Friday, June 12, 2009

Last Day

[Written 5 June.]

If I didn't have my furry monsters to go home to I'd want to stay here much longer. The weather has been absolutely terrific this week. Again today we woke to sunny skies. It's getting colder, but I don't mind about that. It's the grey skies that bother me.

Today turned out to be more of a pajama day (that is, one where you don't do much, and more or less spend the day in your pajamas). We woke up late and I had one of those headaches where my eye felt like it wanted to force itself out of its socket. After some pills and a nap we took a walk to Brigend so I could post a letter. When we got back we started, ugh, packing. I'm going to hate leaving my charming cottage! (Here's a view of the rhododendron and trees just outside and to the left of the cottage entrance.)

After another nap and some dinner (during which we had a caller whom Robin dealt with -- apparently the young man was inquiring after a Miss something-or-other who is apparently one of the Queen's ladies in waiting. The gentleman said that she always stays here when she's on holiday) we took another glorious sunset walk. I wanted to go back towards the hill that we climbed the other night. The map shows that nearby are remnants of an old village: forts, "burnt mounds," and hut circles. I thought it would be fun to try to find these things. We walked through a lot of farm land, were told where to go by countless cows and opened and shut several
gates. (Below is a picture from our route that passed near Knockdon Farm.)

It was not clear which path led to the ruins and one went through a meadow where some intimidating cows were. We could skip it, I thought. By this time we could see the Loch Indaal (really a bay) and Bowmore. I decided I wanted to walk along the coast. So we left the search for ruins behind and walked to the road. We soon found ourselves on the same road where we saw the swans the other day. Tonight there were other water fowl there, as well as many sheep on the beach. As the sun sank lower the hills to the east were coloured pink and the puffy clouds made for a very pleasing view on this our last night on Islay.

Tomorrow we leave the island at around 2pm and head back to Glasgow from there; to fly home Sunday morning. As much as I hate to leave, I am so pleased to have had such a wonderful trip. I will savour these memories for a long time to come.

Shifting Focus

[Written 4 June]

I think we've arrived at the point in the trip when our minds are starting to drift back to home. Today is Thursday; tomorrow will be our last full day on Islay. It will be sad to go. I'll miss sitting in the sun on the bench outside, the blue skies that we've been so lucky to have while we've been here, the people who wave from their steering wheel as we pass each other on the road. We've been joking all week about what sort of enterprise we could start up here so that we could sustain ourselves. Today I hooked on the Islay Cat Sanctuary and Astronomical Observatory (ICSAO). What fun to combine those two loves into something I could do full time. I always thought I might want to spend my sunset years as director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket. Starting a new venture of my own here would be far better.

Our energy was pretty low today. Maybe because we've been keeping our days pretty full and we needed a break and/or maybe because we're starting to feel the pull of home and it's getting us a little down. We talked at dinner tonight about how work feels like it's another world away. Robin can't believe he's thought of it so little.

We didn't get out of the cottage today until about 2pm. We started by going north few miles to Port Askaig. This is a ferry port that serves Jura and the mainland. We want to go to Jura tomorrow (it's only a 5-minute crossing, and there is a distillery there) and we wanted to look into booking. But there is no ticket office. It turns out that getting to Jura works in much the same way as I found when I was traveling through the islands of Shetland: show up at the dock and drive on when the boat comes in. I suspect we'll also have the guy coming round to the car windows with his mobile till to collect payment. Have I said this before? I love how simple life here can be.

We booked ourselves for a 15.15 tour at Bunnahabhain Distillery. Since we didn't have much to do in Port Askaig we had some time on our hands once we got to Bunnahabhain. The day was clear and bright, but quite a bit cooler today, especially on the water where we were. After a few minutes outside we moved to the "office" where people are meant to wait for their tour. There was surprisingly little to be seen going on while we were waiting. Only a few workers were around (which probably means they don't have many -- this actually wouldn't be unusual; it takes surprisingly few people to run a distillery). We thought we might be able to spend some time looking around in the shop before our tour, but when we actually found the shop (it wasn't easy!) the woman there suggested we come back with the rest of our tour when it was over. Not a very warm welcome to Bunnahabhain (pronunciation: boon-a-hav-an; remember, in Gaelic bh=v).

Our guide on the tour couldn't have been more than a few weeks outside his 18th birthday and mentioned that he thought at first Robin and I might be "part of the Opposition from down south"; that is to say: English. This remark came after the other tour-goers reported that they'd been to Caol Ila (cul-eela) Distillery earlier in the day and our lad said "may be a nice shop, but not a nice whisky." This brusque arrogance contravened the good naturedness we'd seen in all of the other distilleries we've visited so far, to say nothing of the good will they have all shown towards the other distilleries on Islay. I had half a mind to walk out at this point, but decided not to make a scene, so we carried on.

There's not much to see at Bunnahabhain. They get their malt from Port Ellen, and they sell much of their whisky for blends. So they have no malting floor, and very little aging is done on the premises.

We saw their mill, the mash tun, the wash backs, and the stills. None of the few workers we saw around the place seemed in a particularly good mood (this was definitely out of character from what we'd seen at other places). Many distilleries (including Bunnahabhain) are cutting down on production due to the recession; perhaps this is hitting them harder than the others. Also, it is a shlep to get to them; they're many miles down a single-track road. It seems like they may be at the end of their golden days. Perhaps it won't be long before they're absorbed by a corporate giant.

Bunnahabhain takes pride in the fact that their whisky is only lightly-peated. I don't see how this can be much of a selling point on Islay where most people come for Laphroaig, the most peated whisky around. It seems that Islay visitors are looking for the peatiest whisky they can find; the peatier the better. Although they do bottle a single malt, Bunnahabhain's claim to fame is their "Black Bottle": a blend of the seven whiskies on Islay (Kilchoman is set to be added at some point in the future). This seems like something of a gimmick, though the whisky does have a good taste and it does have a hint of peat to it, so you're not going to mistake it for a Speyside (north east mainland Scotland) whisky. The blend uses mostly Bunnahabhain (again because of its lack of peaty character).

Some photos from Bunnahabhain. View of the distillery from the pier:

View of the Paps of Jura from the Bunnahabhain pier:

Empty casks getting sprayed with water outside one of the warehouses:

Me, enjoying the view and the sun, while waiting for the tour to start:

After we left Bunnahabhain we made a stop at the historic site Finlaggan apparently a medieval seat for the Lord of the Isles (who ruled the islands and part of the west of Scotland). It's a somewhat interesting collection of ruined buildings, more so because it's on island reached by a causeway. While Robin took pictures, I (you can probably spot a trend here) sat down and enjoyed the sun. Unfortunately I did this out of Robin's sight, and when he called to me I couldn't hear him for the wind over the water. After awhile realized that it had been awhile since I saw him and I stood up to see him walking back towards the visitor centre, clearly perplexed that I'd gone missing. Thankfully he wasn't angry, just "glad that you're still alive."

A few views of Finlaggan. The ruins of the Great Hall:

Two views of the ruin of the main house of the complex:

We've decided that we won't make it to all of the distilleries. We will probably go to the Jura distillery tomorrow, but we will likely miss Caol Ila and Lagavulin. These are both run by the large conglomerate Diageo and we have read some very scathing criticism of the company in the local paper we picked up The Ileach. Both Laphroaig and Ardbeg (the distilleries we visited yesterday) are owned by large bourbon distillers (I can't remember who owns whom; this is a useful partnership though -- bourbon casks can only be used once and Scotch whisky loves to mature in bourbon casks. When you're owned by a bourbon company it's a lot easier to get the casks). Feeling this local animosity toward Diageo has cooled our interest in visiting these distilleries, even though they make a damn fine product (and, as Robin points out, what is being bottled now was produced before Diageo took over).

Ah, and for once, I'm done writing before midnight.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


[This is my entry written 3 June 2009.]

Today we woke up on time, but we still got a late start. I guess we thought that Laphroaig (la-froyg) was closer than it is. We booked ourselves in for a 10am tour this morning and it turned 10am when we were still about 3 miles away. Thinking that Laphroiag would be more formal than the others we'd visited so far (because it's more famous and more popular), we thought they probably would start right on time (the others started a few minutes late). So Robin phoned from the car and gave our coordinates as I was barreling down the road (and still waving to as many people as I could -- everyone waves on the road on Islay, not just when you're at a passing place; it's friendly island living). We were told they might be able to wait, but put our names on the list for 11:30 just in case. When we finally parked the car, since it's a big distillery, it still took us at least another minute and a half to make our way to the visitor centre. But they hadn't started yet. There were four other people on the tour: a young (early 30's?) American and two older men who sounded Irish to me.

Here are a couple views of the exterior of the distillery:

Our guide was David. He was visibly thrown-off by the scheduling change. I saw him ask who was probably the centre manager if he should modify the tour because we were starting late. She said no, just do what you usually do. I thought this was a little strange because David looked to be at least in his late 50s. Is he new at this? It turns out that, yes, he's been in the tour guiding job for about a year, but he's been at Laphroiag since the mid-70s. In the course of the tour he told us that he used to work in the warehouses (I think) but that handling all the barrels got to be too much on his body. He was even away from his job for more than a year to get his hip replaced. Having been at the distillery for so long (and having a very colourful personality) meant that he had a lot of good stories. In the old days workers on a break were able to drink samples from the still. He said it was better than Valium. As they do, the laws changed, and this is no longer allowed. David seemed to have fond memories of those days.

He also told us about the two visits Laphroaig has had from the Prince of Wales. The first visit, in the 80s was accompanied by 40 members of the press. During his visit last year, there was no press coverage at all. David was proud to tell us that Laphroiag is the only Islay distillery the Prince has ever visited.

I took several pictures at Laphroaig to document the whisky-making process. First, we were able to watch the wet barley get rolled out onto the malting floor:

Because it has been so warm in recent days the barley was germinating faster than usual as can be seen in this closeup of the barrel used to pour the barley on the floor:

A malting floor nearly completely covered with barley:

We were allowed to pick up and sniff the wet barley that had just been laid on the floor:

David showed us the kiln that burns the peat:

The barley is laid out on a mesh floor above the kiln. The heat dries the barley to stop its germination. The smoke from the peat fire infuses the barley and gives our Islay whiskies their distinctive flavour. Here we were able to look onto the drying floor. David said that the kiln had just been fired up a little bit ago. When it really gets going, you can't see the back wall anymore.

After the barley is dried (I think we call it malt now) it's put in the mash tuns and rinsed through a few times with hot waters of different temperatures. I didn't get a picture of the mash tuns. It's the liquid that is drained from the mash tuns that is used for distilling. The spent grain is fed to Islay's cattle (which are apparently very yummy to eat). Yeast is added to the liquid and fermentation begins. At this point, we are pretty much making beer. The fermentation is done in big vats called washbacks. Bowmore has wood washbacks. At Laphroiag (and also at Kilchoman) the washbacks are stainless steel. When the yeast is working hard there is a lot of bubbling activity. We tried to capture that here:

Here are a couple views of the washbacks:

The liquid at this stage in the process is called worts. It is pretty stinky and has a sharp though slightly sweet taste, with some carbonation from the fermentation with the yeast. Nevertheless, David broke out some little cups and gave us all a taste to try.

Once the worts has finished fermenting it moves on to the stills. This is where the magic happens. The spirit is distilled twice. Each distillery's stills are a different shape. This and the angle of the neck of the still (is it pointing up or down, is it parallel with the ground) are supposedly the key features that give a whisky its character.

As the spirit is produced it goes through a spirit safe. Here the distiller can test for alcohol content and flavour and decide when to take the "middle cut": the spirit that is put into casks. Here's David at the Laphroiag spririt safe:

When we reached the warehouse where the casks were filled I asked David if you can overfill a cask. I thought you would want to avoid losing a drop at all costs. This is where David told one of my favourite anecdotes (possibly better in the telling). He said, no, today the pump that fills the barrels will switch off automatically when it's finished (akin to a gas pump at a filling station is my understanding). But back in the day, he used to fill the casks and if you weren't paying attention ("if you were talking about the football or whatever") you could end up getting soaked with the stuff. Then you'd go home to your mum reeking so much that she'd accuse you of drinking at work. Here are some recently filled casks:

After the tour we tried both the Quarter Cask and the 12-year Festival bottling. (Islay's Music and Malt Festival, Feis Ile, occurred the week before we arrived and most distilleries did a special bottling for the event. We were initially planning to be on Islay the week of the festival, but when it became clear that accommodation was going to be hard to find, we opted for the week following. This turned out to be a good choice; staff at the distilleries were in good spirits (ha ha) because the festival was over and it had gone well and the masses of people who were thronging their visitor centres were now gone away so they were relaxed and happy.)

After our excellent tour from David we went down the road to the Ardbeg Distillery (Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin are very close to each other on the southeastern coast of Islay). Ardbeg no longer malts their own barley (they get their malt from Port Ellen Maltings down the road) and they have converted their kiln rooms into the visitor centre shop and cafe. So we booked our spots for the 3pm tour and had a reasonably tasty lunch in their cafe.

After lunch, because we still had about an hour before the tour started (and of course we wouldn't want to be EARLY for our tour) we took a drive up the road to see Islay's one official Historic Scotland site: Kildalton Cross. It being another nice day (the heavy cloud forecast never materialised) we enjoyed the scenery:

I enjoyed finally getting to see the cross:

From the chapel nearby:

We got back to Ardbeg in plenty of time and had our tour done by Rachel, who announced at the very start that this was only her third tour so "be nice." She was very sweet but quite unsure of herself, even though she did a fine job and knew her stuff. Here's a picture of her consulting her notes at the spirit safe:

Ardbeg's mill (the malted barley is milled before it goes into the mash tuns):

The view of the distillery from the Ardbeg pier:

Unfortunately Ardbeg isn't nearly as tasty as Laphroaig; we made no purchases in their shop.

After Ardbeg I decided I wanted to back to the shop at Laphroiag and satisfy my vacation shopping impulse by buying their "Islay weather proof" jacket (very nice, with a nice Laphoiag stitched logo). David was manning the shop and seemed quite pleased to see us back. He offered us another wee dram and this time had the Cask Strength (very good, as fellow whisky-lovers may imagine). David was in a good mood. The weather was good and it had been a "good day." While sitting at the bar/counter sipping our dram he gave us each some chocolates that could no longer be sold in the shop since they "expired" on 1 June, and 5cl Quarter Cask mini-bottles. And pens! A Laphroaig pen for each of us. A wise choice indeed to return. [Two days later when I was wearing my jacket to protect me from some Islay weather, I found a piece of cat hair. How can I have cat hair on my new jacket? I'm thousands of miles from the cats. Further proof that, ah yes, they are always with me...]

It was a long day! And especially after 4 or 5 drams before 5pm, I was sleepy. When we got back to the cottage I had a wee lie down on the couch while Robin channel-surfed. At 9pm I was refreshed and ready for a walk. Today we decided to go left out of our road instead of right. I've been feeling a little lazy/guilty for doing only one walk on the walk map/guide I bought before the trip. I'd been thinking that if we drive out to a walk site we'd probably see better scenery and views than if we just walked locally. Ho hum. But after an already busy day I don't really feel like getting back in the car and doing all the single track shenanigans. I mean, I need to return the Fiat with the axles intact! So, we're walking along and arrived at a sign: "Footpath to Carnain." Hmmm, okay.

"Carn" generally denotes a hill, and yes, there was a hill in front of us, as well as lots of cows and sheep (we had also passed the sign for Knockdon Farm). These animals were very wary of us. They watched us closely and moved quickly if they thought we were getting too close.

The footpath soon ran out, but as we climbed we found that we were getting some of the most astounding views we have seen so far. We could see Bowmore on the left, and Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich on the right. As we climbed higher we could begin to see more and more of the complete southern coastline of the island.

And then, as we reached the top of the hill, the setting sun was the backdrop for the rocky hills of Islay to the north, Jura, Oronsay, and Colonsay. Shown here are the Paps of Jura:

All of this in our own backyard. It was an amazing find. I walked home elated.


[I wrote this entry on 2 June.]

First, make sure you know what peat is. This entry will probably make a lot more sense.

A pretty low-key day (did I say that about yesterday?). It's a good thing I'm blogging all this. There is no way I would remember everything. In fact I'm not remembering things from one day to the next. Did we go here? Yes? Was it by car or on foot?

So, yesterday I phoned Kilchoman Distillery just around closing time to arrange for a tour today. We got going this morning a bit later than planned (surprised?) so we arrived just about on the minute for our 11am tour. Strangely, not much seemed to be going on at the visitor centre shop (which for being a good way down a single track road was pretty extensive).

Kilchoman has been something of a mystery to us. It is often not included in the list of Islay distilleries (for those of you playing at home, these are: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig). And we didn't know why that was. After a couple minutes in the shop, Robin wandered over to me and whispered, "I think I see why they're not always on the list; they don't have any whisky yet." In order to be a whisky, you need to have matured for at least three years. And indeed, when I read the labels on the bottles on the shelf they all said "spirit." Uh-oh, we thought, are we wasting our time here?

But no. After wandering around for a few minutes I caught the eye of an employee who had just come out of the office. When I told her we were there for a tour she seemed surprised. Oh, you must've talked to Mr. Wills, she said. He's the owner. Hmmm, small operation. I booked the tour with the owner of the distillery? She shook off the surprise and promptly took our money and started us on our tour herself. At the other two distilleries we've visited there have been about 15 people on each tour. To be the only two seemed like an extravagance.

The name of the distillery is pronounced kil-HOME-an, not KILK-o-man as we'd been saying it. Another complete surprise. I didn't even understand what she said at first when she asked if we'd ever visited the place before.

Like Bowmore, Kilchoman malts their own barley. This involves wetting and draining the barley 3 or 4 times in a large vat, then laying it out on a concrete floor to germinate, but only slightly. After germinating (this has to do with releasing sugars from the starch in the grain) the barley is dried in a kiln. Being Islay, the barley is dried in a peat-fired kiln. Kilchoman is a small operation on a farm; the owner started the distillery because it was something he always wanted to do. Consequently their malting floor is very small (compared with 3 levels of large floors at Bowmore). Distillation is done in an interesting still with a funny bulge in the middle:

Our guide gave us the sense of the collaborative relationship between the different distilleries on Islay. It is not a competition. In fact, Kilchoman borrows warehouse space from Bruichladdich. At the end of the tour we had a dram of the two-year old spirit; this was quite tasty and rather peaty. The spent mash (what's left of the grain after it is dried and then put in "mash tuns" with water to extract the sugars) is fed to cattle (this is done island-wide), and apparently (our guide tells us this is often asked) it does NOT make their meat taste peaty (???).

We bought the "Connoisseur's Collection" in the shop: small bottles of the 2-year, 1-year, and 1-month bottlings. Kilchoman's first batch of proper whisky will be ready in September. Robin has already reserved and paid for his bottle (and says he probably won't open it; Kilchoman has already created a very good reputation for itself; the first bottling could be a significant collector's item).

Port Charlotte was nearby so we stopped in to do some more blogging, and had some soup and scones. Again, we were very lucky with the weather and sat outside, but the mist on the horizon in the distance told us that the rumours are true about a cold front coming in. The weatherman on the BBC confirmed this tonight, and was almost defensive about it, just in case we'd all suddenly come under the mistaken impression that we're actually living in the Mediterranean. He told us it's going to seem colder, but really these are normal temperatures for this time of year. He should have had a subtitle reading "Don't Blame ME!" Really, it must be a terrible job being a British weather forecaster. The news is hardly ever good. And we've had such a run of nice days that I suspect no one wants to be the one to tell the nation that Shangri-La is coming to an end.

We'd been up late last night poring through our hundreds of pictures, trying to find the best to post here. With less sleep than I wanted and a dram at noon I wasn't sure I was up for much more without a nap first. So instead of going to another distillery we decided to have a look in at the Islay Ales Brewery. They're a small operation (as many things seem to be around here) run by two salty guys from England. Yesterday we bought a pint of their Bruichladdich Ale at the eponymous distillery. Islay Ales takes Bruichladdich's (what, mash?) and turns it into beer. When we arrived we started straight off with a couple half-pints for tasting (as you can imagine, just what I needed to really drive me into the ground) and enjoyed chatting with one of the brewmasters before heading out with a selection of six bottles.

Next we went a short way up the road to the Islay Woolen Mill. Yesterday I bought a wool throw at Bruichladdich in their own tartan that was woven at the Mill. I thought this might be a fun place to see lots of fabrics and maybe find some more tartan. Unfortunately the shop was stocked with mostly knitted garments (they don't do spinning or knitting at the mill) and an odd selection of "gifts" (knick-knacks and other things one doesn't really need). There were a few samples of tartan, but they seemed to have been on the shelf for years. And some tartan hats and jackets, but nothing well-suited to either of us. The owner/operator of the mill appeared (another rather salty fellow) and showed us the room where the very noisy looms were running and told us that his fabrics are sold to Chanel and to Savile Row in London. Near the till in the shop was a newspaper page with a photograph of Princess Anne wearing clothing made from tartan made at the Mill. He (rightly so, I guess) is quite pleased with himself for these achievements.

Apparently cashmere comes from China (I guess I remember that, but only vaguely). I learned this for good because he gave me a good scoff when I asked if he used wool from Scotland to make his fabric. Oh no, 90% of the wool produced in Scotland is shipped out of Scotland, and 90% of the wool used is Scotland is imported from outside the country. (He obviously mostly uses cashmere.)

He asked where we were staying on the island and when I told him Eallabus Cottage (using my self-fashioned pronunciation, EALL-a-bus) he immediately corrected me. It is ey-al-A-bus. Those women at Islay Estates are too polite to correct my pronunciation, but I'm feeling a bit silly now. However, we did learn that the owner of Eallabus is also the owner of about "one-third of the island" and is one of the richest men in Britain. Sounds like someone worth getting to know!

We headed back home at around 3pm and I went straight outside for an almost hour's nap in the warm sun. When it was time for dinner we knew we were hungry but didn't know what to eat. I had roasted a chicken a couple nights ago and had saved some juices for making gravy. Hmmm, but we don't have any flour for thickening the gravy. Oh, but we do have that oatmeal that's been pretty finely ground, let's sift out the finer stuff and try that. Worked a charm! But oh, it's a little too thick, we need some liquid. Let's add some beer! So we opened our Bruichladdich Ale (it's peated beer; a bit strange) and added that to the mix. Okay! Now for the chicken: just to make it (more) interesting, let's cut it up into smallish pieces, toss it in some beaten egg and more oatmeal and fry it up. Okay, it sounds strange, but it really tasted quite good. I think the influences of these master distillers and brewmasters are wearing off on us: be creative, use your instincts. And how much more Scottish can you get than having oats in your chicken?

Monday, June 8, 2009

I'm on Top of the World

[Unfortunately, I am back home. Thankfully, I get to remember the fun I had as I go through the back posts I was unable to publish earlier because I lacked internet access. The entry below was written on 1 June 2009.]

Literally and figuratively. I love it here. So few people and stunningly beautiful scenery. We took a walk tonight around Ardnave Point and from the high dunes there were able to see many of the surrounding islands, including a couple with ruined buildings (no one lives there now; I wonder if we could buy it? A running joke of the trip has become that we can of course buy whatever we want because "we're Americans." We're going to march up to anyone whose property we want and -- preferably while chewing on cigars -- demand, "We're Americans, how much do you want?") In any case, from high up on the dunes, where we were able to see far off into the distance to other islands: Jura, Oronsay, and Colonsay, and also the Kintyre peninsula on the mainland, I really do feel like I'm at the top of the world. So I'm moving here. Forward my mail. Tell my cats that I love them... (just kidding, of course).

But seriously (no, not really), Robin and I are working on a business case for making a Thermo satellite office here. Or, we're going to open our own distillery. Unfortunately we'll need to wait at least 10 years until we can think about turning a profit.

We had another late-ish start today. It's nice when we don't have to be up for breakfast like we did when we were staying at B&Bs. The freedom of having our own space is very nice. We don't have to worry about waking up too late or staying out too late; we can eat when we want and what we want. We didn't have a plan on waking so we lingered over breakfast. I hung some laundry out on the line outside. We needed to stop into the estate office as the fees and the exchange rate of the bank transfer left them 14 pounds 12p short. The two women working in the Islay Estates Office are in a space that can't be bigger than 10x10 feet. I'd go completely mad.

We had more gorgeous weather today. First stop after paying our balance to Jane at Islay Estates was to the community centre in Port Charlotte where we had the first internet access in days. I was so excited to see what my friends had been up to on Facebook and had a quick chat with Anne, and posted one back entry on the blog (here I am blogging about blogging). Hopefully we'll be able to get back soon, but there's so much to do here, I'm not sure when that will be. The view from our outside table was of the vast Loch Indaal (which is really a bay). The sky was so clear today we're pretty sure it was Ireland we saw off in the distance.

Next we visited our second distillery of the trip, Bruichladdich (this is pronounced "brook-laddie" with the "oo" like in "loo." We're having great fun learning the pronunciation of these names; even with my experience with Scots and Gaelic, I often (mmm, always) get it wrong and am amused to find how different my pronunciation is from the right way to say it.)

Bruichladdich is a fine little distillery that has only been back in operation since 2001. After our visit we found the book Whisky Dream in the local Spar shop that describes how some enterprising men got the business back on its feet again. It seems that each distillery has its own character, and even though their processes are more or less the same, I think it is probably worth seeing each one. We were pleasantly surprised by the bright character of Bruichladdich (and they even gave us two free drams of tasting! One very peaty -- more peaty than Laphroaig I'll contend -- and one not so peaty). On a bulletin board in the shop were clippings of a bizarre story a few years ago where some arm of the CIA admitted to spying on them under suspicion of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction! (Read more on the story at Bruichladdich's website.)

Then back home for some food before heading out for our walk at around 6pm. We walked for almost 3 hours on the cliffs, dunes, and beach around Ardnave Point.

We still have wool fever and spent a lot of time as we started the walk gleaning stray wool that had been liberated from the sheep by the abundant thistle in the area. We didn't have a bag for it, so we ended up stuffing it all in my little backpack:

(No, I don't know what I'm going to do with all the wool.)

On the way back we passed by the ruined Kilnave Chapel that holds one of the island's famous crosses. We stopped the car to walk down and take some pictures. At 9:45pm the sun was just going down and made for some dramatic compositions. That's another fun thing about Scotland in summer: it feels like it's 7:30 in the evening for about 3 hours (the trade-off of course is that in the winter it feels like it's night pretty much all the time).

While Robin photographed the chapel and cross from many angles, I wandered amongst the stones, looking more at the oldest ones. This one in particular caught my eye:

The text is:

He lived beloved & died
Regreeted. What is said
to One, is said to all.
Watch, & be ye also READY.

We've booked ourselves on an 11am tour of Kilchoman Distillery for tomorrow: incentive to get ourselves going a little sooner. Also perhaps we'll get to Laphroaig, the granddaddy of the Islay distilleries. Maybe a crossing to Jura later in the week, but I have a feeling we won't be sailing to the island of Colonsay this trip. There's too much great stuff to see and do here on Islay.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

On Islay!

This post is from 31 May:

Oops, missed yesterday! A live connection is hard to find around here. And the ones we do find are well-protected. What's that about? There's hardly anyone around.

Yesterday (30 May): We had breakfast at our B&B on the harbour in Tarbert, then shot over to Kennacraig to make our ferry. We had a lovely crossing, it was uncharacteristically sunny and warm.

I was tired! I napped in the sun for much of the trip. The fine weather made for clear skies and we could even see Ireland at one point in the journey. We arrived in Port Ellen (one of two of Islay's ports; the other is Port Askaig) which we drove through quickly and then made our way to Bowmore where we checked in at visitor information and then went on a tour of the Bowmore distillery. A fantastic tour.

Our guide, Isabael, was extremely knowledgeable and seemed to have more than a passing knowledge of the inner workings of whisky making [this is in fact true - we still don't know what her position is, but we saw a picture of her in the local paper handing over a donation check to the area high school]. The most surprising part of the tour for me was near the beginning where we went to the malting house and the malt (germinated barley) was just lying there on the cement floor. She told us about wetting the grain and then laying it out on the floors (Bowmore has three floors for this purpose). She walked right on to it and showed us how it is partially germinated when it is put down and then it is turned every four hours. [Other tours in further postings will describe other parts of this process.]

We picked up some groceries at the Co-Op in Bowmore and then went on to try to find our cottage. I never got directions. I didn't think to ask for them, and the estate office we rented from did not provide them. They must just assume we all know where it is. I wasn't too concerned since "Eallabus" is marked on my OS maps, but it is a label for a group of buildings. Which one is the cottage? In any case, I had an idea where to go, but I wasn't specifically sure. I had glimpses of fear of having to sleep in the car for two nights, not being able to find the cottage, and not being able to get to the estate office until it opened on Monday. Not to worry, Robin's navigational skills prevailed and, since we were well familiar with the pictures of the cottage from the website, we were able to find it without too much trouble. As promised, the keys were in the door.

It's a lovely place. It's just outside the small village of Brigend which is about 3 miles north of Bowmore. The cottage is part of a group of what look to be former farm buildings. It is tucked away amongst lovely plants and trees.

Today, sunday, our weather has also been good, so the cottage really does look like its promotional photographs. The road we're on sees hardly any traffic. While we've been "at home" we've seen probably less than 5 vehicles. We've also seen a mama bunny and her young one, and a fawn, as well as (what I can only guess, not being a practised birder, but having seen a picture on an information board) a blue tit (boys, insert your own joke here).

Today we slept in til after 11 and cooked ourselves a full breakfast before driving back to Bowmore to stock up properly on groceries for our week. The shop, the largest "supermarket" on the island, is pretty well stocked but has very narrow aisles; you're always in someone's way and vice versa. We have probably bought enough food to last us the week. Hopefully if we need anything else, we can pick it up at the small Spar shop in Brigend.

We went on a couple walks today, both close to home, so we could begin to get a sense of our neighbourhood. First one was to Skerolls Loch. This is only about 20 minutes away (by foot) from our cottage and has a couple row boats moored to a small dock. How nice if we could find a canoe somewhere to enjoy some time on the water! Perhaps we'll remember to ask when we stop in at the estate office tomorrow to pay our remaining balance of 14 pounds 16p.

Back home for crumpets with jam, then out again, this time in the other direction. Strange beaches around here, we haven't figured out why they're like this. The sand extends out for at least a couple hundred yards. And it's flat. As we were passing along the beach we saw in an inlet a family of swans! Mum, Dad, and 5 swanlings (help here on what baby swans are called). They are such elegant birds. We stopped and sat and watched them. Dad swam ahead and Mum stayed back with the little ones, dipping their heads in the water to eat what looked like seaweed. As we are watching this, believe it or not, a herd of cattle made their way from one end of the beach to another. It was so bizarre to see this along the beach. There were about 2 dozen cows and probably about as many (maybe a few less) calves.

And that was about all for our first day on the island. We walked home via the brewery; we'll probably go there tomorrow or the following day. We found a ruin of a watchtower and a sculptured stone nearby.

As we were making dinner we started hearing sheep noises so I went outside to investigate. Indeed several sheep had made their way (I don't know if they were herded or what) into the field about 50 feet down the road from us. As sheep do, they ran away when I approached.

We enjoyed our dinner of pasta even though the only spices we had were salt, pepper and some smoked garlic we got from tourist information in Balvaird.