Islay, one of the islands of the Inner Hebrides, just off Scotlands’ west coast. If you want to escape the rat race, and take a step back in time, I can certainly recommend a visit here.
Islay is also very well know for its single malt whisky, and once a year at the end of May, they have the Feis Ile – the Islay Festival of Malt and Music. This is a week long festival, during which the distilleries open their doors for tours and tasting.
In May 2008 I went with a group of friends I met through the Discovery Owners Club, not wanting to be continually ‘offroading’ as our style was more cultural, we branched out, calling ourselves the FODS (friends of discoveries). It may have been something to do with where we were going, or the fact that on this trip there was a Defender and a Freelander (still the green oval I might add), but on this trip FODS stood for friends of distilleries 😉
Travelling north on the Sunday, we stayed overnight in Glasgow, setting off early Monday morning to catch the ferry from Kennacraig. It was on this journey, through stunning scenery, that my mobile rang, it was Tony, he and Deb were at the vets with Harry, he’d gone downhill so fast in previous twenty fours hours, and they wanted me to speak to my vet. I heard my vets voice telling me there was nothing more he could do, and could he have my permission to………. the signal faded away. I tried calling back, but there wasn’t a signal. After what seemed like hours (though was probably only seconds, my phone rang again, it was Tony again, ‘Vic, I’ve given Vaughan (my vet) permission to do what he has to, is that OK?’ I managed a blubbering yes as the signal faded again. The rest of that journey is a bit of a haze, but we eventually arrived at Kennacraig.
I took myself off away from my friends, and sitting on a rock, looking out at the sea, I tried to get my head around what had just happened. I wanted to go home, but didn’t have any means of doing so, and what good would it do anyway. My friends started to drift over to me, “Enjoy this break in Harrys’ memory” one of them said, which is exactly what I tried to do.
The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry arrived, and we drove onto it, destination Port Askaig on Islay. Passing the Paps of Jura en route, I noticed a tiny cottage on the edge of the coast, I conjured up an idyllic image of Harry and me living there. The announcement over the tannoy system that we would soon be docking, brought me back into the real world.
A short drive across the island to Port Ellen, and we were knocking on the door of our lodging for the week, The Trout Fly guest house. Mr & Mrs Mackay, a most welcoming couple ran this accommodation.
I didn’t sleep too well that first night, and was up about 6am sitting on a deserted beach. The solitude was magical, it was just the sort of place I’d dreamed of walking Harry, but never did. Think what you may, but to this day I’m convinced I felt him leaning against me while I sat there, perhaps we did finally walk that beach together.
Walking back over the road to The Trout Fly, feeling quite refreshed, I joined the rest of my friends, who had just got seated for breakfast.
Tuesday, and our first of the many distillery tours started with Ardbeg. I had never enjoyed whisky, but I was informed single malt was a totally different tipple. After following the whole process from the barley grain, though to the finished bottle, we were offered a dram or two. My friends raised their glasses to H, while Higher Plane, a song by the Canadian singer songwriter Ian Tamblyn played in the background. Quite an emotional time 😦
In the afternoon our journey took us to Laphroaig, a similar tour, with more single malt to taste. I slept quite well than night.
Wednesday and again I was on the beach before breakfast. Bruichladdich and Bowmore were on the agenda. After the tour around Bowmore, we were ushered into a large room overlooking the bay, here we were treated to live entertainment from an amazing young piper, who asked if anyone had any requests. Asking if he could play The Gael, the theme tune from ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, I was treated to a beautiful rendition of this piece of music. This was another magical moment, sipping Bowmore malt, looking out onto the bay with one of my favourite pieces of music being played for me. This helped towards another good nights’ sleep.
Thursday, we set off for the short ferry trip to Jura. The photo above was taken on the way to the distillery. Again we were treated to a tour, later we went into the classroom to learn how to become a Master Blender, where I was awarded a certificate for being a top blender (more by luck than knowledge).
The afternoon saw us back on the ferry to Islay, for our visit to Lagavulin, and even more drams. By this time I was getting a real taste for the malt, and was eagerly looking forward our next visits.
Friday, and the last two distilleries on our list. Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain. The Bunnahabhain distillery was set in the most beautiful surroundings, and of all the malts I’d tried, was definitely my favourite.
Saturday morning, and it was time to leave this beautiful island, I felt quite a pang of sadness as we boarded the ferry from Port Ellen, back to the mainland.
We visited Inveraray and Loch Lomond (above) on the way through, stopping overnight at Carlisle.
I’m pleased I stayed with my friends for this single malt experience, they helped me through a very difficult time, as I’m sure the many wee drams I sampled did.
The story of Malt Whisky on Islay can be read here
Islay is certainly somewhere I will be going back to.
Below is a slideshow of some of the many photos taken.