Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Islay & Jura – sand, sea, sun and whisky

Day 1 - Epic journey
After a 6000 mile journey from Windhoek in Namibia via Johannesburg, arrived at Heathrow to be picked up and driven over 600 miles to Islay in Scotland. I know Scotland and spent many years freezing or bemaoaning the lack of sun and this weather was beyond belief – brilliant sunshine Skirting Glasgow we drove up the never-ending Loch Lomond then round Loch Fyne to Kinnacraig to sunbathe on the quay until the ferry arrived, mouth gaping like a shark, to take us for a further two hour trip to Port Askaig on the blessed isle of Islay. 33 hours in all to arrive at a lovely house just above Bowmore to see friends we’ve known for over 30 years.
Now I’ve seen some sunsets but this crimson ribbon effect was stunning. Island light is infused with reflected light from the sea and big skies. It was ideal for cycling – few cars, fresh air, big sky and lots of wildlife. Islay is bejewelled by a ring of whisky distilleries around its coast in wonderful locations and has an abundance of beaches. My plan is to visit all eight distilleries, cycle around the island, pop across to Jura to travel the length of the island to Orwell’s house.
Day 2 Tuesday
Bruichladdich Distillery was the starting point for our cycle round the Rhinns. Along the coast past the pushmi-pullyu lamas then down to Port where the seals wallowed in the mirror, black water in the sun. Then up the hill and across the moor to a stunning stone circle and down to a beach for lunch.
There’s 33 chapels on the island as it was a crossing point from Ireland, the source of northern Christianity. St Columba stopped off on his way to Iona in 563. They’re mostly ruins, victims of the clearances and reformation but have a lonely melancholy that echoes the monastic tradition from whence they came. Beside some of these churches are celtic, stone crosses, elaborate story-telling devices. These islands, like the Egyptian desert where the monastic tradition first flourished, induce a sense of isolation and piety. You find yourself looking up at the sky, out to sea and across the landscape in a way that is not possible in an urban environment. Then there’s the silence. Cycling here is an absolute joy.
Day 3
Walk out to the American Monument set high on the western cliffs looking out to the site of the ship disaster that led to so many deaths. Goats clung to the cliffs and the views across the sea to Ireland and out to the Atlantic were amazing.
Then south to Ardbeg Distillery for lunch – haggis baked potato, clootie dumplin’ and two whiskies! Whisky lesson 1: Whisky making came from Ireland and was first recorded in Scotland in the late 15th century. Originally distilling took place on farms with the whole process taking place in one location. This is rarely true today.
We sat on the pier watching the still sea in the sun then headed out to a beach, where Tony sat down inches from a set of three Oyster Catcher eggs. Then off to Kildalton church where there’s a celtic cross, curiously with a set of three eggs on the front, representing the Holy Trinity – spooky. When the cross was about to fall over in the 19th century it was excavated and the bodies of two people, who seemed to have suffered the Viking torture of being spread-eagled, were discovered beneath the cross.
On the way back we stopped off at Laphgroig Distillery. Whisky lesson 2:  Barley is soaked for a few days to germinate the seeds and produce the sugars that are converted to alcohol. The barley was spread out across a malting floor and turned many times by hand. It is now done by machine, and rarely at the distillery.
Next up, Lagavukin Distillery. Whisky lesson 3: The germinated malt is paced on a mesh and heated by burning peat. Many distilleries still have the high pagoda roofs that draw the hot air across and through the malted barley. This goes on for two days at 60 degrees until dried.
Then down to the Singing sands for a paddle. If you walk dragging your feet through the sand you can hear it singing – allegedly.
Day 4 Thursday Jura
Ferry across to Jura and a stop at the Jura Distillery and morning coffee (and a black pudding roll) at Antlers. Whisky lesson 4: The detritus is removed from the maltings and used as cattle food, then ground and fed into the ‘mash tun’ with hot water where it is stored so that the maltose, with the help of introduced yeast, can turn into a clear alcoholic liquid.
Then the long drive towards George Orwell’s cottage at Barnhill, almost at the northern tip of the island. We drive as far as we could but still three miles short of Barnhill, so hiked out, with deer in almost constant view, surprising a huge owl when rounding a rock outcrop, then there it was a whitewashed cottage in a valley facing the sea. No one at home, but the very place where 1984 was written. A few days later Edward Snowden was to reveal to the world the extent of illegal US Big Brother surveillance on the citizens of the world – Freedom is Slavery. We walked back, drove back down the east coast and stopped for an Arran Blonde Ale on the way back at the Jura Hotel in the evening sun.
Having stopped to see so many birds, we sped round the rocky headland to catch the last ferry back to Islay, only to see its bridge glide away from behind the quay. By the time we got to the ferry crossing it was well across the channel. We waved, and unbelievably, we saw it stop, reverse, turn and come back! What a great gesture. The captain lowered the ramp, we drove on, only one of three cars on board, and waved our thanks to the bridge. It made our day.
Day 5 Friday
Trips to the Bowmore Distillery that looks west. Whisky lesson 5:  The clear liquid ‘wash’ is then distilled in those pear-shaped copper vessels – pot stills. The liquid is distilled several times and stored in the ‘spirit safe’.
Then to the Bunnahabhain Distillery with its beach and magnificent views of the Paps of Jura, the source of many a bawdy comment. I had a dram here, at 11am, bought a bottle and had a chat with the girl in the shop who had seen two £1999 bottles of whisky sold in the last two weeks. Whisky lesson 6: Water has next to nothing to do with the colour or taste of whisky – much of it is down to the storage in sherry or bourbon casks. Some of the barrels are remade with different components from different barrels and some charred to induce the release of extra flavours.
We laughed at the barrel placed by the side of the road on which was stencilled an arrow and the words ‘Other places’. Then not far to the more workman-like Caol Isla Distillery just along from the ferry terminal. Whisky lesson 7: Whisky is stored for a minimum of three years but more often 10 years and more in constant cool conditions. This is where the casks do their magic and 2% is lost through evapouratin – the Angel’s Share.
Then off on our bikes from Port Charlotte over to the small Kilchoman Distillery, set in the hills, for tea and cake. Whisky lesson 8: A single, single malts is bottled from one cask, a single malt from one batch of casks, a blend from several different whiskies.
Then down to Kilchoman Church with its beautiful 14th C cross celtic cross. Then down to Machlin beach for a lazy lunch. A mile of exquisite beach, almost entirely to ourselves. The rock formations at the south end of the beach show volcanic dykes, hard rock that defies the waves.

Lovely island, lovely people, great for cycling, great for whisky…. 

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