Islay is a beautiful, changeable beast and can be as evocative and typically Scottish as can be.
One can spend many hours watching the mist roll over the ruddy, dun hills and Damascus steel lochs, obscuring the sight of red stags roaming the heather-strewn highground – only to be woken the next day by strong sunlight, the dreeky vista of the previous morning replaced by the twinkling highlights of an azure, turquoise sea.
But, no matter what the weather, an island boasting eight fully-operational whisky distilleries and a multitude of lochs, beaches, marilyns and mountains spread across its varied topography, means Islay is a fecund land, perfect for those looking to personally immerse themselves in some rich history and even richer produce.
Islay and its neighbour, Jura, have a number of lively festivals throughout the year, with everything from marathons, jazz, literature and especially whisky, being celebrated. With tourists converging on the small island from the world over – Islay certainly knows how to throw a party.
The island’s distilleries feature some of the most famous names in whisky – Ardbeg, Bowmore, Port Ellen, Bunnahabhain, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. The majority of them offer tours, tastings, and even ‘fill your own bottle’ opportunities from casks in the gift shop, although, contrary to observations, giving a thumbs-up to the camera while holding your national flag is not a prerequisite.
Islay is well placed among the famous drink producing regions of the world – Champagne, Bordeaux, Madeira – and holds its own with an industrious history and unique produce.
Islay malts are famous for their sea salt-infused, peaty flavours, and vary in taste from the lightly smoked to the downright powerfully medicinal.
Individually, Islay whiskies are all quite distinctive, and the distilleries on the island are roughly divided by aficionados as either being of North Island or South Island providence.
The South Island distilleries produce bigger, smokier and saltier whiskies, while the North Island distilleries are softer on the palate, with lighter, fruitier notes presenting themselves.
A long way from home
After an eight-hour drive from the south we arrived at the ferry port, keen to stretch our legs and get comfortable for the two-hour crossing. Our ferry was to depart from Kennacraig on the western mainland, taking us over to Port Charlotte on Islay’s East coast.
We were lucky enough to experience the crossing during a calm, clear evening, and were gifted with some soul-nourishing scenery; after long hours shifting about in a car seat, the best way to spend the crossing was out on deck, sipping a dram from the well-stocked bar, and watching the hills bordering the Islay Sound magically slip by.
If so blessed, for a couple of hours, you will have a little slice of Hebridean heaven.
Upon debarking the ferry at Port Charlotte, we headed west-bound across the island, whipping along the quiet roads, mindful of the free-roaming livestock, their white backs illuminated by the bright moon.
Islay is host to a multitude of B&Bs, hotels, and plenty of holiday cottages and campsites – so there is something to suit all budgets and tastes. We were headed for Laggan Point, on the western tip of the island, where an old keepers’ cottage awaited us.
As we finally wound our way down the last mile of track to the cottage, we carefully avoided the deepest of the ruts, the largest of the boulders and gently nudged obstreperous sheep aside with the Landrover’s bumper.
Laggan Cottage sits three miles from Islay’s central hub of Bowmore and is situated close to a working farmyard. Upon arrival, my visions of a rugged Scotch bothy soon evaporated.
The brick-built cottage was spacious, had three bedrooms, a good living space, and an open fire with a ready supply of traditional peat bricks.
Other creature comforts comprised a washing machine, fridge-freezer, microwave, television, and even electric heating should the worst come to the worst.
From the front steps you could hit a cricket ball to the beach, and, as we were to find out over the following days, the cottage has an inspiring panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean.
But for now, still in the hours of darkness, and after over 10 hours in the saddle, a bottle of Jura 12-year old and a hearty peat fire were all the inspiration we needed.
The next morning we were booked in for a tour of the Laphroaig distillery and set off back up the uncivilised farm track to the main road. In the bright sunshine we could see the track was lined with thick gorse bushes, sporting the most radiant golden-yellow flowers.
These large thickly-scented swathes of dazzling colour were quite striking, so much so we nicknamed them ‘hallucinogenic gorse’, into which one must not stare too long…
The legendary Laphroaig
The Laphroaig distillery hosts one of the most famous whisky tours on the island, offering you several options of price and duration, with tours of varying depth lasting from one to two hours and costing around £6 up to £52 for their ‘luxury visit program’, whereby visitors can select several of their favourite casks to bottle and take home with them.
Once in the distillery it is quite lovely to see the barley being raked and turned by hand on the malting floor in the traditional manner. The barley is stimulated with a Spring-like environment – kept wet and warm so the grains start to germinate.
The barley starts to shoot as it would in the soil. As the root grows, internal enzymes alter the insoluble starches in the grain changing them to soluble sugars, so that the hot water, which is added in the mash house, can do its work.
The temperature of the grain is monitored with thermometers and regulated by simply opening the windows and lifting and turning the grain with a large, traditional shovel-like tool called a sheil.
On the next floor you can throw a few peat bricks into the kilns yourself and watch the dense smoke rising up to the sealed floors above, where the grains are infused with the smoke’s potent flavour.
Standing there observing these traditional processes, and with the creamy, earthy scent of the grains filling the rooms, your brain definitely begins to make some connections between this and the final flavor of the famous whisky.
Distillery manager, John Campbell, says the whisky’s unique flavor comes not just from these processes, but from the environment itself: “The water for Laphroaig comes from the Kilbride reservoir, which is dark and peaty and quite whisky-coloured to begin with.
About 15% of the flavour of Laphroaig comes from this water supply, and it’s this soft, peaty water that helps create the unique flavor profile of the brand.”
The peat they use is from the nearby Laphroaig peat beds and is still cut, stacked and dried in the traditional way. Mainland peat is formed from the ancient Caledonian forests, so is wood-based, whereas Islay peat is composed differently and formed of ancient grasses, fungus and sphagnum mosses. It is this composition that lends Laphroaig those powerful medicinal flavours.
A rich haven for wildlife
Islay is bathed in the currents of the Gulf Stream, bringing with it temperatures several degrees warmer than on the mainland. These unseasonal climatic conditions make Islay home to a rich profusion of wildlife – with many rare and exotic species of bird and fish drawing in twitchers and countrysports enthusiasts from the world over.
In the farm huts that lay between our cottage and the beach were a pair of nesting choughs, often circling the area, diving and swooping and digging invertebrates from the grass.
Choughs look like slender crows with bright red trousers and curved beaks, but their distinctive cry is thinner and sharper than the crow. On the endangered list, and with only 250-350 breeding pairs in Great Britain, their areas of residence are limited to the very Western edges of the UK and Ireland. These unusual characters were a welcome presence during our stay.
Famous for fish
Amongst its other wildlife, Islay’s inland lochs are famous for their brown trout – wild beasties with large appetites – and the island’s largest lochs are said to contain some real fighters that prove a perennial draw to the worlds’ fishermen.
To experience the famous ‘broon troot’, we’d arranged a permit to fish Loch Ballygrant, a loch that sits inside the boundaries of the Dunlossit Estate near the eastern edge of Islay.
The estate is owned by the Schroeder family and offers a full gamut of traditional fishing and deer stalking activities, and, as I was to find, the highest elevations of the Dunlossit have an amazing easterly panoramic view across the Sound of Islay to the voluptuous paps of Jura beyond.
Before our fishing stint, I was lucky enough to be taken out on an early morning hike with the Dunlossit Estate headkeeper, Donald James McPhee, who has been hunting and fishing over its 18,500 acres of hill ground, farmland and woodland for most of his life.
With the sun rising beyond the distant hills, I was treated to a stunning spectacle, a breathtaking arrangement of nature’s elements – earth, rock, clouds, and sunshine – that warmed the heart against the cold swirling winds and made our early 4am start more than worth it.
Later, upon returning from the hills, we tackled-up and pushed the boat out onto the loch. The morning air was still biting, but a quick dram of purloined Laphroaig helped to warm the cockles.
The calm surface of the water serenely refused to give up its secrets for some time, until we neared the dense trees that fringed the banks. As the sun came out and the wind picked up, it suddenly turned the lake into a hive of activity, there was a constant splashing and plopping as fish flipped out of the water, attempting to drown everything and anything that might have been blown down from the treeline.
Floating flies were attached in teams of two and soon we were hauling in the loch’s voracious golden-brown predators, often two at once, our flies being flipped the moment they hit the water.
The sport was fast and furious for over an hour, and as our arms tired – and it must be said my casting technique improved – we allowed the wind to guide us around the loch, making only occasional adjustments with the oars.
The second hour passed and then suddenly it was over as quickly as it had started, the wind dropped and the sun once more became obscured behind Islay’s veil of granite clouds.
More than satisfied, we made the return to the boathouse, spirits lifted and our bag brimming with several of the largest fish we had caught. Islay brown trout was going to be on the menu tonight.
We headed back via the town of Bowmore, zipping along the long, straight roads, fuelled by the anticipation of a quick pub-stop, and the hospitality of a roaring log fire. Momentarily a buzzard joined us – flying level and keeping apace with the car before veering off and away over the hedgerows.
The following day we had booked ourselves on the tour of the Bunnahabhain distillery, and, having tapped some local knowledge in the pub the night before, had decided to fish from the rocks in front of the distillery afterwards – killing two birds with one stone.
A tour with four tastings at Bunnahabhain costs £20, and was a great way to warm up for the few hours fishing we had ahead of us. We would cast from the rocks on the other side of the distillery, as the tide came in, to hopefully hook ourselves some pollock feeding in the currents.
As the tide began to swirl and eddy and drag inwards around the black rocks we began hurling our lures out, letting them sink slightly, and reeling them back in. The local knowledge proved to be spot on and soon we were pulling hungry Pollock from the water and bountiful Islay was once again providing us with another night’s supper.
Fresh pollock, split and pan-fried with a little garlic, washed down with the local Saligo ale, and chased by many a dram.
On our final day the sun was high and bright and warm on our backs. Coats and hats were abandoned for short sleeves and sunglasses as we made our way down to the beach.
Laggan Bay is five miles of clean, lightly pebbled sand, sweeping round in an arc to the east of Laggan Point. It features a river that joins the bay at the near end –perfect for sea trout.
A golden eagle, wheeling and gliding on the warm winds that swept over the far side of the beach meandered closer until it was large in the sky – it’s yellow feet and beak clearly visible.
It came in quite close, making slow, lazy turns overhead, apparently interested in us, before gaining height and flying away over the fields of glowing, luminescent gorse.