Date: 30 May 2016.
Location: Train from Glasgow to London. Utterly exhausted, using the last wiggle of energy in my fingertips to type this.
I wake up in tidy a seaside cottage. When I open the curtains the day is blue and the bay, just across the small road and the green garden, glitters. This is not what you expect from your May trip to the Inner Hebrides, Western Scotland. I know the Irish are the ones who get all proprietorial over luck but Kitty and I have found a great deal of the stuff in Scotland. And we’ve been on quite the adventure!
We met up in Glasgow (she over from Leeds, me up from London) where our hotel at Grand Central Station was so central that it was literally inside the station. As in, the view from our room was of the departures board. So, yes, more central than grand. However, it was really just a meeting point and, after an incredibly satisfying meat-heavy dinner at Stravaign (Gaelic for ‘to wander’) in Glasgow’s West End, a drunken call back to The Twin in New Zealand, and a good night’s sleep, we set off to drive to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig. We left plenty of time to make the journey — winding around the long, narrow lochs — and, once free of the Glaswegian gridlock, it is a beautiful one. Kitty’s parents had reccomended a spot for lunch and, following many a wrong turn and an increasingly bewildering journey down the side of Loch Fyne on an increasingly narrower and bumpier road, we find it: Inver. The restaurant is a jewel. It is if the Vikings who had lived in Scotland so long ago had fallen through an Outlander-style time vortex to land in 2010 then taken cooking classes, embraced hipster style and opened a restaurant, decorated with their Nordic sensibilities, a cool colour palette and nods to highland nature: the pale pine furniture is dainty, there’s a butterfly collection on the wall next to the old shipping regulations used as posters and a small library with a heavy wooden bar at one end and a daintily eclectic mix of natural history textbooks, Marxist leaflets and philosophy tomes on the shelves, propped up by a plaster cat bookend. There are primulas in glass jars on the table. Just outside, on the other side of a pebbly inlet, is the ruined Old Lochlin castle. You are simultaneously in the new world (not too new: there’s no wifi) and the medieval — and its glorious. We drink Scottish gin and eat grownup food that requires tools and dexterity: crab legs and fresh prawns with crusty bread and butter. Then it’s on to Kennacraig.
Our ferry to Islay leaves at 5.45pm and we arrive in what we thought was good time, a solid half hour before departure. Turns out, no. In fact, half an hour before departure is cut off time for boarding. We drive onto the ferry, tsked tsked by the staff, with honestly seconds to spare. The ferry is, surprisingly, a modern behemoth with TV screens everywhere and a bar. We get prosecco and toast to our good fortune whilst watching the islands glide past from the roof.
About two hours later we drive off the ferry and onto Islay, ‘The Queen of the Hebrides’. Here, we learn, we’re closer to Ireland than Scotland. My mind and its rudimentary have knowledge of northern geography is blown. There’s little to do on our first night but park, check in to our Air BnB and roll down to the pub to enjoy some seriously local music in a seriously packed tiny room overhanging the rocky beach then roll back home again and sleep like little lambs.
The next morning we breakfast in our delightful air BnB cottage with our horrible air BnB landlady. The place itself is divine. It’s a seaside cottage decorated, again, with a nod to the Skandi and another to today’s Scot, a symphony in deer horns and tartan. Our landlady is, on paper, a wonderful hostess but also, to use a delightful euphemism, a piece of work. She makes us delicious salmon and scrambld eggs on toast — set out on the giant dining room table — and talks rapidly about how all the men on the island lust after her and all the wives on the island despise her, explains at length her ability to rock a mini skirt, snidely comments on the longstanding island feud that saw her family lose much of their land here and explains how Pintrest killed her budding (ahem) career as a florist in London. It’s excruituating.
But, aside from her, our trip could not be better.
The little island treats us to two days of brilliant sunshine, unexpected for this — or indeed any — time of year in Scotland and even more so out west and off the coast. We laugh with glee to the sounds of The Beatles and equally out if fashion hits as we drive up to the north of the tiny island, to Sagamaire, to check out its sandy coves and chase sheep. The rest of the weekend involves whiskey tasting at famous distilleries — Ardmore, Laphraig, others — lazing on rocky beaches (the two matters not incompatible, we discover).
At Laphraig (which I can now pronounce, for those playing at home it’s La-froyg) we take a tour and my knowledge about the dark art of whiskey-making quadruples. Afterwards, drinking the alarming generous samples on the green distillery lawn, in the sun by the bay, I even begin to ‘get’ whiskey. Then we drive home and park the car to ramble along the coast for ten minutes to Bruichladdich (here you go, it’s Brook-Laddy) and try yet more whiskey as well as the amazing Botanist gin, distilled using 22 of the florals and herbs you can find by scavenging the island. The distillery’s ample samples and lush aquamarine packaging (the bottles designed to be just the same striking shade as the water across the tiny road) lure us in and we make not insignificant purchases.
One thing that’s struck me here, on this bucolic, isolated island that took us forever to get to, is the devotion to Doing Things Right. At Laphraig the peat for smoking is still cut only by hand by the same two men who have been doing it for years. At Bruichladdich distilling is still done in the traditional way in the huge and dangerous brass cauldrons, despite its mega corporate conglomerate owners. Your fish dinner was caught that day not far from where you’re eating it. It’s alarming refreshing, like a dunk in cold, clear, fast-running stream. Or a dram of smoky whiskey on a cold Scottish night.