Saturday, July 12, 2014

this, too, is Islay

A brooding morning of misty skies and small spots of rain on the large window looking out toward town.

(It's as if the world ends at the Distillery chimney stack)

Yes, in my three weeks of UK travels, it was supposed to be more like this. And so I smile at the beauty of it now, even as I'm glad my walks were under brighter skies.

At breakfast (back to salmon and eggs!)...


...I have a chat with a lovely family from California. I notice myself speaking as if I know something about the island, even as I know almost nothing. Seven days here now and I am boldly repeating random stories I pick up from people who cross my path.

Speaking of passing on stories, here's one from this morning. Remember how a few days ago I quoted for you an opinionated reader of the local "fortnightly," the Ileach? Remember? The one who proclaimed that all his friends were voting "Yes!" for an independent Scotland? Today I picked up the fresh copy of the newspaper (or is it a newsletter if it's printed on standard 8x11 sheets?) and from it I'll quote you a response. This writer is aghast at the statement -- "we have the oil wealth now and renewable energy for the future, to build a better Scotland." He practically shouts on paper! His  point:

Apart from the questionable level of revenue, which is always overstated by the Scottish Government (fact), what if Shetland and Orkney choose to stay with the UK, instead of going with Scotland. What then of oil revenue...(and) how will we build the renewables without the heavy subsidies from greater UK?"

And so the debate continues and as sure as I see the low clouds rolling in from the sea, so the date will come and the future of Scotland will be determined and a great many will be terribly worried and disappointed with the outcome, however things will turn out. (I will be in Europe on voting day, but I wont be in Scotland. Which perhaps is a good thing. A politician speaking on the radio said there may be a run on the Scottish bank if the Yes vote has it. He got properly attacked for creating self fulfilling prophecies.)

In a more optimistic vein, let me pass on to you this piece of news (also from the Ileach newsletter): Islay's new lifeboat station was officially opened and dedicated this past week with the cutting of the ribbon by the local resident Lily MacDougall, who will celebrate her 100the birthday on July 17th. (I wont be in Scotland on this day either, so happy birthday, dear Lily MacDougall!)

This does recall a piece of gossip I heard today from the miller who still weaves scarves and blankets on the hundred year old Islay looms. (More on this later.) He tells me that Lily MacDougall is mighty spry. Indeed, she still drives a car and was stopped (by whom?) recently because of reckless driving.  
Do you realize how fast you're going? -- asked the person who pulled her over.
Yes, but I'm in a hurry! -- was her answer.

Lily, do please do slow down! The roads are so narrow here!

Let me end my morning reporting with a correction -- not mine to you, but rather one straight from the Islay newsletter again. It is like the Islay version of the bigger story that I just read in the New York Times. You know, the one where George Clooney became outraged at the British rag (the Daily Mail) for posting false stories about his fiancée, the young Miss whatever her name is. So too, I read of a demand for a correction in the Ileach:

We carried a story last issue about a Colonsay fisherman who was rescued after his small boat sank. He contacted us...(because) he felt that it was misleading and made him out to be foolish and irresponsible. ... He explained that he was working close to shore when a series of incidents resulted in his boat capsizing: he grabbed the end of a rope, his main engine stalled, his hydraulic winch was noisy and the boat went astern as he was trying to start his auxiliary engine. He claims he discarded his life jacket to make it easier to clamber up some rocks to safety. ... He repeated his gratitude for the rescue, agreed with the general advice outlined in the article but insisted that the incident was not due to irresponsibility. He has asked us to withhold his name to avoid further embarrassment.

Well, so long as we're fixing past errors, I suppose I ought to offer my own correction. Andrew, my host extraordinaire, after reading in Ocean my response to a query about driving violations on the island, corrected the assertion that there are no police officers here. It appears that some are brought in upon occasion. Though I'm not clear as to when or where, I do know (and this is according to another source) that some were brought in just this week to aid in the investigation of a murderous act, allegedly committed by a youth against his uncle, though it is all in the realm of speculation right now, as the youth has many a friend coming forth swearing to his innocence. The plot thickens.

Having brought you up to date on the happenings around the island, let me turn to the more prosaic meanderings, done by me, by car.

Yes, I broke down and rented. This is the panic that sets in when I realize I am leaving in a few days. What if I miss seeing Port (fill in the blank)?? Too, the buses do not run on Sundays and so I must weigh the benefit of going carless with the imposition of myself onto the mercy of others. I've done the latter, let me now pick up the car keys and venture out on my own.

On my own. It's different than with a local, that's for sure. But, I know the lay of the land now and Becky the Welly Walker made some suggestions as to where I may enjoy hiking. I can do this! And look, there may even be a morning pause in the rain!


I drive to the southeastern edge of the island. Past Port Ellen. Past the distillery that I visited my second day here. Past all the distilleries, in fact. All the way along the now one lane road (if a car comes at you, you both scan the sides for a place where one can pull over; sometimes this requires a great deal of backing up), all the way to the ruins of the Kildalton Abbey, where, too, you'll find this Celtic Cross from 800 A.D.  It is described as one of the most perfect monuments of its date in western Europe.



Alright now. Should I hike? The forecast warns that there will be rains later. This is the time to plunge into the terrain, in the style of Becky, only without Becky. I will blaze my own path! How hard can that be?!


I have now come to understand that every corner, every coastal stretch, every beach, every cove -- is different here. And so, too, this terrain offers something new. I walk vaguely toward the shore, following at least initially a fairly defined route.


But when I come to a sign stating that the road is private, I veer off into the hills.

And it seems that my passage comes as a bit of surprise to those who rest in the deep ferns here. They flee from me, of course they do!


And I do this to them again again -- a fresh herd is disturbed and then, with a big ruckus, another handful emerges and they all soar across fences and ferns and head for the forest.


Well now, I am no novice to deer. At home, I would very much like to scare every deer that comes to the farmette away forever. But these deer are different and so I am excited to see them. Are they fallow? Roe? Red? Islay has all three. A few steps, another group is spooked and flees.


I walk vaguely in the direction of the forest where they disappeared. It's confusing. I go through one gate, turn right, turn left. I kick myself for having taken nothing with me -- not walking stick, not phone, not rain jacket, not wallet. Cars, damn it! They let you leave all inside. Let me not lose the key to the car! I quickly check for holes in pocket. None. Safe.


I hear cows now  and this herd is not retreating -- it's coming toward me. Why would a Wisconsin girl (dairy state of America)  be cautious around cows? It's all about coming too close to the offspring or to the bull or both. Best stay away from them. I turn off the mountain and find a graveled road. Good. I can follow that.


Becky has taught me well and I spot orchids growing madly in the bog. They never fail to make me gasp with appreciation.


And here's the sea and there's a partridge and all this is exceptionally fine, but it does appear that I have wandered onto someone's private estate. Putting green and gardens included.



I retreat, rehearsing in my mind the line about Scotland access for walkers (it's allowed, on all private property) in case I encounter someone who questions my trespass.

I do squarely bump into someone: an old woman walking the road with her assistant. She smiles the genteel smile of a person who is not bothered by much in life, possibly because life has been good to her.


I leave the estate, imagining in my mind that she is that rare person who has deep ties to this land. [In case you're new to British land ownership issues -- they are complicated. Most of the land on Islay is owned by wealthy mainlanders who then rent to farmers. There are many tedious consequences to this arrangement and I wont bore you with detail here, but you might contemplate this: more than half of all of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people (this according to the Guardian). Legislation is being discussed that would confer the right to own land to the tenant farmers, whether the landowners want to sell or not. The concentration of land is thought to be unsustainable and harmful to rural communities: you can see this on Islay as you pass houses in ruin -- crumbling and uncared for, because the landowner simply doesn't want to invest in them any more. There is an argument on the other side -- it is said that wealthy landowners are responsible for maintaining the beauty and integrity of much of Scotland's landscape. Well now, you can choose your position. (A fuller discussion of the issues can be found here.) I'm just throwing out a few key points.]

I find my car (hurrah!) and retrace my steps along the coast, stopping at the Lagavulin Distillery -- arguably the queen of the peaty smoky whiskies here.


I have just one quick purchase to make and they let me taste it, though not in any offhand manner: the bottle is exquisite and therefore expensive and a sample has to be properly provided (to give them credit -- for free) in a lounge with old leather and plaid chairs with books that have hunting and wildlife titles on them.


I suppose I should interject at this point another Ocean correction -- ever since I posted here that mostly men drink whisky, I have been told of numerous contrary examples, including women in the Guest House dining room who lead the whisky ship at their house. If so, then I offer this suggestion to Lagavulin: it's time to refresh the decor of your special tasting lounge!

Still, here I am, being treated with a smile and with gentle care, even though my hiking shoes are wet from the ferns and grasses and in general, I have that disheveled look I fall into when I am moving around a lot without access to a mirror or to fine attire. Bravo, Lagavulin staff!

As I drive away, I see that the clouds are tumbling around rather ferociously now, competing for sky territory among each other (there are always many layers of cloud here and some move awfully quickly).  By the time I drive through Bowmore, it starts to rain.

Note that I say drive "through" Bowmore. I'm done hiking, but I'm not done poking into places I reserved for the time I would have a car. The Islay Woolen Mill, for example.


This is an old mill in an old house and it is operated by an older gentleman by the name of Gordon. I know I am repeating this adjective awfully much here, but he is in fact a delightful guy (he is the one that told me about Lily's driving habits -- a remarkable conversation indeed, given that I was only at the mill for about fifteen minutes, five of which were spent on counting out money for small purchases).


It is sort of fantastic that there should be an old mill in operation here at all now. It's not that it has been up and running continuously since its inception in the 18th century. The one currently in use was restored some 30 years ago and it boasts that it has supplied shooting estates (see previous paragraphs on land ownership ), London tailors and even film companies over the years (if you noticed tweeds or Tartans in Forest Gump or December Bride or Braveheart or Chaplin - they came from here).


As I pack up to head outside, the wife looks outside at the weather.
Too bad about the rain -- she says. I was getting a proper suntan last week! I glance at the arm she holds out as proof. Ah yes. I am reminded of the British pink in the Languedoc region of France.
We may have a pause in the rain tomorrow -- I offer.
She wont be mollified. So typical... she mutters, glancing again outside.
It's funny -- you'd think she'd be used to it by now.

I have one more stop to make. Not far. Maybe a mile down the road. It's the Islay Community Gardens. They grow organic veggies (for sale here, I think on an honor system since I did not see an attendant) and I know that seems like an odd place to visit, but I am curious about what's grown here. Besides, it'll be the only "garden" I see close up on my three week holiday in the UK. There aren't any other public gardens on the islands. I cannot pass this one by.

It's raining a tad harder now, but I am undeterred. I have my rain jacket. It's plenty sufficient for a brief stroll.

And what a shock it is to open the very inconsequential looking door in a big stone wall. Behind that wall, completely hidden from the world outside, there is this:


I am somewhat stunned at the beauty of these simple plots. And predictably, my eyes are drawn toward the flowers. Oh, how grand it must be to grow flowers in this mild climate with plentiful showers and porous soil!



Alright. I'm satisfied. Enough of driving for one day. As the rains come down, I drop the car at the Guest House and walk to the cafe/restaurant for a tea and a scone.


With perfectly grand timing, Andrew and Alison again invite me for a home cooked meal. If ever there was a night to stay in, this would be it! I eat a delicious delicately spiced chicken supper freshly prepared by these endlessly kind people.


It's the kind of night when walking up to your room, you find yourself wondering how it is that a day can be this good despite the weather. Is it that you've fallen under the spell and you'll take Islay however she presents herself to you? Andrew, my host, thinks so. You're hooked, he tells me. No doubt he's right.