Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday on the Isle of Islay

It strikes me that I have been writing as if Islay were a country in its own right and though perhaps an islander might feel herself to be first an Ileach and then a Scotswoman, still, in many ways, I never forget that I am in Scotland here.

The thistle. The woolens. The salmon. The shortbread. The heather. The sheep. The ticks on sheep! The Scotch whisky! The list goes on.

To it, I will add "the Scottish Sunday." It's my second Sunday here and so I am not surprised how quiet it all looks. Yes, the grocery store is open and so are the distilleries -- visitor traffic is important -- but there is, in my mind, a reduction of village activity (insofar as it otherwise seems busy out there on Shore Street) that I very much associate with a Scottish Sunday.

It's not that stores close in all of Scotland on this day. The ban on doing commerce on Sundays was lifted in the 1990s and they say that the Scottish people love to shop for home improvement/decorating materials then. I read that the parking lot in an Ikea store is especially full.  In France, the ban on shops staying open today is still much in discussion and only certain stores in certain tourist areas, or selling certain products (food: never interfere with the French need to procure the freshest of foods!) may open their doors on Sunday. But on the continent, a Sunday means a communal experience of shared joviality, be it in a cafe or park or restaurant. Here, I get the impression that on Sunday, most people stay close to home. (The cafe/restaurant in Bowmore, for example, is closed. As is the Celtic shop that also acts as a cafe.)

No matter. I have things to do!

And yet, I can't seem to rush here. At my wonderful breakfast...


...I pick up a book left on my table -- Whisky Legends of Islay by Robin Laing. I'm chuckling right away and I can't put it down! It's not just about whisky (that would be a good travel slogan for the island, no?). There is a chapter on cheese, for example. Being a Wisconsinite, it piques my interest.

Story has it that Islay Cheese (a brand name), once in full production here, was banned from import into Italy because of its aphrodisiac qualities. The book quotes a poem by Angus Macintyre that describes this:

(excerpts from "Islay Cheese")

You Highland women I implore
Upon my bended knees,
Please do not eat one morsel more
Of that awful Islay Cheese.
Vincente Dopi - ninety-two --
Well past all thoughts of fun --
Ate half a pound and what'd he do,
But go and Squeeze a nun.
An old and shaking Genovese,
His pension was collectin',
Ate just one bite of Islay Cheese
And now his wife's expectin'.

And so on. But was Islay Cheese an aphrodisiac? The author of the book analyzes this possibility. After all, many claim that all fermented cheeses are aphrodisiacal. Add to it the waft of spirits in the island air, or an actual pour of whisky -- well now, you see the possibilities! Still, the author concludes that perhaps Italians banned the import of Islay Cheese not for reasons of its erotic dangers but because of its inferior quality!

These days, there is no more cheese on the island. The Islay Cheese company failed and closed its doors in the 1990s and even though an attempt was made to bring it back to life -- that effort failed too, perhaps because the product was still quite inferior. Blame it on the fact that the new company neglected to hire an experienced cheese maker. Not necessarily for want of trying. I read that it is hard to  convince great talent to move to the island.

Yes, that's the trouble with remote destinations. We, the visitors, may love them, but they aren't without challenges. I listen to one couple at breakfast asking about places to pick up some fresh bread and cheese for lunch. They'd checked the one grocery store and found nothing suitable.
Alison, the obliging hostess at the  Guest House smiles. There is just that one store in the village.
How about other villages? -- the determined guests ask.
The shops there are even smaller. In any case, our store had a bread delivery last Friday. If you go there today, there may still be some left.
Two days old... comments the guest in dismay, possibly returning from France where such a prospect would make a French person's hair stand on end.
Yes, Alison says. If it's there.

Well now, I can't imagine eating much of anything for lunch after a morning meal at the Guest House and so I set out with little more than a pilfered breakfast banana.

But where to?

I had thought I'd go to Jura -- the closest island to Islay. One with a regular ferry and, too, with the very visible and singularly lovely "paps." (I misspoke once and called them "pips" causing gales of laughter and a correction -- paps; you know, because they look like paps -- women's breasts). Here they are (at 2500+ feet, they're far taller than Islay's highest Beinn Bheigier which stands at 1600+):

(paps of Jura, visible on Islay)

But at breakfast, when Alison asked me about my day's plans, I realized I did not really want to leave the island. Or tie myself to ferry schedules. Or tie myself to anything at all.
So where to? -- she asks.
Maybe some of the other villages? Like Portnahaven? I mentioned that one because it is the farthest one on the map that's reachable by car. [Understand: that distance is only 18 miles from Bowmore, though at single lane driving, that's a half hour in the car. It struck me today how texting and driving could never be an issue here. You have oncoming cars that have their headlights pointed at you. If you are not vigilant, you are asking for a head-on. Too, you need your spare hand to shift gears and to wave thank you to the car who has pulled over, or who has waved at you for pulling over. You cannot drive, shift, wave and text. Not surprisingly, I've never seen anyone drive with a cell phone in hand.]

From Alison -- If you go there, find the house with the glass porch. Go through the gate, climb over a fence a follow the path...

The skies over Islay are beautifully varied today: that mix of cloud and blue that sets this place apart from any other place on earth, I think. That light! That gentle, soothing light. How lovely that it should be thus on my last full day here...

The drive is pleasant enough, full of the charm of an island where there are few people and many sheep. (Note the delicate bands of blue sky.)


Portnahaven is also at the western most point of the island. The ocean lies beyond and even on this calm day, the waves and currents have a bristling energy!

I leave the car just short of the village so that I can get a closer look at the lighthouse on the rocky Isle of Orsay, just across a narrow channel.

It's truly stunning here!

And someone has gone to the trouble of planting flowers along the path. The effect is one that would make the grumpiest soul light up.


I walk toward the village itself and here's another surprise -- the houses line a beautiful cove where a handful of children play and fishermen bring their boats to shore.


If you wanted to create something to fit the image of a perfect island village, this would be it.


It's too remote to attract more than the hardy visitor who is determined to see it all. The distilleries, shops, eateries -- they're all on the other side of the island. But Portnahaven has an unrivaled beauty that stops you short.


I follow Alison's advice and search out the path into the coastal hills. She is quite right -- it's a stunning walk, to the sound of the wind and crashing waves and the unmistakable groan of seals sprawled on the rocks across the channel. (There are at least seven seals in this photo. Can you find them?)


The path ends at another cove -- one with sea rocks and just a few isolated homes rising above.


If you ever doubted that Islay is an island of vast spaces and hills that touch a feathered sky, you'd put your doubts to rest here.


(wild orchid!)

As I walk back toward the village, I come across two young women with their Scottish terriers, chatting in front of one of the white Portnahaven cottages.


I ask if they live here year round and they admit that they do.
How are the winters? I ask. It's a strange question I suppose, coming from a person who has just lived through one polar vortex after another and yet, the proximity of the sea and the fierceness of the winds and waves seem daunting.

It's actually quite fine. There's a fierce wind, but it's rather magnificent to watch the waves crash so fiercely against the rocks. And of course, we're always happy when it's spring.

I smile. Is there a person on the planet who does not eagerly await spring?

Alright. That's it for excursions today. I turn on the radio and drive home.


My heart is pulling me back to my base in Bowmore, even though the village really does appear shuttered and empty.


I go to the Harbor Inn -- that rather posh place and ask if I can have tea in their comfy lounge. (I could have had it in my Guest House room, but I buck the Scottish tide on Sundays: I don't like to spend this day closed off from humanity. I want people noise.)

The tea and scone are delicious, even as the human noise is nonexistent. I take out my computer and take notes and listen to the sounds of inn people coming and going. I have a view to the paps and a taste of strawberry jam in my mouth. This is my Islay moment too. My Islay/Scottish Sunday.


As I'm right across the road from the Bowmore Distillery, I stop there to pick up a gift for my stellar hosts. Because I seem to come in so often and perhaps because of my day with Eddie, I'm becoming a familiar face! I'm asked if I would like a dram of anything to enjoy in their lounge. Could you say no to the taste of the finest darkest smoky peaty Scotch whisky on your last evening here?

Still later, I do take myself outside the village. Just two miles up the coast, to Bridgend. If you're not going to eat at the Harbor Inn, your last Islay dinner should be there -- Andrew and Alison tell me.

Their advice is never bad. Bridgend Hotel dining room it is.

And it's a good meal! Tiny Islay langoustines over homemade pasta to start with, a hefty chunk of Scottish salmon with new potatoes, and then this: a meringue over strawberries and clotted cream. With a side of clotted cream ice cream. Delicious and so Islay, with a touch of Scottish and you must admit UK too (see dessert).


I drive back and in those short three miles, pick up once again the BBC radio program. Earlier, I had listened to a discussion of the new trade agreement under consideration (the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) between the US and UK (and the EU in general).

There is furious opposition among many to the negotiations over "harmonization" -- where each country bends its rules to accommodate trade with the other.  Negotiating with the US (the opposition shouts!) is a race to the bottom! Everyone knows the Americans care less about the environment and  quality of foods and labor conditions than the EU and UK! Americans doing business here (in the UK) is a direct threat to the NHS! (I wont explain the argument, but it has at least theoretical credibility.)

With car driving, I have become an avid listener to the radio. In discussion programs, the US comes up all too frequently. It's always humbling to listen in on how others view us.

But let's bring this back to Islay, where disagreement and debate can also take on heated tones. At the restaurant, I had taken out once again the Whisky Legends book. One particular chapter deals with the very issue I brought up with Eddie (the Master Distiller): what's the effect of peat removal on the environment?

There seems to have been a strident discussion of this on Islay some 30 years ago. The teams were drawn, but not exactly how you may have imagined. A distillery (not Bowmore) wanted permission to remove peat from a bog where the Greenland geese pause in their migration south. Permission was granted, raising the ire of mainland environmentalists who came to Islay to rally the locals in opposition: it's the environment v. whisky!

Well now, if the environment means support for the geese, the farmers rallied alright. They threw the environmentalists out and told them not to come back. Geese ruin their crop. Only later, after the intervention of the EU, with farmer subsidies and pushing back of peat removal away from the geese migration path did tensions on both sides ease. For now.

My room at the Guest House is a mess. Packing is never fun when I buy things. Coming over with a wee suitcase is easy. Pleasant. Returning with an awkwardly lumpy bag is... awkward. Except for a mug and a sweater (yes, that!) none of the acquisitions are for me and yet they are all very personal. The purchase, when made, is a compliment. A way of saying -- I like what you do here. I want to take some of it home.

Home. Things are happening at the farmette. I should be there now. I will be there soon. It seems a world away. It is a world away.

Tomorrow I have a full day here, on the island, then I fly to Glasgow, over-nighting in some inconsequential spot in order to catch a flight the next day (on the cheap Easy Jet carrier) to Paris. There was a humorous radio discussion of the new security screening regulations, requiring passengers to power up computers, cell phones and tablets. Apparently the discount airlines (Ryanair and Easy Jet) are saying that their passengers wont face this added screening. The radio host joked that these airlines may offer the screening, but at an extra charge for anyone who chooses it. You'd understand the absurdity and humor of this if you knew that these carriers do such things as charge you an extra fee if you want to sit with your partner in flight. And then, when your partner procures her ticket, she'll get the same question and the same option of a seat selection, at an extra charge. Even though you've already chosen her and paid for it.

Home on Wednesday, but here now, still on the Isle of Islay. Funny how until eight days ago, I couldn't even pronounce the name.

(Islay at 10:30 p.m. on this cloudy evening)