Islay, aaah, Islay, it’s always such a pleasure to visit your beautiful landscapes again.
Even if you made a liar out of me when I told our Islay newbie friends how we have always had gorgeous weather for Feis Ile (whisky and musical festival) week and would surely have it again. Even in the driving winds and rains, you were beautiful.
Though the weather made me grateful for the cosiness of our self-catering house with its deep, soft sofas, small but well-equipped kitchen and comfortable bedrooms. And its windows out across glorious views of green grass, yellow gorse, blue sea and cows. I spent long moments standing watch as baby rabbits, deranged with excitement, hopped and swallows swooped across the spring sky.
There were seven in our group this time; two crazy brave folks on bicycles and the rest of us in joyously rain-proof cars. I think – I hope – we all enjoyed the week, though I remain in awe of the cyclists’ sheer determination and tenacity!
We didn’t visit as many of your beautiful locations as we usually do – no excursions to Kilnave Chapel, the Kildarton Cross or to the ancient seat of the Lordship of the Isles, on the shores of Loch Finlaggan. Few meanders across sand beaches or stony shorelines. And a little less time sitting out in the sunshine with a whisky in hand and the merry notes of live music nearby.
Still we visited all the distilleries: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig and Islay Ales too.
We didn’t diligently attend every distillery open day this time – since our first visit in 2006 the popularity of the festival has grown year on year and there are far more fellow visitors to contend with than ever before. Of itself, that’s no bad thing – it’s an extra pleasure chatting to locals and other travellers – but the narrow, twisting roads and limited parking at many of the distilleries makes transport logistics ever more difficult and there were a occasions when we bowed out of the long, slow queues for park and ride minibuses and pootled away somewhere else instead.
We took it easy, visiting distilleries on their quieter days and booked into only a couple of specialist events – partly be design and partly because they now book out within minutes of tickets being released. I am reliably informed that Jim McEwan’s last Bruichladdich masterclass and Dr Kirstie McCallum’s straight-from-the-cask tasting session at Bunnahabhain were both very fantastic.
Congratulations to both Ardbeg and Laphroaig, both celebrating 200 years as legally registered distilleries. Lagavulin follows suit next year. And a hearty congratulations to Kilchoman on their tenth birthday!
We made two lovely visits to my favourite Scottish pub, An Tigh Seinnse in Portnahaven, run by lovely Laura and her husband.
Of course, I gorged myself on crab claws and scallops from the Seafood Shack – no squat lobsters this time but the crab and scallops were as good as ever.
We cooked three communal dinners in the house and enjoyed two barbeques in the fantastic barbeque hut in the garden – I refer to this handsome hexagonal hut as the Hobbit House, though in reality it’s plenty large enough for the tallest in our group and seven of us had plenty of space to spread out inside. A large central barbeque is surrounded by benches covered in soft animal skins with light coming in from small windows. Next time, I shall pack a few candles for when the darkness falls. ASPorter butchers in Bowmore were the source of delicious meats, and the Bowmore co-op provided most of the rest. Plus some wild garlic foraged by Lagavulin’s car park and, later, from the back garden when we realised it was growing rampant there too.
We returned to The Lochside Hotel in Bowmore for a couple of lunches.
And we made a new discovery when we stopped into the Ballygrant Inn to a warm welcome in the well-stocked whisky bar there. Another welcome respite from the rain, especially for damp cyclists!
Even in the rain, driving around Islay afforded one stunning view after another; verges bright with blooming bluebells and tightly curled ferns, marshy grassland dotted with sheep and cattle, wide sweeping shorelines with gently lapping waters or wind-whipped, white-tipped waves, winding single-lane roads with quaint passing points that were slightly hair-raising when the island’s bus or a large lorry hurtled at speed towards you.
I did a lot of the driving as the only non whisky-drinker in the group, though I rather enjoyed it, perhaps more than my passengers did!
And when the sun came out more resolutely, for our last couple of days… oh Islay, you were, as always, glorious!
A salad with foraged wild garlic; a newly discovered pleasure – cambozola cheese in Pedro Ximinez sherry; ASPorter butchers; farm-fresh eggs from the chickens by the house; my sparkling sake whisky alternative; serving up my banoffee dessert; the aftermaths of after-dinner drinking
Although this isn’t a typical entry, I’m submitting this to Celia’s In My Kitchen, since we did lots of wonderful cooking in our Islay home-from-home and the fabulous Hobbit House!
Big thanks to my friend Matt Gibson for extra photos, credited by image.