestled in a glen of the hills above Pitlochry in the Southern Highlands, can claim a number of distinctions: the smallest distillery in Scotland, both in footprint and distribution (it's the country's last remaining "farmhouse" distillery and produces as much in a year as the larger distilleries do in a week). The single malt, aged for 10 years after fermentation, is difficult to get in the United States today, but it allegedly did a brisk business during Prohibition.

Fine food, green practices

If you drive the scarily narrow road alongside Loch Voil in Trossachs National Park, you will arrive in Balquhidder Glen, where you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon a 21st-century Brigadoon. Unlike that legendary village, though, the Monachyle Mhor Hotel doesn't appear just one day every 100 years. Owned and operated by brothers Tom and Dick Lewis and their sister Melanie, it is just one facet of a family business that emphasizes sustainability and farm-to-table produce.

"Our aim is to provide the finest Scottish food and hospitality, whilst taking care of our spectacular surroundings," Tom Lewis says.

As a host, Tom welcomes the likes of Prince William (whose best mate from university lives in the area) and actor Gerard Butler, who likes to bring his mother here. As a businessman, he welcomes visitors to the area to drop by Mhorbread (a bakery, tearoom and shop) and Mhorfish (a combination fishmongers, restaurant and setting for his cookery classes) in the nearby village of Callander. And as a raconteur, he knows no equal. The man can tell a story. In this instance, the theme is that a country can be both glam and green.