Thursday, 15 September 2016

Islay Part 2

13th Sep

Loch Ness Monster or Sea Otter - credit: J
The weather forecast was once again wrong and we had bright sunshine this morning, but the cold northerly breeze kept the temperature down to 17 degrees, in spite of London's record high temperatures in the 30s. George and Megan went for a walk down to the cemetery beside Kilnaughton beach before breakfast where Megan was licked by a highland calf, while Jeremy and I had a sleep in. Jeremy also went for a walk and spotted sea otters and got a great shot with his new telephoto lens. The rest of us got to see them later as we drove down our unmade road. They were a bit far out to be more than lumps in the waves, but at least we saw them! Jeremy.

The Paps of Jura - credit:S
Today's itinerary was a trip to the neighbouring island of Jura, 35 miles long, 8 miles wide, population 200. This involved a half hour car journey to the top of Islay to Port Askaig then a short car ferry trip. There is a fabulous view of the Paps of Jura from Port Askaig - two breast-like mountains, both of which were wearing nipple warming clouds this morning. Jura seems very bleak at first, with no sign of habitation anvd nothing but rolling hills and peaks covered in reeds, tussock and patches of heather (unfortunately past it's best flowering). After about 20 minutes drive, you arrive at Craighouse, the only significant settlement on Jura. There is a small fishing harbour, a hotel and of course the all-important distillery, with primary school,church and a few other services further up the road. It's a very small remote community and must take a certain kind of person to live there.

Jura Distillery with Cabbage Trees - credit:J
We had a successful free tasting session at the distillery shop, and both Jeremy and George found a Jura variant that they liked enough to buy. The young lass in the shop asked us where we're from, and as part of his answer, George mentioned the NZ cabbage trees outside, at which point she got very excited, as she and her colleagues had been having a huge debate last week about what kind of palm tree they
are, and no amount of Googling helped them (unsurprisingly). She can now impress them all with her new found knowledge of cordyline australis.

Lunch at the Jura Hotel was amazingly good with the local produce the star: fresh scallops and wild venison burgers (there are thousands of red deer on Jura). We also got to try a locally made gin: three local ladies have started a small scale operation producing a very perfumy gin called Lussa infused with locally foraged botanicals (much like The Botanist).

Paps of Jura - Credit:J
With the unexpected sun still shining, we decided to drive all the way to the end of the "long road", the only road on Jura going up the east coast. It's the A846 and supposedly the narrowest A road in the UK. As you leave Craighouse, it's right by the water, great for spotting seals (or seal, as we only saw one) and seabirds. It then goes inland and upwards, with wide vistas of the moorland and the Paps behind on one side, and picturesque rocky bays with mainland Scotland behind on the other. This is the more sheltered part of the island, so we even found ourselves in leafy woodland, proving that trees can grow on Jura. Towards the end, the road is more like someone's ill-kept driveway, with a wide stripe of grass down the centre, and lots of potholes - not holes really, just sunken areas, where the boggy ground tries to consume the road. It made for a slow and bumpy journey, and a challenge dealing with the few other vehicles as there weren't many passing bays.

Cove, Ardlussa Estate - credit:S
Once we crossed the Lussa river, we had to pass through the Ardlussa Estate, and it really did feel we were using someone's driveway! Lovely little coves and beautiful trees all through here. Eventually we decided the road was getting to the point that a 4 wheel drive would be more suitable, and given a rare spot we could turn around, did so, and headed all the way back to the other end of the long road for the ferry. Incidentally, the ferry is timetabled to go hourly, but in reality it goes whenever there are enough vehicles to fill it, which is surprisingly often!

After a well earned cup of tea at the cottage, we treated ourselves to dinner in the poshest restaurant in Port Ellen, at the Islay Hotel. Expensive but cheap enough in Wellington terms: about $120 per couple. We've had to book all our restaurant and distillery tour sojourns, as the island still seems very busy in spite of the time of year. Lots of American and German tourists, with a few Japanese whisky lovers too.
Loch Tarbert, Jura - credit:J

14th Sep
The day started with high level cloud, but the sun started making an appearance mid-morning. We'd booked an 11am tour of the Bruichladdich distillery in Bruichladdich village, a 35 minute drive from our cottage, so had to be slightly more organised this morning.

Oldest still - credit:J
Bruichladdich distillery has an interesting history. It was bought out from the original family by White McKay who then closed it down, and it remained closed for several years. A holiday maker to Islay found out about it, and decided to buy it. He was a bit of a radical, and broke away from some of the local traditional whisky making ways, calling the distillery the Progressive Hebridean Distillers and even started making gin. He was so successful he sold to Remy Martin for a huge profit. In spite of the closure and the recent ownership changes, some of the equipment dates back to 1881 when it was built, and one of the stills is possibly the oldest functioning still in the world. Their process was quite different to Laphroaig's, with the mash tank the original 1881 giant open tank made out of cast iron, and all the washback fermentation tanks were made from Oregon pine. They don't want to change anything as that could change the flavour of the whisky.

Ugly Betty Gin Still - credit:J

The highlight for me was Ugly Betty, the still where they make my favourite gin, The Botanist. The raw spirit is imported from England, then distilled with the 22 botanicals foraged on Islay, including gorse flowers, wild thyme, hawthorn flowers, red and white clover flowers and apple mint. They get 250,000 bottles from each distillation so they only have to do it once a year. They were bottling The Botanist while we were there.

We had lunch in Port Charlotte, a quaint seaside village of whitewashed houses, across the water from Bowmore (Islay has a strange shape, almost like two deformed walnut halves separated by a stretch of water called Loch Indaal, so Bowmore and Port Ellen are on one half and Port Charlotte on the other). Yan's Kitchen is a great restaurant that Jeremy and I discovered the last time we were here - a Chinese guy making Spanish/Italian food on a Scottish island! Again we had great local seafood (scallops and crab claws) as part of a tapas menu. Jeremy tried a very strange beer, made using some of the smoked barley usually used for making whisky, so it was like a barbecued beer. I thought it was disgusting but J was unperturbed.
By now it was quite hot with glorious sunshine.

Portnahaven - credit: S
We continued another 15 minutes down the coast to the southern most tip, a fishing village called Portnahaven. Built as a planned village in the early 19th century to encourage the fishing industry, it is a u-shaped cluster of white rendered cottages, each with window frames and doors painted in shades of blue, arranged around a long narrow inlet. Picture postcard perfect! There was about a dozen Grey Seals in the harbour, two basking in the rocks, and the rest bobbing with their heads just above the water. There are a couple of islands at the mouth of the inlet, one with a substantial lighthouse called the Rhinns of Islay lighthouske, built in 1825.

Grey Seals, Portnahaven - credit:J
The coastal road between Portnahaven and Port Charlotte has amazing views across Loch Indaal to the other half of Islay. We could even see the American Monument perched at the end of the Mull of Oa. It was erected to commemorate those who died in two ship wrecks in 1918 (a couple of American troop carriers, one torpedoed and one involved in a collision), but it's unfortunately rather ugly. All for of us walked out to see it on previous trips to Islay, so won't be doing so this time.

Portnahaven - credit:S
We headed home via the Coop supermarket at Bowmore for dinner supplies and more tonic for the gin, and had a quiet evening in.

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