20 October 2011--We are greeted at the top of the stairs this morning by a friendly West Highland terrier. "It's Wee Jock," I say,
thinking of Hamish Macbeth's Westy on the BBC television series. At breakfast, we ask John, our host, the dog's name. "Jock," he shrugs.
"No point denying the obvious."
With only two full days in Islay, we've decided to stick to the northwestern half of the island. It feels odd to come here and not go across the moss to Port Ellen, drive up the Kildalton road and out on the Oa, or even set foot in Bowmore; but we've been here before, seen the distilleries, and don't want to be rushing around--that's not what Islay is about. The shame of it, really, is staying for such a short time, but it's what we could fit in.
We start with a visit to Islay House Square, once part of a large estate, now a sort of mini-business park. Our interest here is the Islay Brewery. We're greeted by Paul, who was playing bodhran at last night's session. He's friendly enough, once you get used to the fact that he seems determined never ever to smile. The look on his face suggests that he knows what I was doing with his daughter last night. (For the record, I have no idea whether or not he actually has a daughter.)
John told us this morning about an interesting cemetery in Bridgend. We find it in a charming state of neglect, atmospheric in the dreary weather. There are some interesting stones, including grave slabs four centuries old or more. I'm not used to seeing such in situ--the best surviving ones, it seems, are all in museums.
On to Finlaggan, which, faithful readers will recall, was the seat of the Lords of the Isles. We find the little museum closed, which doesn't bother us, as it means we won't have to pay entry to the site. But the level of the loch is very high, and the path to the island is under a foot of water. Back at the museum, we peer in through the windows and see a row of wellies for visitors' use. We'll come back tomorrow, when the museum is open, and pay the fee.
Down toward the Rhinns we go, stopping to view wintering barnacle geese at Loch Gruinart along the way. I've read that they've arrived in record numbers this year, an estimated 35,000. I don't know why that is, but guess that maybe their breeding grounds in Greenland are expanding due to climate change.
We have a nice lunch at the Kilchoman distillery, and then commence the loop around the Rhinns, stopping at the ruined chapel at Kilchiaran. The weather is dreich, and I'm not inspired to take any photos at Portnahaven. Then it's back up to Bruichladdich--we've told friends at home that we'll be in the distillery shop at around 4:00, so they can try to spot us on the distillery's webcams. It's always a pleasure to hang out in the shop--the staff are very friendly, and treat us to samples. Duncan MacGillivray, the plant manager and all-around fix-it guy, arrives with a group of touring Swedes, and gives us a couple of whisky glasses for no very good reason. Bruichladdich are not universally beloved in the whisky world-- their DIY promotional style and the vast array of releases leave some feeling that they think they've reinvented distilling. Messrs McEwan and Reynier, the senior partners, can seem a bit combative and even arrogant in their pronouncements on various matters. But it's very difficult, I think, to come here and not like the place and the people. Distilleries do not generally employ a lot of people, but Bruichladdich, by operating their own bottling hall, have put many more on the payroll than most, and have provided work for persons with special needs. That's not a small thing in a place like this.*
We return to the B&B with a bottle of ten-year-old and have a short rest. Ron says he is not feeling up to par, and might skip dinner. I tell him I'll bring him back early if he wants, and he decides to come along to the Port Charlotte Hotel after all. Of course, we're in until closing.
*As I edit this in late July 2012, Bruichladdich has just been sold to Rémy Cointreau for £58 million. This is nine times what Mark Reynier, Jim McEwan, and their cadre of investors paid for the distillery in 2000. There has been a great deal of discussion in the whisky world about whether this sale is good or bad, and what the various repercussions might be. Reynier, the lone dissenting voice on the proposed sale among board members, has expressed regret over unfinished business. He appears to be out, and McEwan is talking about retiring, although it's possible both will stay on in different roles. The only sure thing is that a once obscure Islay plant was rescued from oblivion, and its value built to the point that a large multinational drinks company offered more to purchase it than any Scottish distillery had ever been sold for previously. That can only be counted as a resounding success. One can only hope that Bruichladdich's sense of place and commitment to its community will not be compromised.