It was when the policeman waved at me from behind the wheel of his car that I finally got Islay.
While for a split second I was concerned I had a headlight out or that something wrong with my car, I quickly realised that if even the policeman was waving, it must be a thing.
This waving had happened the two previous days when I passed lonely cars on my meandering drives about the isolated island. It was February. It was grey. But it was still stunning.
At first, I thought not much of the waving. Then by day two, I tentatively waved back. Nervously at first, then with more confidence the second time I saw a car.
By day three, when the policeman drove past, I knew I wasn’t going mad – either that, or even the authorities on the teeny, Hebridean outpost were a bit off their rockers.
I smiled, fully, wholly – and just then, as I drove around the next bend the sun broke through, dancing merrily on the caps of the waves to my left, and making the fresh grass that bit greener.
I’d been on the island less than three days but I already felt welcome.
The fact I was on Islay was a huge thing. You see, throughout all of 2013 I continuously made the cry: “I have to get to Islay!” I’d read the wonderful ‘Peat, Smoke & Spirit’ and ‘Distilling Rob: Manly Lies & Whisky Truths’ both of which shine a light on the island in wonderful, charming detail. With this inspiration laying heavy in my mind, I kept thinking I would get there. But as each month progressed and I found myself still lacking plans, the dream slipped further away.
So when the new year began and I noted I’d need to be up in Scotland twice within a 10 day period for work, I jumped on the opportunity to visit the island for the interim days.
Having rented a car in Glasgow, I tackled my first UK motorway, made my way down to Springbank (a review of that distillery will be coming soon) and then headed that evening over the ferry from Tarbert to Port Askaig. A terrifyingly slick, pitch black 20 minute drive later found me arriving in gusts and gales at the Bowmore House Hotel where owners Andrew and Alison Jackson braved the weather to help me park my car and get my things in. It’s all a bit of a blur after such a long day but the warmth I received that night made me quickly realise I had arrived somewhere special.
When the clouds cleared the next morning, the views from my cosy room were stunning – overlooking the town of Bowmore and the vast shoreline, it was picturesque and inspiring.
And so my adventure began on Islay. I only spent four days there but I filled them to the max. Each morning, I was treated to the warm affection of the Jacksons at breakfast in their wonderful B&B (it was here I rediscovered mackerel fillets and find myself eating them frequently now – Andrew cooks these incredibly well) before I’d head out on another distillery visit or wander around the island.
One day, I ventured to the Islay Woollen Mill, a traditional mill specialising in beautiful fabrics and spent time chatting with owner Gordon Covell – who’s run the mill with his wife Sheila since the 1980s – about everything from island tourism to the Scottish independence vote. When we met, I shook his hand and he tipped his hat to me. It was the smallest of gestures, but even thinking back these months later, his chivalry and warmth makes me smile. I ended up going away with the softest of blankets, which I learned was made from the pattern he designed for Liam Neeson to wear in the film Rob Roy (Gordon’s worked on films such as Braveheart, Forrest Gump and many more). I treasure that blanket for not only its comfort, but the love with which it is made, and the warmth of Islay that is embedded in it.
Another day, I met with Martine Nouet – famed whisky writer and cook – who braved the dark, stormy Islay day that met us with gumption and joy. Martine told me she fell in love with the island the day she first stepped off of the plane for a distillery visit, so much so she said it was like she was always meant to find herself there. For years, she hunted for the perfect place to settle down and moved from her native France the minute she did. She’s now based there and the passion with which she speaks of this island is infectious. As we stood on a slippery rocky outpost, with sea spray baptising us, it felt as though Islay was speaking to us both, reminding us of her powers.
And, of course, I spent much time visiting distilleries, managing to get to Kilchoman, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Bowmore, Ardbeg and Lagavulin in my time there.
As today is the start of Feis Ile – the annual festival on Islay – I thought it appropriate to give a wee look into this incredible island.
Over the next week, I’ll be featuring a couple of the distilleries I visited and reviewing the whiskies from them, along with profiling a Whisky Woman who works with one of those distilleries.
More features of the places I visited will come out throughout the year but I can say this: Islay is not only a magical, beguiling, intense place, but one of extreme warmth, even on the darkest, gloomiest of stormy days. It’s like no where I have been before on my travels, and I finally know what people mean when they speak of its particular qualities.
Most especially, the people are what make it a special place in my heart. From the Jacksons to Martine, Gordon Covell and that waving policeman – you can be guaranteed a comforting welcome if you step foot on that island. I’m so glad I finally know what all the fuss is about. And I can’t wait to go back.