British Travel Journal
LORD OF THE ISLES
Islay was once home to Scotland's fearsome Lord of the Isles. Today it is one of the premiere whisky-producing areas in the world.
Join us on a whisky tasting tour around Scotland's isle of Islay, one of the premiere whisky-producing areas in the world.
IN THE FAR west of Scotland, only 25 miles from the coast of
Northern Ireland, lies a whisky-producing island known as Islay. At 239 square miles it is slightly smaller than Singapore
(260 sqm), yet this mossy, windswept rock is home to seven of Scotland's greatest distilleries: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig,
as well as two of the newest, Kilchoman and Ardnahoe. Long-term and passionate lovers of whisky, my wife and I arrived one autumn evening in Islay's Port Askaig after a rainy, two-hour crossing from the mainland. As our ferry squeezed slowly up the narrow channel that separates Islay from its sister island, Jura, it was already growing dark and the tiny port was lit up. Caledonian MacBrayne, the ferry company that keeps Scotland's islands supplied in all weathers, is very efficient at loading and offloading.
We were swiftly marshalled off, and followed every other car up the steep harbour road. Dark, flat moorland dotted with white cottages led us south to Bowmore, Islay's capital.
Close to Bowmore stands Islay House, which was built by Sir Hugh Campbell of Cawdor in the eighteenth century.
Sir Hugh's great grandfather, Sir
John Campbell had been granted the whole of Islay by the Scottish Crown. His mission for King James VI was to tame the troublesome local lords who ruled the islands in almost complete independence. He succeeded.
Various owners added to Islay House over the centuries until it became the island's grandest home, resembling a white Balmoral. In the twentieth century its owner, Lord Margadale hosted not only the Queen but several Conservative prime ministers at his home. Since 2014 it has been a hotel, with one of the top floor bedrooms where the Iron Lady often stayed named “Thatcher”.
We were delighted to abandon our mud-bespattered car outside the front door and step into an entrance hall with a blazing log fire. There was a whisky decanter and two glasses waiting in our bedroom. Dinner was in the Jib Door, a gracious, antlered
The next morning Islay was bathed in sunshine as we relaxed on the old leather sofas in the drawing room and planned our attack on the
dining room added to the house by the prolific architect – and aristocratic favourite - Detmar Blow at the beginning of the twentieth century. (The restaurant gets its name from the fact that you access it through a hidden doorway in the panelling of the old house.)
The next morning Islay was bathed in sunshine as we relaxed on the old leather sofas in the drawing room and planned our attack on the island's distilleries. Eventually we decided to drive west round the bay of Loch Indaal to one of the newest distilleries, Kilchoman. It stands very close to Kilchoman Cross, a fine piece of fourteenth-century Celtic carving in the graveyard of the ruined Kilchoman church. Anthony Wills, who started this distillery in 2005 chose the site because it was the best farmland on Islay and he wanted to grow as much of the barley he needed on site. There are signs in the fields nearby telling you how much grain and therefore how much whisky each produces (most Islay distilleries buy in their barley from the mainland).
Kilchoman has a lovely modern visitor centre with an elegant glass and metal log-burning stove in the middle. This was welcome because already the weather had shifted and rain was blowing up the loch from the Atlantic.
That afternoon we spent some time in Bowmore, an eighteenth century new town of low, white-washed buildings - built by the Campbells on the other side of Loch Indaal. This is Islay's capital and also where the famous Bowmore distillery is located. We visited the unusual Round Church and Celtic Stores which sells fairisle sweaters, seawashed paintings, unusual souvenirs like the Islay version of Monopoly, and many books about the island. From photo essays to poetry collections to highly-detailed history books, it's clear that Islay has inspired a lot of writers.
Dinner that evening was at the Bowmore Hotel, an old stone inn whose most recent extension was built in 1912. In the tartan-carpeted dining room, the chairs were made of local ash and elm. The array of fresh seafood on the menu was impressive and owner Big Peter MacLellan is renowned as an expert on Scotch whisky.
The next day we headed down the most famous road in the history of distilling. Port Ellen stands on one of the southernmost tips of Islay. From it the A483 road runs east and along it, within a two mile stretch it passes three of Scotland's best-known distilleries: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. We were going to be down this end of the island for a while on our whisky pilgrimage so I had booked into No1 Charlotte Street, a stately Victorian hotel with lofty public rooms, which have been given a funky colourful make-over by its manager, Caroline Park.
After checking in to our very purple bedroom we drove along the coast. It was a misty day and when we got to Laphroaig great damo clouds of black smoke were hanging over the pagoda-like chimney above its kiln. The smell of the peat smoke was unmistakably the flavour of one of my favourite whiskies. We had an appointment with John Campbell, the manager, for a tour, during which he showed us the furnace where peat is burned to flavour the barley grains before they are mashed and distilled.
John removed the bung from an enormous wooden cask in a warehouse so we could taste some of the whisky. It stays here on site for up to 15 years before being shipped to the mainland for bottling.
Behind the distillery, Laphroaig owns all the land running up to the hills where its spring rises. Water is as important to the taste of whisky as barley (or indeed peat smoke). In 1908 the owner of what was about to become Lagavulin Distillery next door, “Restless” Peter Mackie tried to dam Laphroaig's stream. So now Laphroaig owns the whole length of the watercourse. Just to be on the safe side…
Relations with Lagavulin are much more cordial these days. We weren't in time to get a tour of their distillery, but we did get to taste four excellent whiskies in the company of Isla Gale, one of the company's whisky guides. Isla chatted amiably with us for over an hour, and we learned not just about whisky but a lot about life on this island, including some indiscreet details (which you won't read here).
We produce the best whisky in the world here but
out!” everything has to be delivered by boat - I've run
Ardbeg, the last in these three whisky gods was closed that day so we drove on past it to a lovely little sandy bay, Loch a'Chnuic where people were swimming.
Even though the sun had come out briefly they were all in wet suits against the chill weather. Soon afterwards on a headland we came upon Kidalton (another of Islay's ruined churches) and its eighthcentury Celtic cross. Almost on cue the mist began to descend, which lent the ruins and its graveyard a suitably brooding quality. Inside the roofless church there were tombstones representing armoured knights from the days when Islay was ruled by the Lord of the Isles.
That evening we ate at the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen. It was another great meal of seafood in a packed dining room with Isias, a jovial Spanish wine waiter who told us he was waiting for supplies of bottled Laphroaig to be shipped back from the mainland: “We produce the best whisky in the world here but everything has to be delivered by boat - and I've run out!”
Our ferry back to the mainland was booked from Port Ellen the next morning. The MV Finlaggan is named after the ancient capital of the Lord of the Isles. It seemed an apt way to leave this enchanting place. This time we'd only managed three of the eight distilleries, but that's a very good excuse to return next year.