|Portnahaven, aptly named|
|Llamas near Port Charlotte!|
Yes, the source of my favourite dram lay in the hills above me and nothing was going to stop me reaching it, nothing, nothing at all, not even the bull that was over there behind the fence that wasn’t! However, like most pilgrimages, endeavour and courage were needed to complete the task and the whisky Gods were to place further obstacles in my way, like Zeus testing Jason. Iain Banks, when not recommending suspect food combinations, did insightfully write that “any quest is at least partly its own point” so onward we go.
Keeping eye contact with 2000lbs of prime Angus beef I headed towards the first landmark on the trail, Airigh nam Beist. This ruined shieling stands proud on a small rocky outcrop, three pillars of stone like crooked teeth in an ogre’s lower jaw. Once a small settlement, the name translates as ‘shelter of the beast’, or less scarily ‘resting place of cattle’. Ardbeg once produced a whisky named after this place, complete with a tale about an unidentified, howling beast that their men pulled out of a peat bog on one of those dark and stormy nights that are ubiquitous in myths and legends. Robin Laing recounts this episode in his book Whisky Legends of Islay if you like a spooky story.
|Airigh nam Beist ruin|
|Bellowing beast near Airigh nam Beist!|
East of the loch rises the conical hill of Cnoc Rhaonastil, one of the magical fairy hills of Celtic mythology. Across Scotland hills of this shape are also known as paps as we shall see when we reach Jura. Considered as symbols of fertility and mother nature they are also often associated with fairies, and not always the benevolent kind. Celtic fairies were often mischievous and vindictive creatures and rather than leave two shillings for the tooth under your child’s pillow would just take the child instead and leave an imposter in its place. At certain times of year the boundaries between this world and the fairy world were thought to open at places like fairy hills and humans could be led into these places and trapped forever. Zoiks!
|Loch Iarnan and fairy hill|
Continuing past AnB the trail becomes less obvious but you cross the Ardbeg Burn and take a small wooden bridge to avoid the mud on its banks. The bridge, however, leads into a small overgrown copse after which you emerge back onto the path from no obvious opening. Being the good Boy Scout I once was I tied a knot in tall grass and made an arrow from sticks and hoped that the fairies weren’t mischievous enough to tamper with it to confuse me on my return this way later.
From here the route rises slightly towards another ruined cottage called Solam. The tragic end to a nearby crofting community is told on a sign here. The settlement was visited by plague and they were then isolated. People from other communities nearby left food at a safe distance and when the food stopped being taken they knew it was time to burn the houses.
From this vantage point the slope below Loch Uigeadail rises ahead to the right and looking across this serene valley you can understand why someone would build a cottage here. However, a few hundred metres further on, the path that my OS map clearly told me should be in front of me was … well, wasn’t. The clearly marked trail all the way to the edge of the loch may have been discernable from a helicopter but all I could see in front of me was grass and bracken.
|View from Solam towards Uigeadail|
|Long grass flattened by deer for a bed|
|Dark and mysterious place|
“Slàinte Uigeadail, may your waters always run deep.
Slàinte Ardbeg, lang may yer lum reek.”
Ardbeg Uigeadail is a thumpingly good whisky with an astonishing depth of flavour, perfect for recharging after a hard climb. I was still enjoying the chewy finish long after I had left the side of the loch.
|Peat bank and Loch Uigeadail|
Eric also told me that in his homeland Canada, water that is coloured from having gone through peat is called ‘black water’. The water in Uigeadail was certainly dark, if not quite black and the picture here shows a lovely russet red colour against the rocks below; much the same colour as my walking shoes now are. Having drunk the contents of my water bottle on the way up I refilled from the loch but wasn’t sure about drinking it. The staff at the distillery later told me it may not be good to drink directly from the loch so I have kept the bottle and built a shrine around it on my whisky shelf.
The next day I would visit Ardbeg Distillery itself and sample the water of Uigeadail in a more enticing form. The tour there and a comparison with Barnard’s findings will be up next. However, tomorrow I am attending Glasgow’s Whisky Festival to partake of a few more drams, including some that are very new and eagerly anticipated, so, as it was for Whisky Fringe, my next post may drift into early next week. If I don’t see you tomorrow then I hope we will meet back here then.