Range Rover Velar
Memorable pilgrimage to Islay
❝ The Velar delivers the imperious waftage requisite of the Range Rover badge ❞
“My wife’s grandmother was mad keen on fishing,” says Anthony Wills. And thus, the butterfly effect did its work, and now more than seven million vehicles have worn the ‘Land Rover’ badge. It’s true: thanks to an angling granny, the mud-plugging moniker was first coined on the remote Scottish island of Islay, which became an unofficial Land Rover testing ground for nearly a quarter of a century. The whole story – both versions of it – is told on page 51.
And so it is that photographer Luc Lacey and I are bound for Islay in a brand-new Range Rover Velar. With us, a 1967 photo of a white-haired, flat-capped Spencer Wilks – then president of Rover – fording Islay’s River Laggan in chassis ‘100/1’, first of the 100in-wheelbase station wagons that would become the Range Rover. The top-secret 100/1 was badged ‘Velar’, from the Latin velare – to veil or conceal.
But despite Range Rover’s presentday synonymy with opulence, the original was relatively spartan. And the modern Velar’s monocoque has more in common with Jaguar’s XF and F-pace than its Range Rover stablemates. So, with its lavishness and saloon-derived underpinnings, can the Velar not only take us to Islay in cosseted comfort, but also tackle the rough stuff once we’re there?
Such was the original Range Rover’s significance in industrial design, it was exhibited at the Louvre upon its launch in 1970. We’re toeing that line by starting our journey at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, the Velar’s sharp features and imposing silhouette nestled between the gallery’s neo-classical Modern One building and Landform, a substantial, rippled earthwork sculpture of grass and water by Charles Jencks. I’m torn between deep ponderings about the validity of mass-produced cars as art and a strong urge to blat up/over/through Landform in a spontaneous test of the Velar’s climbing and wading abilities. We depart before it takes hold.
Our Velar is an HSE P300, meaning top specification and top performance thanks to a turbocharged 2.0-litre Ingenium petrol four-pot delivering 296bhp and 295lb ft. It saunters agreeably out of town, the eight-speed ZF auto keeping shifts gentle and revs low. Then it’s an easy mooch west along the M8, where the Velar delivers the imperious waftage requisite of the Range Rover badge. The engine is silent at 70mph and power sufficient; additional cylinders would be frivolous here. The cabin feels luxurious, too, but that’s as much down to its avant-garde design as the materials used, which are neatly applied but not quite as plush as you’ll find further up the range.
We turn north, loping alongside lochs Lomond and Long, then the landscape becomes wilder in craggy Glen Croe where we summit Rest and Be Thankful then push for the north bank of Loch Fyne. The smooth and winding lochside road is stippled with ambling holidaymakers, but the Velar soaks up the task with ease and frustration is allayed by stop-offs in the isolated Georgian idyll of Inveraray and the cosy harbour at Tarbert.
From there, it’s a short hop to Kennacraig to board the substantial MV Finlaggan, part of Caledonian Macbrayne’s red-funnelled fleet that so often heralds island adventures. It’s blowing a hoolie at sea, but we venture on deck to marvel at the imposing, mountainous and barely inhabited Isle of Jura before landing at Port Askaig, a tiny collection of whitewashed buildings crammed into a lush ravine on Islay’s east coast.
Inspired by the enchanting setting, we indulge in an exploratory evening recce. On the single-track road through the moors of Dunlossit Estate, the Velar feels wide (it’s a third wider than the first Land Rovers) and seems to consume the road, only sharper humpbacks testing its composure. In a series Land Rover, four senses would be bristling, but the Velar’s cabin feels more like an insulated viewing gallery from which to observe the scenery.
We visit Port Ellen, with its little white crescent beach, and breathe in petroleous peat smoke from the village’s enormous maltings – our first encounter with Islay’s worldfamous whisky industry. The road
to our overnight stop at Bowmore then arrows past stacks of freshly cut peat among the bog cotton and reeds on one of those glowing, still evenings that let you forgive Scotland its wilder moments.
Spencer Wilks’s Laggan Estate was sold in 1998, but his granddaughter, Kathy – whose father, Thomas, may or may not have invented the Land Rover name – still occupies the farmhouse with her husband, the aforementioned Anthony Wills. The Wills family is one of the Wilks branches not to have continued with Rover but instead embraced the industry of its terroir, Anthony having founded Kilchoman Distillery on Islay’s west coast in 2005. Unique on the island, Kilchoman is a ‘farm distillery’ that sources a quarter of the barley it needs from its own 2000-acre farm that’s also home to 450 Scottish Blackface sheep and, soon, Aberdeen Angus cattle. Where better to test our Velar’s off-road mettle?
We meet Wills on a balmy morning, the heady aroma of distillation billowing around Kilchoman’s industrious cluster of buildings old and new. Before we let loose on the farm, he takes us on a tour to show how the distillery produces the equivalent of 600,000 bottles of single malt annually.
“Islay is very fertile, so you can grow barley, you can burn peat to dry it and there’s lots of water. The peat on Islay has a salty, iodiney character versus mainland peat, helping give Islay whisky its distinctive style,” Wills explains. From malting floor to peat kiln, mashing, fermenting and distilling through two copper stills, we follow the process from grain to clear alcoholic spirit, which is decanted into imported bourbon or sherry casks for maturation. After a minimum of three years, you have Scotch whisky.
We must wait for a taste, though, as fantastically named general manager Islay Heads is ready to take us around the farm. He’ll be leading in Kilchoman’s own Defender 110 workhorse, and we’ll attempt to follow. Along the dusty lanes, the 110 shuffles on its live axles, revealing surface imperfections we’re oblivious to in the Velar. Then it’s into a field and we engage the Terrain Response system’s ‘grass/gravel/snow’ mode, which retards the throttle and remaps the gearbox to ward off wheelspin. Though our Velar features 37mm less clearance than the Defender, we traverse a nasty ditch without trouble, then our miniature convoy tackles some side slopes, and Hill Descent Control (HDC) edges us steadily down a steep gradient, my feet free of the pedals.
The Velar’s central multi-plate wet clutch sends most torque rearward in typical road driving; it’s been silently doing its work and we’ve felt no wheelspin at all. In fact, it’s the Defender, which is wearing road-biased rubber, that blinks first, momentarily breaking traction as it slithers up a steep, grassy hill. The Velar gallops neatly up with some throttle.
Top-spec Velar HSE P300 conceals its utilitarian roots well
A temporary exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
There’s no driver setting to smooth over this journey
Sorry, but this loch’s not for fording