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Islay Chronicles 2002

We arrived at Glasgow airport at 7am Saturday, September 7, and picked up our rental car at Avis.  After finding out how to put it into reverse (pull up on the gearshift knob, before shifting) we proceeded to Carmyle where we stayed at cousin John’s until Monday morning, when we returned to Glasgow airport, through the Glasgow rush hour, to pick up cousin Duncan and his sister Mary, who arrived on an early flight from Sheffield.  Although they had been born and raised in Glasgow they had never been to Islay.  My wife and I were to be their guides for our tour of Islay.

            With Duncan at the wheel, we headed over the Erskine Bridge, destination Kennacraig and the 6pm Islay ferry.  With hours to spare we headed up the east side of Loch Lomond to Cashel, “The Forest for a Thousand Years”, where the previous spring our cousins had planted an oak tree in honour of the McKerrell/Williamson family.  It took a bit of searching because in the intervening months ferns and other vegetation had sprouted up, temporarily covering our small tree.  We did find it however, took some photos and looked up the site,” 2383, Amenity”, in the register at the visitors centre. 

            We had lunch, “a pie and a pint”, at a picturesque small hotel, The Tullichewan, in Balloch, a lovely village at the south end of Loch Lomond.  We then meandered our way over to Helensburgh, on Gare Loch, near the U.S. Submarine base.  After stocking up with a few essential breakfast groceries and a bottle of “l’eau de vie”, we turned back up Loch Lomond, to Tarbet, where we took the A83, past Arrochar and “The Cobbler” and over the “Rest and Be Thankful”, a beautiful mountain pass.  We took a break at Inverary, on Loch Fyne, to stretch our legs and to do a little shopping, before going on to Tarbert, further south on Loch Fyne. A short time spent looking around a lochside shop in Tarbert still allowed us to arrive at the ferry dock in plenty of time.  We enjoyed supper during the two hour smooth crossing to Port Askaig, arriving at 8pm, in driving rain.  With Duncan still driving, I navigated the twenty-one miles to Port Ellen, where we had rented a flat from a fourth cousin we had discovered during our earlier research into family history.  The flat was at the end of the Port Ellen ferry dock overlooking Loch Leodaimis and the town of Port Ellen itself. 

The next morning the weather was still wet and windy so we stopped at Laphroaig distillery and scheduled an afternoon tour.  As the weather started to clear we continued on up the coast to Kildalton Chapel, with its medieval burial slabs and ninth century Celtic Cross. The final approach to this serene site is over a rough single-track road, which is shared by pheasants, sheep and cattle.  Now the pheasants and sheep are very good at “giving way”, but not so the cattle.  One particularly large beast absolutely refused to yield to our vehicle; consequently we had to “crawl” past him.  On reaching the car park we noticed that all road dust had been removed from that side of our car and the hinge on the retractable side view mirror was clogged with long fibrous hair from his hide.  One of the other visitors, who had observed this battle of wills, told us that his experience had been more threatening, as a large deer had leaped out across the front of his car, just before he entered the single track.

We had lunch in the cozy bar at the Machrie Hotel and Golf Club where we also purchased golf hats and other items from their Pro Shop.  I couldn’t help but notice that their 18-hole green fee was now 35 pounds, up from the 20 pounds I paid three years before.  Oh well, I hadn’t intended to play golf anyway. 

As usual after finishing the tour of Laphroaig we shared a wee dram of their finest and then found the listing for our dear departed cousin, Robert in the “Friends of Laphroaig” Register.   This is the Register that records all the Laphroaig customers who have applied for and been granted a square foot of Islay, on Laphroaig property.  The company rents the property back from the “Friend” for an annual fee of one dram of their whisky, which must be collected in person at the distillery. We had applied on Robert’s behalf several years ago, unfortunately he never got to collect his fee.

The distillery manager, Ian Henderson, took us into the boardroom to show us the portrait of Bessie Williamson, the last private owner of Laphroaig.  My cousin’s last name was Williamson so they were very interested.  The thought of a possible relative owning a distillery must have been akin to what the Vikings felt when they thought of Valhalla. To date it remains only a remote possibility.

Mr. Henderson advised us that he would reach mandatory retirement age in November 2002 and would not only be leaving the company, but the island as well.  He will return to Fife to pursue other opportunities.

 That evening we walked down School St. in Port Ellen, looking for the house where our great/great/grandfather and our grandfather had been recorded in 1871.  That house number no longer existed, but we were told later that a new, town numbering system was introduced at a later date which started at one end of town and consecutively numbered houses without regard to streets. 

We arrived for an early dinner at the White Hart Hotel, only to find that the lounge bar at the hotel usually didn’t start serving until 6:30, almost an hour away.  However, without any encouragement from us, they displayed the usual Islay hospitality, and graciously opened early, just for us.  This hotel had been closed for a while and is still in the throes of room renovations and such, however we ate three dinners there and were well satisfied with the pub atmosphere, the food and the service.

            After our meal we enjoyed a social evening with our fourth cousin “landlady” and her husband, briefly interrupted by the arrival of our daughter on the 8pm ferry.  She had been teaching at a Music Conference in Stirling and had a few spare days before returning to Canada.

The next day dawned cloudy but quickly cleared.  Our first stop was at the Round Church in Bowmore, where we toured the church and the churchyard, taking photos of a monument at the request of a family researcher.  We did some shopping at the Scottish Tourist Bureau, for gifts, books and maps before heading for Port Charlotte and the Museum of Islay Life.  The Museum is a “must” every time we go to Islay.  It continues to expand in terms of artifacts and research capacity.  Irene, who was on duty that day, was as usual most cordial and helpful.  (We bumped into her the next day in Bowmore and had a delightful chat about activities there.) After lunch, across the road at the Croft Restaurant, we traveled on to Portnahaven at the western tip of the island.

 This village and the adjacent Port Wemyss perch on a rocky promontory, overlooking a sheltered harbour and the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse which guards the harbour entrance.  It was September 11th and we seemed as far as possible from the carnage of that day. Just as we were thinking that maybe there was a place that wasn’t touched by that tragedy, we encountered a lady out walking her dog.  The conversation started when we asked her the name of the wee dog. It was a Gaelic name, which sounded like “Dochers”.  Then she reminded us it was September 11th and she told us how, at about 2pm the year before, a neighbour had telephoned her with the news of what was enfolding in New York.   She spent the rest of the day, into the wee hours, in front of her television, transfixed and horrified by the events, as was the entire community.  It makes you understand the term  “ Global Village” .

Before driving away from Portnahaven we made the acquaintance of a couple of English tourists who were bicycling around Islay, as part of their island-hopping holiday.   They had gone from Ardrossan on the ferry to Arran, then by ferry to Kintyre, leaving their car at Claonaig and bicycling to Kennacraig for the Islay ferry. We would meet them again on the ferry from Port Ellen back to Kennacraig.  My best guess is that these folk were in their late sixties.   Quite remarkable.

After dinner (at the White Hart again) the five of us visited another distant cousin in Bowmore who was awaiting us with his wife, two sisters, two daughters and his grandson.  We had a great evening of getting acquainted, occasionally interrupted by a little Scotch sampling and healthy servings of tasty delicacies.

The following day, Thursday, 12th, was our last day on Islay so we wanted to make the most of it.  We made a brief stop at Tighcarmagan, on the outskirts of Port Ellen to buy some pottery from Mrs. Kent’s shop.  Unfortunately, Mr. Kent told us that the kiln had been down for many weeks in preparation for their move to a new house.  New owners, from off the island would soon take over.

 On we went to Kilnaughton Cemetery to wander in search of ancestral monuments, without success I’m sorry to say. An eagle cut circles in the brilliant blue sky , as we leaned on the stone wall of the ancient cemetery, soaking in the view of the sun-speckled sea and the beach at low tide.   Before strolling that wide expanse, we met and talked with a female doctor out walking her “Scottie”.  She had practiced in England but had just retired to a new home near Kilnaughton Bay. It was a glorious day!  If only we could have spent hours there, but we had to get on. 

We headed for Ardbeg Distillery for lunch.  The two-room restaurant, within the distillery had probably once held casks of their single malts, but now the rough stone, white washed walls and high ceilings housed a dining room, gift shop and whiskey tasting area.  As we waited for our orders, a group approached the table holding the whisky and began to taste samples.  My cousin who was wandering in the general area was also offered a tasting.  Observing this another restaurant guest helped himself to a sample, followed by others and myself. 

I asked my cousin how he had known the whiskey was for anyone to taste and he replied that he didn’t know that.  One of the people from the “Tour group” had not wanted to drink the sample provided so had given it to him.  Oh, oh!!  Seeking clarification, we asked the hostess whether samples were for restaurant patrons.  To which she replied, while trying not to notice the generous sample my daughter had just placed in front of my wife, “No, sir, only for tour groups, but I’ll get you a wee taste if you like.”   “Oh, no, that won’t be necessary, thank you very much!” was the unanimous response.

Our next stop was Finlaggan, the ancient home of the Lords of the Isles.  I had been there three years before, on an overcast late afternoon, when a breeze rippled the dark waters of the Loch and a smoky mist spiraled around the stone ruins, making for a mystical experience.  But today the sun was shining and a large group of English tourists, complete with talkative guide, preceded us onto the island. It will be the memory of my first visit that I will always associate with Finlaggan.

After a brief stop at Port Askaig, to see the Hotel, the Jura ferry and the Lifeboat, we returned to our flat in Port Ellen, before walking to the White Hart for dinner.

We left the next morning on the early ferry from Port Ellen.  My cousins and my daughter didn’t leave the deck until the island had disappeared from view.  They had been thrilled by their Islay experience.

This had been my third trip to Islay and it occurred to me that my attitude towards the island had changed. The atmosphere and sights, that had once astounded me, were now familiar and accepted.  I hadn’t felt like a visitor,  I had felt at home. That feeling was, in large part, because of the warmth and hospitality I had received from the people, the Ileach.  They still astound me.

Art Hunter

October 16, 2002