"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

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Bridgend Hotel, Islay

Barnard’s second day on Islay began with visits to Laphroaig and Port Ellen and ended with a long journey to his new accommodation at
“Beul-an-ath” (Bridgend).  He narrates some of this peculiar journey and in doing so he introduces us to the laid back way of island life which those of “city pent” often take time to adjust to.

The journey by horse drawn coach took four hours and there was little to hold the gaze - “but two or three habitations, and scarcely any trees…we have never travelled by such a dismal and lonely road”.  So, once again, Barnard’s flask helped keep the party merry, yet plying their coachman Sandy with nips failed to persuade him to trot his horses save where they were used to it - “some of us walked many a mile and yet were able to keep ahead of him”!

There was only one road connecting Port Ellen to Bridgend when Barnard visited.  The high road over the moors was the only option, the low road that was built later ‘floats’ on the surface of the peat that lies on the plain between the inland hills and Laggan Bay.  The mid 19th century maps show the high road along its current route and the top and tail of what would become the low road are also recorded, just not connected in the middle for a 5 mile stretch past where the airport now sits, from the River Laggan to Kintra River.  The link was completed in the 1890s and the airfield built in 1940.

Islay hills from the High Road
My own journey took place the evening before, following my visits to Ardbeg and Lagavulin.  I travelled the high road for the first time and including stops for photographs the 11 mile drive took around 30 minutes.  No nips of whisky for me and the road is lonely, interrupted only by the passing of a couple of cars and one of the large grain lorries that lumber around the island and keep you alert on the single track roads.

The trials of the long coach ride eventually gave way to a setting that captivated the sentimental side of Barnard.  I have included his description here in full:

“Within a very short distance of our journey's end a most agreeable and surprising change came over the scene, and we found ourselves driving beneath trees whose thick branches met overhead, and passing through the well-cultivated policies and rural retreats, which form the aristocratic village of Bridgend.  Presently the coach pulled up in front of a picturesque hotel rejoicing in the name of "Beul-an-ath", the best and only one of any importance in Islay, possessing gardens and grounds of most enchanting loveliness.  The hotel was pretty full, but we were able to secure a comfortable bed, and made this place our headquarters for many days.”

This passage was written at the beginning of his report on Bowmore Distillery which he visited the following day.  I have included this separate report about my stay at the hotel as my time here was another of those magical episodes that make this journey so pleasurable and provide inspiration for the story.

Bridgend Hotel
When planning my trip to Islay, finding the above description quoted on the website for the Bridgend Hotel offered hope that I would find an experience here to compare with Barnard’s comfort and enchantment.  I was not to be disappointed.  My phone call was answered by the Manager, Lorna, who set to ensuring that my stay would be memorable and would connect me to Barnard’s visit 125 years earlier.

Barnard had earlier noted that “the Islay people are very hospitable” and the staff at Bridgend live up to this historical reputation.  Always a smile, nothing too much trouble and made me feel welcome from the moment I arrived until long after I had left.  Lorna actually began my welcome days before I arrived as our phone conversation included enticing talk of a new cheesecake to be tasted.  I was in good spirits when I arrived, a feeling that didn’t leave until I was on the ferry home.

Katie’s Bar in the hotel is a focal point for the local community and it was here that Lorna introduced me to David Boyd, the Estate Factor.  Over a couple of drams he happily regaled me with tales of whisky and Islay, the two often inseparable round these parts.  Mr Boyd used to be a shipwright and this skill once also lent itself to replacing whisky stills; his description of the process both informative and entertaining.  Many other people I met in the evenings were interested in my journey and sent me on my way with best wishes.

River Sorn at Bridgend
Located at the ‘Heart of Islay’, Bridgend is the point where the three main roads converge - from Port Askaig to the northeast, Port Charlotte and Portnahaven to the west and Port Ellen to the south.  The waters of Loch Finlaggan and Loch Ballygrant merge into the River Sorn which runs under the bridge and into the head of Loch Indaal nearby.  When Barnard saw the river he noted “several of our companions at the hotel were busy fishing, and who supplied our table with some fine trout, the result of their day’s sport”.

I too enjoyed some lovely food during my stay.  Breakfasts were large and well suited to a day on the road and the sampling of whisky.  The highlight of my evening repasts was the local venison which was flavoursome and cooked to perfection, accompanied by a lovely, tangy chilli jam with an underlying sweetness that reminded me of the Rowan jelly my Grandmother used to make.  And yes, the cheesecake was worth the journey.  All washed down with refreshing Saligo Ale from the nearby Islay Ales brewery.  Perfect!

Bridgend combines a number of motifs from Celtic mythology.  Bridges, running water, a meeting of roads and paths into forests are all considered enchanted places, liminal places, where the boundary between worlds is at its thinnest and time can seem to slow down.  They can be spiritual places, no matter which spirit guides you on your journey. The hotel sits beside this crossing of ways and waters, offering rest and refreshment for those captivated by the charm.

Hotel and gardens
Behind the hotel, and almost hidden from the main road, are delightful gardens full of shrubs, flowers and herbs and vegetables that contribute to the fresh cooking available within.  I happily strolled in this peaceful setting, gathering my thoughts and musing about whisky as the leaves changed colour under a late autumn sun.  Barnard enjoyed this space as well, this from his report on Caol Ila:

“Our long day commenced with a stroll through the beautiful grounds of the Hotel and a climb up the steep hill in its rear.  The haymakers were just commencing their work, and the air was laden with all the perfumes of early summer.  It was a delicious morning, and as the light mists rolled away we could look out over the beautiful sea, from which the eye wandered to the gently undulating foreground, where patches of glittering green and clumps of crimson rhododendrons guide the eye along the beautiful policies of Islay House.  We felt that we could not leave the spot…”

Ah, the old romantic.  This and other descriptions of the island show how much he enjoyed his time here, sentiments I can appreciate.  Experiencing the same joyful scenery and resting under the same roof, I too wished that I had not to leave, but for the pull of the many distilleries still ahead on my journey.  For those few precious days the Bridgend Hotel was a welcome base for my adventures.  My heartfelt thanks go to Lorna and all the wonderful staff at the hotel for making my stay there so memorable.

A peaceful setting for whisky musing
Bridgend seems timeless and I hope to visit again after my labours end, once more to cross the threshold into a place where spiritual and temporal elements combine to relax and inspire a traveller of these isles.  Speed forth bleak winter and release us now from this solstice spell, to lighter days ahead that hasten a return to enchantment.  Bless.