Articles - Isle of Islay
For the short time the Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry is tied up at Port Askaig pier near the north-west corner of Islay (pronounced eye-la), this small port is very busy. Though most passengers drive off the ferry, for foot passengers a local bus awaits.
We’re heading almost diagonally across the island to the farthest south-west corner. At the bend at Bridgend, one arm of the the road carries on to Islay’s other ferry terminal at Port Ellen, but we’ll make a right turn here and head along the side of lovely Loch Indaal where small groupings of geese are searching for food. Many more will be pecking at farmers’ fields inland.
As we pass through Bruichladdich there’s no mistaking there’s a distillery here. The village name is picked out in large capital letters in front of a whisky still.
Port Charlotte is the next village we pass through and some would argue it is Islay’s prettiest. The white painted buildings with window and door surrounds picked out in blues, blacks and reds, gleam after each shower of rain. The road becomes a single lane but we can see far ahead and know to stop at the nearest passing place should we meet an occasional oncoming vehicle. In one field by the roadside there’s a small flock of alpacas. These beasts, like shorn sheep with very long necks, are more usually at home in Peru, but they appear content here. A few hairy Highland cattle with wide pointed horns search for sustenance on the poorest grass. These hardy beasts can get by in even the worst weather.
The road sign tells us we have reached Portnahaven. But first, let’s walk towards the sea down a side road that will take us through Port Wemyss. This township is an extended T- junction of neat, white, well-kept houses plus a bus shelter, telephone box and post box.
Across the narrow road fronting the strip of houses, gardens slope downwards towards the coastal path. Across the channel of fast - flowing sea the island of Orsay lies straight ahead. It’s this great lump that saves Port Wemyss from an Atlantic battering.
Orsay Lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1826 and was once manned by three light house keepers. Now it is fully automated.
Another notable feature on the island is the gable end remains of an ancient chapel dedicated to St, Columba. Orsay may well have been one of Columba’s stopping off points on his way from Ireland to Iona.
From the coastal path it’s only a short walk to arrive at the end of the Portnahaven roadway that runs down this side of the long U – shaped bay. Potnahaven came into being when, to make more money from sheep than from people, the landlord moved his tenants from their crofts and persuaded them to become fishermen. As they became more efficient, bigger boats allowed the fishermen to sail as far as Ireland to fish and sell their catches. There’s no commercial fishing from here nowadays but a few small boats lay creels to catch lobsters and crabs.
Overlooking the village and looking straight out to sea is Portnahaven church. Designed by Thomas Telford, it is unusual in that it has two entrances. It is said that Port Wemyss people would go in through one door while Portnahaven folk would enter by the other.
As we leave Portnahaven and head north we pass what’s known locally as OK corner. These big letters have been kept on the wall over the years. One explanation I was offered was that they may have been painted here first by American servicemen who used the expression.
We’re now travelling up the west side of Islay. The single track road dips and bends giving views of the rock-strewn shoreline which takes the full force of Atlantic gales. Many ships have been wrecked along this coast and now the sunken remains are an attraction for visiting divers.
At a grass car park, a track leads down to Claddich sands, a small crescent of clean beach. From there it’s no distance to the world’s first experimental wave station. Islay Wave Power Station was developed by Queen’s University Belfast and linked to the National Grid in 1991. Apart from a low, flat - topped grey building there’s not much to see, but it’s heartening to know that the energy from the waves hitting this coast is being utilised.
We’ve nearly completed this tour. We’ll go as far as the Port Charlotte Hotel where we’ll get a lovely meal and perhaps a wee dram of one of Islay’s famous whiskies. There may be fiddle and accordion music from local musicians and a blazing peat fire. It will be the perfect end to a grand day out.
First published in The People's Friend magazine
Should you ever leave the warmth of a docked Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry and drive up the ramp onto Port Ellen pier when rain-filled wind is shrieking in from the Atlantic Ocean, I’m willing to bet you’ll think whoever named the Isle of Islay, ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, made a big mistake.
But in the minutes it takes to reach Bowmore, the island’s ‘capital’, you just might change your mind. A huge rainbow arcing over the church at the top of Main Street might be the decider, or the sight of the sea shimmering at the bottom of the brae, or fluffy white clouds racing across a vast blue sky.
On the other hand, you could have all four seasons within the same few minutes.
Bowmore, founded in 1768, sits on the east shore of Loch Indall. When the wind dies down, and it occasionally does, a distinct smell, some might call it a fragrance, is definitely noticeable. It’s a mixture of peat reek, brine and malted barley. There’s also a hint of the ‘angels portion,’ from the evaporation of whisky stored in barrels laid down over many years.
Bowmore distillery, near the centre of this large village, is a grouping of gleaming white buildings surmounted by a pagoda style roof. As well as producing whisky to delight drinkers of the amber nectar across the world, it has another rare distinction. Waste heat from its whisky making process is recycled to help reduce fuel bills at the leisure centre next door. This building was once Warehouse No. 3. It held barrels filled with more whisky than the swimming pool now holds water. In a nice touch, the pool’s crafted, curved ceiling looks like the inside of an enormous barrel.
I wonder if a swim there would improve a less than perfect breast stroke? For the island’s children, who previously had swimming lessons in the sea, the pool must seem like the lap of luxury.
The church at the top of Main Street was built in 1767 by Daniel Campbell, principal Laird of Islay. One story tells how the church was constructed in a round style so there would be no corners in which the devil could hide. Inside, the pews and plain, polished wood fittings show all the signs of loving care.
Let’s retrace our route back to Port Ellen. The road runs over Duich Moss, a vast peat moor looking dreich in a drizzle. From the flatness on one side, high hills rise, blue-hued with distance. On the other, the moorland ends in sand dunes hiding Islay’s longest beach that stretches some five miles round Laggan Bay. There’s a golf course on the links and an airport.
At Port Ellen we’ll take the road east through the distillery villages of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. No wonder this is called ‘whisky road!’
After a few miles through woodland, the road becomes a roughish, single track with passing places close to the shore at some points. Be ready with the binoculars. Here’s a chance to spot seals and sea birds and let other traffic, in more of a hurry, pass. We’re making for the ruin of Kildalton church.
It’s thought the spectacular cross in the churchyard was sculpted on Islay from a single slab of local stone. The style suggests the sculptor came from the workshops on Iona round about AD 800. On the front there are carvings of saints and angels surrounding a figure of Christ as well as Old Testament biblical scenes. On the back there’s an intricate Celtic pattern. It’s easy to imagine a priest using this cross as a kind of visual aid in explaining the message of the Bible to parishioners.
The church is roofless. It was probably built in the late 12th or early 13th century under the patronage of the Lords of the Isles. Inside, fixed on one wall, there’s a grave slab showing a warrior. Other carved slabs are sunk into the grass floor.
We’ll return to the Lords of the Isles later, but for now, let us consider a wee dram. We’ll go back again towards Port Ellen on ‘whisky road’. Of the three distilleries along here (there are five more on Islay) you’ll notice they are close to the shore. This was for practical reasons. All the distilleries had their own piers where produce was shipped out and materials brought in. Though each gives guided tours, with a complimentary tasting, Ardbeg Distillery is especially welcoming with a café /restaurant and a shop. If you’re not taken with whisky you might appreciate a bowl of soup before heading back round Loch Indall.
Looking across the loch, from one side or the other, lights of lone cottages and small villages are a romantic sight, twinkling in the darkness. By day, it’s a lovely drive following the shoreline to Port Charlotte, arguably the prettiest village on Islay, and home of the Museum of Islay Life.
Some items on display in the museum including gramophone needles, school slates, inkwells and fountain pens may well be remembered by an older generation. The apparatus used in the making of illicit whisky and tools for cutting peat to heat a home might be less familiar.
Islay is a surprisingly large island, with sandy bays between rocky headlands on the coast, a hilly interior studded with fresh water lochs and good farming land. On the north coast, Loch Gruinart is a sea loch running far inland. At Loch Gruinart Visitor Centre, I learnt how local farmers use agricultural practices for the benefit of people and wild life. In places, fields may seem neglected and waterlogged but this is deliberate. These ideal conditions have been created for wading birds. Bird song fills the air, and as you pass other acres of lush grass, hundreds of geese take wing, seem to hang in the wind for a few moments, before flying off to settle beside a new food source.
Travel north eastwards along the road towards Port Askaig and you’ll notice the narrow turn-off leading to Loch Finlaggan. Named after Findlugan, an Irish monk who was a contemporary of Columba, the loch is not especially beautiful or set in dramatic scenery. The surrounding slopes are not overly steep, or high. Yet it was here that the Lords of the Isles had their base, on two fairly small islands.
The MacDonald Lords of the Isles, (including the first MacDonald ever), were descended from Somerled, a 12th century prince. So if your name’s MacDonald, chances are you’ll have royal blood from somewhere down this line.
From Finlaggan Trust Visitor Centre you can stroll out to the larger island by way of a wooden walkway and wander through the ruins of the lords’ church and house.
For a time, these lords ruled over all of the Hebrides and a large part of the north - west mainland of Scotland. In their grand hall on Eilean Mor (Gaelic: large island), though it doesn’t seem so big nowadays, they entertained nobility from Scotland, England, Ireland and France. On the smaller island, a few yards away across the water, privy councillors would sit at a stone table to discuss the business of collecting rents and maintaining a vast territory.
At Port Askaig, as well as arriving from the mainland or leaving Islay on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, you can take a smaller ferry across the narrow strait to the Island of Jura. It only takes ten minutes but Jura’s wildness is another world away as George Orwell discovered when writing his famous novel 1984.
For me, that will have to be another trip, another time.
I left Islay agreeing with the sentiments expressed in the last verse of the song written by Iain Simpson.
And soon I shall return again, to Islay’s gentle shore
And see the tide waves wide, the bright lights of Bowmore
Or wander through Bruichladdich, as night begins to fall
And see the moonlit beam on lovely Lochindall.
First published in The People’s Friend