This week brings a welcome pause in our nomadic existence with a long weekend in London, then two weeks camped just east of Edinburgh, near the picturesque village of Aberlady. The London trip was mostly about seeing far flung friends and life admin, but the sheer luxury of our flat after two months on the road was also irresistible. Just to sleep in a normal sized bed, without the ceiling inches from my nose, was a delight. Our tiny windowless bathroom felt like a sumptuously tiled spa and the size of the washing up bowl left us positively giddy.
This pause in our travels also gives me a chance to do some catching up. New experiences stack up rapidly on the road, precious and ephemeral, I feel a compulsion to capture them all before my memory works its subtle betrayal, smoothing the days, muddling the details…
Eyes streaming and coughing hot coals you wonder why on earth anyone would drink something so disgusting…
So let’s step back just over five weeks, to when we took our first ferry from the mainland to Islay, (pronounced ‘eye-la’), the most southerly island of the Inner Hebrides. I first heard of Islay through its famously peaty whisky, Laphroaig. Probably not one for liquor novices, Laphroaig delivers an intense hit of fire and peat smoke which rapidly overwhelms the senses. Eyes streaming and coughing hot coals you wonder why on earth anyone would drink something so disgusting, but the magic is already at work. A day, a month, a year later, you will find yourself compelled to try it again. This time you’re prepared for the peat fire in your sinuses, so the more subtle flavours start to make themselves known. There’s an amber sweetness, meadow flowers, and also a cold salt tang, seaweed, like the memory of a winter shoreline. Before you know it, you are transported to a windswept rocky beach where the waves crash at your feet and the sea mist hangs low over the water. Back home in my London flat, before this trip had even been imagined, I would sometimes sit with a small dram of Laphroaig and let the fiery liquid weave it’s simple magic, the taste never failing to transport me to that lonely shoreline.
But what of the real Islay? An hour into our sea crossing we began to notice dark shapes emerging on the horizon. Soon low hills, valleys and rocky outcrops emerged from the dark water of the Sound, wreathed in clouds and shadows. We landed at the tiny village of Port Askaig and made our way along single track roads straight to Port Ellen on the south coast. This small town, built in 1821, was to be our base for the next few days and also just happened to be having a whisky festival when we arrived!
The following day was our wedding anniversary, so of course we started it with a tour of the Laphroaig distillery. I’d never thought much about the process of making whisky, but a young man, with the soft lilting accent of the isles, took us through everything from the malting and peat smoking to the huge copper stills and oak casks. Little has changed at Laphroaig since its founding in 1815, the peat is still cut from the local moors, the barley is malted and smoked on site and the water comes direct from a local reservoir. No wonder its’ whisky is such a perfect distillation of place. That evening we camped at the small town of Bowmore, where we feasted on local seafood and crisp white wine while watching the sun set over Loch Indaal.
Over the next few days we explored the rest of the island in the glorious unseasonal sunshine. We cycled out to see the 8th century Kidalton Cross and stumbled across an open air church service in the ruins of the old parish church. We were also lucky enough to catch the Ardbeg distillery festival ‘Peat & Love’, a whirlwind day of whisky tasting, live music and delicious Arbroath Smokies, all set against the backdrop of the shifting Islay shoreline.
On our last full day on the island we made a trip out to Loch Finlaggan, medieval stronghold of the Lord of the Isles and Clan Donald. This place was of huge importance from the thirteenth to fifteenth century, the seat of power for a clan which ruled the islands and much of the west coast of Scotland. Today it is a quiet place with only the wind stirring the reeds and rippling the dark water of the loch. As you walk from the visitors centre down to the loch edge, the geography of the site reveals itself. There are two small crannogs, Eilean Mòr (large island) and Eilean na Comhairle (council island), reached by a causeway now lost beneath the surface of the loch. Today we follow a wooden walkway across the reed beds to Eilean Mòr, where we explore the ruins of the small village built there over seven hundred years ago. It’s strange to walk amongst the ruins of a place once so full of life. For over two hundred years the Lords of the Isles ruled their vast maritime kingdom from this stronghold, withdrawing to the small Eilean na Comhairle with their chieftains and priests to decide the important matters of the day in a form of parliament. Today there are just tumbling ruins and the suggestion of ancient paths, but this site is hugely atmospheric, heavy with the ghosts of those long lost clansmen and all those who came before them. If you pause a while on the waters edge you can almost feel the village come to life around you, the metallic clang of the smiths hammer, the smell of peat fires and the chatter of women as they work.
As we leave Islay the following day to sail back to Oban, I contemplate all that we have seen in the last week. Although only a handful of miles from mainland Scotland, Islay felt utterly different, another country entirely. It is a romantic place, isolated and bleak, but at the same time very beautiful, with a history and culture that speaks directly to the mythic landscape of the imagination.