---again, thanks to Art Hunter for giving us these wonderful stories on his visits to Islay...
...Both times I have returned from Islay I have felt an
compulsion to commit my feelings to paper. What follows was written
last October on my return from the second visit. - Art
Impressions of Islay at the End of a Millennium
The atmosphere of Islay is as unique and varied, as any place I've ever been.
In Port Ellen, the streets are stark, angular and walled in by the perpendicular fronts of the row housing. The houses are clean, neat and freshly painted in white and pastel colours, but there are no rounded shapes or greenery to break the disconcerting uniformity of the wall of houses. They present a sameness that gives one a feeling that little changes, year after year, decade after decade. Even a house with the trim painted a vivid "Ranger Red and Blue", couldn't break the congruity. The streets are narrow and treeless and when there are houses on both sides, the feeling of being "walled off" from the outside world is palpable. Perhaps, when there is a very heavy overcast, you might even feel enclosed, as in a tunnel. This impression of confinement diminishes as soon as you can see and hear the ocean, but even the ocean imposes a border to your world. The houses like those on School St., close to and facing the ocean, must feel the power and threat of the crashing breakers during severe storms.
There is not a great feeling of activity or vibrancy within the village. Both hotels in Port Ellen are closed and the shops in the village are limited in size, number and variety. The Playing Fields of Port Ellen, on the north side, display some community spirit, but there is a sense that most villagers are content with a quiet and routine life and care little for change or progress.
In Bowmore, the Round Church at the top of the hill commands the main street, like an admiral from the bridge of his flagship. Although the street is treeless and austere, it is much wider, more impressive and less enclosed than Port Ellen. Bowmore appears to be the hub of
activity on the island and on Saturday bustles with life as people frequent the shops, hotel pubs and restaurants. Port Charlotte, a few miles away, with less row housing and a curving road through the village feels unconfined and open to the sea.
During the weekdays there seems to be a scarcity of people on the streets of the villages. You feel they are there, but busily occupied within their dwellings. Those we did encounter moved at an unhurried pace and were content, very friendly and interested in being helpful.
It seems natural for them to treat people with courtesy and respect and they would be amazed if they themselves were treated otherwise by anyone.
We met a Glasgow Ranger fan while he was taking wheelbarrow loads of peat blocks to his back door, from a lorry load dumped at his garden gate. He explained that he had a heating system but it wouldn't be like home if he didn't have a peat fire in the grate. This chap had season tickets to the Ranger games, worked at Laphroaig Distillery and was Captain of the Machrie Golf Club. Later, while we walked on Frederick Crescent, south of the village green, we watched a chap paddle a rubber dinghy toward us across Loch Leodamais. He disembarked carrying two bags of groceries, purchased "across the Loch". In decent weather he preferred to go by sea rather than by road.
The manager of the Laphroaig Distillery told us that those who stay long on Islay develop an incurable disease, Ileitis. It causes one to be inexorably attached to Islay and never having the will to leave. It appears the Ileachs are very happy with their lot and strive for little
more than what they already have. They seem to thrive on the predictability of their lives, appearing to suffer little of the emotional peaks and valleys so common to others. Though courteous to a fault, they would fiercely protect their island life from those who might seek to change it. Everyone on the island seems to know practically everyone else who lives there. They take pleasure in knowing what they can expect in their daily lives. They probably don't
encounter many surprises, especially when dealing with other Ileachs.
In leaving Port Ellen to visit the nearby cemeteries, we turned left at the north end of the village and went west along the north shore of Kilnaughton Bay. There are some woods on that route and it's quite hilly. Indeed, you have to climb a steep hill, past the modern
cemetery, then descend a very steep grade to reach the old cemetery, close to the beach and in view of the lighthouse. I could imagine funeral processions walking that two or three miles and pulling the wagon up that steep slope. It must have been a long walk there, and
seem even longer going back to the village.
From Port Ellen, heading north on A846 towards Bowmore, the feeling is one of fresh, breezy, open, landscape. In short order, you leave the sea and find yourself on a treeless tabletop, covered as far as the eye can see with purple heather and tufted, brownish grasses. The road runs five miles ahead of you like a carpenter's chalkline. Originally intended as a railway roadbed to serve a wartime RCAF base, it was put to better use when the war ended. The Machrie Hotel and Golf Club house, two miles north of Port Ellen, stands almost a mile west of the highway, yet it rises up from the landscape like a mirage appearing on the desert. The land on both sides of the road is so flat and devoid of other vegetation, that houses and buildings viewed in the distance look like miniatures placed on a scale model. This plain extends about a mile on each side of the road, then gently rolls to the sea on the west
and to the highlands on the east. When the road hits Loch Indaal at Bowmore it follows the shoreline east and then north to Bridgend where you finally see trees and woods, but only for about a mile. Then the road traces the rocky western coast of the Loch. The land is rough and rolling, overlooking a jagged, windswept, shore, accentuated by the waves breaking against it. There is a tremendous impression of vitality and freedom created by the surroundings.
We followed the road for two miles past Port Charlotte, where it narrowed to a single lane going to Portnahaven. On this narrow, rolling track, in light rain, we gave a lift to a chap carrying two bags of groceries. He was walking the seven miles back to Portnahaven. He had taken the Postbus to shop in Port Charlotte but had missed the return trip. Naturally he decided to walk, hoping that a passing vehicle would save him some of the lonely, winding, road home. He explained that he worked on a small fishing boat, with two other men. The wind at that time was measured at force five, so they couldn't go out to sea that day. We left him at his house in Portnahaven, most of which perches on a promontory overlooking the shelter of their harbour. We saw his fishing boat in the harbour, bouncing around on its mooring line, like a colt, anxious to be free of its tether. A few minutes later, while taking a picture of the harbour, I was very nearly blown off the bank into the sea. It was quickly very clear why they had stayed in port.
The landscape along the road from Bridgend to Port Askaig is more pastoral and less rugged than the other roads we traveled. Around the woolen mill, just north of Bridgend, it is quite picturesque, with the river coursing through a wooded area and tumbling down over the rocks beside the old mill.
The track to the home of the Lords of the Isles turns off to the north, about two miles south of Port Askaig. Previously we had traversed the emptiness of the moorlands of the Oa, to reach the cliffside War Memorial that stands sentinel over the waters that claimed 266 American lives. We had also traveled up the east coast, past Lagavulin and Ardbeg, to wrap ourselves in the tranquility and serenity of the Old Parish Church at Kildalton. None of that prepared us for the experience of Finlaggan. The very name conjures up medieval images.
We stood overlooking the head of the Loch, which sits in a shallow basin. On our right, to the north, the gentle slope is a mass of miniature evergreens, standing in regiments. The rest of the bowl is lonely, grassy, moor. It is mid afternoon on a heavy overcast day and a light wind ripples the dark waters of the Loch. A smoky mist spirals around the tandem of islands that crowds the near shore, obscuring the stone ruins, hiding the ancient grave slabs. The Lords are not in residence, but it feels like they are waiting close by, to reclaim their realm. The place is mystical and spiritual, beyond imagination. Come here at midnight on the last day of the millennium and the Lords of the Isles may emerge from the cloaking mist and reveal themselves to you. Finlaggan can make you believe such a thing could happen.
We left from Port Askaig on the morning ferry to Oban. As the high shore and the view of Caol Ila receded, we watched as a veil of enveloping fog closed in and the island disappeared, back into time, like Brigadoon. Of course, that didn't happen, but we kept looking back, just in case.