Monday-Monday, 23-30 October 2006
Monday I've dropped Ron at the airport in Glasgow after the short but congested drive from Edinburgh, and am
now alone in the car for the first time in two weeks. Until last year, I made these trips entirely solo, and have always
thought that that's the way I most enjoy traveling. It forces me to be more outgoing, and at the same time frees me from
worrying about another person's feelings when making decisions. I am therefore thinking that I will be glad to be on my own
again, as much as I enjoy Ron's company. I am surprised to find this is not the case. Perhaps it's because the last week
of my trip is unscripted, and I therefore feel a bit directionless; or maybe it's the letdown I often feel towards the end
of a trip; or it might just be that it's too quiet in the car, and I have no one to anchor me when my thoughts begin to fly.
In any case, I am feeling a bit subdued as I approach the terminal at Ardrossan, prior to boarding the ferry for Arran.
We board under sunny skies, but a blanket of cloud sweeps over as we approach Brodick. I'm only on the island for two nights, one full day, and have no intention of trying to see all of it. Anyway, I've been here before, in 1999. I gave the place short shrift then, too, and I really should plan to spend three or four days here sometime. But I did a full circuit of the island then, and saw the stones at Machrie Moor, Arran's prime archeological site. Somehow, though, I missed the ring at Auchagallon. As I drive off the ferry, I commence a circuit of the northern half of the island, with the express intent of correcting that omission.
The Auchagallon circle is actually the remnant of a kerbed cairn ("curbed" to us Yanks), likely very similar to the burial cairns at Kilmartin Glen (see MF2MoG 2005). It sits on a knoll, very close to a fence, and I consider for some time how to photograph it. Finally, I stand against the fence and take five vertically-oriented photos, which I will stitch into a single ultra-wide-angle shot.
I loop around the northern end of the island to Lochranza, where I will be staying tonight. Drive past the village and pull into the Arran Distillery, thinking to take the 3:30 tour. There's a small crowd waiting, however, with several hyperactive kids, so I go back to the village to check into the B&B. No one in. I have a look at the castle, virtually across the street, and take a quick photo. It's reputed to have been Hergé's model for the one in the Tintin story, The Black Island (L'Île Noire). (See History of the Black Island at tintinologist.org.) Then I go back to the distillery for the 4:30 tour, which looks to be considerably more calm.
I have a hard time judging the standard distillery tour these days, as they are necessarily geared toward the general public (except in Islay, which is one of the great things about going there). The Arran tour seems as good as any. The boxy and very functional-looking facility is scarcely ten years old, and still seems very new and clean. In fact, it reminds me a bit of Allt-a-Bhainne in that regard. The comparison is absurd, of course; the one is a small, independently-owned boutique distillery, and the other is a huge and anonymous blend-fodder factory.
Find my landlady in at the B&B and get my room. The place is a deconsecrated church, and the rosette window allows sunlight to stream into the sitting/breakfast room. It must have been a nice effect on Sunday mornings.
Dinner and drinks this evening are in the Lochranza Hotel. There is beer from the local brewery, and a vast selection of malts, some 300 bottles. I choose to stick with local produce and commence a small Arran survey. The distillery being so young, they are not able to offer a range of ages, so they produce a variety of single-barrel cask finishes instead. This evening, I have calvados and cognac finishes. I have a weakness for calvados, and enjoy the whisky's apple notes and buttery texture.
Tuesday I have but one thing in mind for today, and that's a walk up the Goat Fell, Arran's highest peak at
874 meters (2867 feet). It's raining when I awaken, though, and I abandon the idea before I'm out of bed. Not sure what to
do with the day, I drive down to Brodick and stroll around town. It's not a very charming place, reminding me a bit of
Aviemore, although it does have a beach.
The rain has stopped, and the sky looks as though it might clear. I look up at the Goat Fell, and the peak is wreathed in cloud. I dither for a few minutes, and decide to go up after all. I'm here, so why not? The cloud seems as though it will blow off.
So off I go. It's an easy enough mountain for eight-year-olds, and indeed I see several kids around that age, in the company of Mom and Dad, bounding along effortlessly. It's a suitable challenge for an old geezer like me. The first stretch of trail out of Brodick is virtually a highway, but soon it narrows and ascends out of the scruffy forest, and a beautiful view over Brodick can be had. Before too long, though, I am in the cloud, which never does blow off. I make the summit--there is no view at all--in two and a half hours, and have it to myself.
Coming down is a little trickier, and I am saved from making a wrong turn by my hand-held GPS. I'm down in two hours. I will have to come back for a longer stay sometime, so that I will have half a chance for a clear summit.
I nap and shower at the B&B, and then resume my Arran survey at the Lochranza Hotel. This evening the finishes are Premier Cru Sauternes and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo "Villa Gemma". I chat with the landlord, who gives me a taste of a sherry-matured Arran bottled especially for the hotel. It has that same burnt popcorn note I tasted in the Pulteney at the Bow Bar, and is the first unpleasant Arran I've had. I don't tell him.
Wednesday I catch the little ferry for Claonig out of Lochranza at 9:30 and watch Arran recede under a hazy
sky. It's a short drive at the other end to Skipness Castle, which I saw in 1999. The oldest parts of it date to the 13th
century, with later additions including the 16th century tower house.
Kilbrannan Chapel is a couple hundred yards away, close to the shore. The view of Arran from here is striking. The chapel dates from the 14th century. There are gravestones dating right on up into the 20th century. The prize here, though, is several very well-preserved medieval grave slabs, protected from the weather by modern covers resembling coffin lids. Seems a bit redundant!
I drive across the northern end of Kintyre to Kennacraig, where I catch the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry for Islay. The first time I made this trip, in 1999, we landed in Port Ellen; every time since, it's been Port Askaig, and that is our destination today. I guess I've made this trip enough times to be bored with it, as I prefer to nod off in the lounge rather than stand on the upper deck in the brisk and sunless weather.
I'm in the Academy House at Bruichladdich again, and I make the half-hour drive from Port Askaig in advancing twilight. I have the place to myself this year, it seems.
It's quiet at the Port Charlotte Hotel this evening, and I strike up a conversation with an Aussie named Andrew whom I remember from the ferry. It develops that he has two nights in Islay, one full day, and no car--he's planning to see as much of the island as he can in one day by bus. "That won't do," I say, and I offer to show him as much as possible by car. He gladly accepts. Getting the essence of Islay in a day will be a challenge, one I am very pleased to try to meet.
Thursday Happy birthday, Mr Tattie Heid! I pick Andrew up at the hostel in Port Charlotte, and off we go to
Bowmore under stormy skies. A tour of the distillery there is our first order of business.
It's just the two of us on the tour. It turns out that Andrew is a winemaker, and I get a fresh perspective on the distilling process through his eyes.
We see the stillhouse and the warehouse before we are offered samples in the makeshift visitors' center (the real one is under renovation). The wind is howling and rain is blowing sideways past the windows as we enjoy our drams at 11:00am. I do not think there can be a better circumstance under which to enjoy whisky, and, even though I've never much cared for Bowmore's product, I quite enjoy a sixteen-year-old cask strength dram that has a wonderfully unctuous texture.
The sky breaks as we drive across the vast bog toward Port Ellen, and then out the road to Kildalton, where we actually get enough sunlight for a pretty good photo of the cross.
We have a warming bowl of soup for lunch at the Old Kiln Cafe at Ardbeg. We don't take the tour there, but have a quick look around for photos. I also pick up a reserved bottle in the shop, an Oogling.
Then it's back across the bog and around the end of Loch Indaal to Bruichladdich for the 2:30 tour. In contrast to this morning's at Bowmore, there are thirteen touring this afternoon. Joanne Brown of the Octomore Browns handles the duties well. Then I take Andrew to the new distillery at Kilchoman for a quick look, just to contrast the tiny operation to what we've seen so far.
As the sun sinks in the late afternoon, we visit Kilnave, on the shore of Loch Gruinart, where thousands of migrating geese are settling in for the evening. We wait patiently for quite some time for the sun to peek out from behind a cloud. It does so for all of five seconds, giving us just that time to catch the evocative shadow of the cross on the face of the chapel.
The day is done, and we return to our respective lodgings to freshen up before meeting at the PC for dinner. After, Andrew has a Caol Ila 18, and says that while he enjoys it very much, he'd dump any of his wines if they showed any similar flavors. He very generously picks up the tab, pints and drams and all. I wish I could have gotten him to Portnahaven, Finlaggan, Jura, the Oa...well, that's another whole day, I guess. I think we did pretty well under the circumstances.
Friday I drive Andrew to Port Ellen to catch his ferry this morning--he'd have had an early and tedious bus
ride otherwise. Finding myself in PE at 9:00am on a dreary day, I do the sensible thing and take the 9:30 tour at Lagavulin.
After, I walk the little beach known as Singing Sands on the other side of Port Ellen, and spend a couple hours in the CyberCafe. I run a few errands in Bowmore before driving out to Bunnahabhain, hoping to catch the 4:15 tour. There is no tour, but the distillery manager, John MacLellan, is holding court in his office. He offers me a dram, as well as a few of his refreshingly candid opinions. A pair of Aussies arrive, fresh off the ferry at Port Askaig, and join the three Germans already there, and me. They are staying at the hostel in Port Charlotte, and I tell them about tonight's session in the hotel.
I nap a bit before dinner, and am lucky to get a good seat in the pub (at a table with the Aussies) this evening. There is a good deal of anticipation for tonight's entertainment, which is provided by Fraser Shaw (who we met last year) on the pipes, and Emily Edwards on the fiddle. They don't disappoint. It's more a two-person session than a polished show. They are joined occasionally by one of the owners of Islay Ales, on the bodhran. He very wisely plays with great restraint, letting the two young musicians shine. It's a fun and lively evening.
Saturday A hazy and lazy day. Sleep in late, and check in down at the 'Laddie shop to see who might be taking
the 10:30 tour. The two Aussies are there, as well as two Belgians I'd seen at Lagavulin. When they set off, I drive down
to Port Charlotte to see the Museum of Islay Life, which I've never gotten around to before. Unfortunately, it's closed for
refurbishment. Next time.
So back to the shop, where I hang out for some time chatting with Mary, the Aussies, and the Belgians. One of the latter, made aware of the webcams scattered throughout the distillery, phones his wife so she can watch him fill a Valinch bottle. Unfortunately, the cams in the shop seem to be offline. I've never seen a man go to such lengths to try to allow his wife to watch him spend money on whisky. I fill a couple bottles myself, and finally depart in midafternoon.
I drive down to Portnahaven, the long way around via Kilchiaran, and have a pint at An Tigh Seinnse, the little pub there. I see they have started posting foreign money on the wall, but do not have a US$2 bill. Naturally, I just happen to have one. I write a greeting from Mr Tattie Heid on it and give it to the bartender. Presumably you can see it next time you visit.
I have a short nap back at Academy House, and spend a quiet evening in the Port Charlotte Hotel. I retire early, and get an extra hour's sleep as well, for the clocks are turned back tonight.
Sunday My trip is nearing its end, and it is time this morning to clear out the portable midden heap that has
formed in my rental car, and get everything repacked and ready to go. This takes a couple of hours (in no small part
because I have no attention span, and stop to read every little scrap of paper I find). Then I drive through Bowmore and
across the links on the Laggan Estate to the Big Strand, Islay's five-mile-long beach. I spend a couple of quiet hours
walking up and down, taking photographs. I see a couple in the distance at one point, a mile or more away, but otherwise
have the whole beach to myself.
I relax for a while in the lounge at Academy house. I drink the beer the bartender at the Queens Arms in Isle of Whithorn had given me my first night in Scotland. It seems a long time ago. It's quite nice, and drinking it gives me a sense of symmetry, of completing a circle.
A trio of graybeards play in the PC Hotel this evening, another generation's idea of traditional music--accordion, mandolin, guitar. It's less crowded than the other night, but still great fun. I have become a familiar face here in five evenings, and the bartender offers me my choice of drams. I facetiously suggest a Port Ellen, knowing they are the most expensive whiskies on the shelves. Before I can object, he pours a PE Fifth Release, a £20 dram. I guess I am a valued customer.
How high the birds fly over Islay;
How sad the farm lad deep in play...
Felt like a grain on your sand.
How well the sheep's bell music makes,
Roving the cliff when fancy takes.
Felt like a tide left me here....
Isle Of Islay, Donovan Leitch
I set out one night
When the tide was low.
There were signs in the sky,
But I did not know
I'd be caught in the grip
Of the undertow--
Ditched on a beach
Where the sea hates to go....
Undertow, Leonard Cohen
I am a man upon the land,
And I'm a selkie on the sea;
And when I'm far and far frae land,
My dwelling is on Sule Skerry.
The Selkie, trad Scot
Who has dressed you in strange clothes of sand?
Who has taken you far from my land?
Who has said that my sayings were wrong?
And who will say that I stayed much too long?
Clothes of sand have covered your face--
Given you meaning, but taken my place--
So make your way on down to the sea.
Something has taken you so far from me.
Clothes Of Sand, Nick Drake
Hello, cowgirl in the sand.
Is this place at your command?
Can I stay here for a while?
Can I see your sweet, sweet smile?
Cowgirl In The Sand, Neil Young
Far on Beinn Bhreagh's side wander the lost lambies.
Here, there and ev'rywhere, ev'rywhere their troubled mammies
Find them and fold them deep, fold them to sleep singing:
Caidil gu la laddie, la, laddie, sleep the moon away.
Cape Breton Lullaby, Kenneth Leslie
Off to the coast of Iceland they steered,
In the first month of the year,
When winter gales blow bitter and cold,
And women must wait and fear;
For no matter the storm, no matter the danger,
The profits have got to be made.
When the owners give orders, the boats must go out,
Though they sail to a fisherman's grave.
Lament for Hull Trawlers,
Frankie Armstrong/Ewan MacColl
There's a new sensation,
A fabulous creation,
A danceable solution,
To teenage revolution:
Do the Strand, love.
Do The Strand, Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music)
There's a story about a King Knüt,
How all the gladhanders he rebuked.
Down to the sea we must go, says he,
There to see if the waves will know.
The clouds are mighty and the sea is firm;
He makes a stand on the shingled berm.
"Turn away! Turn away! Turn away!" he cries.
"Tell me," says he, "How the tide replies."
King Knüt, David Thomas (Pere Ubu)
Monday There is something very poignant about riding the ferry out of Port Ellen's pretty half-moon bay, past
the three Kildalton distilleries, which seem to wave goodbye and say "Haste ye back". It's mostly cloudy, but a strip of
sunlight shines on the foreshore, making Ardbeg's whitewashed warehouses seem to glow.
On the mainland, I take a side trip to make a stop at Sween Castle. I need to make a phone call this morning, and the map shows a phonebox almost next to the castle. It's out of order, so I cut my visit short to run back up to the next one, some miles up the road. Happy birthday.
At a petrol station outside of Lochgilphead, I stare for some moments at a familiar-looking gent across the fuel island, before realizing that he is Michael Heads, distillery manager at Jura [he has since moved on to Ardbeg]. He chats with me briefly--friendly chap. I make the obligatory stop at Loch Fyne Whiskies in Inveraray, where I address the back of Richard Joynson's head. He turns around smiling, and engages in more amiable chatter. Another nice fellow.
I find a room in Glasgow (I'd originally hoped to stay in Inveraray, but the George was booked up), and spend the evening in the Pot Still. I've never been in the place before, but it is highly recommended by malt afficionados. It's a handsome pub, with a different look from the Bow Bar in Edinburgh, but a similar feel. As well as a vast array of malts, there is a very good choice of cask ales. I fall in with three local lads who are in various stages of inebriation, and we pass the time arguing good-naturedly. I discover bottlings from the Alchemist behind the bar, and oddly enough, I spend my last hours in a Scottish pub drinking their armagnac and calvados, as well as a Highland Park. I will be off to the airport in the morning, and will be glad to get home, but just now I feel as much at home as I do anywhere. It's a nice ending to another successful trip. Haste back I will, for sure.