Monday, July 07, 2014

the sky of Islay

It rained at night and then, by mid morning, the clouds passed (temporarily) and the sun poked through. You will see a lot of this view out my window and, because of the shifting clouds, it will never be the same.


I slept superbly. My corner room is an oasis of peace. It is as I wanted it to be. How wonderful when you can say that.

A commenter sent a link to a Donovan song about this island. (Another commenter sent a link to Celtic music and scenes from Islay, but it's longer, so I give you this one.) I think the locals would forgive his mainland pronunciation of the name. The song is beautifully evocative. Listen to it if you want, as you read along.

Breakfast is in a cheerful dining room, with a view toward the bay on one side and toward the kitchen on the other. The little girls -- daughters of the Guest House hosts -- are up, getting ready for a birthday celebration. Their voices are the voices of vacation days, the carefree days where the rush is only to get to a party on time.

Breakfast is cooked to order. Mine? Oh, the scrambled eggs and Argyll smoked salmon! (On the wall before me, I have the artwork of a local artist who loves to paint the distilleries here.)


No distillery for me today. Plenty of time for that. (Though Andrew, my host, does pour his guests drams of a peaty smoky whisky to get the morning started right. It is fitting for the time and place and goes well with my smoked salmon!)


Upstairs again, as I get ready to leave, I glance out at the sky.  It hasn't even been a full day since I've arrived and already I see an Islay rainbow.


Andrew had asked if I wanted to come along with them to the other side of the island. Lilly, their freshly six year old, is having a birthday party there and this will give me a chance to see the far western coast of Islay. (I plan on using the occasional bus in future days. I may even rent a car if I want to be really adventurous. It's all vague in my mind right now. I take each day slowly.) I happily accept the offer.

The birthday party is joining Becky and her gang of Wellie Walkers. Let me explain: Becky, a creative spirit from around here, offers walking treks in different parts of Islay. (Why "wellie?" It stands for Wellington boots -- highly recommended for the walks as there are streams to cross and wet marshes to navigate.) She's gearing this one toward a young set with some beach activities thrown in.


As the kids take to the sands and the adults watch, grateful for a bit of respite as the young energy is put to use playing in the pebbles and trickling streams, I go off toward the craggy cliffs and indulge in a beautiful moment, where it's just the sound of the winds and the sea. With an occasional sheep. Always there will be the sheep.





The beach has an array of pebbles and, too, bits of slate. As kids use these to help with the construction of sandcastles, the adults speculate if the slate is native to the area of if it is washed up from a cottage roof somewhere. They are oddly beautiful and I pack some to take home.

A castle building competition is in full swing. You can tell where the kids get an assist from a grown up...


...and where they just let their exuberance take them -- in this case away from the castle and toward building a damn. A failed project in the end, but such tremendous fun while it lasts.


(a wellington has many uses)

I'm told if I go out to sea here and keep going straight, my next land mass will be Newfoundland.


There is a vastness about this place. For the Atlantic Ocean before me and, too, for the remoteness of life here.




On the way back, I listen to Andrew's travel stories. He and his wife are intrepid travelers. I tell him at this rate he will surely exceed me in my travel ambitions. He grins and says -- you have a passport -- that's something. There's a standard British pub quiz question that goes like this -- which country has a population where fewer than 10% have passports? The answer is America!

Andrew stops by an oyster vendor (who harvests them, then keeps them in tanks, right here, on his farmstead)...



Driving down the curvy one lane road, we pick up someone walking home -- a teacher of Lilly and Eliza it turns out. The girls both are in Gaelic classes in school. Small ones: Lilly has one other girl and five boys, Eliza, the seven year old, has nine total. Neither parent speaks Gaelic but they think the girls will profit from exposure to the language. (The island parents have mixed views on this: two thirds prefer to send their kids to English classes. When asked why, they answer that since they dont speak the language at home, it's pointless to teach it to the kids. Is it pointless? Andrew drops me off at the Center for the Preservation of Gaelic culture. I pick up two CDs of music, remembering the beautiful one I bought when on Skye.)

I walk back to the Guest House thinking - this island is really addictive. Even if you're not (yet) visiting the distilleries.

I take an early evening walk into town.  It almost seems busy now! Islay-style busy!


I make my own rounds. To a news agent and card store. To the Tourist Office for bus schedules. To the post office. To a cafe-restaurant where I can get a tea and scone.


Small stops. Excuses really. Asking questions, getting answers -- it's another way to have exchanges with people who live and work here.

Then back to my room up over the bay. With the stellar view(s).


Every once in a while, when there are enough takers at their Guest House, Andrew and Alison cook a seafood dinner with whatever they can get right now from the Islay fishing boats. Tonight's such a night and the bounty is tremendous: the oysters, crab claws, Islay scallops, lobsters.

Loving the coastal towns of France (as I do), I have been lucky to have had many a mixed seafood dinner in my life.

I feel I can never order one again.

Because it will not be able to compete with what Andrew and Alison put before me tonight:

the oysters -- so plump and buttery that it is as if in their oyster life, they had the most comfortable of circumstances:


Then came the crab claws. Andrew said that the fishermen tell him that they only pull off one claw and then throw the crab back and it regenerates the missing claw. He doesn't know if this is true, but he'd like to believe it is.

My crab claws are huge, tender and a dinner in their own right.


Then came the scallops. Enormous ones! Perfectly pan fried.


And finally (sadly after there was very little room left in me) -- the lobster. With boiled young potatoes in butter. Here's my lobster before:


Here it is after:


The thing is, judging by the price of the dinner, my hosts dont make much (if anything) from this effort. The meal would be a budget breaker for me anywhere else -- so much so that I would never order it. But my hosts have this love of doing something well and they have the ingredients at their fingertips and that is why I ate the most incredible mixed seafood dinner of my life.

The Isle of Islay is not without her surprises.