It was some time ago now that I happened to be in Craigellachie for the first time. Once the crossroad of Speyside – the hub where the east to west and north to south spokes met – the town had by now faded a little from its glory, with the passing of the railway meaning it was no longer as well connected as it was when the striking custard-coloured Craigellachie Hotel was built in 1893.
It was in this hostelry that I was to rest my head for a few days before business took me further north, and while I had imagined I would pass my evenings taking long walks along the banks of the spritely Spey or Fiddich striking up cheery repartee with the anglers; the weather, choosing to be as unwelcoming as a gamekeeper to a poacher, was damp and grey, so my evenings were mainly spent in the public bar of the Fiddichside Inn.
The inn at that time felt to me as if it might be the homeliest bar in Scotland, maybe even the world. This may, in part, have been because it mostly was a home. It was Joe’s home and had been for some years. The public bar, such as it was, was a sliver of a front room; no more than 12 feet wide, and maybe nine feet deep before you encountered a bar counter spotlessly polished, a few gleaming brass taps and a back shelf resplendent with the best whisky the surrounding towns and villages had to offer.
It was my habit to amble down there sometime after my work had concluded for the day and spirit away a couple of hauf n haufs – a half pint of heavy – the thick, dark ale that sates the workers of those parts – and a measure of whisky. I was working my way along the shelves, taking note of which expressions were favourable or pleasing to me to be sure to remember their names. Once the early evening’s research had been completed, I would retrieve my waxed jacket from the peg by the door, affix my tweed cap to my head and brace myself for the inclemency of the five-minute walk through the village and back to my lodgings in time for whatever delight the chef had in store for me that day.
The clientele in the Fiddichside were a mischievous and largely sullen bunch, but over the course of my first three or four visits, I gradually wore them down to an attitude of gruff tolerance. They were not, or at least not yet, exactly friendly towards me, but they had at least started to nod to me over their pint glasses upon both my arrival and departure.
It was on perhaps my fifth or sixth visit that I found the bar at its most boisterous. Payday, I assumed; for the bulk of labourers who frequented the hostelry seemed in ripe spirits and cash-rich – chummily buying drinks for each other and laughing and joshing like it was a high day or holiday. The bar was packed on this occasion and as I wound my way through the press of flesh I could see that my usual seat – close to, but withdrawn (as much as one could be in a bar no larger than a parlour) from the melee – was not available. Instead, I ended up belly to the bar watching Joe pour pint after pint. I caught his eye and ordered my half of heavy and – as it was my last night in town – a tot of the local dram. The consequence of my position meant that I was swept up in the fringes of the hubbub, and while not an antisocial type by nature, I was wary of the encroaching boisterous bonhomie which I felt myself to have no claim to be an honest part of.
My intentions may have been for quasi-solitude, and while valiant, their aims were beyond my control, and I was roundly brought into the fold by a man I had not seen in the bar before. Whether he had taken a shine to me as an outsider and therefore a new audience for his wisecracking and gimmickry or whether he was just naturally the vivacious kind was unclear to me, but he took me quite literally under his arm as he rolled around the small room engaging with all the regulars.
He was clearly well known to the crowd and a harmless and friendly cove well over six feet tall, a solid fifteen stone if he was a pound and as ruddy-faced as one of Hardy’s avuncular ploughmen. And so it came to pass that it was in his armpit that I had the fortune to take my first sip of the village spirit and perhaps the misfortune to exclaim – in quite an involuntary manner – “pineapples!”.
Well, I may be exaggerating only mildly if I were to tell you that this brought a hush to the gathered mass inside the half room. It was not quite the response of the saloon bar to a newcomer entering in cowboy boots and chaps, but the hair prickled on the back of my neck out of a sudden fear that I had caused some offence.
I had nothing to trepidate, aside from suddenly finding myself as the undeniable centre of attention, but it was cause enough for my reeling partner to take me on another tour of the four walls made up of his colleagues and their bellies.
“Aye Harry, go on and tell him about the pineapples” called out one man.
Harry did not seem sure about this idea, but in a matter of seconds, a consensus appeared to have formed that there was something the outsider needed to be telt and that Harry was the man to do it. As far as I could tell, no signal was given, but much as when I had started this whole debate with my involuntary cry of “pineapples” the mood in the room changed almost immediately. It wasn’t exactly sinister, but it was sombre and secretive and I was immediately intrigued.
Harry seemed to sober in an instant – the jovial grin vanished like a light frost wiped from a windscreen, and while the redness of his face did not diminish one candle’s worth, his comfortable intoxication seemed suddenly to diminish as he drew himself to his full height.
“Well pal,” he began, fixing me with a serious look. “Yer no wrong with that”.
“Ye’ll no doubt have heard about the sunshine we get in these parts. Famous we are, for the most sunshine in Britain. You’ll maybe have read that somewhere, but what we don’t let on is about the pineapples. Moray is the biggest producer of pineapples outside-a Costa Rica, it’s been that way for years. Send’em all round the world we do”.
Of course, much like you are now I assumed he was having me on. Another Speyside barfly a few hauf n haufs down, taking advantage of the naive tourist. But he continued.
“I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous, like. How can we grow pineapples in Scotland? They’re a tropical fruit right enough. But we do, there’s hunners of them down by the river. Something about the atmospheric pressure, the soil, the sunshine, it just works. Some Victorian gent figured it out way back when the pineapple was the must-have fruit and aw’. He musta tried a fair few different sites up and down the country, but Craigellachie was the only one where they took, and boy did they take. We’re overrun with them, they sell the juice to anyone who’ll take it, and they burn the skin to kiln the barley up at the distillery”.
I was incredulous. Of course, I didn’t believe a word of it, and in fact thought that at any minute now, he’d follow this preposterous tale with the old favourite of how he hunts haggis – only in season mind – by chasing them anticlockwise around a hill and then sits by the fire fashioning tartan accessories from their pelts.
Sensing my incredulity, Harry put his hand on my forearm, and quietly added, “You don’t have to take my word for it. You can see them for yourself, y’know. I’ll draw yer a map”.
His compatriots cleared a path to the bar for him, Joe fetched him pen and paper, and Harry sat down to studiously complete his cartography, handing me a crude sketch of a pineapple alongside a scrawled map showing the route to the secret groves of Speyside with the instruction “be sure to take a packed lunch from the hotel”.
Sleeping late the next morning to dilute the effects of the additional Craigellachie malts I’d enjoyed with Harry and his accomplices, I rose after breakfast to a bright dry day. Aware of my empty diary, I made my way to reception to enquire about a packed lunch with a view to finally accomplishing my planned walk along the Fiddich. I had given the conversation at the bar no further thought, but some miles from the hotel, whilst rummaging in my jacket pocket for a cigarette, I withdrew the somewhat dishevelled map and, rotating it several times in my hand, determined that I was mere yards from the fantastical plantation.
Turning away from the river, I took a leap up a small embankment and through the undergrowth to where the sunlight at ground level suggested a clearing amongst the trees where, to my incalculable surprise, my eyes fell upon a clear half acre of pineapples in a congregation the likes of which I had never seen before. Bounded by dark oak trees, washed with the mossy odour of a damp forest floor, were pineapples growing as casual as you’d like from the damp soil of Speyside.
I took a couple of steps backwards, my right hand grasping for the security of an aged oak tree to steady myself. Feeling the urge to be seated, I slumped onto a stump and placed my head in my hands in disbelief. Whilst no botanist, fruiterer or pomologist I was aware that tropical fruit simply did not grow on British shores. There was no doubt in my mind that the weather in this dappled glen was not suited to the needs of the pineapple, and yet there they were, thriving under the weak Moray sunshine.
In my surprise, I realised I was still clutching the unsmoked cigarette I had retrieved some minutes earlier. As I lit it, the smoke of the spent match drifted on the breeze and snapped me back to reality. I resolved that the madness of the moment could only be remedied by the sanity of a packed lunch, and rummaged for my parcel. With a mouthful of a sandwich of glazed ham, I took another long look at the unmistakable sight of a forest floor of pineapples and my head began to swirl again. Three mouthfuls of sandwich and four mouthfuls of an oleaginous flapjack later, I decided it was time to head home for a restorative drink.
It was sometime later that I had cause to be in Craigellachie once more. It was summertime, perhaps two years after my evening with Harry and his accomplices in the Fiddichside Inn. Again, I stayed at the imposing Caramac-washed hotel that nestles in the woods, and on this occasion, finishing my day’s work earlier than I was accustomed found myself with a clear and mild afternoon to myself. While the lure of Joe’s parlour of a bar was strong, the existence of the fabled pineapples of Speyside had played on my mind, on and off, since my last visit. I had failed to share my secret with any of my London acquaintances – not through any omertà di ananas; but merely through the concern that my friends would doubt for my sanity.
This need to revisit, therefore, was the quest for a salve to my memory, and I was grateful that the climactic conditions were the same as on my fateful first visit. I set off for the walk, retracing my steps on the resolutely unsheltered earth, my mind awash with competing thoughts of optimism, fatalism and rationality.
Some miles from the hotel, I was certain I had found the same spot on the river, the same small embankment, undergrowth and clearing, but clambering through it and into the same dappled sunlight was crushed to discover there was not a pineapple in sight, not a leaf, a husk or even the barren land indicative of a recent harvest. Retracing my steps I tried other promising glades with no success and it was in a disappointed, confused and empty-handed state that I trudged to the Fiddichside Inn later that evening.
The bar was quieter that night – it was just my dejected self and the welcoming Joe inhabiting the half-lounge. He poured me a half of heavy and showed some slim glimmer of recognition. I recounted my travails of the day and he looked up from his polishing to utter an inscrutable response: “Aye, you forgot your flapjack”.
The Craigellachie distillery sits in the centre of the Speyside village for which it is named. For idiosyncratic reasons, it releases whisky aged only to a prime number of years, of which the 13 year old (glazed ham, spent matches, flapjacks) is the youngest. The taste of tropical fruit (mango and pineapple) is unmistakable, and can only be explained by the presence of hidden pineapple groves along the banks of the Fiddich.
The Craigellachie Hotel (which incomprehensibly changed from a crisp white facade to a custard colour a few years ago) is a fine base from which to explore Speyside, and indeed a short walk from The Fiddichside Inn where Joe Brandie served the hauf n haufs for nearly sixty years before his death in 2017. It has recently reopened under new owners who promise to maintain the same original spirit, but can’t promise a map to the pineapple groves.