|Paps of Jura and Sound of Islay, from Caol Ila Distillery|
On their approach the driver of the dog-cart pointed out what Barnard described as “like a stump of a tree on a rock” but which turned out to be the distillery chimney. The scenery here again captivated Barnard and he records
“for miles nothing met the eye but rolling hill slopes bare of bush or shrub, indented at a lower level with the loveliest little farmsteads, each surrounded with a few trees, all looking inexpressively homely and fertile, and then bursts upon our view an infinite expanse of sea, with Colonsay and other islands in the far distance”.I’m not sure about Colonsay but the south coast of Mull is certainly visible across the sea from here, the relative closeness and ease of communication between these great isles being an important factor for those noble seafarers mentioned in my last post.
|South coast of Mull across the Firth of Lorn|
An extra bend has been installed in the road since then to ease out a descent that ends right by the water’s edge, where “Caol Ila Distillery stands in the wildest and most picturesque locality we have seen” and I have to say I agree with the old fellow there. The views up the Sound and across to the Paps, which change character almost hourly as the light and clouds shift around them, are among the most splendid I can recall in Scotland, certainly as a setting for a distillery.
|Caol Ila from shore|
|Pier at Caol Ila, once used for supplies|
The entire distilling operation was demolished in 1972 and then rebuilt as a larger operation, reopening in 1974. Only the warehouses survived from before this time and so the layout and equipment is very different to that recorded in the etching in Barnard. The barley and malting barns that are on the far right of the etching is now the location for the still house, and the two substantial kilns in the middle are where the car park, offices and visitor centre now sit. Different stages of development can be seen in these pictures.
|Date unknown, picture from Caol Ila Visitor Centre|
|Caol Ila Still house|
I understand that the distillery will close again this year from June to December as the operation is once again expanded. Production will also go from 5 to 7 days a week and capacity will be increased to over 5 million litres p.a., one of the largest productions of any Scottish distillery. With the new Roseisle distillery which opened last year in Speyside producing 10 million litres p.a., Diageo are clearly optimistic about future demand for their products.
|Waterfall behind distillery|
Barnard records that the water is “said to be the finest in Islay”, as if all distilleries wouldn’t make the same claim, and it “comes in the form of a crystal stream from a lovely lake (sic) called Torrabus, nestling among the mountains, over which ever and anon the fragrant breeze from the myrtle and blooming heather is wafted.” Easy now, Alfred, easy. These “mountains” are the same “rolling hill slopes” of his introduction but the same stream does still supply the distillery, tumbling gracefully over a lovely waterfall into a hidden fairy pool that nestles beside the fragrant clover behind the distillery! Forgive me, its contagious. Anyway, the water is less peaty and more rock filtered than the streams that supply the south coast distilleries, so contributing to a gentler spirit here.
I was curious about his mention of Lake (hmmm!) Torrabus as it isn’t marked on any maps. Loch nam Ban is the water source recorded here and is marked on old and new maps as the source of the stream that supplies the distillery. I asked Linsay about this after the tour and she promptly phoned the man who would know about these things, her father. He mentions an area called Torrabus off the road to Bunnahabhain and a duck pond above the village, so I say my farewells and head off in search of this mystical place.
Translating Torrabus from Gaelic to English doesn’t leave much to the imagination. I think ‘torr’ means mound or hill and an ‘abus’, a very common suffix to place names on Islay, is a farm, so literally just ‘hillfarm’; not very precise given the number of farms in the hills around here. However, Loch nam Ban means Loch of Women, which provides much more for the imagination and I wonder if there is a lost story to tell about this place? If any reader knows about the origins of the name then I would welcome the story added below.
|Loch nam Ban in the hills above Caol Ila|
I hadn’t given up on the Loch Torrabus name though, and intrepid as ever in the cause of providing you with a story I once more knocked on the door of a nearby dwelling. I explained my predicament to the gentleman who answered but he hadn’t heard of the other loch name either, although there were some marshy patches on the slopes below us towards the distillery. This meeting was not entirely in vain though as I was told a wonderful story with which to round up this post.
|View south from Loch nam Ban|
I enjoyed my visit to Caol Ila and my thanks go to Linsay (and her father) for helping with all my questions. It seems fitting to end with Barnard’s own last words on his visit to the distillery, a sentiment I fully endorse - “We now bid farewell to this charming spot hoping that some future day will bring us an opportunity of a revisit to Caol Ila”.