Swans, swords & stings: a weekend in Stirling

The hangover from my first night of vertical drinking since March 2020 had all but subsided by the time the train from Glasgow arrived at Stirling station last Thursday.  For me it was my first time visiting Scotland’s seventh-largest city; it was my brother’s first time back since studying at university there; and for our ‘beer club,’ it would be an unprecedented step in the relationships many of the seven of us had only formed during the various lockdowns of the last year.  When we met for drinks at No. 2 Baker Street, which is not only the name of a pub but also its address, they were the first pints of many consumed over an entire weekend spent together – a weekend that by the end of which the drinking would be better described as being horizontal.

Originally we had decided to spend the weekend in Stirling with the intention of attending the Doune The Rabbit Hole music festival between 12-15 August, but uncertainties over the council’s ability to license the event in the current climate led to it being postponed for the second year running.  Since we had already organised accommodation in the city it was agreed that we should travel through and make the most of the weekend anyway, especially when it was the first one after the majority of Coronavirus restrictions were lifted earlier in the week.  We had a core cast of four people for most of the weekend, and the others dropped in to spend either a day or a full 24 hours, in the style of a television sitcom where a beloved character returns for a special guest appearance.

Stirling Castle

Upon toasting our arrival in No. 2 Baker Street it was exclaimed that this was “Beer Club on tour,” which to my mind made us sound like a bunch of twenty-somethings sitting by a pool in a Spanish resort downing shots of all-inclusive Tequila, when the reality was that we are all in our mid-thirties and were sitting in a bar in Stirling drinking £4 pints of Peroni, Innis & Gunn, and Deuchars.  

Our flat was but a stone’s throw away from Stirling Castle, which would have been ideal if we were an invading English force from 1297, but it was equally as suitable for a group of men whose only war to wage was on the boxes of beer they had brought with them.  The apartment was spread out over two floors, with a lounge and a pool table upstairs, and the kitchen, bedrooms, dining room, and bathroom downstairs.  My brother and I shared a room for the first time since our ill-fated family holiday to Orlando in 1998 when I fell in love with a Tallahassee lassie and ruined the Magic Kingdom for everybody else.  The Plant Doctor and Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, bunked up together, and the third bedroom was left spare for our guest appearances.  From every room in the flat the Wallace Monument could be seen in the distance, never more spectacularly than when a vivid rainbow looped across its face on our second day in Stirling, and never more ominously than when standing in the bathroom and glancing out of the window to be confronted by this enormous phallic structure.

After enjoying a delicious homemade vegetable curry in the elegant dining room, where we spent more time debating whether or not there is an angry dog depicted in the Georges Braque painting which hung above the fireplace than we did admiring all of the other interesting features in the room, the original four of us along with special guest star formerly amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s and now the best Covid test site operator in Oban went upstairs for a session of pool before embarking on our first tour of Stirling’s pubs.  There was a wide range of abilities in our group:  from those who had the ability to play pool, to those who didn’t.  Unfortunately for anyone with an interest in the sport, Adam and myself – the two amongst us who fell into the latter category in the range of abilities – were somehow nominated to play the first game.  It must have been around fifteen minutes before either of us potted a ball, by which time everybody else had taken an unusually keen interest in the St. Johnstone vs Galatasaray football match screening in the next room, and by the time the game was finally put out of its misery we had both thoroughly disgraced ourselves.  Adam at least improved as the weekend went on, to the point where he was regularly making shots and winning games, whereas my pool game was resembling my sex game:  best described as a lost cause.

It was alleged that I fell in love four times during the course of our weekend in Stirling, but by my count, it was no more than three, and only one of those was true love.  On Friday the 13th we booked a two o’clock tour of the Deanston whisky distillery, giving us ample time beforehand to have a wander around the village of Doune, which was the entire purpose of our weekend in the first place.  It was a brooding morning, the sort where the clouds in the sky were as grey as the stone on Doune Castle; which is the perfect weather for viewing a 600-year-old building.  The castle has been used in many films and television series, including Game of Thrones and Outlander, but walking around its perimeter felt no different to walking around any other grey and windswept part of Scotland.  It’s part of the enduring charm of the place.

Doune Castle

We continued down through some woodland beyond the castle, where we walked alongside the River Teith, which had the strongest current I have ever seen.  Along the way, Adam mused aloud about composing a strongly-worded letter to Stirling Council complaining about the lack of benches along the bank of the river, only for it to become evident that there was one solitary wooden seat sitting on the other side of the fast-flowing water.  A person would have to be really keen to rest their weary legs to reach the bench from where we were, but it would undoubtedly be the council’s out when challenged on the matter.  The saga with the benches seemed to be repeated throughout Doune with their pubs.  We tried the doors of no fewer than three pubs or hotel bars on Friday afternoon, eager for a drink and maybe some bar food to line our stomachs before the whisky tasting, only to find that they were all closed.  In the end, we resorted to purchasing cheap sandwiches and the Bud Light beers with the screw off tops just to see us through.  Doune was a quaint wee village, though.  Every house seemed to have a hanging basket dangling on one side of its door and a noisy wind chime from the other, which on a day like Friday carried more than a hint of menace.  On the main street, there was a video player repair shop and a cartographer, and it was then that I knew we were finally on the right track.

The Deanston distillery has been producing whisky since 1965, when the site was transformed from a cotton mill following the decline of the cotton industry.  From the outside, the building doesn’t look very much like a distillery.  If it wasn’t for the white lettering on the side facing the car park, you might be forgiven for believing that you have driven into an industrial office complex or a mid-level insurance company, rather than a whisky distillery.  We were greeted inside by our tour guide Erin, who led us through the gift shop and beyond the cafe into a courtyard, where she opened the door to the warehouse and gave us an introduction to the brand.  Before leading us into the cask warehouse, Erin asked each of us whether we prefer drinking sweet or smoky whisky.  Everybody answered in a calm and sensible manner until it reached the end of the semi-circle, where I was standing.  I could barely contain myself.  My hands were practically shaking, so pleased was I with the line I had balancing on the tip of my tongue, ready to drop like a lemming.  I looked straight into Erin’s eyes:  “I like my whisky the same way I like my bacon…smoky.”  She hardly flinched.  It was impossible to tell if she was smiling or not due to the face coverings, but I like to think that she enjoyed it.  “You’ll probably be disappointed, then; Deanston is a sweet whisky.”  It was ever thus.

During our Warehouse 4 Experience, we tasted three 15ml drams straight from the cask, though there was a fourth that was not advertised which Erin claimed she had given to us because she liked our group.  This sounded more like theatrics to me than any justification for my joke about bacon, but either way, it made the £35 cost seem like good value, especially when it felt quite steep earlier in the day when we thought we were just going to be walking around a distillery rather than sitting on a bench in the warehouse drinking shots of whisky.  The first dram we sampled was a 2001 Organic Fino Hogshead Finish cask at 55% ABV, which would also be the favourite for most of us.  I always struggle when people talk about whisky tasting notes, and I especially did when Erin spoke of hints of nut and sherry on the nose or a taste of red fruits and chocolates, partly because I was still distracted by the question of whether she had found the bacon remark funny or not, but also because when I swallowed a mouthful of the stuff my throat felt like a dentist had performed an oral procedure on me with a blowtorch.

Our whiskies had strengths ranging from 55 & 59% to 61%, significantly greater than the 40% I am used to experiencing in my Jameson, and I could still feel it the following afternoon when we made our way up to the Wallace Monument.  I didn’t have any more than the crib notes on the life of Sir William Wallace and I’ve never seen the film Braveheart, so I saw the trip as a good opportunity to fill in some gaps in my understanding of Scottish history.  Once you have made the long trek from the base of Abbey Craig to the monument, you buy your tickets and are given a raffle token in return, and when your number is called you are summoned to begin your climb up the structure.  Whilst we waited for our ticket to come up, Arctic Fox pulled one of the tennis balls she is famous for carrying everywhere out of her bag, and we began kicking it around amongst ourselves.  It is the highest altitude at which I have ever played any ball sports, and I could tell that there was a lot of panic about losing it over the edge.  The more we kicked the small tennis ball against the side of the Wallace Monument, the easier it was to imagine returning there the next day and seeing a newly-installed plaque warning:  “NO BALL GAMES,” particularly when we were attracting the attention of two separate dogs who became very interested in the fluffy ball.  Even now I can’t stop thinking about how mortifying it would be knowing that you are the party responsible for Stirling District Tourism feeling the need to put up a sign asking adults not to mess around at a site of significant national interest.

There are 246 steps leading to the top of the Wallace Monument, and I was aware of every single one of them.  The narrow stone spiral staircase up to the observation platform doesn’t lend to grace or elegance, especially with the requirement to wear a face covering and the way those can fog your glasses in heated situations.  I was wearing my salmon chinos for the first time in several weeks, and when I dipped my hand into the pocket to reach for a tissue to wipe the condensation from my lenses, I found a light blue mask I hadn’t used in a while.  I think I ended up with three separate masks on my person that day.  It occurred to me that face masks have become what a £5 or £10 note used to be back in the days when we were still carrying cash; something you unexpectedly discover when you slide your hand into the back pocket of a pair of jeans, or maybe even down the side of a sofa cushion.

After visiting the three exhibition galleries within the monument, you finish up in the crown at the top of the building.  The first room played an animated video that told the story of William Wallace’s rise to prominence, as well as housing the mighty sword that he carried into battle.  Wallace’s sword weighs approximately 3kg and is 1.68m in length, close to what we recently knew as social distancing.  The second exhibition displayed thirty sculptures of significant Scottish figures who have contributed to the history of the nation, including the first two women to be added to the Hall of Heroes in 2018.  In the final gallery before reaching the summit, we learned all about the geography and military strategy behind the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, which was pretty cool to see before stepping out into the crown and witnessing the landscape for ourselves.  The view from the observation platform was well worth the whisky-soaked sweat.  We could see all the way out across the Ochil Hills and the Forth Valley.  From our perspective, it was easy to see how William Wallace trapped King Edward’s English army at Stirling Bridge.  Though at the same time, I had walked up all 264 steps carrying the tennis ball in my jacket pocket and never felt as much temptation as I did there on the observation platform to toss it to the group.  Somehow I resisted.

The crown at the top of the Wallace Monunent

Once safely back down on steady ground, we took a leisurely stroll around the grounds of the University of Stirling.  I could tell that it was quite cathartic for my brother and the Plant Doctor, who both studied there at different times.  Arctic Fox attempted to feed the ducks in the pond with tiny slices of carrot, but despite their vociferous quaking, the ducks seemed unwilling to dive their beaks into the water to catch the sinking pieces.  Soon a couple of swans who were surveying the scene from a distance began wading their way through the thick algae.  Seemingly they had seen enough of the attention the ducks were receiving and were keen to re-establish their territory.  The ducks quickly fled, and we were forced into re-thinking our carrot distribution when the swans puffed out their chests and hissed at us.  This happened at a couple of different points around the point, and every time it seemed to be Alan who was the subject of the swans’ ire.  

We were all brought to a panic when a dog who was walking by the side of its owner on the path behind us became attracted to the scene on the grass.  This dog came barrelling down the slope and bounded straight into the muddy water to a cacophony of cries from its owner, hissing from the swans and howls of shock from us.  The owner was quickly able to coax the canine from the pond without anyone being hurt, at which point it became the most playful pup in the world, parading from one horrified person to the next, tongue hanging from its mouth and mud dripping from its body and legs, seeking all the affection it could get.  I have never felt so terrified as when it approached me and all I could see was the end of my salmon chinos.  Something about this playful, mud-caked dog trying to befriend a complete stranger with its mischief as the rest of the group looked on unimpressed reminded me of Erin at the Deanston Distillery, but I couldn’t place what.

As if the 264 steps to the top of the Wallace Monument weren’t enough, we then embarked on a steep climb up a hill at Sheriffmuir, but at least this time we had beers.  For all the good I believed that 18 months of yoga had done my fitness, this day was really testing me, though that it was the fourth day of considerable alcohol abuse probably didn’t help.  At the top, we took a group selfie in which all of us are surely sporting the wildest hair any of us has ever had, and we could see as far afield as Grangemouth.  In fact, it was more or less the same view we’d been treated to from the Wallace Monument, only this time we could see the landmark in our photographs.  Whilst up there, the Plant Doctor revealed the deeply personal story behind his reason for wanting to take the group up that particular hill, which was probably the most touching moment of the Beer Club on tour.

The walk back from Sheriffmuir was not without its trauma.  The introduction of beer into the mix invariably meant that a call with nature was going to be required for some in the group.  My brother, the Plant Doctor and Alan wandered off into the forestry at separate sides of the road while I took it upon myself to look after the beers.  From my position on the roadside, I could hear my brother warn that there was a hole in the ground containing a wasps nest.  The next thing I remember is seeing Alan moving faster than he did even during our game of football with the nine-year-old boy in Easdale.  He had a rapid turn of pace, and it turns out that he did so because he had been stung three times; twice on his arm and once on the back of his leg.  It was the first time he had been stung by a wasp since he was a boy, and it was obviously extremely painful.  

I remarked how the incident put me in mind of the 1991 Macaulay Culkin film My Girl, but nobody else understood the reference.  I tried to explain the scene where the young boy, who it is earlier established has an allergy to just about everything, accidentally steps on a beehive while trying to find a ring belonging to the titular girl and dies from the allergic reaction to the sting.  None of this meant anything to the rest of the group, and I was finding myself increasingly more concerned with the fact that nobody had ever seen My Girl than I was about the health of my friend.  Alan became curious and asked how long it took for Macaulay Culkin’s character to die and whether he went into anaphylactic shock, as though the movie was a medical journal.  I tried to assure him that, to the best of my memory, the kid was killed instantly by the bee sting and he probably didn’t have anything to worry about, but it had also been around thirty years since I’d seen the story.  To the best of my knowledge, Alan is still alive today, though between the swans and the wasps he really had a day of his 24-hour guest appearance in our weekend.

Since we first met him, the Plant Doctor has been waxing lyrical about his hometown pub, the Settle Inn.  As much as anything, this trip was a pilgrimage to the bar.  When we walked in on Friday night it could just as easily have been Aulay’s.  It had the same kind of homely vibe; the regulars sitting around the bar; the barmaid who knew everybody’s name; the jukebox to throw money into.  They even had my favourite beer on tap, Caesar Augustus from the nearby Williams Bros. brewery.  Really the only difference between Aulay’s and the Settle Inn was the flytrap which we found on the windowsill by our table, a contraption that was little more than a glass of Coca-Cola with clingfilm wrapped over its top and a hole big enough for the barflies to be tempted into.  It plays on the anomaly that while flies are excellent at finding their way into tiny gaps, they are terrible at getting back out.  The glass must surely be the subject of some outrageous wagers on a weekly basis.

Like Aulay’s, the Settle Inn became the central focus of our weekend; the ultimate goal and the place our days revolved around.  We went in on Saturday night and found ourselves talking to the same people we had met on Friday.  I was in conversation with an older gentleman who had an impressive head of white hair and wore an immaculate Harris Tweed coat which I swear he claimed he had paid a thousand pounds for.  He was wearing this expensive coat with a garish tartan shirt and a pair of jeans, which seemed at best ill-advised and at worst offensive to me, as I’m sure it would have to Marco the director of an Italian menswear company, too.  I couldn’t comprehend the thought process that would lead someone to spend a thousand pounds on a quality coat only to pair it with denim jeans.  You don’t see a Versace necklace resting over a black bin liner, or a notice warning against ball games on the Wallace Monument.

On a couple of nights we invited some folks from the Settle Inn back to the flat for some post-pub drinks, although those never ended well.  One red-haired woman was offended by the way Adam and I would make crude jokes at one another’s expense, whilst another guy grew increasingly exasperated by our failed attempts at getting the movie E.T. to play on the DVD player.  As he stormed out of the flat he was heard to say, “my ex-missus is dropping off the kids in the morning.  I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”  

Invitations to the Settle Inn seemed to be more difficult to convince people to accept.  Whilst in Molly Malones watching the Celtic game, we struck up conversation with two of the barmaids who were on duty, intending to ask them to join our team for the pub quiz in the Settle Inn later that evening.  We learned that they are both from Dublin, or just outside the city, have the same first name but spelt differently, and are in Stirling studying nursing.  I asked them how it was to be watching a bunch of thirtysomethings nursing pints of beer, and it is hard to think that that wasn’t the point where our offer began to look less appealing to them.  If not, it was probably when I pointed to the pint of Icebreaker IPA I was drinking and asked the Irish barmaids what their favourite icebreaker is.  “I’ve never tried it,” one of them responded.

Remarkably they seemed to be warming to us as time went on, and the young woman who was first to finish her shift went as far as to join us at the bar for a drink.  At one point she even agreed to come with us to the quiz, though it was doubtless induced by the hit from the initial mouthful of cider after a long shift, and as soon as the friend she was going out with turned up, all bets were off.  It’s difficult to tell how much difference a couple of nursing students would have made to our cause anyway since the quiz was extremely difficult and we went on to suffer a crushing defeat, but it’s something we will never know for sure.  What we did know was that even amongst the wreckage of all of our defeats, from hissing swans to wasp stings, and whisky hangovers to poorly-judged remarks, we had somehow survived Beer Club on tour.

One thought on “Swans, swords & stings: a weekend in Stirling

  1. Stirling, stings, Doune.. Do stings count as a flesh wound. ?
    For threatened anaphylaxis, can recommend H & I rescue.. Then aged 8, bit older now, man I know quite well met a cleg, not a wasp, in the neck, on Hoy. No longer dying, victim was really annoyed after the jab worked and the rescue chopper was cancelled. ,

    Like

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