Wednesday, July 09, 2014


Often times when I travel, I do not know what I'm looking for. People have lists of experiences they're ready to have when abroad. Me, I'm just not sure. I hope to have some epiphany when I arrive and if I don't -- well, I have good reading material and writing to do and so I can always take a short walk, then put my time to good use around the written word.

This certainly was true about the Isle of Islay. The weather could have been horrendous (as it is this week in France, for example). The culture -- so much plugged into the operation of the distilleries -- elusive and hard for a person without a history of liking whisky to understand. But, the Guest House looked pleasant and Andrew, the host, even in early email exchanges, was extremely helpful and so I let Islay be the focal point of my trip this summer.

And immediately things started percolating. The first day out with Becky the Welly Walker and the kids was exhilarating. Andrew's sea food dinner -- incredible. The second day was initially a mixed bag. Like the sky outside, it delivered and then held back -- over and over again. I was being pulled in, but very tentatively. And this is a key thing about travel: like a book I pick up for its title, I just dont know what the content will be like. I have no idea.

Who knew, for example, that I would find the distillery tour at Laphroaig more interesting than the hike beforehand (and it was an okay hike in the scheme of things, the occasional shower notwithstanding). But then I hesitated about the whisky and was the only one on the tour that did not purchase a bottle. Only to be floored by the Bowmore Distillery selections, purchasing two there and thinking -- this is really interesting, this selection process, the psychology of it all, the legends, traditions, passions -- I know too little. I wish I knew more.

This is true about all life here in the island: I've read the countless books that Alison and Andrew put out for me at the breakfast table and yet -- it's elusive, this Islay life. I wish I knew more.

And this morning it became abundantly clear to me that what time I have left here (and I have a lot of days, comparatively speaking -- most people come for two days, sample whiskys, buy a few and go on), I'll use to dig deeper. And thanks to Andrew, I have a few resources lined up for myself. Beginning today with Becky the Welly Walker.

So, a look outside in the morning (so lucky with the weather these days! So lucky!)...


...a more substantial breakfast again, this time by the bay window, with a look to the village and the sea...


...and now I am off with the Welly girl (she is actually an accomplished photographer).

We pick up a friend of hers, Jim -- a former IT specialist recently turned island pastor and an enthusiastic walker himself -- and we drive north toward Killinallan and the Loch Gruinart.

(oyster beds at the Loch at low tide)

(the lake spills out to the sea)

Not in a million years would have I found this piece of heaven. Becky tells me -- you're in luck (don't I know it!) -- the pyramidal orchids are at their best ever!

Becky is not a life long inhabitant of Islay, but she has been here for ten years and she certainly is a life long nature enthusiast. She knows her flowers and birds! And she loves the island.
I ask -- So do the islanders accept you as their own by now?
She and Jim laugh, very loudly. We know someone who moved here 35 years ago and she is still regarded as an outsider. But it really doesn't matter. And many will tell you that it's the new arrivals who bring new ideas to the island. 

I can see that. Andrew and Alison run a very modern type of Guest House even if it is in an older building. Becky has initiated her Welly Walkers. The list of new ideas is actually quite long.

We walk through a meadow that is a never ending field of beauty. The flowers are small -- ankle high, but they take my breath away!






And it's not as if you're viewing them in isolation. I've been mocked for being so addicted to travel -- I've been told that a photo, a movie will give me the same experience without the hassle or expense of a trip. But how do you know which book to pick up? Is there one titled "never ending field of beauty on the Isle of Islay?" And more importantly, can you see it with the gusty wind in your face and the sound of these seals squawking in the distance?

(Gray Seals basking at the water's edge)

And can you inhale the delicate scent of the wild thyme and sea rocket, and catch the quick flight of the common blue butterfly? If so, then I'll throw down my passport and stay home. Until then, may I always find a Becky or someone with a passion for what she finds outside her window to show me a new field of beauty.


She tells me she has never been to America, though she did spend a short time in Nova Scotia. As she asks me if we have this flower or that flower in Wisconsin, she reflects -- it's so different everywhere! I remember waking up the first morning in Nova Scotia and I couldn't wait to see it all, because it's so new and different from what we have here back home!

Yes, it is so different.

Our walk takes us then along the sands that at high tide are partly submerged, all the way to the mouth of this sea lake, or fjord or however you may want to describe it. The waters here are more delicately toned than on the Mediterranean (though a tad colder: you wouldn't get me to swim here)!


Around the bend the ocean-facing beach is wide and empty. Becky and Jim sit with their backs toward the dunes, pausing for a snack, but I'm too eager to explore further, to get closer to the waves, to see every thing from every angle.



Eventually we walk back. Keeping to the beach we focus now more on the birds. The noisy oyster catcher. The heron which Becky reminds me is not the blue heron of North America but the grey heron of Scotland.

But I learn that despite the racket of the small birds here, it is a quiet time for these wetlands and sandy banks. Winter is another story. This is a stop for the great migration of the Greenland Barnacle Geese and the White Fronts too. They come by the thousands. Becky should know -- she is a goose counter. Why count them? Because they are rare and protected, but they do damage to the farmers' fields and so the government pays the farmer subsidies, depending on how many geese pass through. Becky supplies them with the numbers.

The sun is warm now. Were it not for the ocean breeze, we'd throw off sweaters and take off our shoes and socks. But Islay weather will forever be moderate. Wetter and cooler in the winter and gentler in the summer, but a far cry from Wisconsin's hot or cold. I can always make people gasp in horror as I describe, say, this year's winter back home.

We drive back toward Bowmore...


...and make plans to walk again later in the week.

In the meantime, I make my daily trip "into town," this time buying some cookies and staring hard at a lovely Scottish wool sweater, then exercising my best will power to walk away from it.

I sit outside on the main square for a while, and look on at the young ones of Islay, hanging out as only preteens know how to do it. The girls:


The boys:


How many of them will spend their adult lives here? Becky's grown children have both gone on to the mainland. Jim's three, too, are scattered between Great Britain and New Zealand. It's as if island life tickles your adult senses, but ultimately, unless you're lucky, it doesn't guarantee a good life for those starting out. Croft farming and distillery work and tourism are the three engines that keep the island humming. You can see why so many leave, even as so many come anew, to experiment with a change of direction or a fresh idea.

In the evening Andrew cooks dinner for himself and Alison and, too, for a person who is doing some work for the government on the island and is staying at the Guest House as a longer term resident. I'm invited to join in. The daughters have gone on to spend some vacation weeks with grandparents and so the kitchen and dining areas are eerily quiet now in the evenings.

We eat delicious spaghetti and meatballs and I listen to tales of island life, as told by those who have moved here - with spunk and ideas and a great deal of humor.


After, I again settle into my comfortable chair by the window to watch the sun move slowly toward the western horizon.