Scotland is our country of 2018, and when it comes to where to go and what to see, that quintessentially Scottish terrain is just the tip of the iceberg.
Like sausage dogs and millennial pink, Scotland has been getting a lot of attention recently. And it’s not for the usual reasons. We’re not talking about the standard discourse on whisky or mist-topped mountains, the Highland Games or deep-fried Mars bars. Now the talk surrounds ground-breaking architecture, coffee bars and exceptional design. UK chefs are flocking north to open innovative restaurants across the country, for cheaper than they could ever afford down south. Scotland is becoming a bit cool.
The big ticket on everyone’s lips is the V&A Museum of Design Dundee, due to open at the end of the year. It’s appropriate that it is the V&A opening in Scotland, and not another national gallery, given Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s passion for the country (they spent as much time as possible at Balmoral Castle, their Scottish residence). Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, this tumbling colossus of a building signals a fresh start for Dundee – a post-industrial city with a reputation befitting of anywhere thrashed by then-Prime Minister Thatcher’s sudden closure of industry in the 1980s. It struggled with the change, and it was poor. But it also had a thriving college of art and design, and so a passion for the aesthetic always bubbled beneath its concrete edges. Now it boasts a Malmaison hotel, craft beer bars, and the only V&A in the world outside of London.
If Dundee had a big sister, it would have to be Glasgow. In Scotland it is said that Edinburgh is where you go for a fancy meal; but Glasgow is where you go to have fun. But the times they are a-changin’, with former Ottolenghi chef Rosie Healey opening Alchemilla in the hip West End neighbourhood of Glasgow’s Finnieston. From confit pheasant tossed with radicchio, walnuts and pomegranate arils, to the silkiest pappardelle in town and a stellar natural wine list, it’s serving some of Scotland’s, nay, the UK’s best food right now. Coffee shops such as Artisan Roast, Avenue Coffee and For Fika Sake serve flat whites as good as any you’ll find in Sydney, and if you venture 40 minutes out of town to the postcard-pretty village of Luss, you can have a seriously excellent flatty on the pier, feet dangling above the water, at St Mocha (make it an affogato in summer – they make the ice cream in-house).
This year also marks the 150th anniversary of Scotland’s patron architect, designer and artist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Dundee’s V&A has resurrected a section of the original interior from the Ingram Street Tearooms, which he designed in 1907, but in Glasgow you can experience much of his architecture in situ – the Glasgow School of Art is still in reconstruction since its terrible re of 2014, but Queen’s Cross Church is a treat in all of its deep, dark refinement; or go to the Mackintosh House – a reconstruction of his light-filled home – in the West End. A jaunt out to Helensburgh to visit the Hill House is one of the best day trips you could take, the building an exquisite convergence of Cubist form and pared-back elegance.
Edinburgh is known for its age and history, but new highlights are popping up, such as Mary Hillard’s gelateria on the Grassmarket, Mary’s Milk Bar. Hillard studied at Carpigiani Gelato University near Bologna and has brought real gelato to the capital, with flavours such as nutmeg and pickled brambles, and almond and sea buckthorn. Little potteries scatter the countryside, and look out for honesty boxes on the side of the road selling handmade cheeses and locally compiled cookbooks. Noma alumni are foraging away at Loch Fyne for their wonderful restaurant, Inver in Strathlachlan. And speaking of Noma – René Redzepi himself sent a few of his chefs over the North Sea to learn the tricks of sourdough specialist Bostock Bakery in the beloved seaside town of North Berwick. Across the road, a little co-op called Whynot? sells vintage cashmere and the most beautiful knitted dolls you ever did see. End your day with vinegar-doused fish and chips on the town’s windswept beach and you’ll struggle not to keep a little piece of Scotland in your soul on your way home.
So we got out of that without mentioning whisky once. Of course that industry is booming, but gin is the way of things for the contemporary Scottish distillery (Scottish whisky needs a minimum of three years and one day in cask, but usually it’s upwards of 10 years – so it will be a while before new distilleries release anything). As for the deep-fried Mars bar? We’re afraid that’s a bit of an urban myth – ask for one at the chippy at your peril. Deep-fried pizza, however; that’s a different story…