Islay in April
I was on Islay this year between April 7th and April 14th: the first time I have ever visited in April. Far from being the cruellest month, it seemed to be one of the kindest on the island: lengthy daylight hours already and the surge of spring flowers underway, yet the companionable (and now plump) barnacle geese still set the fields chattering; the choughs were as numerous, as vocal and as playful as I have ever known them; and the female kittiwakes had already settled into their balconies on the crag edges while the males cruised the air nearby and performed their indolent acrobatics. One day I hope to learn how to post photographs on this site, but for the time being you will have to make do with the word-pictures.
I was up on the island with family and friends, most of whom had never visited and were thus relying on me to show them its many felicities. It’s impossible in a week, of course, but what did we manage? Seal-watching at Portnahaven on a rather overcast Easter Day, to begin with; the lolloping grey seals on the rocks were more torpid than ever, barely mustering the effort to wave a flipper at us over the best part of an hour. There was more seal-watching (common seals, this time) at the beautiful Loch an t-Sailein just up from Ardbeg in Kildalton a little later in the week, and then a stroll in brilliant, balmy sunshine along the shoreline of Claggan Bay (where friend Sonya created a Celtic cross in the sand, studding the characteristically intricate motifs onto it with pebbles).
We visited Kildalton Cross on the way back, of course, and I have never seen that haunting little ruined church look sweeter than it did in the cascading April light, the grass around it glittering greenly. We also managed a blowy walk down to the sea-thundered coves at Lower Killeyan on the Oa (where the wild goats looked as curious and as diabolical as ever) and another stride towards the Atlantic blast as dusk drew on at the Laggan end of the Big Strand. That simple but delightful little walk over the headland from Caol Ila to Port Askaig on the afternoon we all arrived was a good taster for the week ahead, and the heavy engineering involved in creating the linkspan at Port Askaig provided entertainment as we took a wee refreshment at the Hotel.
Which was another taster, of course: whisky interest was amply catered for by an in-depth visit to Bowmore on Wednesday morning (when the kilning was underway) and well as by repeated tastings at our accommodation — Octovullin, an Islay Estates house which sleeps eight very comfortably, just off the Bridgend-Port Askaig road (signposted Scarrabus). We paid our respects to the fathers and mothers of the lost Lordship at Finlaggan … at dusk, once again, when you can hear the whisper of Gaelic in the reeds in the water and see the ghosts flitting along the shoreline. Mark Reynier of Bruichladdich, James and Sheila Brown of Octomore and Ileach editor Carl Reavey and his wife Jan came round to dinner on the Wednesday, when I was hoping to catch up on all the island gossip. As it was, though, I spent much of the evening in the kitchen … and only got a little of the gossip over a dram of Bruichladdich’s 1986 ‘Blacker Still’ when dinner was done.
It more than made up for my earlier efforts, though. This is drawn from a lusciously sherry-burnished cask, bottled (in a matt black bottle) 20 years after distillation having been sniffed out and signed — with silver ink — by Jim McEwan. Was Jim, by any chance, recalling the legendary Black Bowmore? Perhaps Mark, with his gift for publicity, will arrange for a bottle of Blacker Still to be kidnapped and held to ransom in Canada … We had lunch at Ardbeg, of course, where I was hoping to catch up with Jackie Thomson, though in the event she was off the island; and we also had lunch at Kilchoman Farm Distillery. The distillery is still out of action for the time being following its kiln fire, but I did get a chance to try the new make which I was truly impressed with: complex and multi-layered as new make rarely is. I understand a Danish investor is bringing new funds to the project.
I was sad not to catch up with other Islay friends (like Jim himself, and all the distillery managers new and old) but felt that my first duty this week was as a guide. I did make two new friends, though. Readers of Peat Smoke and Spirit may remember mention of Howard and Suzanne Cobb, the extraordinary English couple who live in the old lighthouse at Rhuvaal, at the island’s northernmost tip. There is no road; access is only by boat or quad bike, and it’s rough riding at that. The track winds through tussocky, often boggy grass underneath Scarbh Breac and the other low peaks; there are sometimes deep gullies where the burns plunge down to the Sound of Islay, and navigation is best accomplished by following the sometimes tipsy telegraph poles. I had made the walk from Bunnahabhain to Rhuvaal once before, though Howard and Suzanne were away on that occasion. This time, they were at home, and they welcomed the six of us who completed the walk with tea and smiles and laughter.
It was another day of coruscating sunshine, and we sat out on garden chairs in Suzanne’s wind-blasted garden and looked up the Sound towards the whirlpool of Corryvreckan as well as across to a misty Oronsay and Colonsay. Underneath the lighthouse there is a pretty sea-carved stone garden of coralline delicacy which we explored first; and, as usual, a shag or two kept guard on the rock just to the south of the lighthouse.
I asked Suzanne and Howard how they managed to retain their sanity living in such an isolated and extreme location, especially during the gruelling winter months, but they looked at me as if I was the one who had parted company with reality. They loved it, they said. Wouldn’t everyone? Look at the view; breathe the air; listen to the waves on the rocks. What more could you want? Ten-pin bowling? A drive-in McDonalds? Even there, they are part of the local community (Suzanne plays the organ sometimes at church elsewhere on the island) and everyone looks out for them. Indeed we all went down to meet the postboat as it bobbed up the Sound with their packet before we set off on the walk home. I sent them another card of a lighthouse after I got back, keen to make that 32p stamp work as it rarely does.