11 Jul Elemental Islay: big skies, powerful history … and whisky galore!
My first encounter with Islay was on a sailing adventure in the early 1970s. As a student I took off with a couple of crazy friends to explore the west coast of Scotland in my dad’s boat. After we heard about a drugs bust on the island we thought we had to check the place out! We ended up in a pub in Port Ellen and, after I’d secured a couple of bottles of Laphroaig, got back on the boat for an all-nighter.
Islay is elemental: open to the Atlantic with these big, rapidly changing skies, it has a powerful atmosphere. The weather is better than on islands further north. In Skye for example, you can be there for weeks and never see the tops of its mountains. Islay is fertile, has a wild peninsula called the Oa, and huge areas of peat bog, which is vital for whisky production.
The locals, known as Ileachs, have a dignity, fearlessness and openness. This is borne of the fact that Islay truly is a pilgrimage site for whisky (and ornithology). Through my love of sailing and whisky I’ve visited every Scottish island and, for me, Islay is the most welcoming. There’s a French phrase, être bien dans sa peau: it means being at ease with oneself, and it’s something the people of Islay have.
The Glasgow Malt Riots of 1725 played a major part in Islay’s whisky heritage. Glasgow MP Daniel Campbell supported the imposition of a tax on malt and this led to his house being gutted by an angry mob. He applied to parliament for compensation and was given a grant of about £6,000, with which he bought the island of Islay.
His son, also called Daniel, supported the foundation of a distillery in the island’s capital, Bowmore, in 1779. He was also behind the model village there, built to a geometric plan, which was the first “planned” village in Scotland.
Before legal distilleries opened, there were illicit stills all over the island. There were reputed to be 12 illegal sites just around Lagavulin bay. Why? Well, there were no police on the island. Lagavulin itself was illegal at first, though it celebrates its 200th legitimate anniversary this year. There are eight distilleries on the island, an extraordinary concentration. I recommend taking in at least two or three, to experience the different tastes each one produces.
Bowmore, Port Ellen and Port Charlotte are the main towns, but villages such as Bridgend are full of attractive 18th- and 19th-century cottages. I love how little new build there is here.
It used to be said that you needed to be a hairy-kneed Scotsman to tolerate the pungent, oily, peaty drink that is the classic Islay whisky. The style is big on iodine and smoky flavours. A perfect example would be the Lagavulin 16 years old. If you want to try an Islay whisky that hasn’t been “peated”, go for Bunnahabhain or Bruichladdich. They offer a less intense experience.
What makes one whisky different from another? That’s very difficult to answer … but their unique character is very precious. It hasn’t always been the case, though. In the 1900s, the Glasgow-based agent for Laphroaig was dispensed with by its new owner: the agent was a peppery character called Sir Peter Mackie and he was furious at getting the chop, so he built his own distillery within Lagavulin – only half a mile from his now competitor – and tried to make the same product as Laphroaig. It was called Malt Mill, and while it was in production until 1962 it never produced anything like the Laphroaig.
Get on a bicycle and enjoy the flat, easy ride from Port Ellen to Kildalton Cross – one of the finest surviving Celtic crosses in Scotland. It’s less than eight miles, but goes past Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries; Ardbeg has a fantastic restaurant. The route takes you through beautiful, primal woodland, passing small coves and beaches.
Islay’s influence is remarkable … Finlaggan, a tiny island in a loch of the same name, was the seat of the Lords of the Isles. It was where they had their council and negotiated contracts with the kings of England and Scotland. One of their other power bases was at Dunyvaig Castle, which is just opposite Lagavulin distillery.