Thursday, June 25, 2015

counting sheep

Every shade of sky has its own magic. This morning, the gray clouds bring out the beauty of the gray slate roofs on the village houses of Bowmore.


I glance at the weather charts. They say rain, but not until the afternoon. I was going to not move that much if the weather was poor, but now it looks like I can't use it as an excuse to lay low.

Breakfast, splendid as always, this time by the bay window. Alison and Andrew rotate this best seat in the house and sooner or later, I have my morning meal here.


You'll note the wee dram that they offer for breakfast. It really is wee for me, as anything more would make me feel nappish rather than adventurous. But it surely is an excellent complement to the plateful of eggs and salmon. Today's selection: Bowmore Distllery's Enigma.

Now for the hike.

There are many corners that I have yet to explore on this island. One such corner is again toward the north (as was yesterday's hike), along the coast of a slip of land that juts out into the open waters (the sea to the west and a bay known as Loch Gruinart to the east).  The tip of this tongue is called "Ardnave Point" and it's supposed to be quite lovely. You can make a circuit of it by starting at a family farm that stands at the tongue's base, picking up the path along the coastal sand dunes, and turning in toward the farm again where the "tongue" merges into the Islay landscape again. The estimated distance for the walk is 5 miles, so surely it shouldn't take more than a couple of hours.


Quite a bit of the drive is along a single lane road, but you know, after a few days here, you begin to drive with a certain bravado, or at least indifference to the troubles that may ensue when, say around a corner or over the hill you come face to face with the headlights of another car. At home, driving head on toward oncoming traffic seems rather insane. Here, it's part of the everyday. Shrug your shoulders, crank your vehicle into third or fourth and move along.

I leave the car by the Ardnave Farmstead. There is a sign that welcomes the occasional hiker. It asks you to close animal gates and explains that birds are frequent visitors here, many of them loving the dung that farm animals leave behind. It also warns that there are cows and those can be dangerous, so please steer clear of them.

But as I begin my walk, all I see are ewes and lambs. Lots and lots of ewes and lambs. So many ewes and lambs that their loveliness (nearly) ceases to make an impression on me. I can tell I've been in Scotland a while now: the sheep have become wallpaper for me. Lovely -- yes, of course, but merely background material. It would be a rare sheep indeed that would cause me now to stop on the road now and take out my camera.


Still, you will see lots of photos of sheep on Ocean today and here's why: they are such excellent props for the scenery! Take a photo of the famed Jura Paps and you'll have gray hills against a gray sky. Yawn. Bud the sheep make everything come alive!


Walk with me through the meadows of English daisies and buttercups. And sheep.




The land across the bay is where I'd hiked the previous day (parallel to the coast of Jura). You can see the northernmost point here:


And again in the photo below, though what's interesting there is that the black faced lambs are with their white faced mum and the black faced ewe is with her white faced lambs.


How can you tell which ewe belongs to which lamb? This way:


Above, the sky is alive with the racket of the oystercatchers. They're tough to photograph without a telephoto lens, but these guys stayed around for a few seconds, just long enough for me to snatch a quick shot.


On other cliffs, you'll find... sheep.


Toward the end of the coastal walk, I run into a problem.


Now, I grew up around cows. I spent nearly every summer of my childhood with my grandparents in rural Poland. Cows roamed the meadow and the riverbanks where we played. But the farmers in Poland used to loosely tie the front legs of cows with rope, presumably so they couldn't run away. They could move, but not great distances, or at least not with great speed.

Remembering the sign's warnings, I make a huge circle to avoid the Islay herd. As a result, I find myself once more ankle deep in mud. My new lesson is this: where there are yellow irises, there will be mud.


I try to keep my distance, but I cannot resist getting a little closer to this cow -- who seems to act as a bird rest...


Near the very end, I have to face the music. This cow has decided to stand right by the gate. I need to pass through that gate. Oh, how she laughed at me as I "nice bessy" my way past her! I'm sure of it.


I had been amused to read on the notes to this particular walk that navigational skills are required. I thought about this for a bit. Do I have such skills? I don't carry a compass or a GPS device. And again I shrug off any concern. It's a loop around the coast of a tongue, for God's sake! How can you lose your way?


Easy! Put in a few hills and plenty of sand dunes, lace the meadows with paths that go nowhere and you may find yourself walking endlessly along a coast, missing the turnoff for the farm and the place you left your car.

(I also blame the daisies and the buttercups: so playfully distracting!)


Speaking of flowers, I searched for the wild orchid... and I found it!


In the end, I only take a few (yes, a few) wrong turns, but they surely add many minutes to my hike and I am lucky that I do stumble upon my car only minutes after the rains begin to come down on the hills of the Isle of Islay.

In the parking lot, another car has pulled in next to mine. A mother gets out with her baby to change a nappy. Instinctively I ask the age of the little girl.
Five months, the dad tells me. He then proceeds to ask about the hike and we talk about it for a while. It's drizzling steadily now, but he thinks the rain may pass and in any case, they've seen rain before. I think about my own 5.5 month old granddaughter and what she'd make of these cliffs and meadows with sheep on them. Would she like a bit of rain on her face?

Back at the Bowmore Guest House, the afternoon sprinkles keep me indoors, though I do brave them for a quick saunter over to the Bowmore Distillery just up the road a bit. Having completed the master tour with Eddie the Master Distiller last year, I have risen to the status of a "known fan" there and so it feels good to poke in and admire (and sample, because they always are generous with showing off their product) their whisky selection for this year. I make a purchase or two. I am loyal to Bowmore.


And you'd think this would have nicely capped my Islay day, but in many ways, the best is yet to come.

Tonight is the night that Andrew, with the great assistance of Alison, cooks up an Islay seafood dinner for his guests.

I join three Americans for that meal of all meals. In addition to squash soup and plateful of veggies, there is Andrew's famous potato casserole.



Then we are treated to Islay crab claws...


... and sea bream, and scallops, and that wonderful, wonderful Irish Sea treasure:


Andrew and Alison join us for a while and we talk of travel and its vicissitudes...

(everyone around this table loves travel to distant places)

... and the real experts among us (I'd probably be near the bottom of this lot) discuss the finer points of whisky.


It is an extraordinary evening and I am immensely lucky to be in great company of people who are passionate about what they see and do on this planet.

Sleep comes easily on this night. I think I gave into it somewhere on the last few steps of the walk up to my corner room at the Bowmore House.