Ferries from Oban to Mull, Islay and further afield are best booked ahead in the summer months with Caledonian MacBrayne; calmac.co.uk. More: visitbritain.com/au. beg is Lagavulin — the most palatable drop is its mellow 16-year-old single malt — and beyond that Laphroaig, producer of “the most richly flavoured Scotch whisky”.
At the end of my distillery tour I’m forced to admit that the Islay style of whisky, with a few exceptions, is an acquired taste I’m not overly keen to acquire. And yet a visit to these handsome distilleries, most of them founded in the early 19th century and strung out like the beads of a necklace along the tranquil Islay seashore, is as much about the island’s culture as its unique contribution to the world of high-end inebriation. If you follow Dr Johnson’s line of thinking, it’s about the scent of the past caught in the present and the contemplation of time.
That night I head to The Islay Hotel at Port Ellen, and after another dish of mussels (these from the Shetland Islands further north) and local fish, I settle down in the bar over a glass of lightweight whisky from Jura. A threepiece local band runs through a set of Scottish folk tunes before calling for contributions from the audience. Two Irish visitors step up, one at a time, and around their folksy songs the band improvises tunes from a common Celtic culture. “Here on Islay we’re closer to Ireland than Scotland,” my host at the seaside shack I’m renting explains next day. In this splendid remoteness there is a kind of melancholy. And an even greater joy.