Islay dispatches # 2022

A mixed bag of touristy info on walks and whisky distilleries on Islay.

# Day 13 / Wednesday September 7

1984. Orwell’s Barnhill has been there for quite some years. Not only in the hills a few miles beyond the hamlet of Lealt near the Sound of Jura but also in my head. After having taken the ferry from Port Askaig to Jura I have to drive another 25 miles along the single-track road followed by a four mile walk. Again it’s the sun that fuels me to do the whole track. Finally, there it is. The house where George Orwell wrote his 1984 in the late 40s. My camera captures the white washed house from every corner possible. Walking back I feel like having completed a pilgrimage.

Lussa Gin. I stop at the Lussa Gin just before Ardlussa on the road to the ferry. No deer or stags crossing the road this time. “They’re all busy up in the woods locking horns while hormones are raging ….”, says Georgina Kitching smiling. She one of the three ladies running Lussa Gin near Ardlussa. Having tasted a plethora of Dutch genevers over the years this Lussa Gin – derived from the traditional genever – tastes heavenly fresh, light footed and wonderfully perfumed. It’s made from more than 15 botanical varieties. I take one bottle home. Fully refreshed I drive home to Portnahaven.

Sad. On my way home BBC radio announces the death of Queen Elizabeth II. she was such a sweet old lady. Coming home in Portnahaven I can’t find a flag to fly half mast. Instead I poor a wee Black Bottle dram . Seems the only appropriate thing to do.

A great moment by actress Queen Elizabeth II The Great

# Day 12 / Thursday September 7

Jack of all trades. Almost a day as no other in our two weeks stay in Portnahaven: sunny and a bit breezy. My walk around Portnahaven harbour leads me to a caravan at the end of Crown Street. Jack repairs boats, creates wonderful furniture and seems to undertake forty other activities. A Bruichladdich barrel top outside his caravan home is a very generous gift to me.

My telephone conversation with Donald Mackenzie turns out to be very informative, a real addition to the podcast I had heard the night before. Since his residence is France nowadays I guess our future meetings will be online.

Later today I decide to call Jack Wiebers in Berlin. After I have introduced myself and made my intentions clear Jack says: “Do you speak German?” “Nein, nicht so viel” is all I can utter. We agree to do the first part of the interview by mail. In the mean time I will work on my German; there should be a ‘Na Klar!’ language course somewhere in my bookcase.

# Day 11 / Tuesday September 6

The Skerrols. We park at Bridgend parking place at craft centre. I can’t find Islay Ales Brewery. They stopped brewing in Bridgend for numerous reasons and their Islay Ales blue and green are now brewed under license in Scotland. The Skerrols walking tour is wonderful. It takes us 2 hours to get round some beautiful farms and once back in our car we set off to Coal Ila Distillery for our Flavour Journey Tour. 

The new Caol Ila. Having seen the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh only a month ago this new Caol Ila is the very extended version of it. Diageo’s Johnnie Walker has been rolled out completely in the 3-year renovation of Caol Ila, one of the four pillars of the new Johnnie Walker image. Together with Glenkinchie in the Lowlands, Cardhu in Speyside and Clynelish up in the northern Highlands Caol Ila is the peaty part of leading Diageo’s striding man Johnnie Walker. But where’s the ‘independent’ snug distillery I visited in 2012 with its small reception and MacGyver-styled tourings? Due to a tremendous noise of the vast washtun I can’t figure out what on earth our nice guide Nigel is talking about during his presentation. The still room is huge and three wash stills and three spirit stills tower impressively at a height of 7 meters. OK, ‘Let’s taste’ our guide proposes. We are seated in the brand new visitor centre with a spectecular view on the Paps of Jura. The tasting tables are wonderfully placed behind the large bar. Three whiskies plus a highball is our reward after a 90 minute tour. 

Again a new one. Before going home I like to find out where exactly the new Laggan Bay Distillery will be located. Yes, distillery number 12. I drive down to the old RAF site opposite Islay Aiport. After asking around and having listened to Whiskycast episode 964 (Mark Gillespie) I still don’t know where on the 1.5 hectare Laggan Bay Distillery is going to be situated. Let’s  give one of the owners a ring tomorrow and find out. I set a meeting for 13:00 BST the following day with owner and co-founder Donald MacKenzie. 

# Day 10 / Monday September 5

In Liz we Truss. We set off for the Frenchman’s Rocks walk in sunny weather and a strong breeze. Soon the very wet peaty and boggy fields drown my shoes completely. But the scenery is amazing. According to my walking guide I should spot low flying gannets, guillemots and razorbills. Unfortunately, I am not a trained birdwatcher. And leafing through my Birdwatcher’s Pocket Guide in this breeze is no option. I take a short cut home just in time to watch a conservative supporter holding up a sign reading In Liz We Truss on BBC Breaking News. If I had a penny for every use of word “unite”, I’d have at least £2.50 in my pocket, political BBC Editor Chris Mason twitters. Hey, both Vicky Young and Ros Atkins are sharp analists…

With all the issues at hand in the UK it does not seem the best time to step into office after Boris Johnson. Let’s hope this ‘forceful and opinionated’ woman can pull things off.

Limit to growth. Here on Islay there are several issues at hand. Apart from the usual cost of living issue there is the ‘limit to growth‘ discussion. Lochindaal Hotel bartender Is worried about 2 more new distilleries planned (and realized) on the island: Portintruan [port-nah-truan] by Elixir Distillers of Sukhinder Singh. Just behind Port Ellen Primary School on the way to Laphroaig (ground works in progress at this very moment). And Ili Distillery up at Gearach Farm at the Rhinns (no building activity yet). Ili distillery is realized by Bertram Nesselrode and Scott McLellan. Will they be able to sign up enough staff? Will there be enough housing for them and for local people as well? Will the CalMac limited timetables get these people on the island in time for work? What will happen when European funding dries up after Brexit? Will there still be enough money for road maintainance and other infrastructural projects? I feel a general concern when talking to people and nobody knows. Mr Nesselrode is more than willing to answer all my questions. Will be continued.

Unguided. My friend Michael Donnelly: “Once again, it points to a lack of common goal or focus for Ilich, the local residents and the Community Council struggles to make any concerted effort in guiding the strategic plans for the island. There is no tie or formal body between the distilleries, the (A&B) regional council, the Tourism industry, CalMac and the Community Council to join up thinking and so consequently, every action is taken as a reaction to ‘someone’ else’s decision in that chain”.

News. What a day ! More news on new distilleries. I can remember reading the Ileach issue 48_16 in which editor Brian Palmer talks about the Islay Boys (Islay Ales) planning a new distillery somewhere on the island. Listening to Mark Gillespie’s podcast episode 964 (August 7, 2022) one of the boys proudly announces the site: opposite Islay Airport at the old RAF site. The staged building warrants are in. Grounds will be scraped, fencing set up soon and foundations can be mapped out. No time to waste apparently.

# Day 9 / Sunday September 4

November 11. We visit the Sunday service at 11:30 at the Parish church in Port Charlotte (Never waste a good church-going upbringing !). No minister today but one of the congregation takes over. She informs us that on November 11 there will be a one minute silence at 11 am at the Kilchoman Military Cemetery at Machir Bay. We drive down. The cemetery is located close to the beach and overlooking the ocean just a mile from the distillery and a few hundred meters from the derelict church. A stunning view and silence is the most appropriate comment.

A group of German visitors chatter in a completely renovated Kilchoman Farm Distillery visitor’s centre. Outside the Wills family realized more warehousing as Peter Wills explained in an online tasting last year.

Pitch Dark. Darn, no Music Night at The Port Charlotte Hotel bar. The musicians weren’t available after all. “Awfully sorry…” Laura apologized again and again. It is what it is. We’ll try again this Wednesday. Driving back home from Port Charlotte to Portnahaven I realize what it is to drive on a winding road without a minimum of street lightning and no road markings. Next time I will get myself some LIGHTFORCE 140 mm LANCE 12V 35W HID T High Driving Lights on my grill.

# Day 8 / Saturday September 3

Radio. Still raining and I start listening to BBC Sounds to Celtic-Rangers FC; a disappointing 4-0 game. I am thinking of installing a VPN registration at home. It’s the only way BBC iPlayer is reachable for foreigners. We stop again at the Lochindaal Hotel bar. A lot of locals drink their council beer (Tennants) in loud banter. After a Tennants and a bitter we decide to cross the road and step into the Port Charlotte Hotel bar to talk to barman David to find out about the Islay Sessions on Nov 11-13.

# Day 7 / Friday September 2

We go out for a stroll at Dunlossit House. In a light drizzle we walk from Ballygrant to Port Askaig and back. I walk down the private road to Dunlossit House and on my left a simple gravestone attracts my attention: Bruno Lionel Schroder, one of Islay’s major philanthropists.

# Day 6 / Thursday September 1

I stay at home for a day’s writing. Have put my laptop in front of the window overlooking the ocean.

# Day 5 / Wednesday August 31

The Monument. Off to the Mull of OA for a circular walk. I pass Port Ellen Maltings and take a right turn…. Owner Diageo is developing ambitious new distillery facilities on the Port Ellen site. Once at the parking to The Monument we set off in full sunshine. We decide to extend our circular walk towards the beach. The American monument is as impressies always. Being there for the second time feels oddly comfortable.

The sight at the cliffs makes us aware of the great tragedy that took place in February 18 and on October 6 1918. The free booklet I picked up earlier at The Museum Of Islay Life says it all.

We land in the bar of the Lochside Hotel. The bar tender in charge had 1800 whiskies on offer. Funny to be flabbergasted again. I settle for a Belhaven Best.

# Day 4 / Tuesday August 30

Dunno. Busy binmen pass our bedroom window at dawn. Probably unaware of the strike that’s going on. Off to Bowmore for another circular walk from Bowmore to Laggan point. Once outside the village, past the round church and into the fields the scenery enfolds completely: pristine beaches , hilly green fields with sheep and cattle.. …unbelievable! Keeping near to the beach line we pass a sign. Very surprisingly it mentions the arrival of Gartbreck Distillery in 2016. Funny, the sign is still up. The man tending the bar at the Lochside Hotel shrugs: “Dunno. Probably a fit between the Frenchman and the Ardnahoe owner”. Worth following up. What happened to Jean Donnay? Hunter Laing and the former director of Glann-ar-Mor Distillery (Brittany, France) seemed to have dissolved their relationship. Mmm …. will be continued.

# Day 3 / Monday August 29

Walk Ardnave Point. “Goede morgen”, a man says in Dutch. His accent tells me he’s a local. “I am here for the birds. My wife is Dutch”. We start off for our walk and come across pristine beaches, a plethora of plants, the sun high up, seals calling and howling from rocks far away. All this with a light warm breeze accompanying us. A tune comes up: Let the sun in my back find me well on my way. Walking on the beach barefoot on kelp feels oddly comfortable.

# Day 2 / Sunday August 28

Been talking to Wendy (1936). She’s ever so kind. Took a stroll through Portnahaven and Port Wymess . Wonder if we can find a fisherman to ferry us to Orsay. I knock on a few doors but without success.

# Day 1 / Saturday August 27

Terrible congestion on Glasgow ring road tries to obstruct our journey to Kennacraig. We find time to shop in Tarbert for some necessary groceries, just in time for the final CalMac check-in at 17:30 hours. The Finlaggan ferry is waiting for us to take us to Port Askaig harbour on Islay in a two hour sail.