As we sat in my Landrover at Kennacraig, waiting for the ferry to Islay, my guests from Taiwan and I listened to a CD of ‘Westering Home’. It seemed appropriate. This famous song is about the nostalgic return from the Far East to Islay:-
Westering home and a song in the air
Light in the eye and its goodbye to care
Laughter o’ love and a welcoming there
Isle o’ my heart my own one
Tell me o’ lands o’ the Orient gay
Speak o’ the riches and joys o’ Cathay
Aye but its grand to be wakin’ each day
To find yourself nearer to Islay
Where are the folk like the folk o’ the West
Cantie and couthie and kindly the best (cheerful and pleasant)
There I would hie me and there I would rest (hide)
At hame wi’ my ain folk in Islay (home with my own)
The west coast of Scotland has some thousands of islands, comprising the Inner and the Outer Hebrides. The fifth largest of these islands is the Island of Islay, lying at the southern end of the Inner Hebrides.
The pronunciation of the name ‘Islay’ is simple, but important. ‘Isle – a’ . Forget the ‘y’!
Islay has a heavily indented coastline, and overall is only about 25 miles N-S and 15 miles E-W. Islay is the perfect place for the slow traveller, because in a small space you can find an amazing mixture of historical and cultural forces; you can find a range of places of interest well out of proportion to the island’s limited surface area.
When I lived in Argyll I quite frequently travelled to Islay, to carry out one project or another. Now I have the pleasure of visiting the island, and the familiar places, for the fun of it. It is certainly one of my favourite islands. Last month my wife and I had the pleasure of taking a group of people from Taiwan to Islay. A large part of the pleasure was in seeing the island through the eyes of my guests, and seeing how they appreciated the unique things that Islay has to offer.
Islay now has a population of about 3,300 people. The population of the island has changed dramatically over the years. In 1841 there were about 15,000 people, and by 1891 that had reduced to 7,395 – it had more than halved in fifty years. The vast majority of people who left the island travelled to Canada and the northern USA in the face of increasing economic hardship back home.
The language spoken today on Islay is English, and around a third of the population also speak Gaelic. Place-names are frequently anglicised versions of the Gaelic place names, and there is a strong Norse influence in the place names as a result of the presence of the Vikings here for several generations.
The economy of Islay today is based on agriculture, tourism – and whisky. It is the whisky that has given rise to Islay becoming well known around the world. Eight Islay distilleries each produce a distinctive single malt whisky, with the over-riding theme of the Islay distilleries being the distinctive strong peaty flavour. This flavour is imparted from the water that is used in the whisky-making process, and particularly at the end of the malting process when the malt is subjected to smoke from the fires of damp peat.
In turn, Islay is known for its peat bogs. There are many square miles of peat bog, essentially consisting of wet decaying organic material. Across the island one can see lines across the peat bogs, indicating the straight lines of the cutting of the peat. The individual peats are stacked to dry above the annual cutting face of the peat, and some four to six feet depth of peat can be cut in one year. Some of the peat goes off to the distilleries, indeed some of the distilleries own their own peat bogs. Most of the peat, however, goes to heat the houses. It is an important sustainable fuel resource on an island where there is no coal and very little firewood.
Scotland is known world-wide for its whisky, and our guests last month had a keen knowledge and interest in the distilleries of Islay. We visited four of the eight distilleries on this tiny island, including well-known names such as Laphroaig and Bunnahabhain.
Islay has far more to it, though, than just whisky distilleries. If you know where to find them there are some astonishing and interesting features. Take for example the Kildalton Cross, an 8th century Celtic cross belonging to the early days of Christianity in Britain. Then there is the American Monument on the Mull of Oa, which is a memorial dedicated to the sinking of two troop ships on these shores in WW1. Much less easy to find are the 18 crannogs on Islay – a crannog is a man-made settlement constructed of stone or timber to form an artificial island in inland lakes; these were formed and used between two thousand and five thousand years ago.
Not everything on Islay, however, is ancient. For example, you can find on the north-west coast the world’s first power generator using wave energy as a fuel source, and in a similar vein tidal turbines are under construction in the Sound of Islay, where very strong tides rush through a channel which is also protected from storms.
There is a mixture of ancient and modern to be found in a wonderful traditional woollen mill, not far from Bridgend. The looms used to be water-powered, but now the rhythmic click-clack of their work is powered by electric motors. This is like a working museum, as well as being a place of work that is fully up-to-date. Recent contracts have including making cloth to be used for the production of Braveheart and other period films.
Visitors to Islay will find not just celtic crosses, crannogs and woollen mills. They will find also a rhythm and a pace of life that has all but disappeared elsewhere.
Alasdair and Barbara are originally from the west coast of Scotland and have wide-ranging hospitality experience. They recently returned to Scotland after living full-time in France for 10 years and hosting tours on a converted barge in the Garonne Valley. They are now sharing their love and knowledge of the Scottish Highlands through Highland Host, offering personalized tours in this beautiful region.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, the UK, and other European countries.