---thanks to Art Hunter for this wonderful description of his visit to Islay...
Islay, a Scottish Treasure
If you believe that the Scots are dour and stingy then you probably have
never been to Scotland and you most certainly have never been to Islay.
Islay (Eye-la) called the "Jewel of the Hebrides" is the southernmost
of that island group. It's a tenth the size of Prince Edward Island but
it contains a fabulous variety of things to see and do. Islay's verdant
landscape of peat banks, moors and rock highlands is always accentuated
by the crashing beauty of its jagged coastline. But the everlasting
impression of Islay is of its people, the most gracious and generous of
spirit that we have ever met, anywhere.
We chose Islay as a destination in Scotland to
trace our ancestors, the
Williamsons and the McKerrells. At Glasgow airport we learned it would
be wise to make a reservation for the ferry crossing from Kennacraig,
Kintyre, to Port Ellen, Islay. The drive from Glasgow to Kennacraig is
a pleasant, scenic two and a half-hours. Our ferry, Isle of Arran, which
holds about five hundred passengers and sixty-eight cars, crossed the
Sound of Jura in two hours during which we enjoyed good food from the
cafeteria and fine ales and spirits served in the lounges. The lounges
have large viewing windows and ample outdoor seating is provided on two
decks for passengers to take in the sea air.
Our bed and breakfast overlooked the beach in
Port Ellen, a village
that outwardly appears unchanged since the Great War of 1914. The row
houses in the village centre are whitewashed and well kept although many
of the houses have no numbers. It is common to have odd and even
numbers on the same side and for the smaller streets to have no signs.
The shops contained in the rows are so unobtrusive that you may pass by
before noticing them. The houses outside the centre are identified
only by Gaelic names like Tighcargaman or Tigh Na Suil. But there is
no problem finding your way, just ask anyone and they will not only
direct you, but probably accompany you until they are satisfied you are
at your destination.
There are seven distilleries on this small
island, producing twenty
million litres a year of prime scotch whiskey. We chose to tour the
Laphroaig (La-froyg) distillery, just outside Port Ellen. because we
knew that a woman named Bessie Williamson had inherited the distillery
in 1954 from its last family owner. Bessie had joined Laphroaig in 1932
after graduating from Glasgow University with an M.A, no mean feat for a
woman at that time. She became so indispensable to the operation of the
business that the owner, having no heirs, bequeathed it to her in
1954. She ran it successfully until 1967 and remained as chairman and
director until retirement in 1972. Although she died in1982 she is
still revered by the island people for her contributions to island
life. The only criticism is related to her late in life marriage to a
Canadian entertainer, Wishart Campbell, who proclaimed himself "a
pioneer of Canadian radio" and "the Golden Voice of Canadian radio".
The Ileach (ill-yuchh), as the islanders are called, never took to the
flamboyant Campbell and still resent him, fifteen years after his
death. You can believe if these people don't like you there must be
some major flaws in your character.
When our group had finished the tour and were
having a dram of
Laphroaig's finest, a smoky, peaty, single malt, we met the distillery
manager. On mentioning my connection to the Williamson name, he ushered
me into their executive office and boardroom to show me framed
photographs of Bessie. Was it my imagination or did she look like my
mother and my aunts?
Islay has five thousand years of history
including Bronze Age and Iron
Age settlements, an eighth century Celtic cross, a ruined sixteenth
century castle and an ancient fort and mediaeval castle which has been
under archaeological excavation since 1990. More recent history is
commemorated by the American War Memorial on the cliffs at the southern
tip of Islay. This lighthouse-shaped monument memorializes the two
hundred and sixty-six American sailors lost when the troopship Tuscania
was torpedoed in the First World War.
North of Port Ellen lies the village of
Bowmore, home of the Round
Church. The two storey church, built in 1767, has a commanding presence
at the top of Main Street, overlooking the village. Legend says that
the Round Church, one of only two in Scotland, was designed round so
that there would be no corner for the devil to hide in.
Port Charlotte, a few miles to the west,
around the shores of Loch
Indaal, is home to the Museum of Islay Life. Housed in a reconstructed
church, the museum displays a collection of documents, artifacts, tools
and treasures dating back to the early Bronze Age. What we found most
interesting were the items depicting Islay life in the last two
centuries. The tools of coopers, wheelwrights and distillery workers,
an illicit still, a croft room complete with fireplace and box bed and
children's toys were fascinating. One display in particular caught my
eye. It contained medals, newspaper clippings, photographs and a letter
of one Alexander Williamson, an Ileach and a corporal in the Argyll and
Sutherland Highlanders who was awarded the Military Medal posthumously
in April 1943. The poignant letter was from him to his parents, written
with the certain knowledge he would soon die. He tells them that he
fought not for abstract ideas but solely to protect his loved ones and
to preserve their way of life. He asks them to live their lives without
grief or bitterness and to remember him "as the loveable, cheerful boy
that loved you all."
On inquiring about the soldier's relatives, a
quick telephone call from
the museum clerk sent us up the road a few miles to visit a lady who
knew some Williamsons. When we arrived at her door she had prepared tea
and shortbread. Not only did she go out of her way to produce addresses
of possible relatives in England, Scotland and Canada but she also gave
us a tour of her lovely house and grounds. To top it off, she invited
us to stay with her the next time we came to Islay. All of this
occurred within half an hour of meeting her. Although this was the
best, time and time again the hospitality and generosity of the Ileach
Islay is also a great place to enjoy outdoor
activities. For bird
watchers, there are more than a hundred types of birds including rare
geese, golden eagles, peregrines and choughs, a cousin of the crow.
Otters and seals frequent the coastline and wild goats and three types
of deer populate the moors and hillsides. The roe and fallow deer are
commonly seen in large groups right beside the main highway. The larger
red deer keep more to the high moors. The red deer are hunted as
trophies, but only on estates and under the strict supervision of
gamekeepers. When we inquired about the venison on a menu, we were told
with a wink that it was always wild but tonight's "was wilder than
If golf is your game then Islay will more than
satisfy you. The only
course on the island is at the Machrie Hotel and Golf Links, a short
drive from Port Ellen or Bowmore. The 1901 Open Championship was held
there when the hundred pound prize set a record. It is a true links
course, seaside, windswept and devoid of trees. The sixty two hundred
yard layout has wide, rolling fairways but the rough of long grass and
heather will devour a ball a mere yard off the cut portion. The club
captain told us that he had played one of their par threes with
everything from a wedge to a three wood, depending on the wind. Islay
is close to the gulfstream so the course is open twelve months a year.
Admittedly, there are days in the winter when even Braveheart would not
attempt to play.
Food and accommodation on the island is very
good. Everywhere we ate
served quality meals at reasonable prices. We stayed at B&B's in Port
Ellen and outside Port Charlotte. Both were excellent and reasonably
priced. Our stay near Port Charlotte was particularly pleasant. The
view from the lovely sitting room was over Loch Indaal, a hundred metres
away. Our beautiful bedroom had been a three hundred year old crofter's
cottage only a couple of decades before. The current landlady owned
three sheep just to keep her grounds well mowed.
We left from the north end of the island, sailing from Port Askaig to
Oban in four hours. This was another delightful voyage if somewhat sad.
We had spent three days and three nights on Islay and it simply was not
enough. We will have to return again and again for we can not imagine
any other place where the grandeur and beauty of the landscape is only
surpassed by that of its people.