Looking Out To Sea

A wee tour round Islay

Between the end of term and the start of Helen’s elective we took a week’s holiday in Scotland on the bikes. We ferried and cycled from Ardrossan Harbour on the west coast, around the top of Arran, over to the Mull of Kintyre and then across from there to Islay.

We spent five days on Islay staying at a B&B in (well, near) Bowmore, heading to different directions. Basically we spent five days doing as many distillery visits as we could get away with, which was pretty good fun to be honest. They’re interesting and — since it’s such a key part of Scottish culture and economy — it is worthwhile knowing how it actually works.

The places we visited were, in order, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Caol Ila. There are eight distilleries on the island but we only managed to cover five of them. They’re not quite evenly distributed across the island — they tend to cluster near the main ports of Port Askaig in the north or Port Ellen in the south.

They all have their own selling point in terms of tradition — whether their barley is all grown on the island, or all Scottish; whether it’s all malted locally, or malted by hand; and so on for the peating, the milling, the material and antiquity of the mash tuns and washbacks, etc. You could make a very large multi-dimensional graph with this information! The one distillery that seems to do everything as traditionally as it is possible is Kilchoman, which we didn’t visit in the end. Something to return for!

Being on the bikes we didn’t have much scope for shopping. We bought a bottle of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask (aged in firkins for the greater area-to-volume ratio). Several of the tours also let you take your tasting glass away with you after the tour, so we’ve got a good set of those too!

The weather was clear and pleasant — open to the Atlantic as you would expect but not rain-lashed as we feared. Apart from a brief spell fighting against the wind when travelling from Ardbeg to Laphroaig along the south coast (and realising Helen had left her purse behind at the last distillery; the lovely woman at the visitor centre drove up to Ardbeg to collect it while we went on the tour) the weather worked entirely in our favour.

On the way through we stayed the night on Arran at Lochranza before getting the ferry in the morning. On the way home we did it all in one shot — leaving the bed and breakfast at 8.30 for the hour’s ride to Port Ellen and the ferry to Kennacraig. Then it was up the first brutal hill of the day and over to the other side of the peninsula for the ferry to Arran, the second brutal hill of the day around Arran and a terrifying ride down the other side to the gentle coastal route to Brodick ferry port and home. To fully assert our awesomeness we stopped off at a supermarket for a couple of drinks and went straight to a flat party instead of going home. (To be fair we didn’t even stay a full 2 hours but that’s not bad going.) The rest that night was good.