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Issue 15 - On the isle of Islay with Mr Toad

Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


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On the isle of Islay with Mr Toad

Dominic Roskrow visits one of the greatest centres for malt whisky.

One of the most disturbing aspects of modern Scotland is the fact that there is a net migration of people, and those people that are coming to the country are doing so part-time and buying homes to be used only for holidays.

The trend is most acute on the west coast, which, with the exception of Orkney, is where my favourite parts of Scotland are. So bad is the problem that some islands are now in danger of hitting a critical mass where they are going to cease to be viable economic concerns.

At a time when so many countries are worrying about too many immigrants and England in particular is doing its normal xenophobic quick step over the enlargement of the European Union and the potential ‘flood’ of citizens from former Eastern bloc countries, Scotland is desperate for some influx, and is doing everything it can to encourage new settlers.

One island where this is not a problem is Islay (pronounced Eye-la) where buying property is just about impossible and which is enjoying something of a boom.

The reason? Whisky.

Islay is a mecca for whisky fans, having no less than seven operating distilleries and a maltings, with another smaller distillery set to open in the next few weeks. Not just any old whisky, either; some of the best and most challenging of all, including the three weighty peaty ones – Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin.

In spring the island holds a festival of music and whisky, and enthusiasts from across the world cram the flights and ferries to create a melting pot that brims over with people feeling pretty good with themselves for having such wonderfully good taste.

I wear several hats in this company and one of my other ones is Editor of Whisky Magazine, so I am fortunate enough to spend the week ‘working’ on the island during festival time.

But this year I went one better; I headed out to Islay three weeks earlier so that I could have the distilleries to myself. Or more accurately, to have the distilleries to share between myself and whisky writer and friend Ian Buxton.

He’d hired an open top car, and picked me up in Edinburgh to make the long drive to the ferry like he was Mr Toad from Wind In the Willows.

We stayed the night at the Anchor Inn at Tarbert and spent a delightful evening eating seafood and drinking finest Scapa whisky (to celebrate the reopening of the Orkney distillery) and Springbank, which is from the region and again, one of the best malts on the planet.

Then we sailed at dawn, the sun rising behind us as we crossed for two perfect days of paradise. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky throughout the trip, which is a rarity. But even with rain I would argue that like Orkney, Islay should be on any Scots-lover’s ‘to do’ list and is well worth the time and effort required to get there.

You need a car on Islay, but it’s an easy island to navigate. And don’t be put off if you’re not a whisky fan; the distilleries are worth a visit anyway, being as they are delightfully pretty and laden with history. Add to that a timelessness that you rarely experience these days, some truly amazing seafood, and a warm and kind population who seem to genuinely delight on having people visit, and you’re talking about a pretty special place.

We walked on warm barley as peat smoke poured up through it to create the Islay magic, we tasted rare whiskies in damp sea salt soaked warehouses, and drank drams while the sun and bitterly cold wind combined to turn the bays in a mass of flash lights. And on the ferry back, the sun setting behind us, we lit cigars and toasted each other’s good fortune. And boy, did we laugh when we heard that London had had flash floods three feet deep.

The west coast of Scotland as the new holiday paradise? Perhaps that’s going just a little bit too far.

But it beats me why people don’t want to live there.