"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

Friday, 12 November 2010

An Islay Pilgrimage

Sunday morning began with a drive from Port Charlotte down the Rinns of Islay to the small village of Portnahaven at its most southerly tip.  This wonderful drive along a single track road that definitely falls into the Great Wee Road category ended with a stunning view on the edge of the Atlantic.  The village sweeps around the harbour, whitewashed fisherman’s cottages reflecting the hazy morning sunlight, and silence, blissful silence.  Even the gulls were resting, their cawing stayed until the next small boat brought hope to their hunger.

Portnahaven, aptly named
Retracing the route back to Port Charlotte and then on towards Bowmore I considered how different the road was in daylight and recalled a few hairy corners from the night before.  I soon switched into Islay mode though and my driving from here on was less hurried and gave me time to enjoy the varied scenery.  Within a day I was even participating in the hospitable Islay tradition of raising a friendly hand to every passing car, whether you knew the occupants or not.

Llamas near Port Charlotte!
I stopped briefly at any distillery I passed on this day as I wasn’t sure then how long the sun would last and I wanted to take pictures in the best light possible.  Before long I arrived at the point where my pilgrimage would begin in earnest, at Ardbeg distillery.  After a few photos of the buildings around the courtyard I donned my walking shoes, opened my OS map and headed north towards the hills.  The object of my pilgrimage lay ahead – Loch Uigeadail!

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
My arrival was on a bright afternoon yet a beastly noise still emanated from the marshes beyond.  This bellowing was not from a beast of the underworld but from a stag.  It was rutting season and the stags were at it.  The sound echoed round the hills all afternoon yet I only caught fleeting glimpses of these beasts of the moor.  The stags boldly go head to head with each other to either protect or win the right to the does, yet faced with the possibility of a starring role on my blog they bolt for cover.  I did manage to shoot one, photographically of course, though I do like a bit of venison and that would have to wait until I dined at the Bridgend Hotel.

Bellowing beast near Airigh nam Beist!
You can’t see it from the ruin but continue northeast from here and you will find Loch Iarnan.  The Uigeadail waters flow into here and mingle for a while before they continue down the Ardbeg Burn to their predestined resting place in a cask by the shore.  This loch is actually known locally as Loch Airigh nam Beist, named as such by the distillery as one of its water sources and even Barnard refers to it by this popular name.

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
Robin Laing’s book also includes a mystical story about the fairies of this hill, this time with a happy ending.  Whisky Legends of Islay is a great read on a cold, stormy, winter’s eve, a dram of Islay whisky to hand, and if you happen to have a roaring fire beside you to light the pages and add to the atmosphere of the stories then all the better.

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
The best advice I can give if you are thinking of a similar pilgrimage is – don’t!  After Solam the going is tortuous.  The grass was from knee to waist high, you can’t see your footing which was full of holes, the ground underneath is peat bog and when it isn’t peat bog it’s some other kind of bog.  I was wearing good quality walking shoes which are now a permanent peat colour and I was very lucky not to wrench an ankle or knee.  Strong boots with ankle support are really essential for this terrain.

Long grass flattened by deer for a bed
However, for your sadistic entertainment I continued on and braved the bog, the grass, the next bog, ankle damage and potential Lyme disease from the occasional tick bite.  Did I mention the bog?  All that and the bull and the stags rutting made for quite a challenging afternoon and that’s all before the route headed uphill.  Barnard didn’t venture up here, fond though he was of finding the water source of the distilleries he visited.  It’s not too steep and not too far but with all the aforementioned labours of Hercules the walk was tiring and demanding.

Dark and mysterious place
Oh but my god was it worth it!  After crossing a small adjoining burn the slope flattens out, the grass grows shorter and the object of my pilgrimage shimmered in the late afternoon sun.  I had arrived at The Source and after catching my breath and taking in the view my hipflask was not long on being opened.  I’m sure you can guess the contents and I offered up the following toast:

“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.
Uigeadail dam
The reservoir dam that the Ardbeg staff had been working on in the summer of 2009 looks strong and handsome and will help ensure a regular supply of water for years to come.  It also provided a welcome seat as I surveyed the surroundings.  The walk had been challenging but the end result was worthwhile and the few happy and inspiring moments I spent there will never be forgotten.

Peat bank and Loch Uigeadail
I realised just yesterday that my walk up to Uigeadail had taken place on the 10 Oct 2010 and 101010 in binary converts to that meaningful number 42 in decimal.  Reflecting now on how I felt while sipping that dram at the side of the enchanted loch after the effort of the climb, I think that Douglas Adams just about got that one right.  I need to thank my Edinburgh friend Eric for the inspiration for this thought.

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.

Uigeadail water
I could have remained there for the rest of the day in contemplation and the inevitable trudge back though the grass and swamp did nothing to entice me to leave.  However, the sun was falling and the breeze was cooling so I said my farewells and turned for home.  The walk up from the distillery took two and a half hours to the top, the return was about one and a half hours.  My GPS (Grass Positioning System) route finders were still in place (thank you fairies) and I returned to my car just as the sun was setting on a memorable day.

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.