| 16.1°C Belfast

Whisky, wildlife and wandering on Islay: A magical day on Scotland’s west coast

Close

Port Ellen on Islay

Port Ellen on Islay

Getty Images/Collection Mix: Sub

Ardberg distillery

Ardberg distillery

Lighthouse at Port Ellen on the headland Carraig Fhada

Lighthouse at Port Ellen on the headland Carraig Fhada

Getty Images/imageBROKER RF

Laphroaig distillery

Laphroaig distillery

Lagavullin, one of the distilleries on Islay

Lagavullin, one of the distilleries on Islay

Port Ellen lobster pots

Port Ellen lobster pots

/

Port Ellen on Islay

The text said ‘Do you still want to go to Islay? There’s a trip tomorrow.’ My speedy reply included a smiley emoji to underline an enthusiastic affirmative. True to his word, Aquaholics skipper Richard Lafferty had not forgotten a year old conversation about a day trip to this fascinating island in the Inner Southern Hebrides of Scotland, part of the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada.

A 20-mile run from Portstewart to Ballycastle is very doable for an 8.30am departure from the Blue Flag marina in the inner basin of the harbour, though pales in comparison to a 180-mile round trip for three keen county Down birders. Such is the pull of wildlife and whisky.

No doubt it was both that appealed to the four American travellers, from California and Washington state, who also boarded the new high tech, 13-seater boat, in eager anticipation of what they would experience just thirty-seven nautical miles away.
‘Will it be a rough crossing?’ ventured one. Fingers crossed, but early morning mill pond harbours can be deceptive.

The gentle purr from the engine accelerated to a steady hum as we left the town of the castle in our wake, headed first towards a special rear view of Rathlin Island and Bruce’s cave, with seagulls, then gannets and finally the clowns among seabirds, puffins, as cheery companions.

In flight, their frantic, speedy, wing flapping, resembles little wind up toys in overdrive and further distinguishes these black and white birds with flattened bright bills and orange legs. Just one of many reasons that they are consistently ranked among the world’s favourite species.

Richard is an experienced boatman. He grew up in Portstewart and has been sailing and skippering boats on these Atlantic waters for many years. He knows every moody twist and turn of the swells and waves and currents that north coast weather can summon in the blink of an eye.

His knowledge of the wildlife above and below the sea is born of decades of admiration and respect for this precious landscape.

Daily Headlines & Evening Telegraph Newsletter

Receive today's headlines directly to your inbox every morning and evening, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

The twitchers on board have been promised a golden eagle before the day is done and the excitement is palpable.

The morning sun continues to shine and glisten on the azure blue sea, draping it in a lavish diamond sequined coat, waltzing to nature’s rhythmic tune. A much more elegant scene than my wide legged stance on the convulsing boat as I lean into the chrome rail for balance, labouring under the illusion that I’m in full control of my limbs. The fresh sea breeze is invigorating and provides the simple explanation for why people who live by the sea very often have a healthy glow about them.

Landward ho and the first sight of Islay, pronounced Isla, is a distillery sign with large letters painted in black on a whitewashed wall spelling out Ardbeg and quite possibly visible from space.

Close

Ardberg distillery

Ardberg distillery

Ardberg distillery

Numerous boat trips over many years have convinced me that there is no delicate way to disembark from a boat. Whilst I took a moment to ponder the many feet that had landed on these worn stone steps, in truth I was more concerned with hoiking myself up in one piece and not making a show of my own landing on this Scottish island.

There are currently nine working distilleries on Islay with plans for two more in the next few years. Bowmore, also the name of the island’s capital, is the oldest and was founded in 1779. They are spread across the island but where we have docked today, on the south coast, Ardbeg, Lagavullin and Laphroaig are situated within walking distance of each other.

Despite the abundance of whisky producers on this 239 square mile landmass, farming is the largest single economic activity. The whisky industry, fishing and tourism are also important sources of income and in each speciality, the islanders excel.

Islay is known for its peat bogs but there is also woodland, moorland and grassland. By Scottish standards the climate is mild — Richard, our captain, says it’s warmed by the Gulf Stream and fairly well sheltered from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Much of the land is used as grazing for the striking highland cattle with their sandy coloured coats and noble looking horns a field or two away from black faced nonchalant sheep that take transfixed visitors in their very relaxed stride.

Universally and for centuries, people have used the landscape where they live, in whatever way they can to provide sustenance and shelter. This is true on Islay today. Several of the peat bogs are regularly cut, providing fuel both for the nine distilleries and for private use.

There are also coniferous tree plantations, concentrated mainly in the south eastern parts of the island and the area around Loch Gruinart is a designated nature reserve managed by the RSPB.

All of the distilleries offer tours, talks and samples. The Americans set off for the full blooded experience whilst we head for the gift shop and opt for coffee from the van outside that resembles an old fashioned American airstream trailer. The next stop is Port Ellen, not far from Port Charlotte and Portnhaven the other main settlements. In the early 19th century 18,000 people lived here. Today, as with many offshore islands, that number has fallen to 3,000.

Close

Lighthouse at Port Ellen on the headland Carraig Fhada

Lighthouse at Port Ellen on the headland Carraig Fhada

Getty Images/imageBROKER RF

Lighthouse at Port Ellen on the headland Carraig Fhada

Port Ellen wears a warm welcoming crescent shaped smile and promises a pleasant 20-minute, one-mile walk to Laphroaig distillery. We deduce that these are island miles because 30 minutes later we’re still walking and hoping we haven’t missed a sign on the comfortable new looking path that meanders alongside the A846 coast road leading eventually to another production site at Kildalton.

Flat fertile fields are enclosed by slate stone walls, more jagged than the traditional rounded Co Down variety. New and old houses pepper this calm and inviting landscape. Traditional meets modern architecture in style and design — tell-tale signs of returning emigrants made good, unable to resist the lure of their home place and the charm that middle age welcomes and youth can often spurn.

By north coast traffic standards, there is barely a car on the road. Traffic as it should be, unobtrusive and polite, as the occasional passing driver smiles and waves. This hospitality continues at the distillery when the woman reassures us that if the tasters on offer are not to our palate, she will happily put them in miniature branded bottles for the return journey and a connoisseur at home maybe.

The aroma is definitely peaty and the one drop that gingerly landed on my tongue was not unpleasant. I thought of my tipple loving granny and hoped she would be proud of me.
The return walk to Port Ellen seems much quicker and we’re in luck with a table at the Sea Salt Bistro and take away. If only we could have taken some of the scallops or fishcakes and potatoes, that put me in mind of Comber Earlies, home. But treat enough on a weekday to enjoy this good local produce without a phone or an email to be heard or seen. After a quick juke into the Port Ellen hotel next door and the Spar shop round the corner, we retire to the wooden benches on the grass overlooking the beach and harbour on this increasingly warm and pleasant day.

The woman in the shop was from Donegal and married an islander 17 years ago. Credentials for islander status I venture? ‘I’ll never be that’ she says. It seems that the blow-in theory can take hold anywhere.

Like all memorable days this one has come to an end all too soon. On the return journey, the sea has changed form entirely and is acting up, boisterously, transforming the boat into an all new aquatic funfair ride. Bang, bang, bang, chop, chop, chop, spray, spray, spray. So much so that we must retire to the indoor, well sprung seats.

Close

Laphroaig distillery

Laphroaig distillery

Laphroaig distillery

The Americans look slightly paler and tired, electing to have forty winks and dream of calmer things.

The twitchers are luxuriating in the sight of a golden eagle at Oa on the southern tip of Islay, a stunning reserve of dramatic sea cliffs, freshwater lochs and coastal grassland, committing to memory the spectacle of this awesome creature and no doubt already planning their next trip.

A man on a spiritual pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Donegal once told me that to ensure a return visit, on the journey back to Pettigo, look backwards, towards the island. At the time, I wondered was the reverse also true. With this thought in mind I happily gaze back towards the Queen of the Hebrides, nodding my head in her direction and hoping the same adage will apply in this case.

Sailing serenely now alongside the huge breakwater boulders that wrap their solid arms around us in a welcoming embrace in the still calm, mill pond waters of Ballycastle harbour, there’s a lengthy queue at Mortons fish and chip shop.
Later that evening I send a thank you text to Richard, adding: ‘And I still want to go to Islay — again and again and again’.

For more information on boat trips to Islay, see www.aquaholics.org

For more information on boat trips to Islay, see www.aquaholics.org


Top Videos



Privacy