The North Atlantic Arc


From Muckle Flugga to the Mull of Galloway





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Friday 14 October 2005

Lords Of The Isles


We are at breakfast in the Academy House when the phone rings. Mary, the housekeeper, answers it, and then hands it to Ron. His bag is at the Islay airport! Ron has borne the luggage saga with his usual good humor, but he is glad to see it come to an end, and so are we. I donít know for a fact that he has been wearing the same pair of boxer shorts for the past six days, but there is no evidence to the contrary. We will be passing the airport later, so we decide to pick it up, rather than have it delivered.

We donít, however, have time to stop there on our way to Laphroaig, where we are booked for a 10:15 tour. There are sixteen people touring, which really seems too many, but the guide, a seasonal employee named Emma, handles it well. She is well trained and knows her stuff, and it does not bother us in the least that she is young and pretty, as well. Unfortunately, the tour starts a bit late, and runs a bit slow, and we have booked the 11:30 tour at Ardbeg, so we are forced to take our leave after visiting the stillhouse and before seeing the warehouse. Emma invites us to return later for our complimentary dram.

I have learned a lesson the hard way, from which you may benefit. The last time I toured a good number of Islayís distilleries, I was fortunate to be in groups of four or five for some, and to have solo tours for others. It was therefore no problem to take seven tours in three days. I realize now that one must resist the temptation to stack up too many in too short a time. All of the tours, save Bowmoreís, run about an hour, but you wonít be sorry if you leave at least two between each (plus travel time). That will give you plenty of time to savor your complimentary dram and have a blether with your guide and fellow tourists. With one or two exceptions, youíll probably be best off to take one tour in the morning and one in the afternoon. You can thus see all nine (including Jura) in four days, or six or possibly seven in three. The only other thing is that there are other things to see and do in Islay, and you must make time if you want to do those, as well. All the more reason to make return trips, and indeed, I am surprised to realize that in eight trips to Scotland, I have been to Islay four times, and still have not seen all I want to.

Past Lagavulin we driveĖcanít do it all, can we?Ėto Ardbeg, where our guide is another Emma. I recognize her as a long-time Ardbeg employee, compared to Laphroaig Emma, anyway. There are a dozen on this tour, including a Russian who translates for his girlfriend, and Emma does a fine job of pacing herself accordingly. We are happy not to have any time constraints for once, and we probably get more out of this tour than any so far. Itís just a dram of 10 at the end, and Iím disappointed that there are no unusual bottles for sale in the shop. There are some 17's returned from Italy, however, and Ron and I each pick up a bottle of that discontinued expression.

We have planned to have lunch in the Old Kiln Cafť, but we arenít quite hungry enough for it, so we decide to go see the Kildalton Cross first. But Bobby needs film, so we drive back past Lagavulin and Laphroaig to Port Ellen (it isnít far). Bobby gets what he needs at the Co-op, and back past Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg we go. Itís only another four or five miles up the road, but it seems longer on the winding single-track road, and there is an unusual number of slow-moving tourists along the wayĖthis is usually a pretty lonely road. We pass four or five other cars, all crawling as if unsure where they are. We arrive at Kildalton and are pleased to find that we have the place to ourselves, at least for a few minutes.

This is truly a special place, although itís hard to say why. Ruined chapels like this are pretty common in Scotland, and if the medieval grave slabs in the yard are in particularly good shape, still they are not overly unusual. Perhaps itís just the cross, carved sometime before 800AD, and, unlike its cousin at Kilnave, still in extraordinary condition. Unlike Kilnaveís stark setting near Loch Gruinart, Kildaltonís is lightly wooded, and Islayís highest hills, oddly unnoticed from most of the places humans congregate, loom to the north. The sky has clouded overĖit always seems to be cloudy when I go to KildaltonĖand we do our best to photograph the place. After about ten minutes, the cars we have passed on the way start to arrive, and we depart.

Lunch at the Old Kiln is late, large, and excellent. As we are leaving Ardbeg again, Bobby reminds us that we have a dram coming at Laphroaig. We pull in and take advantage of a sunny break to photograph the black-lettered warehouse on the waterís edge, and then see Emma leading a group from the warehouse to the hospitality room. ďPerfect timing,Ē she says, and we collect our reward, a dram of the ten-year-old. Someone on the tourĖin fact, the Russian we met at ArdbegĖwants to taste the Quarter Cask, but the staff are reluctant to give a second dram. Finally they give him a tiny taste. Itís odd how some places are so sparing, and others so generous; I wonder if it has to do with the number of people touring.

We drive back through Port Ellen, and then along the long road over the bog to Bowmore. On the way, we stop at the airport, and Ron is finally reunited with his luggage. There is much rejoicing. Just past Bridgend, we visit the Islay Brewery at Islay Square, a remnant of one of the islandís old estates, now a small business park. The brewery is a cottage operation, just a year and a half old, run by a couple of retired military men who were looking for something to do while they waited to collect their pensions. Their beer is not, to my taste, particularly distinctive just yet, but these gentlemen have made Islay a more pleasant place to visit, in my mind. The Real Ale boom has spread to most of Scotlandís major islands now, and thatís a great thing. We purchase souvenirs and a bottle each of beer, but no minikegs.

Itís very late in the afternoon now, and I drag the lads, semi-willing, to Finlaggan. There isnít an awful lot to see there, but itís one of Scotlandís most important historical sites, nonetheless. From the parking area, we walk down past the closed visitorsí center toward the loch. A duckboard causeway takes us out to a small island, on which are the ruins of the seat of the Lords of the Isles. It was Somerled who threw off the yoke of the Vikings in the Western Isles, and it was his descendants who ruled those isles from this place for three centuries. In the wind and gloaming, itís an evocative spot.

We pull into the Ballygrant Inn for a pint. The place is empty but for us. Bobby and Ron have a light dinner; I am still sated from lunch. Then itís back to Port Charlotte, where a number of Bruichladdich folk are congregated in the back room. I try a softly-peated Moine Mhor, and revisit the Quarter Cask. The prosciutto I tasted in it the first time is no longer there, but the raw wood is. Not sure I like it, but Iíd be willing to buy a bottle to find out.

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The stillhouse at Laphroaig. (2002)


The Boby mill at Laphroaig. Boby was the other major manufacturer of mills, along with Porteus.
The name on the plate reads "Robert Boby". "Look," I said to Bobby, "his name was Bobby Boby, Bobby!"


We drove by Lagavulin on our way to Ardbeg. Can't do everything. (1999)


Lagavulin from the vicinity of Dunyvaig Castle. (1999)


Ardbeg. (1999)


Ardbeg's waterfront warehouse.


Another view.


And another.


The 360į view. > >


Ardbeg still life.


The Kildalton Cross is a must-see in Islay. Although it is about the same age as the Kilnave cross,
it is in astonishingly good condition, owing to the harder stone from which it was carved.


A ruin at Finlaggan.


Panoramic view at Finalaggan, seat of the Lords of the Isles.


The Lords of the Isles in their seat.

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