It’s been a while since I spent any decent time with my dad. When I say a while, I mean about 20 years.
We didn’t fall out or anything, it’s just that busy lives and long distances have kept us to a few hours at a time, usually family occasions like weddings.
We talk on the phone, but it’s sporadic, neither of us being good with that kind of thing, and – I suspect – neither wanting to intrude.
So for his birthday this year I organised some proper father-and-son time, choosing Scotland and a hotel famed for its whisky and golf, both of which he is a fan.
Cometh the day, I set off on the long drive from Devon to pick him up in Lincoln, hoping that – in the intervening years – he hadn’t become a grumpy old man.
If he had, the itinerary prepared for us by the hotel should help – between golf, archery, whisky-tasting, distillery tours and talks on ancient stones, there would be enough to keep us occupied, and keep the conversation civil and distanced.
“Thank God for stuff to do,” I thought. “And thank God for separate bedrooms.”
After 700 miles’ driving, we reached our three-night respite: Glenmorangie House, 30 miles north of Inverness, a Highlands house with few rooms, lots of character, roaring log fires and warm, luxuriant fabrics throughout – the kind of place you feel instantly at home.
The drive there had been fine. We talked – nothing deep, mainly Manchester United and the comings and goings of our everyday lives – my playwriting, his two new puppies.
All pleasant, nothing testing or tested, both of us looking forward to getting there, kicking our shoes off and collapsing on our beds, perhaps calling our better halves back home before grabbing a whisky or two after dinner.
The test began on arrival, when we found our names listed against the one room.
A communication mix-up (my fault) and a fully-booked hotel meant hard-core ‘us time’ coming up.
“Christ, his snoring,” I thought. “Christ, his stomach,” my dad thought. “Thank God for the whisky,” we thought in unison.
And what whisky, too. Having been at it since 1843, the Men of Tain know a thing or two about their malts. The distillery’s Signet ‘Sonic’ – 30 years in the making and £130 in the costing – was the stand-out performer, with its chocolatey notes.
For me, the star of the show was not the malts, but the food, especially the Highlands Dinner, when a lone piper “piped in the haggis”.
Here, drams sneak into many a dish, like the Perthshire Roe Deer with café celeriac and black truffle purée, sautéed kale, broad beans and Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban Jus, or the Dark Chocolate Delice with Valrhona Caramelia and Signet mousse, apricot purée, fruit and nut crumble and Glenmorangie chocolate malted barley ice cream. It was blissful to a course.
Next day, we set off to see a Pictish Stone. No, I hadn’t a clue either, but after a short walk along the beach to Hilton-at-Cadboll, we met sculptor Barry Grove, who explained all.
Both he and the stone – based on one of many distinctive monuments carved in the 5th to 9th century and scattered across Scotland – were fascinating.
For good measure, Barry turned out to be of Chasidic Jewish heritage, his family having emigrated from Ukraine. There you go: Jewish impact – in the Highlands!
Back at base they’d laid on archery – my second time, my dad’s first. We’re competitive. He won. Well, you’ve got to let them win at some things, haven’t you?
Next day it was golf at Royal Dornoch, last year ranked the fifth best course in the world. I hadn’t played for ten years; he plays twice a week.
Still, he hooked his tee shot Out of Bounds, which lessened the hurt from archery.
Returning to Glenmorangie House, they plied us with yet more whisky and fed us yet more insanely tasty food, served all the while by consistently brilliant staff.
How did I get on with my dad? Like a hotel on fire. He hasn’t changed. He’s still Dad – kind, funny, interested, thoughtful and obsessed with taking photos of every sparrow and molehill he comes across. He’s not a bad bowman either, as it happens.
What I realised was that it was me that had changed. I’d grown up. We were two adults talking now, like old mates out on a road trip. That must be some transition for him, but he dealt with it effortlessly. He even said at one point that he was proud of me.
That was after he got a par on the 5th. I didn’t ask if he was still proud of me when he was slicing his drive into the water on the 8th or triple-bogeying the 16th. I didn’t want to intrude.
Stephen was a guest at Glenmorangie House, Tain. For latest rates and offers, contact 01862 871 671 or visit theglenmorangiehouse.com.