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