- Wednesday 13th May 2015
- Posted in activities, beaches, cycling, distillery, events, food and drink, guest post, natural Scotland, photography, the real scotland, whisky, wildlife
Islay, one of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, is world renowned for its wildlife, weather and whisky. It can become a very personal place for many, including our guest writer, graphic designer and curious explorer, Ali Campbell.
Islay – From Childhood, Forever.
Islay has always been a place that I have been drawn to. The seeds of fascination were sown early from pages of black and white photographs in old family albums of summer days on the beach at Blackrock. Among the faces in the photographs, though they didn’t know it yet, were the people that I came to know as my mother and my grandma and grandpa.
My mum was brought up on Islay and such is the friendliness of the place, that despite not having lived there for 50 years, she can still bump into someone she knows on Main Street in Bowmore and be welcomed in for an impromptu cup of tea.
They lived in the former fever hospital at Gart na Tra. In 1992, long after my grandparents had left, the building was beautifully renovated and opened as the Columba Centre, a hub for Gaelic culture and language.
The last photograph of my grandmother was taken at the Centre during a weekend visit with my mum, outside what was her old front door. She died the night after they left.
Many will say that their memory of childhood holidays is that the sun shone constantly. While there have been plenty of sun-filled times on Islay, it was the first place I really recall experiencing honest weather. One spring holiday, I remember, for the first time, feeling the romance of a harsh wind gusting along a wide expanse of beach; being part of the elements, completely enveloped. Islay is an island whose communities have been shaped by its weather and its geography, as has its whisky.
As a boy, I remember going to see the cask stores at mothballed distilleries and even at a young age, being fascinated by some of the numbers stencilled onto the barrels, dating back further than I could imagine. It always stuck with me being told how much Islay’s whisky is influenced by the peat and the sea.
I have been back to Islay numerous times as an adult and thankfully a good few of the mothballed distilleries have reopened since my childhood visits and it was the whisky that took me back not so long ago for a long weekend, with distillery tours of Ardbeg and Laphroig. In fact, as a friend of Laphroig, I have a lifetime lease of a square foot sized plot on the island. While that clearly doesn’t make me an Ileach (someone born and bred on Islay), it simply adds to my affinity for the place.
There are 9 active distilleries on the island, producing some of the world’s finest Scotch Whisky. New names like Kilchoman and Gartbreck join the stalwarts of Lagavullin, Caol Ila and the three Bs – Bowmore, Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich. Bruichladdich also produces The Botanist, a fine gin influenced by 22 island botanicals, including the ever present heather!
Each distillery is unique, every one with their own distinctive whiskies that you could spend a lifetime and a small mortgage exploring.
Travelling round Islay is easy. None of the villages are particularly far apart. I have walked and driven the mainly single track roads. With the friendly nature of the islanders, it is easier to hitchhike than get a taxi. It’s also relatively flat, so a great place to cycle, immersed in nature and surrounded by wildlife.
Next time I go back I hope to take part in The Ride of the Falling Rain, a 100 mile cycle along Islay’s (often bumpy) roads. Until then I will live with my memories of clean, invigorating air; glorious sunsets; peat stacks; cooking breakfast on the beach; salt on the wind; nights around pub fires. Every time I smell burning peat or bring a dram to my lips, I’m back there.
Islay is a special place, a personal place, a place I have known as child and adult. Islay is a place I want my children to get to know.