"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Islay Arrival

After two weeks in Campbeltown Barnard’s party resumed their travels and headed north to catch the ferry to Islay.  Their journey was scenic and peaceful and passed without incident, the weather for the ferry crossing “all that could be desired” and the crossing took “some hours”.  Barnard seemed happy to be on the move again and his descriptions of Islay that followed are those of a man released from shackles into fresh air.  I feel something akin to that – the Campbeltown story, fascinating though it is, has taken far longer to research and write than I had ever imagined and I feel a freedom now to write more about distilleries that still exist today, and endless inspiration received from a happy stay on this enchanted island.


On their arrival after a long day of travelling Barnard's party took up quarters at the White Hart Inn in Port Ellen.  I had also intended staying in the White Hart for my first night but providence provided more suitable accommodation for my stay on Islay, more on which later.  I did venture in later that week, looking for lunch and something to inspire a comparison with the “accommodation excellent and the attendants obliging” that Barnard had found, but the bar was deserted and didn’t serve food and so I have nothing to report.

My journey from Edinburgh again took me over the ‘Rest and be Thankful’ and along my new favourite driving road, the A83, to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig.  A text from CalMac earlier that day had informed me that the 6pm ferry I was booked on was delayed by an hour and a half.  I later found out that one of the ferries had clipped the pier at Port Askaig on Islay the day before, causing damage to both, and temporarily reducing the Islay service to one ferry.

Twilight wildlife while waiting at Kennacraig
However, slightly delayed we got underway down West Loch Tarbert and I began to settle into Island mode, and over a much needed dinner I began to ponder the adventure before me.  I must mention my dinner – the author Iain Banks has travelled on these ferries many times and his regular dinner of choice, oft reported in his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, is the CalMac chicken curry…with chips.  So, against my better judgement (and the tasty looking haddock), but in deference to the choice of one of my favourite authors, I did likewise.  I will, in future, stick to reading his fiction and avoid any restaurant reviews he may unwisely choose to publish!

As we headed into open water beyond the entrance to the Loch I ventured outside for some sea air to help settle my mismatched stomach contents.  I am glad that I did for I was able to observe the clearest sky for a long time and on a night when the moon was new.  As we crossed the sea the dark expanse of the heavens provided a matt background against which the stars stretched from horizon to horizon, with the broad band of the Milky Way arching through the zenith high above.  I spent a long time on that wind swept deck, picking out constellations and watching for shooting stars in wonder.  I was reminded of some lyrics from an atmospheric 1980 song The Romance of the Telescope by OMD:

“We’re just waiting, looking skyward, as the days come down.
Someone promised there’d be answers, if we stayed around.”

The stars sparkled above me and the lights of the three distilleries on Islay’s southern shore glimmered, like Sirens beckoning us onward.  That shore is littered with rocky outcrops that have sunk many a vessel over time.  The wind was up and the crossing choppy but we arrived safely at Port Ellen with the Pole Star shining above to show me the way to my bed.  As we turned into the final channel towards the harbour the familiar shape of The Plough constellation was straight ahead.  The headland south of the harbour is called The Ard due to its shape and these two together, hinting at Islay’s agricultural heritage, were comforting omens for the journey ahead; straight and true is the ploughman’s motto.

As I left Port Ellen and drove north towards Bowmore, the Pole Star and Plough ahead of me all the way, I took the ‘low road’ past the airport.  As I did so I could see the headlights of cars on the ‘high road’ parallel above me to the east, as those who knew the way took the quicker route home.  I would venture that way later in the week but right then I didn’t fancy an unknown single track road over the hills in the dark with a queue of delayed islanders on my tail.

The ferry delay meant I had to press on hard to reach the Youth Hostel at Port Charlotte before they locked their doors at 11.30pm.  Further on from Bowmore the road to PC is an adventure to drive in the dark and once or twice I had to caution myself on my speed to ensure my visit to Islay didn’t meet either a sheepish end, or the end of a sheep.  I mean this was dark!  You know the kind of dark I’m talking about here – the kind of dark that lurks at the bottom of an empty hipflask, waiting for the sunlight trapped in a welcoming whisky to light up the gloom; the kind of gloom that only an empty hipflask can invoke in your soul.

Port Charlotte Youth Hostel
I arrived with ten minutes to spare and found that the wonderful staff at the hostel had already made up my bed and so I enjoyed a long comfortable rest to prepare for the week’s adventures.  The hostel managers, Lorna and Karl were helpful beyond duty and very welcoming and I can recommend a stay here.  The Scottish Tourist Board have given them a four star rating, their customers have given them five so don’t just take my word for it.

Sunday arrived a little later than planned but I was soon on the road again.  As it was for my visit to Campbeltown, the weather for all but my last day on Islay was glorious.  Blue skies crowned the scenery wherever I went and added to the colour of late autumn on a Scottish Isle, bringing warmth to the Atlantic breeze and light to awaken the spirit.  The sunshine I enjoyed in these two locations should help keep the rickets at bay for another year!

I had reserved this first day for exploring the island and for one particular pilgrimage that I had long considered important to my ‘spiritual’ development.  My next post will draw you into the dark and mysterious elements of that pilgrimage before we embark on the distillery visits.  Join me for an adventure never to be repeated.