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Roger McCann

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Articles - Portnahaven


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Portnahaven - Isle of Islay

2020-06-15 07:23:57

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

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