Whisky pilgrimage to Islay

Old Jan 6th, 2005, 11:10 AM
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Whisky pilgrimage to Islay

Hello everyone - I would be very grateful for any suggestions for a 9-day trip we are making to Scotland this August. The main reason will be my long held desire to visit Islay and visit all seven of their wonderous whisky distilleries, but everything else is up for grabs. Our current plan is to fly into Glasgow (we come from the South West of England),pick up a rental car and spend about 4/5 days on Islay. My inclination is to get a Calmac Hopscotch ticket, taking a few days driving to Kennacraig for the ferry to Islay, then back via Kintyre and Arran. Maybe a couple of nights on Arran (and of course its distillery).

Now this is fine for me but my wife (who for some reason prefers a nice New World Chardonnay) would like to get a little more out of the trip than a chance to drink cask strength Lagavulin where it was born.

We've been up to Glencoe and Loch Tay (and north from there) before, and across to Skye, so I don't see us going much higher than say Oban. We like a bit of walking, but nothing too strenous, but mainly we are just fans of peace and quiet and wonderful scenery. Maybe a night or two on Jura?

Any suggestions? I see the names Sheila and Janis appearing on every post on Scotland, so it would be great to hear your thoughts, but I'm hopeful other Fodorites may be able to suggest a few hidden gems.

Many thanks


MagicRat is offline  
Old Jan 6th, 2005, 11:38 AM
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Well, Alan, I hope others will chime in but let me try to help too.

You pretty much HAVE to drive to Islay (that's a gross generalisation, of course, but it's hard to get around if you don't have a car there.)

So, when you land, go west and cross the Clyde on the Erskine Bridge. Then saunter up Loch Lomond to Tarbert and cross over to Arrochar and over the Rest and Be Thankful to Inverary. Stop at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, and have a look round the town. It's a planned village and you'll see similarities to the Campbell towns on Islay. Then go down Loch Fyne to Lochgilphead and stay thereabouts (depending on budget, the Crinan Hotel, the Cairndow Hotel, the Loch Melfort Hotel or a B&B. Visit the Moine Mhor, the Crinan Canal, the Vital Spark, Dunadd, Kilmartin Glen, and Arduaine Gardens (which will be in their prime- also worth visiting Crarae Gardens and the tree place just south of Loch Fyne- name escapes me.

If you can plan it that you end up in Oban mid afternoon on a Wednesday you can take the afternoon ferry from Oban past Colonsay and through the Sound of Islay to Port Askaig. You could, of course, pick up Oban distillery whilst your wife was shopping, on the way.

If you can't do that, then head south and spend a night at Campbelltown or Machrihanish (Springbank distillery) before coming back to Kenncraig for the boat.

I have sailed down West Loch Tarbert in weather ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Since the ridiculous doesn't bear thinking about, for the purpose of this exercise, I will assume sublime.

You board the MV Hebridean Isles backwards, and the tradition is to repair to the canteen for a bacon buttie. You will have an azure blue sky with gulls and terns and tysties skimming the surface of the water as we sail away down the loch. On the near shore there is pasture and sheep and sharp rocks lining the water's edge. On the far, north, shore, it's wilder with few houses and great gardens that stretch all the way down to the tide.

After 30 minutes or so, the loch widens as we move from the sheltered water in the lee of Gigha into the more open Sound of Jura. Gigha, named by the Vikings 'Gudey', God's Isle, passes on the starboard bow, with its sandy beach still occupied by a sparse few holdiaymakers. Gigha is the latest bright spot on the horizon as far as community ownership of land is concerned. It was recently put on the market by its owner. The islanders felt that their best interests would be served by taking control of their own destiny and they formed a charitable company to allow access to funds not open to a private investor. With these monies they bought the island and it is hoped that they can reverse the population decline of recent years and once again become a thriving island community.

Once past we see Jura on the port bow with the Paps (three small mountains) in the middle. We veer south west with Ireland visible on the horizon beyond the Mull of Kintyre, and shortly afterwards begin to come close in to Islay on the port side. The three distilleries of Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphraoig come into sight amongst the rocks on the foreshore. Trig white buildings with their names etched clearly in black paint.

We're still being buzzed by guillemots and the odd gannet passes by too. Then the ship begins to slowly turn into the natural harbour of Port Ellen. As a matter of fact Port Ellen is perhaps slightly run down, but from the sea she's delightful. Port Ellen itself occupies two bays on the loch, between which is the rocky outcrop housing the harbour facilities. The village is made up mostly of the white painted houses and cottages found all over Islay, with a few larger stone faced buildings mixed in. There are two churches, one overlooking each of the two bays: and each bay also offers a beach

The above comes from a car sticker I used to have that I got in Islay (which one of my less generous friends always translated as "Islay, and I couldn't care less). In turn it comes from one of Scotland's more famous folk songs.

Westering Home

(chorus) Westering home with a song in the air
Light in the eye and it's goodbye to care
Laughter o' love and a welcoming there
Isle of heart, my own one

Tell me o' lands of the orient gay
Tell me o' riches and joys of Cathay
Ah but it's grand to be waking ilk day
tae find yerself nearer to Islay


Where are the folks like the folks of the west
Canty and couthy and kindly, the best
There I would hie me and there I would rest
At hame wi' my ain folks in Islay

This beautiful island, the Queen of the Hebrides must have more songs written about it than any similar sized piece of rock. There used to be a cassette which had been recorded by two German boys smitten with the island. All the songs were Islay songs. It must be said they had more passion for the music than talent

Only 25 miles in length and 20 miles wide at most, Islay is nonetheless one of the largest islands among the inner Hebrides and has a fairly even climate. For such a relatively small island, Islay offers a widely varied landscape reaching from the Rhinns of Islay on the western peninsula to the rough moorland of the Oa in the south-east and the white sand dunes of Loch Gruinart in the north.

Islay is also an island steeped in malt whisky. Today, there are still seven distilleries on the island, with one defunct. That’s still quite a lot of whisky for a population of around four thousand! However, around the middle of the last century, Islay sported no less than a dozen distilleries and the distilleries are still the most important part of the island economy, Islay being famous for making some of the most powerful and flavoursome whiskies in the world.

The Gaelic name of Islay is Ile or sometimes Eila. There are two possible origins to the name. One maintains that Islay is named for an ancient Goddess of the same name. The other tells of a princess from Denmark named Yula who is supposed to be buried on the island near Port Ellen where standing stones mark the grave.

Landing at Port Ellen there is a road leading from the pier which goes to Ardtalla Estate and stops. Following this road, first you come to the three heavyweight distilleries, Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.

Each distillery being beautifully situated directly on the shore, a trademark of Islay’s distilleries. The first, Ardbeg, has just begun distilling again after being silent for a number of years. Continuing west along the road, one reaches Lagavulin where can be seen the ruins of Dunyveg Castle , the former stronghold of the Lordship of the Isles. Next comes Laphroaig, the youngest of the three, with it’s reputation for producing the peatiest whisky anywhere.

Drive on passing skerries on the right, which will be covered by seals at high tide, and shortly you come to the Kildalton Church and the famous Kildalton Cross, the best preserved high cross in Scotland, both dating back to around 800 A.D. Replicas of teh cross are everywhere on Islay.

Lastly you reach, just before the gate across the road, Claggain Bay, the remains of an ancient "glass fort" can be found. These forts were made by burning enough wood on the outside of the stone walls to turn the stone into rock-hard glass which was impossible to climb. There is a great joy in lying on the machair above the stoney beach, listening to the whoops of the divers (loons) offshore, in spring.

If, when you get off the ferry you turn left instead of right, you are heading into the heart of Islay, but seeing it's a place that believes in doing thing slowly it keeps throwing sidetracks at you. So, just after you've passed the maltings at Port Ellen (used to be a distillery and you can still buy the whisky) if you turn left you're heading a fine beach behind which the rugged Oa peninsula rises towards the sea, ending in rocky cliffs so high, that sometimes the aeroplanes heading towards the airport to the north fly below your viewpoint. Illicit stills and smugglers once abounded in this rough place.

At the tip of the Oa stands the American Monument for the sailors of an American vessel shipwrecked in the first World War, merely representative for the many shipwrecks on this coastline. From this southernmost viewpoint on Islay, the northern coast of Antrim and Raithlin Island on Irelands coast can be seen on a clear day.

This is one of the places to see the rare and endangered chough (the reid-nebbed craw).

Just north of the Oa, beginning at Kintra is a miles long beach of almost tropical quality. It reaches far north, almost to Laggan. The coastal road heading to Bowmore from Port Ellen runs parallel to this golden stretch and passes through a flat peatland. past the airport and the island's most upmarket hotel (but not its best) the Machrie we come, at the end of this road to Islay’s largest town, Bowmore on Loch Indaal, the home of yet another distillery. At the top of the main street the famous church presides over the town. The "Round Church" as it is usually known, was built for Daniel Campbell to serve the population of the Parish of Kilarrow, most of whom he moved to Bowmore once the village had been completed the following year.

The layout of the pews mean that the circular design is not very obvious at ground floor level, except for the central 19 inch wide pillar supporting the main structure of the church. This is plastered, but thought to comprise a single length of hemlock oak. A doorway covered by a curtain reveals the curved staircase leading to the gallery, and here the circular shape of the building is very obvious indeed. It's said it was built round so that the devil couldn't hide in the corners. Today, Bowmore is the islands tourist centre, with the Bowmore Distillery (Islay’s oldest whisky producer) most suited of all the local distilleries for accommodating visitors.

When we first went to Islay there had been a terrible fishing boat accident from which 3 young people had been drowned. None of them could swim. There was a huge public campaign to build a swimming pool. Bowmore distillery gave a warehouse. So Bowmore is probably the only place in the world where you can go swimming in a whisky warehouse.

I re-read the last posting and realised that I didn't tell you about the golf course at Machrie. Much to my annoyance I cannot find online a brilliant article about the Islay Open which was in the Glasgow Herald some years ago- they have a copy of it framed over the bar-so I will simply print you part of a review I picked up

"My golf @ Machrie was almost surreal. Following an Irish stag night of ultimate proportions I rose some 3 hours later on Sunday with no clubs, a hangover of monumental proportions,and me a left hander. Undeterred my kin gave me a 4,7,9iron a sand wedge,a putter and 3 balls.You need no more! The craic was great,the sun shone,and the ball ran.This is real golf as it was, and should be played. My problems started when I sobered up and thought about how I should play!This was good,I finished with the ball I started with,what more could you want.

Machrie was a must on my list of out of the way courses to play based on James W. Finegan's description of the place. His words do not do justice to this treasure. From the sheep burrowing a new bunker on the second hole to the 24+ blind shots, this is a Scot masterpiece."

On the same stretch of road, from Port Ellen to Bowmore, we pass Duich Moss, a peat bog which was the height of environmental controversy here in the 1980s. The distilleries claimed they needed the peat for the whisky and the environmenalists wanted it left where it was, for the geese (the environmentalists won...but at a price)

Back to Bowmorebr />
Bowmore lies near the head of Loch Indaal, (song- "The lights of Loch Indaal")

Shore Street, like most of Islay, has pastel coloured houses and the excellent Lochside Hotel which claims to have over 400 malt whiskies in stock. They also sell prawns by the pint.

From the square, most of Bowmore's key features are visible. The new road to Port Ellen leads up the wide Main Street to the Round Church. In the opposite direction lies the short spur of road leading to Bowmore's harbour. And straight ahead of you is the square containing Islay's main Tourist Information Centre and, beyond it, Bowmore Distillery.

This is a planned village, the work of Daniel Campbell, the Laird of Islay, in 1768.

The main landmark at the harbour end of the village is Bowmore Distillery. This was licensed in 1779, becoming Islay's first legal distillery. The emphasis should be on the word "legal". It seems clear that distilling went on here and in other places on Islay for may years before, though on a more informal basis that the residents took care to conceal from occasional visiting excisemen.

Loch Indaal is shallow and Bowmore's harbour has never been accessible to large ships. Until the 1920s steamers from Glasgow loaded and unloaded cargo here using lighters, but no longer. These days the harbour, with its odd surround on two sides of low level rocks, is used primarily by pleasure craft.

In the second world war Loch Indaal's shallowness was less important than its shelter for the Royal Air Force, who operated flying boats from Bowmore.

I spent one summer holiday here with my dad; and Islay show was on- it's one of those old fashioned agricultural shows which still takes place mid week. I spent days trying to convince dad that EVERYTHING shut down on show day, and only when we turned up at the Lochside in mid-afternoon and it was closed did he believe me.

We got in for supper, tho', and I spent about an hour watching 3 skinny kids, running along the pier and diving into the loch and climbing out and..... It was a stunning day for weather, and that is one of those pictures in my mind that sums up the meaning of the endless days of summer.

The main road goes north east from Bowmore hugging the shores of Loch Indall still. On the right is Islay Farmers, now a huge warehouse of a place, which used to be a little shed when I went there first. I thought it was a place to buy animal feed and baling twine and stuff; little did I know, and you still couldn't tell from the outside, it's where you buy EVERYTHING on Islay. As they say about Sheffield- from a needle to an anchor- but also clothes and food and just everything.

The road curves round the top of the Loch and passes the monument to John Campbell of Islay, one of the greatest 19th century scholar Scots, and then the gates of Islay house are on the left.

When I'm telling stories about Scotland I find that everything intertwines. I can't think of Islay house, without thinking of the Morrisons who own it.

Lord Margadale's was, at the turn of the last century, probably the richest common man in the Empire, a clever Londoner businessman (with a few drops of Scottish blood) who started with nothing and ended up with an immense fortune at hand. At 64 he wanted a summerhouse in the Scottish Highlands. Drawn to the west coast's archipelago the family arrived to the Isle of Islay in March 1851. He stayed for two months and liked the looks of the estate but the price was uncomfortable. Fully aware of the owner laird John Francis Campbell's (Iain Og Ila-above) economic troubles he backed off, for two years. Then he put up the dazzling amount of £451,000 and acquired an island and its inhabitants.

His son John Granville Morrison became Lord Margadale after a beautiful glen in the northwest corner of Islay. He had been a very prominent Conservative politician and the antithesis of the common man. He was opposed to any form of land reform which made him linked always with Lord Brocket of Knoydart.

Knoydart, in the North West Highlands, was a particularly idyllic estate. However, a succession of potato blights and the failure of migrating herring shoals brought famine and poverty to the area. In 1852 the Factor was ordered to clear the tenants to make way for sheep. Four hundred people were evicted and transported to America.

In the early 1930's, a young English aristocrat, Lord Brocket, bought the estate. Brocket was a Nazi sympathiser to the extent that he was Hitler's personal guest at the Fuhrer's fiftieth birthday celebrations in April 1939.

During the war years, the Knoydart Estate served a very useful purpose in the Allied war effort, much to Herr Brocket's chagrin. Britain's military authorities requisitioned the estate for the duration in order to house and train commandos and undercover special forces (Special Operations Executive) who would actively carry the war to Nazi Germany (aka Lord Brocket's friends).

When peace returned in 1945, the British troops left and after some time, Lord and Lady Brocket returned to Knoydart.

In a new post-war spirit of peace and reconciliation, Lady Brocket's first order to her employees was to completely remove every piece of crockery and cutlery from the house and chuck them into the sea. All other items which those nasty Allied servicemen also might have touched suffered the same fate - even every single cludgie, with seat, was ripped out and dumped in the briny ! Clearly - The last proud defiance of the Thousand-Year Third Reich ! (Nazi gold and priceless art treasures dumped in an Alpine Lake - dishes and worthless Barrhead lavvies dumped in the Atlantic!)

Continuing their "good employer and neighbour policy", the Brockets also sacked umpteen staff and replaced them with "loyal" gamekeepers to scare off unwelcome intruders such as leisurely hill-walkers, any children playing on the beach and unwise straying shepherds who were additionally warned they might accidentally get shot in mistake for red deer.

The locals may have been silently enduring all this up to now, but then the pressure cooker blew. A war for freedom had just been fought at great cost and a new social liberty and equality was expected. Returning young men needed a plot of land to build new peaceful lives and now they were losing patience with the high-handedness of this English despot.

Some questioned Brocket's right to continue, having been a vociferous and unequivocal Nazi supporter even during the War, who had somehow avoided prison or other punishment for his unpatriotic acts. For seven local young men, Brocket's position and power didn't impress them one iota. It was time for direct action.

On 9th November 1948, the seven, including fighting veterans of the recent World War, invaded the Knoydart Estate, staked out 65 acres of arable land each and 10,000 acres of hill land and settled in. Perhaps that sounds a lot, but as part of the whole estate, it was miniscule.

News of the land-raid (or sit-in or squat) was reported nationally. During this post-war period, when the Labour Government's promises of a new social deal was in the population's mind, the Scottish nation loudly cheered and sent mountains of fan-mail to the wee post-office at Inverie !

Undeterred, Brocket struck back with that landlord's legal remedy, a "Get off My Land!" Court Order.

The "Seven Men of Knoydart" meanwhile were invoking the Land Settlement Act of the post-WW1 era, which permitted returning ex-servicemen to take over land which was under-used and farm it as their own. The vast Knoydart estate was certainly under-used, being nothing more than a rich man's outdoor playground.

The "Seven" also believed that the landslide Labour Government elected at the end of WW2, who were swept into power on the votes of servicemen such as themselves, would not let them down when it counted. They hired a lawyer, who assured them that they only needed to follow a number of legal processes in order to almost certainly win their case. Now - this road to victory was best served in the modern day and age, by first vacating the squatted land. BIG MISTAKE!

Once off the land, they lost their best bargaining chip and were on a hiding to nothing. Brocket's legal legions mercilessly blitzkreiged the Seven. Then the Labour Government bottled out completely.

Lord Brocket, hallowed member of the British aristocracy, with the support of John Morrison, MP, won. The Seven Men of Knoydart became legendary heroes to the cause of crofting rights as well as to many of the Scottish working class.

Hamish Henderson put the expectations of the confronting parties in a song named after the seven. As one verse so succinctly put itbr />
"You bloody Reds" Lord Brocket yelled,
"Wot's this you're doing here ?
It doesn't pay, as you'll find today,
To insult an English peer,
You're only Scottish half-wits,
But I'll make you understand,
You Highland swine,
These hills are mine,
This is all Lord Brocket's land !"

And all that because we passed the gates of Islay house. The Morrisons, incidentally remain raging tories. Loch Indaal was visited more than once in the summer by a yacht bearing the Rt Hon M Thatcher MP to spend part of her summer hols with Peter Morrison MP at his family's wee place in the Highlands

As we go past Islay house we get to Bridgend, where the road splits. At this point in my travleogue we take the road to Port Askaig

So, we turn towards Port Askaig, through Bridgend woods.. Just past, on the right is Islay Woolen Mill. Not much further on is a road sign to Finlaggan, and the single track road that leads to it.

Islay has a long and well recorded history reaching from Neolithic times to the period of the Irish-Scottish kingdom of Dal Riada of which Islay was a part. Later, Islay became centre for the Lordship of the Isles after the Norse were defeated and driven of the Island by the 12th-century Prince, Somerled, whose descendants became the hereditary "Lords of the Isles".

For hundreds of years the new Lords of the Isles were initiated on the larger island in Loch Finlaggan, Eilean Mor, in the north-east of Islay where they were handed their signs of office, a white staff and the sword of their ancestors. The Lord of the Isles held council on the smaller island in the Loch, hence its name "Island of Council".

The Great Seal which you see everywhere on Islay of Hebridean Boat with people in it, is the seal of the Lord of the Isles and refers to the MacBeatha hypothesis: distilling may have come from Ireland to Scotland with physicians accompanying Agnes Ó Catháin from Ireland to Islay

The part of Islay north-east of Port Askaig and Loch Finlaggan is only partially accessible by a single track road, which ends at the Bunnahabhain Distillery after passing the Caol Ila Distillery, offering delightful views of the Paps of Jura opposite the Sound, the "Paps" by the way, being an older and somewhat ribald word of Scandinavian origin meaning "breasts". It would be about a days journey on foot to reach the northernmost tip of the island, Rubh’ a’ Màil from Bunnnahabhain. This wild region of Islay is naturally a home to such wildlife as the red deer.

Then it's down to Port Askaig where the treacherous Sound of Islay separates Islay from Jura. Some of the more daring inhabitants of Islay actually risk the dangerous waters to go "drift-diving" for oysters during which the divers let themselves be carried along at high speeds by the strong currents in the Sound. The oysters they recover command high prices of course.

An option we have is to take the little ferry over and see Bowhill, where Orwell wrote "1984", and maybe some Golden Eagles.

Imagine yourself back at the Bridgend junction, only tis time turn left and head towards the Rhinns. Frist we pass the flats at the head of Loch Indaal- wonderful bird moments number 421- standing at the head of Loch Indaal at dusk in March and watching for the geese to swoop in in huge spirals for the night. Islay supports a wintering population of around 12,000 white-fronted geese, over a quarter of the world's population, but the number of barnacle geese wintering here is even more impressive: counts of 30,000 have been made. Their evening flights to communal roosts provide one of the great wildlife spectacles to be found in this country.

Then following the loch we pass the little villages established by the Campbells-Black Rock then Bruaichladdich, and get to the pretty village of Port Charlotte. The settlement of Port Charlotte dates back to 1828 when it was established by Walter Campbell, the Laird of Islay. He named it after his mother and so presumably ensured a quieter family life. He had named Port Ellen, which he had established seven years earlier, after his wife.

Port Charlotte lies on the north side of Loch Indaal. It was set up primarily to provide housing for the workers in the large Lochindaal Distillery. This ceased operation in 1929, but the local distillery tradition continues a little along the coast at Bruichladdich.

Today's visitor finds a beautiful white-painted village and the largest settlement on the Rhinns of Islay. At the heart of the village is the large Port Charlotte Hotel, fronting onto the main street and backing onto the beach.

Stretching south west from the hotel is Port Charlotte's main street, named like all the other streets in the village in Gaelic. This is designed on a split level. Houses on one side are raised above the road, while those on the shore side are set below it, together with their tiny gardens. The overall effect is unusual and very striking.

Much of the village seems to have been caught at a particular moment in time and it repays exploration. Some of its features, like small back closes and yards reached through archways in terraces of houses, seem to reflect the design of 19th century big city life rather than the layout of a small island village.

Although Lochindaal Distillery ceased production in 1929 some of its buildings are still in use. An old warehouse backing onto the sea is now used partly as the Islay Wildlife Information Centre.

Nearby is the old church converted into the Museum of Islay Life. This includes coverage of Islay's many archaeological treasures alongside material about the island's equally numerous shipwrecks, plus a recreation of life in a croft. Also housed here is the Museum of Childhood, and the Gordon Booth Library with its extensive collection of reference material on Islay.

Moving on along we reach Portnahaven and its close neighbour Port Wemyss at the south-western tip of the Rhinns of Islay, the peninsula that wraps around the north side of Loch Indaal as it takes its huge bite out of the west side of the island.

Portnahaven and Port Wemyss are very much the end of the road in this northern part of Islay. Getting to them takes a little more effort that most places on the island. The last seven miles from Port Charlotte are along single track roads, though good quality ones.

Rest assured, though, that the small effort this takes is well worth it. What you find at Portnahaven is a magical village of whitewashed cottages wrapped around the two steep sides of its harbour. Port Wemyss lies a little to the south and is harbourless. Instead it looks squarely across a narrow sound to the Isle of Orsay, complete with the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse built here by Robert Stevenson in 1825.

Orsay and its smaller neighbouring island of Eilean Mhic Coinnich shelter the harbour of Portnahaven from the weather coming in from the south and west. This was an major factor in choosing this site for these settlements when they were set up to house people cleared from the interior of Islay in the early 1800s, and provide them with an alternative living. There had been an earlier fishing settlement on Orsay dating back to the 1300s. The ruins of its chapel are still visible on the skyline of the island to the north of the lighthouse.

The importance of the shelter afforded by the islands to Portnahaven's harbour is amply demonstrated by the area's main claim to third millennium fame. Since 1989 the tip of the Rhinns of Islay has been the site of an experimental wave powered turbine generating electricity. In 2000 Wavegen Islay started commercial power generation here, using the air compressed by waves in a large underground concrete chamber to power a turbine. This, in turn, makes a significant contribution to the power supply of the island.

The abundant fish stocks that drove the early history of Portnahaven and Port Wemyss declined over the years, though the harbour still boasts a number of small boats. There must still be fish available however. If the tide is right, visitors today can have close encounters with Portnahaven's non-human residents: the seals who seem completely comfortable pulling themselves out onto the rocks in the centre of the narrow harbour.

Above the head of the harbour is the church. White-painted like just about every other building in the area, it is particularly interesting for having two doors. One was intended for the use of residents of Portnahaven, the other for the residents of Port Wemyss.

My friend Liz's mum, whose holiday cottage caused us first to visit Islay, had her place in Port Wemyss. The first night I was there, Liz and I went to a ceilidh in the Rhinns Hall. This was a ceilidh in the real sense with local people singing and dancing and entertaining each other. Two little girls- under 10- were to dance, but the musicians had taken the chance of the fine night and gone fishing instead. So the women started to sing- mouth music-port à beul-and the girls danced to that instead. Absolutely enchanting.
Let's follow the coast road round the south tip of the Rhinns. As we leave Portnanhaven, there's a wee road off to the left and a farm named Claddach at the end of it. Set in the dry stane dyke there's a wee wooden gate and a beach down to a sandy secluded beach in a cove, which is my favourite place to swim on Islay. I once went there after a very heavy black summer thunderstorm- before I was organised enough to have prescription glasses in my swimming goggles- and brought my head out from under the sea to find it was inches from a seal's face. I never moved so fast!! My father, who was standing on the beach was wetting himself laughing.

We go on back up the Atlantic coast and passing a stone circle on the road verge, first come to Kilchiaran bay. There's a little mediaeval chapel at the bottom of the hill- if you look carefully as you go over the hill there are often choughs over the cliffs. Away above the chapel on the left are the remains of a wartime radar station. The energetic can climb over and down into Machir Bay, one of the best beaches you will ever have seen.

We have to cross back down into Port Charlotte and then take the next road on the left again. This brings us past Loch Gorm to Kilchoman with its chapel ("cille" is Gaelic for chapel)- a definite for choughs- and the path down to Machir beach. All of the Atlantic beaches are gorgeous, but the currents are treacherous and they can be dangerous to swim at. One hot summer, we had friends staying at Kilchoman, and the beach was crowded (ie a dozen people on a mile of sand) so, I thought, what could go wrong?. Whilst I was in the water, the tide changed, and within seconds, I was a hundred yards down the beach.

The next beach round is Saligo, with its beautiful dunes. I sat on them one afternoon in bright sunshine watching the black of a receding storm to the west and gleaming white gannets diving offshore brilliant against he lowering sky. Is it any wonder I love this place.

The road then curves round to Gruinart, the farm the RSPB owns, where all the best birds are. If we follow the single track road up to Ardnave, passing the delightful chapel at Kilnave, we can wave across to the guys in Coll and Oransay.

And that's it.

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Old Jan 6th, 2005, 12:02 PM
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Mmm. Grumpy about that. I editted it and it took half an hour.

Never mind. Email me for the editted version.
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Old Jan 6th, 2005, 12:20 PM
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Sheila - I am gobsmacked. Let me spend some time with your comments and I'll get back to you. Thank you so much....

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Old Jan 6th, 2005, 01:39 PM
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gobsmacked good or gobsmacked bad?
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Old Jan 6th, 2005, 03:25 PM
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Obviously I can't add much, if anything, to Sheila's amazing post.

One minor thing, the "the tree place just south of Loch Fyne" she mentions might be the Kilmory Woodland. I'd guess it is about 10 miles south of Crarae Gardens. Also about the Gardens - they are truly magnificent in the spring when the Rhododendrons/azaleas are in bloom. The rest of the year it is mainly a lovely woodland-type garden, but not nearly the "must" it would be in May..
janis is offline  
Old Jan 6th, 2005, 07:11 PM
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Sheila: Whoooogh! Easily the most comprehensive set of instructions, directions, observations and suggestions I have ever read in my years on this board. I only wish I had known about you before my initial trips to Scotland. Would that there were one of you for every country I intend to visit. You are amazing.
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Old Jan 7th, 2005, 04:51 AM
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Amazing, Sheila ! Fantastic stuff about the Brockets which I'd never heard before : these would presumably be ancestors of the current Lord Brocket who did time for an insurance scam involving burying his valuable vintage cars ? and turned up last year on 'I'm a Celebrity, Get me out of Here !' ? What a family !
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Old Jan 7th, 2005, 06:54 AM
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What a superb post. I feel I have just been on my first visit to Islay.

I'll be hoping for another like that when you next visit Athens.

billbarr is offline  
Old Jan 7th, 2005, 07:57 AM
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Is your original trip report available online?

Keith is offline  
Old Jan 7th, 2005, 10:18 AM
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This wasn't actually a trip report. Sally (sfowler of this parish) and her man were coming to visit us for a long weekend, and we took them to Islay. We picked them up in Perth and took them across country, and I did a mile by mile travelogue in advance so they'd know what to expect and look out for.

It's not on line. But I'll send you it if you want...

And, yes, Caroline, that is the forebear of the present titleholder. I had a note in the editted version which disappeared that I was not imputing Nazi views to the present chappie.

Bill, I've been to Islay so many times I could practically introduce you to the sheep by name. I have to say that I have no ambition to get to know Athens that well.

And, no, Janis, I meant Strone House Gardens at Cairndow.

Thank you for your kind words.
sheila is offline  
Old Jan 19th, 2005, 01:01 AM
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Wow Sheila! That was FAB! Hey, I just wanted to thank you for mentioning my Wee Toon (Campbeltown!) I know I don'y live there now but that area is very familiar and you hit teh nail on the head!
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Old Jan 19th, 2005, 01:17 AM
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Oh! I almost forgot! If you are in Kintyre and verture as far as Campbeltown, their Music Festival is on in August with bands, pipers and dancers playing for free in pubs, hotel bars and in the streets. Sheila mentioned the Sprinkbank Distillery and there is also The Ardshield Hotel which has a fabulous bar stocked with MANY different whiskies! I daresay you may catch some Highland Games while you are there if you or your wife fancied it, keep an eye on http://www.albagames.co.uk it will let you know when and where. Cheers!
mousireid is offline  
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