Monday, May 15, 2017

Michelle Styles: My latest Book Hunting Expedition

The late Phyllis Whitney famously never went on vacation but always went on book-hunting expeditions. It is simply a matter of tailoring where you go to coincide with what you want to write. Sometimes this is easier than others as I do have to take other members of the party into account.
Thus it was last weekend when my daughter and I departed for an expedition up to the wilds of the Scottish highlands. Because Vikings were not really up there in that area, I could not research them. I could however look at the Victorians, how they had changed things and what was going on.
We stayed at the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert famously stayed the night here (incognito) back in 1860. Victoria wrote about in her journal. There is an exhibition about her stay in the vestibule outside the dining room. The Queen and Prince Philip also have stayed (1961) but far more openly. The hotel is a great base for exploring the area and boasts a wildlife club. If you happen to be in the area, you could do far worse as the rooms are comfortable, the food plentiful and tasty and the welcome warm.
Carriages at Balmoral

One of the days we traveled to Balmoral which is open April – September of each year. It remains very much a private residence for the royal family. However, the public can go into the ballroom (far smaller than I had thought it would be) and wander around the grounds. One of the big highlights for me (besides seeing the three tea sets the Queen uses to take tea – the gold and white is used for the morning and she alternates between the plaid rimmed and the strawberry one for afternoon tea) was the carriages. There was a splendid sleigh as well as a dogcart and a governess cart. I later learnt that Prince Philip used the Balmoral dogcart in his carriage racing and regularly smashed it up. He was the man to invent disc brakes for carriages. It rather begs the question as to what they were using before that!
The Balmoral Dogcart
I was also able to peer into the Garden cottage where the bedrooms are done up how they would have been during Queen Victoria’s time. The grounds were good but it was very clear that they managed so that they come into their splendour when the Queen is in residence during August.
Flowers in the greenhouse at Balmoral
The tea rooms are good. The Palace has just released a book of recipes, including the Queen’s dropped scone recipe that she gave President Eisenhower called Royal Teas. In the book, they mention that most of the recipes are about a 100 years old and that many were preserved by one of the housemaids writing things down.
Another focus of the trip became whisky tasting. Although whisky has been around for a long time, it did not become a legal drink until 1823. The first license to produce whisky is not granted until 1824 and that was to George Smith who produced the Glenlivet. Some distilleries claim to be older than that but they were operating beyond the law and whisky was not really drunk outside of Scotland.
In 1822, George IV travels to Edinburgh at Sir Walter Scott’s behest and tries the drink (as it happens it was George Smith’s whisky).  He likes it and of course the king cannot drink something which is illegal so Parliament legalises it in 1823. This is also the visit which sees the tartan becoming popular after Sir Walter Scott organises a grand ball and all the men have to go kilted. George’s bill for his tartan (the Royal Stuart) was over £110,000 in today’s money! The man who won the catering contract for the ball was one Ebenezer Scroggie whom a certain Charles Dickens apparently used as inspiration for a character…. But it is this visit that sets the Scotland craze going.
Most of the whisky you drink today tastes nothing like the whisky that would have been drunk pre end of Prohibition in the US. After the Prohibition ends, the whisky distillers begin to use American bourbon casks to mature their product but before that they used sherry casks, in particular oloroso casks. Some distilleries such as Glenlivet and Aberlour have started make whiskies which go back to the original which are only matured in sherry casks, Glenlivet Nadurra and Aberlour A’Bundah. During the Glenlivet tour we tasted some whisky straight from a cask which tastes different again – far rougher. I also learnt about flour flash fires and how they had to be very careful in the warehouses because whisky can go up in flames very easily.
There was plenty to digest from my book hunting expedition and I do foresee writing a Scottish Victorian in the near future (or possibly set slightly before Victoria). And I remain firmly of the opinion that book hunting expeditions are the only way to travel.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances for Harlequin Historical. Her latest Sold to the Viking Warrior is set on Islay was a result of another book hunting expedition. To learn more about Michelle and her books visit

1 comment:

dstoutholcomb said...

sounds like a wonderful adventure