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A Visit to Islay in July 2002

 by Iain Sinclair

Pamela and I decided that it was high time our summer cruise on “Black Pepper” should include a visit to Islay so that I could try to find out more about the island which had been the birthplace of my great grandparents and their ancestors in the Sinclair family.  I had already discovered quite a bit but I had never spent time on Islay, although we had anchored there on a number of occasions.

From a sailing point of view Islay is neither well designed nor positioned!  If it were further north and west, I have no doubt that we would have visited it as often as we have sailed to Mull or Skye.  If it had more sheltered anchorages, it would be as popular as Mull or Gigha for visiting yachts.

The deciding factors this year were that Yachting Life magazine reported that pontoons were being installed at Port Ellen, in a newly dredged section of the harbour, and some musician friends were involved in the Cantilena on Islay Festival which we wanted to support.

We had planned to sail to Port Ellen on Sunday 7th July and had spent a few days making a gentle progress in that direction from our home port of Craobh, visiting Lussa and Craighouse on Jura and then crossing to Gigha.

On Saturday 6th, after hearing a deteriorating forecast involving strong westerlies, we decided to head for Port Ellen without delay.  Needless to say there was not much wind at the time and we ended up motoring due west from Gigha to round Texa island and enter Port Ellen at about 15.30hrs.

We quickly found the new pontoons and after going aground briefly – they haven’t quite dredged enough – we tied up and celebrated with a dram.

Port Ellen has spruced itself up a lot from my recollection of two brief overnight visits many years ago, but sadly is still blighted by the derelict Islay Hotel, which we passed on our first run ashore to stock up at the local supermarket.  We also passed two rubber drunks and a community garden unbelievably littered with alcopop bottles, despite the provision of a substantial waste bin.  Things did not look promising.

We quickly realised however that everyone we spoke to was very friendly, the garden was cleaned up a few days later and we didn’t see any more overt drunkenness.

The strong westerly/southwesterly winds arrived on Sunday and the swell reaching the pontoons was considerable. Not much sleep was possible that night.  There were a few anxious boat owners up and about in the early hours, but no damage was done.  The pontoons are of a very high standard with power and water to each berth and will, I am certain, repay the efforts of the organisers by bringing more visiting yachts, and therefore money, to the Island.

Black Pepper (on the left) at the pontoons in Port Ellen

Monday 8th July

Monday was a bright sunny day although very windy.  We had decided to rent a car which was accomplished easily with a phone call to D&N MacKenzie who delivered a Volkswagen Golf to the pier.

We set off to find Islay House at Bridgend where our friends were staying.

Islay House is an imposing residence with echoes of grand Edwardian living.  It is owned today by a former USAAF airman, Captain Tom Friedrich.  Although he was not in residence he had generously turned over his home to Cantilena, providing accommodation, rehearsal space and, in the music room, a venue for chamber concerts.

Cantilena was formed many years ago from principal players in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  Our friend Paul Marrion, a double bass player, is now principal with the BBC Symphony and with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, in London.  We were looking forward to meeting up with him and his wife Marion.  Yes that’s right Marion Marrion.

We arrived just as the morning rehearsal finished and the four of us went off to Bowmore for lunch.  Much catching up was done over excellent crab bisque and langoustines in the Harbour Inn.

As we drove down the driveway of Islay House on our way back to Port Ellen Pamela pointed out a graveyard through the trees on our left.  “That must be Kilarrow” I said and we got out to find a way in.  This turned out to be round the corner off the main road but, using the directions given to me by Toni Sinclair in Canada, we soon found the gravestone of John Sinclair and his spouse Effy Clark who I was pretty sure were my great, great, great grandparents.  I subsequently confirmed this at home after obtaining a copy of my great,great grandfather’s death certificate from Scots Origins.

The inscription on the stone reads:


lies the

remains of

John Sinclair

late tenant

of Curaloch

Died March 6th

1831 aged 71

years. And

Effy Clark

his spouse

Died Dec 11th 1846

aged 76 years

John Sinclair and Effy Clark’s Gravestone

John and Effy had 8 children one of whom, Donald born in 1798 at Kilinan, was my great great grandfather.  More of him later.

This was quite a remarkable find and we returned to the boat for dinner, and to make plans for Tuesday, happy to see that the wind had abated and a good night’s sleep was in prospect.

Tuesday 9th July

We had noted that the Islay Family History Society in Bowmore , which is an entirely voluntary organisation, was only open twice a week and that Tuesdays between 10.00 and 12.00 was one of their sessions.  We pitched up a bit early so we had a stroll round the churchyard of the Round Church, in the course of which we found a stone for a family McLean the wife being a Euphemia Sinclair.  This rang a bell as I knew that Donald, above, had re-married after the death of his first wife and had had a daughter Effy.  I took a photograph and decided to investigate further.

By now the History Society would be open so we went along and had a fascinating hour and a half with George Rhind who confirmed much of my research and produced some old maps so that we could establish the whereabouts of Curalach, a name which continually cropped up in the research.  He also gave me some useful contacts.

It was a beautiful day and lunch was beckoning so we drove to Port Charlotte where we had the fabulous seafood platter in the Port Charlotte Hotel.  We then spent some time at the Museum of Islay Life which has won awards for its excellence. It was good but I have to say that I thought it a bit tired.  We have seen better elsewhere.  One worrying exhibit though was a school room where both of us recognised school books which we had used at school – I don’t feel old enough to be in a museum!

On our way back to Port Ellen we stopped off at Kilarrow to visit John and Effy again and to tidy the grave.

Some gentle weeding at Kilarrow

That evening we returned to Islay House for a chamber concert in the music room where we met even more musical friends from Glasgow and beyond, including Morrison Dunbar who is the chairman of the festival board and whom we see regularly at concerts in Glasgow.

Listening to Schubert’s Trout Quintet in an Edwardian drawing room with views over Loch Indaal on a long summer evening was quite magical.

Wednesday 10th July

Wednesday was a fine sunny day and would be our last day on the island so we determined to find Curalach.

We drove out the single track road towards Bridgend to Laggan Bridge where we parked and set off on foot to walk along the north bank of the River Laggan towards Corrary on the Bowmore road.  The land is owned by Laggan Estates and is clearly organised for fishing.  The entire riverbank is fenced off with well maintained stiles, bridges and shelters.  It was no problem however to walk along the track, which is in any case passable by car with care.  A number of the anglers had taken their cars along.

We found evidence of what could have been croft houses on a rise overlooking an oxbow in the river.  It is marked on the map as Linne Churlaich.  The land in the oxbow was flat and probably very fertile while to the rear grazing land rose up the slopes of Beinn Churlaich to the dizzy height of 83 metres.

It is quite an extraordinarily beautiful place.

The remains are not much, considering that the buildings may have lasted into the twentieth century. Neil McLean mentioned above died at Curalach in 1913.

I suppose it is possible that the development of the estate led to disused buildings being demolished.  That will have to be the subject of a future visit when it may be worth contacting the estate office.

The River Laggan looking east towards Curalach.  The croft remains were on the high ground above the river.

Sitting among the remains of the crofts

From the croft site looking towards the river with the lower flat oxbow land on the left

The flat oxbow land of Linne Churlaich.  The curved line of the River Laggan is the dark vegetation in the background

This then was where John Sinclair had been a tenant, according to his gravestone, and where his son Donald had farmed and had died in 1882 at the age of 86.  My great grandfather Alexander Sinclair was born here in 1836 and married Elizabeth McEwan from over the hill at Cruach.

Shortly after their marriage in 1861 they left the island and settled in Crossmyloof, Glasgow, where he was a founding elder of Langside Parish Church and where he died in 1902.

Alexander’s half sister Euphemia (Effy) from Donald’s second marriage married the boy next door at Curalach, Neil McLean, and it was their gravestone that we found at the Round Church in Bowmore.

McLean headstone in Bowmore

After this fascinating morning we repaired to the Machrie Hotel for lunch.  Pamela had a holiday there as a child with her parents and was keen to see the place.  It is very attractive but sadly the less said about lunch the better.

It would not have been possible to have made less of the setting or of local produce.  It could have been a lounge bar in Glasgow.  In fact in Glasgow the food would have been better.  Not recommended.

In the afternoon we drove along to the Kildalton Cross, and as would be expected of any sensible tourist, stopped off at the Ardbeg Distillery for afternoon tea, very good, and to purchase a bottle of something local.

Later we returned to Bowmore for a Cantilena concert in the Round Church which included among other things a stunning performance of the Bach double violin concerto with Angus Ramsay and Angus Anderson.

The acoustic of the church is superb and well suited to concerts. 

We bade farewell to our friends with a wee glass of Islay Malt in the Harbour Inn and returned to Port Ellen to prepare for departure the next day.

Islay was a delight and I cannot imagine why it has taken me almost 60 years to spend any time there.  We will certainly go back.  There is much left to see and much left to discover.  In the meantime a wee glass of malt will bring back fond memories.

Heading Home


Iain Sinclair July 2002

Further information about the Cantilena Festival can be found at

Some extra photographs

Pontoons Port Ellen

Kilarrow Cemetery

The Round Church, Bowmore