Starting mileage: 21276 km
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 20:00
The first thing you see as you approach the Islay – and the last as you leave it – are the white-washed, slate-peaked, turreted walls of three whisky distilleries, the names of each painted in great black letters facing the sea; the names known to anyone who’s ever even passed through the whisky isle at a supermarket: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig. Even if you’ve never heard of Islay before, that sight tells you all you need to know about it: this is the whisky island. There are eight working distilleries here (plus one on a nearby Jura), each famous in its own right, and together renowned for their distinct, peaty flavours.
Early morning, after a two hour voyage, our ferry arrives to Port Ellen – a small harbour settlement, like all on the island; nothing here is on a large scale – except the whisky. A Co-op, a post office, a pub and an indian restaurant is all the town has to offer, but the tourists skip all that on their way to the first of the distilleries. The three mentioned above are the obvious first choice, and that’s where most people are headed straight from the pier. The distilleries all look similar from the outside: the grey sea is lapping at their snow-white walls, hiding the remains of quays which used to host ships coming in and out with supplies and barrels. The smell is the same, too, an overpowering, sickly sweet odour of malting barley, the fumes making you dizzy and slightly high the moment you enter the gate.
At Laphroaig we wait for the distillery to open then we take the first tour; every distillery these days runs tours (a handy leaflet gives you tour times for all Islay), but we choose this one as it’s the most traditional of Islay’s whisky factories. Here, they still malt the barley by hand, in their own warehouse – a carpet of seeds covering the floor, sprouting tiny shoots of just the right length – they roast it in place, with the smoke from the turf cut by hand on the distillery’s own peat fields. This distillery – unlike so many others – uses each the burbon or sherry casks only once. The resulting product is a stunning liquor – in both senses of the word, depending on your preferences.
It is here that we have to make a wee confession – we don’t really like whisky, even the single malts, all that much. But we love the tasting of it; the myriad of taste and aroma sensations that can be produced simply by mixing barley seed, water and yeast with addition of smoke from burned peat and colour and taste from various woods, is a source of constant amazement. Laphroaig is the prime example of that variety; not only are the different bottlings from the same distillery dramatically different – the 18-year old is nothing like the 10-year old – even the different sips of the same dram differ greatly; the first sip of the 10 is trickle-sweet, smoky and flavoursome; the third is a tongue-wrenching mixture of iodine and roasted seaweed. There is seaweed and brine at the bottom of every Islay whisky we tasted – it comes from the way the peat on the island was formed – but nowhere as pronounced as in the Laphroaig. The Tripe Wood tastes of cough syrup (M. thinks it’s brilliant), while the 18 is, again, all sweetness, honey and wild flowers – if you manage to down it in two sips. This malt is rightfully called the “Marmite of the whisky world”.
Scotch is a journey of discovery, and Islay is the best place to start it. The Bowmore is made of dried prunes and apricots; the Caol Ila is all about the smoke, lingering in the throat, like a big Cuban cigar in liquid form; each distillery has something different to offer and for £5 you get not only the tour, but a few drams of whisky to try and often a complimentary dram glass. Much more exciting than just buying a miniature bottle for £4!
Not that there isn’t anything else to do on Islay; in fact, there is plenty, once you allow your head to cool enough. Down the road from Ardbeg, past the half-wild gardens and birch wood of abandoned manor gardens, past the fragmented black stone coast, at the end of a single-carriageway road there is a small ruined church of Kildalton, and a towering circled cross, in the style of the nearby Iona: so beautifully preserved that it’s considered one of the best of its kind in Europe; in front of it stands the coolest little cafe in the world: a small wooden table, a coolbox with freshly made cakes, a thermos with hot coffee, and an honesty box – all in the middle of an empty, wind-swept Scottish field. Whoever came up with this idea deserves to be knighted.
Going back the only road to Port Ellen, we headed north – towards the airport and another trinity of distilleries around Bowmore. The road between Port Ellen and Bowmore is a perfectly straight eight miles of tarmac; it goes up and down, bouncing quite a lot, but never to the side. Islay is predominantly flat, so much so that the only significant peaks visible on the horizon belong to another island altogether: the triangular Paps of Jura (“Paps” meaning “boobs” in Gaelic; the Celts were straightforward with their names, down in Swansea similarly looking set of peaks, although much smaller, is called Mumbles, which means roughly the same thing). Bowmore seems a slightly bigger town, dominated by a peculiar round church at the top of the hill. There are more shops here, and the distillery sits right in the middle of he town, overlooking the bay. We’ve reached the end of the road at Port Askaig, looked at the neighbouring Jura, with its one short road and vast expanse of empty heathland, and decided to go back. We still had to visit a major historical site, a reason for Islay’s great prominence in the days long before whisky. A narrow side road leads deep into the marshes, a few miles from Port Askaig; as the car approaches a small loch, you can see a large ruin on the island in the middle of the swamp. It looks like a big abandoned croft cottage from a distance, but is, in fact, something far more important. This is Finlaggan – the seat of Clan MacDonald, the Lords of the Isles.
After the Vikings had ousted the Britons from Dumbarton, they ruled this part of Scotland for several centuries, with the Highland clans as their subordinates. At some point a great warrior and leader called Somerled overthrew them, using their own tactics of sea raids, coordinated from Islay, his home island; Somerled’s progeny were the MacDonalds; later, the MacDonalds married into Scotland’s Royal Family, and grew to even more prominence. Eventually, their rise to power exceeded what the kings of Scotland could tolerate, and they were “reduced” – defeated and nearly vanquished. But for a few hundred years, ruling from this tiny island in the marshes of the Northern Islay, the MacDonalds were equal to Kings.
There is very little left of their capital; barely a few walls remain standing of the church and the chapel, where you can still see the graves of the mighty MacDonalds; foundations of the Great Hall can be traced in the stones. An even smaller island floats in the middle of the lake, once joined by a causeway to the larger one – the Island of Councils, where the clan elders would meet for judgement and debate. Everything else, including a grand Celtic Cross, was overthrown and ruined, in order to ultimately humiliate the overreaching clansmen.
Still on the road back to Bowmore, we stopped to pay a brief visit to the Islay Woollen Mill; the mill is run by a group of passionate people, using machines that are over a hundred years old, and techniques which are even older. The resulting craft is exquisite (fans of those things may appreciate that tartans from this mill were used on the sets of Braveheart and Rob Roy), but unfortunately far too expensive for our rapidly shrinking budget. We passed Bowmore and almost returned to Port Ellen, before turning right towards Oa, yet another distinct part of the island; here, among the dunes and rocky pastures, was our campsite.
In terms of location, Kintra may well be the finest site we’ve been to yet. Nestled in low, grassy dunes, right by a stunning, wide, golden beach, washed by the roaring, white waves. Islay is a very photogenic island, but this beach was simply too beautiful, and almost too easy to photograph. In the far distance were the lighthouses guarding the inner bay of Islay; the waves raised a fine white mist; a small stream meandered down to the sea: its waters were the colour of fine, old whisky.
There are a few drawbacks: the facilities are a long way away, the peat-coloured water is only drinkable after cooking, and there are of course no hook-ups, but these are minor quibbles compared to the views from the dunes.