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A whisky distiller’s guide to the West Highlands

Sep 22, 2023Sep 22, 2023

Interview by Louis Wise. Photography by Sophie Gerrard

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I first got to know this area because my parents bought the Drimnin Estate, on the Morvern Peninsula, about 20 years ago. I remember going there for the first time: it felt as if we were driving into the middle of nowhere – but in a good way. Like much of the West Highlands, which is a vast area, Morvern is beautifully isolated. People assume, just because they’ve driven for three-and-a-half hours from Glasgow, that life doesn't exist here, but it does. People do normal things – it just takes them longer to get to the supermarket and the pub.

The only ways to get here are to take the sleeper train to Fort William, or take the train to Glasgow and then drive. While both options are long, in each case you travel through these incredibly dramatic, mountainous landscapes. The sleeper train goes just past Ben Nevis, while the drive from Glasgow takes you through Glencoe.

The first thing I would do is go hiking among the hills of Morvern: it's a densely treed area and in the autumn the colours are super-beautiful. That, or I’d walk to the very end of the peninsula where you can often spot otters. Either way, I would have Clare Holohan in tow. Clare runs West Highland Herbal in Lochaline, specialising in herbal medicine, consultations, walks and retreats, and she makes going for a walk the most eye-opening experience you could imagine. All the things you’d normally tramp over, it turns out they’re incredible things to eat or to use as some kind of medicine.

I’d then take you to see our distillery, where we do whisky tastings for our sustainably made Scotch. My relationship to the area changed when I founded the Nc’nean distillery here. I left my job in London in 2013 to focus on it more, and I’ve been working on it ever since. After that, we’d head to Alan Hayman's gallery, which is on the estate: Alan is a Montrose-born artist who paints lovely pictures of the west coast of Scotland. And for dinner I’d go to The Whitehouse in Lochaline – a wonderful restaurant for locally sourced, well-cooked food.

Mull is worth visiting another day. The main town is Tobermory, with its beautiful multicoloured houses all along the front. It also has an incredible natural harbour; it's as though someone's taken a bite out of the island and plonked it back down. There's an amazing restaurant just on the edge of it called Cafe Fish, which serves super-fresh, simply cooked fish, particularly shellfish, which the area is known for. Afterwards, pop in for a drink at the Mishnish, a famous sailor's pub founded in 1869.

I absolutely adore cheese, and the guys at the Isle of Mull Cheese shop, around for 40 years, operate on a sustainable ethos similar to Nc’nean's, using a traditional dairy with 130 grass-fed cows. They produce two cheeses: Isle of Mull and Hebridean Blue. There's also a bakery that makes biscuits, but when the cheese is that exceptional, you barely need a cracker.

When the cheese is that exceptional, you barely need a cracker

You should also go on a boat trip. On a good day you can spot whales, dolphins or porpoises, and if you look up you’ll be able to see enormous golden- and white-tailed eagles flying around too. The Hebridean Princess, which has 28 cabins, can take you basically wherever you want to go on the west coast. Head to the island of Staffa and see Fingal's Cave, which is famous for its dramatic rock formations.

The Hebridean Princess mostly sails out of Oban, the main town just to the south of Morvern, which has grand stone houses along its seafront. Oban is also famous for its seafood, but I should flag up the Oban Whisky & Fine Wines Shop, which is excellent. Also, if you’re looking for gifts, Ardalanish Weavers on Mull weave gorgeous textiles from local wool, creating clothes, scarves and blankets.

Some things about Scotland are well known: it rains a lot, and there are lots of midges. I don't think anyone grows to love midges – certainly not me. But it's still amazing here, especially in the summer because the days are so long. We’re noticing more and more people coming in the "shoulder" seasons too, like March and October. I guess it's quieter in the touristy bits then – and there are no midges.