Islay nearly didn’t happen. I had chosen my trip dates to coincide with the last May bank holiday as this would allow me an extra day without taking leave from work. I had made the ignorant decision of assuming nothing would be happening on any of the islands on these dates, hence it didn’t really matter when we visited. How wrong I was. It turns out the dates I had chosen for Islay were right at the beginning of the island’s annual whisky and music festival.
With Islay boasting eight malt whisky distilleries on its land mass alone, never mind those of neighbouring Jura, the festival is quite an attraction for the whisky connoisseurs among you. Once sold on the possibility of random festivities, I embarked on a frantic bnb-contacting marathon. Most respondents apologised and said they were already fully booked but one came back to me to say that she knew of a couple who took in visitors during the festival season and I’d be guaranteed an amazing cooked breakfast. Breakfast, you say? I phoned the recommended couple and that is how we ended up staying with Sheena and Gilbert.
From the moment we arrived at Sheena and Gilbert’s beautiful home, we felt like we were staying with family. From cups of tea and unlimited gingerbread on arrival, to extensive chats around the kitchen table, where they showed genuine interest in our lives and plans, they constantly made us feel welcome.
I had several conversations with Gilbert, a native Ileach, about who my grandmother was and how I was connected to the island. On our last morning, he bounded through to the kitchen and showed me a photograph. “Do you recognise anyone in this photo?” he asked.
“That’s your granny on the left, and I’m in the front row, third from the right. She was my choir teacher in primary school!”
What? Could the world be any smaller? What an incredible discovery! Gilbert also explained that he’d known my grandfather very well due to their shared involvement in Gaelic singing in Scotland. “I’m so glad I figured out who you were,” Gilbert said. Me too, Gilbert, me too.
Whilst in Islay, I also had the opportunity to meet up with my second cousins Sammy and David, whose grandmother Bella was my grandmother’s older sister. I had never met either of my cousins, nor had I ever been to Islay, so I was keen to learn as much as possible about my grandmother’s early life. Sammy is quite a handy connection on Islay as he seems to know absolutely everyone. He showed us the house where he was born on Frederick Crescent, overlooking the beach at Port Ellen. “Your grandparents also rented a room here when they got married,” Sammy went on to explain, as we walked further down the street. The building he was referring to is currently undertaking renovation but thanks to Sammy’s connections, we were able to walk around the upstairs bedrooms and gain a sense of what it might have been like back in the 1950s. Bizarre to think really – I’m sure my grandparents would never have thought that their granddaughter would end up in that building 60 odd years later.
I really enjoyed talking with Sammy and David, who seemed like the experts on the lives of my grandmother and her eleven siblings, a family which grew up in the neighbouring whisky village of Ardbeg. “What do you remember about my granny?” I asked them. “She was very schoolteacherish,” was their response. “Very strict.” It’s funny – I don’t think of my granny in this way at all, but then I wouldn’t. I only knew my retired grandparents who volunteered in charity shops and sat on various council boards. I have no idea what they were like in their working days. However, I decided ‘strict’ was a good thing – a little discipline never hurt anyone!
So did Silvia and I become whisky experts on our three-day stint on Islay? Naturally. We undertook a distillery tour at Laphroaig (note, this is my second distillery tour in 2016 – I hope you’re all suitably impressed), visited Ardbeg distillery for lunch at the Old Kiln Café (ok, no whisky was actually consumed on this excursion but we got our photos taken with the buildings – I’m sure that will enhance our whisky knowledge) and as the climax of our trip, we attended the open day at Bruichladdich distillery, an event held as part of the whisky festival festivities. And what a beautiful day we had for it!
Note to all my readers in Northern Ireland – you can take a ferry day trip to Islay from Ballycastle and follow in my footsteps by having lunch at the Ardbeg distillery! Who knew Northern Ireland was just down the road? We also joined a rather hilarious ceilidh which was held at the Ramsay Hall in Port Ellen, again as part of the week’s festival activities, where we bonded with a cheery group of Canadians.
Islay isn’t just about the whisky, though.
Back in medieval times, Finlaggan was the home and centre to the Lordship of the Isles – a lordship that ruled over many of the islands and west coast of Scotland. Today, you can see the foundations of the chapel, the great hall and the council house where laws were passed and the council gave advice to the Lords of the Isles.
There is a small charge for entry but seemingly you only have to pay if you are honest and ask in the information hub (of course we did this).
The Kildalton Cross, a monolithic Celtic cross, dates back to the latter half of the 8th century. It stands in the ruins of Kildalton Church, on the south coast of Islay.
The cross can be found on the south-east of the island – travel the distillery trail road beyond Ardbeg and follow the signs.
Bowmore round church
A round church, you ask? This church sits at the top of the hill, overlooking the rest of the island capital, and is said to have been built in a circular shape so the devil wouldn’t be able to hide in any of the corners. Sneaky.
Go on a Sunday and see if you can hide in the church.
On our last morning in Islay, after the photo connection discovery, Sheena informed us that “The Maggie”, an old black and white movie, was set up ready to be watched in the living room. The reason for its significance was that the movie featured both of Gilbert’s parents, as well as Sammy and David’s father, who appears in the movie as an accordion player. The world is really that small on Islay.
Before we knew it, Sheena had brought Silvia and me breakfast trays and we relocated to the comfort of the sofa. This is when staying at your B&B feels like staying with family. If only Sheena and Gilbert ran a permanent bnb service, I’d recommend them in an instant!
Of all the islands I visited on this trip, I decided that Islay would be the island I’d like to take my (hypothetical) family back to on a summer holiday. It has my ideal balance of small urban clusters with remote, beautiful countryside. And of course, you’re never too far from the sea!
We took a Citylink coach from Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow to Kennacraig. This cost £17.60 and took roughly 3.5 hours. We then took a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Kennacraig on the mainland, to Port Askaig on Islay. This cost £6.50 for an adult single and the journey took about two hours. On our return, we flew from Islay into Glasgow International Airport for £78. Our B&B cost £40 per person per night.