Friday, June 26, 2015

gray, with a splash of color

After waking up to a thinly sun splashed morning...


... I arise to what was fully expected: a day of rain.

I am so grateful for it! the excesses of life have caught up with me and I want a day that's slow and not too focused on any ambition. No great walk, no great writing, no great anything, in fact.

Well, I do have a very fine breakfast...


With it, Andrew pours me a wee dram of Laphroaig 16 and I tell him thank you very much, I like it, but now I am thoroughly confused. I feel myself to be such slow learner! I had already determined that if I'm going to love this week of whisky, I'll favor peaty and smoky over something mellow and mild which, to me, almost feels like simply pouring alcohol down your throat. Then, someone poured me a sample of a bourbon cask peaty smoky and I added that to my check list: the sweetness of the American bourbon perfectly complemented the Scotch whisky flavors. But when Andrew then poured a sherry cask peaty dram, I was back to square one because that one, too, was intensely flavorful -- very Islay evocative.

So I am back to the same question that I had presented to my host the day I arrived: if I am to buy one bottle that is THE most peaty smoky flavorful evocative, plus only available for purchase here (or at least only on this side of the ocean), what should it be?

He gives me the same answer as he did the first day: go to Ardbeg, buy their 200 birthday special edition distillery release. It's remarkable. And you can only get it at the Distillery.

As I linger over breakfast, two very friendly older sisters sitting at a nearby table (and their equally nice husbands) ask me about my Islay visit. It seems they have traveled to the island before -- when they were young. They have memories of play on the empty golden beaches of the island. It was a magical time.

Then they fill me in on a little secret that they learned in the village.
At the grocery store! The local boy there was telling everyone, even though it's a secret. Prince Charles is coming to the island!

I smile at that: I seem to be crossing paths with royalty on this trip. I tell them about my encounter with Princess Anne at the Royal Highland Show.

Later, I ask my host, Alison, about the Prince's visit.
I did hear something about that. It's nothing to us. Famous people come and go. Life goes on anyway. She thinks for a bit. Maybe if the Queen came, maybe we'd take note. 
So, no idea what he's doing here?
No, all I know is the last time he came to Islay he flew his own plane here and he crashed it on landing. That was twenty years ago, but people still talk about it!

I'm on my way to the Ardbeg Distillery, which is on the eastern most end of the snaky coastal road. (The big three are all there: Laphroaig, Lagavulin, then Ardbeg, all along the rocky coast of the Atlantic.)

But I do want a short walk, so I pull into a golf course that's at the water's edge, just a few miles south of Bowmore. It's raining, but I'm thinking of the five month old yesterday -- if she could take a light shower on her young face, so can I.

Just past the golf course, the dunes rise above a majestic expanse of golden sand. This is the island's longest beach -- maybe seven miles total -- and I wonder if this is where the sisters once played.


I don't stay. The rain is intensifying and I am without adequate protection. (How long does it take to dry the wool on a rain drenched sheep?)


I continue toward the town of Port Ellen -- this is where the big ships come in to take the whisky to the mainland. The town has always struck me as almost making a statement to the world that passes through this way: we are not fancy. We are island people. Life is not rich or princely for those who stay and make a living here.


On to the distilleries. It's all very close, really. From Bowmore to Ardbeg (the farthest of the three) it's all of 22 miles. I notice they have completed a several mile long paved walking path from Port Ellen to the distilleries. A brilliant idea. You don't want people driving after they take whisky tours, which always include a lot of drinking. A few brave souls are walking and I almost stop to give them a lift, but then I think about the value of a brisk hike and I continue on my own.

At Ardbeg, everything looks freshly painted and lovely.


I hear that much effort has gone into polishing the place for its 200 year birthday.

Inside, there is a cafe place where a number of people are eating lunch. At one table, a local woman, one who once worked at the distillery, is celebrating her birthday. It's a warm scene, a lovely scene really.


To the side, a girl -- daughter of a cafe guest, wanders over to a mirror. I smile at this: Snowdrop now loves to look at herself in the mirror. Or does she still? I've been away so long!


I ask to sample the whisky Andrew recommended for me. Oh! It is the best. Absolutely magnificent. I make my purchase.

And then I drive home (past a wet and windy landscape) ...


... and take a nap.

Lovely day, rainy day. I don't have to go outside and play. I don't have to.

But I rouse myself in time to make one more shopping visit. To the Islay Woolen Mill (about four miles up the road)...


...where they still use the old weaving machines...


... to make these:


My daughters love these blankets! I no longer need Islay reminders for myself back home. I have my photos, I have last year's sweater and mug with little jumping sheep on it. But if I take Islay things  home to them, I am passing on my love of the island. I like that.

As I make my purchase, Gordon, the mill owner asks me where I'm from. He is a great story teller -- I remember this from last year. I apologize for coming in so late (it is near five, almost closing time), but he grins and tells me -- I'm afraid to go home. We're doing some work on the house and if the new carpet hasn't arrived today as it should, the wife will be mad.

I smile. I tell him that we're having a patio door put in at the farmhouse and when I come home I'm hoping -- so hoping! -- that by magic it will be in already!

Gordon seems happy to continue chatting...


... so I ask him if he's heard that the Prince is coming.
Aye. I'm invited to the festivities tomorrow at Ardberg Distillery. He's here to celebrate their big birthday. (Laphroaig is also 200 years old this year and Prince Charles will be cutting over to them as well. If he manages to land his plane safely!)
Is your wife going too? That's exciting!
She is. Me, I've met the Prince before.
When he was here twenty years ago?
Yes. You know, he and I share a hobby: we're both fox hunters. 
I ask if he has to dress up for the lunch festivities.
Aye, I was instructed to be "well suited and booted." 

As I leave the Mill with the throw blankets, I think -- maybe I should make one more stop. I'm right by it  -- Islay's very secret, very beautiful co-op garden. Last year, spring came earlier and I visited later. The secret garden (it really is quite secret --  few people know about it) was beautiful, but in an understated sort of way.

This year, it's incredible.


It's really not primarily a flower garden -- vegetables are grown here and you can purchase these if you want, though I still don't know how that works, as there's never anyone there. But the flowers that do grow here are in fact breathtakingly beautiful, especially on a gray and wet day like today.


Tonight, I'm eating dinner with Andrew, Alison, their two daughters, Eliza and Lily and their grandma. Andrew has made spicy meatballs with tomatoes and peppers and as I wait for the food to be ready, I join a conversation of three new guests -- two older men, brothers as it were -- and their friend. They've just made the long journey by car from England and they're enjoying a Bowmore whisky. They've come for the weekend, and this is by no means a first for them. They do this every year. For the distilleries.

As the men talk, Alison reminds her girls that they need to practice their dances. Tomorrow is their last day of school, but on Saturday, they have dance exams. The girls not only study Scottish Gaelic in school, they also have dance classes that teach them the Scottish highland steps.

I am enchanted by the scene before me. Three friends (and Andrew), enjoying a wee dram of Bowmore, two girls, going through their dance routines.

(can you tell there had been a face painting party earlier in the afternoon?)

It is indeed a splash of color. Of a different sort. A wonderful sort.