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Issue 10 - Where the whisky flows like water

Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003


This article is 15 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Where the whisky flows like water


From the Islay base on Eilean Mor in Loch Finlaggan, the Lords of the Isles ruled the west of Scotland and most of the islands for more than 300 years.

They were a powerful dynasty and they were MacDonalds, descendants of the original Lord of the Isles, Somerled MacGillebride. That is, until 1493, when title and lands were stripped from them due to their independent attitude to the Scottish crown.

The land was divided up by John, First Lord of the Isles into the clans that we are familiar with – Sleat, Clanranald, Glengarry, Glencoe and Keppoch.

I am a Keppoch and I have always known that but I didn’t know about the Lord of the Isles, Finlaggan and the rest until I found myself on the flight to Islay and chanced to sit next to a man who not only enlightened me of my Islay roots but also informed me that he was my cousin.

Our Islay ancestor was Alasdair Carrach the youngest son of John, First Lord of the Isles by the second wife, Lady Margaret Stewart, daughter of the highest steward of Scotland, after King Robert II of Scotland.

But this is a fairly modern Islay. The rich and fertile land of this southernmost Hebridean isle has been inhabited since the Stone Age. These earlier settlers left behind chambered burial cairns and “kitchen middens”.

The numerous standing stones on the island are dated from the Bronze Age when people from south-western Europe are believed to have settled on the island.

The Celts arrived between 200BC and 500 AD and then between the second and fifth centuries AD, the Scots arrived from Ireland establishing a new kingdom in Scotland. With these Scots came Christian evangelists from Ireland and many chapels, carved stones and crosses survive from this period.

The most notable is the Kildalton Cross, made of local epidiorite stone, which is very similar to the St.Martins Cross on Iona. The monasteries on Islay were at that time under the control of St Columba on Iona. And then in the last decades of the 8th century came the Vikings.

It is here that we meet with our MacDonald ancestors. Tired of these invaders, Somerled led his men into battle and won control of all of the southern Hebrides and much of mainland Argyll.

Islay prospered as the home of the Lord of the Isles and at its peak boasted a population of more than 14,000 inhabitants. These inhabitants were dependant on fishing, crofting and warmongering.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Highland Clearances had a profound impact on the island clearing out more than two thirds of the population to make way for sheep.

How different is the modern Islay to its turbulent past. The Lord of the Isles is long gone and today the island is owned by several different families including a large chunk belonging to the Swiss banking family, the Schroeders.

The main industries still include farming and fishing. But now the island, with a population of 3,000, is largely dependant on tourism and whisky distilling.

Although the making of whisky on the island dates back to the 14th century when the Irish monks found the unlimited peat and the pure soft water eminently suitable, today there are seven working distilleries on the island: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig.

This little island generates more than 20,000,000 litres of alcohol per year paying the excise man £396,200,000 in duty. Recently a bottle of Black Bowmore was sold at auction for £14,000.

No visit to the island is complete without a tour of at least one of these working distilleries. Seeing how your favourite malt travels from barley through to cask adds an extra something to any dram.

As well as generating much needed revenue on the island, the distilleries are integral to the communities.

In the capital town of Bowmore, the islanders raised £1 million to build a swimming pool in an old bonded warehouse and to reduce costs the distillery waste heat is recycled to heat the pool and building.

And this year Morrison Bowmore have sponsored the European Fly Fishing Championships, with the island having been chosen to host the event. This high profile fishing tournament attracts top fishermen from 14 European countries, boosting the local community and extending the traditional summer tourist season.

Tourism comes naturally to Islay and the Ileachs (the people of Islay) as the beauty of the place is breathtaking. Large fertile fields contrast with the peat-rich moorland and rough jagged coastlines open out on to huge sandy beaches. The villages are picturesque with their white terraced houses facing the harbours and on out to sea.

The charming capital, Bowmore, was apparently the first planned village in Scotland and was built in 1768. It was part of a resettlement scheme involving people from the old village of Killarow near Islay House (Bridgend) as the laird objected to the smoke of their chimneys.

Laid out in a grid pattern, the main street runs up the hill from the harbour to an unusual round church at the top.

This circular church, although rather contemporary in appearance, was built in 1767, a year before the rest of the village. It is said that the circular design was built so “the devil cannae hide”.

To the north of Bowmore, beyond Bridgend and the Loch Gruinart nature reserve is the village of Port Charlotte.

This pretty village is the home to the Museum of Islay Life and the Wildlife Information Centre. Founded in 1828 by Walter Frederick Campbell, Laird of Islay, he named the village for his mother.

On the other side of the island is Port Ellen, which Campbell founded (in 1821), and is named for his wife, Eleanor.

Not only does the car ferry from the Kintyre Peninsula come in and out of Port Ellen but there is also a small airport for private planes and the regular flights to and from Glasgow. Built primarily to service the distilleries but very handy for tourists.

Further north is the tiny port of Port Askaig where, weather and tide permitting, the car ferry also lands.

The Sound of Islay is a narrow but treacherous stretch of water between Islay and Jura. Apparently local divers “drift-dive” for oysters in the high speed currents between the two islands. These oysters are either flown straight to top restaurants around the world or to hotels on the island.

The hotels on the Islay are used to catering year round for top businessmen and women as well as the tourist trade in the summer. The results are unusually good food and service. The seafood is local and extremely fresh including delicacies such as oysters and scallops.

The beef is also local and due to the large open meadows and temperate climate, the meat is lean and tender. As the island is so small being only 25 miles by 20 (at the widest point), the atmosphere is intimate and personal. The islanders are warm and welcoming and although they all speak English, their language amongst themselves is mainly Gaelic.

As spring heralds the start of the tourist season, it also heralds the end of the geese. For six months of the winter, the island of Islay is home to up to 60,000 barnacle and white-fronted geese who return from Greenland each year.

The RSPB have turned a large part of the north west of the island (although it is a working farm) into a nature reserve. Through the observation window and with CCTV cameras for close up views, visitors can watch the geese, ducks, lapwings, waders and redshanks breeding and feeding on the mudflats.

Golden eagles, hen harriers, merlin and sparrow hawks can also be spotted on the reserve as on the rest of the island.

The jagged rocks and sandy beaches attract their share of wildlife too with seal and otters playing near the shore and out at sea bottlenose dolphins, porpoises, and mink whales can be seen gliding through the crystal clear waters.

The obvious peace, tranquility and romance of Islay make this a special haven in our modern world. But it is the added air of wealth, pride and contentment of the people that keep the visitors (and geese) returning for more.

And as my plane takes off from the tiny runway out over the transparent seas, I reflect that I wish the MacDonalds had stayed and that I too could be an Ileach living and working on this island where whisky flows like water and the people know their past.