Day 2 (Trip to Islay)

Day 1
Loch Finlaggan to Port Charlotte
(45 km total ⇒ 36km walking)

What a first day! Throughout the night, storm fronts kept coming in, but my good old trusty tent kept me warm and dry. Though the rippling water of the nearby burn, the howling of the Northwestern wind and the screeching of an unclosed fence gate kept me up for most of the night. The morning brought more wind and rain and as I stumbled out of my tent (they really didn't think the design of my tunnel tent through), I saw that given the circumstances of utter darkness and rain, I had made a decent pitch.The main idea was to make a pitch between the ruins of Loch Finlaggan. But in hindsight I don't think that the trust keepers would have appreciated it, if I had caused any damaged to the archaeological remains of the site.
As in the dark I had missed the sign on the museum, which prohibited camping on the domain, so I probably should be glad that my presence remained unnoticed.

The ruins of  Loch Finlaggan in the background
The heavy rains that approached with great speed,  forced me to run for shelter while I was still breaking up my tent. Safe to say that most of the inner tent got wet during this operation, in these circumstances it was advisable to find a hostel or a camping with a drying room  before I could use it again. A first stroke of bad luck, as I was planning to wild camp on the shores Loch Gruinart. Within the first minutes of my trip it became clear that this trip was not going to go as planned.
The winds had gained in strength overnight and the Jura to ferry had been cancelled due to the adverse weather.

Caol Ila Distillery

Off to Caol Ila than in the pouring rain, for a healthy nourishing breakfast consisting out of a dram or two.
The old distillery lies a short walk  from Port Askaig down by the shore. In both cases of Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, a lick of paint would do miracles. They look pretty run down, but I guess that the cost/profit ratio of the upkeep would be far too high compared to their more touristy southern neighbours . This is probably how most Islay distilleries looked a decade ago.
The old warehouses, far too small for a Caol Ila, so most of the whisky is matured on the mainland
The 70's distillery building
I arrived about a quarter of an hour late for the scheduled tour, but was welcomed by a young and pretty girl, whom I guess was about the same age as me. We chatted a bit about the weather, while she poured me a dram of Caol Ila Moch and the latest Distiller's Edition.

Nose: fresh notes of peat smoke,  aromas of hot tar, a good squash of zesty lemon,  and notes of hay.

Mouth: peat, buttery texture, apple wood smoke and grind pepper
medium long finish, briny mouth feel with hints of tar and smoldering smoke.

Safe to say that I really like the Moch, very similar to the other 8yo Caol Ila (young and feisty) that I tried from Douglas Laing.
Age is no guarantee for quality, but generally they still prove to be the better drams. But young peaty whiskies are often quite the sensation for your taste buts. Just like the Lagavulin 12yo, the young Caol Ila Moch is no immature version of the standard bottling, it is a completely different expression in itself. A dry lemony whisky with notes of peat and hay. A great start this first dram on Islay and just as I finished my glass, the sun started shining.
Second up was the Caol Ila Distiller's edition 2001-2013 with a Moscatel wine finish. Well it was not a bad whisky per se, but after the Moch it was a bit underwhelming. More waxiness in body, subtle notes of spices and orange.
My hostess closed the shop for a few moments to give me a tour of the still room. The massive Caol Ila stills are a sight to behold and the views across the Sound of Islay are supposed to be amazing, but the Paps of Jura were nowhere to be seen, quite the disappointment. As always, no photos allowed inside Diageo distilleries, but except for the still room the building, there is barely anything worth taking a picture off anyway.
The 70's building that replaced the old distillery has little to no charm and with an atmosphere similar  to that of the my old school building, "shivers".
No time for romance here, this is an industrial facility with a production of almost four million liters of pure alcohol each year and they do little to effort to hide it.
Not that it bothers me, it's quite interesting to see the true face of the whisky industry and not the romantic Potemkin villages that most tourists get to see.
With a free tasting glass in my hand, I left for my next target, the Bunnahabhain distillery a bit further along the Coast.




The road up to Bunnahabhain was beautiful and quiet, the sun came out and it stopped raining for a moment. The scenery along the way mainly consisted of views across the water to the Isle of Jura, but the Paps remained hidden behind a thick layer of clouds.

Unfortunately the winds had not died down and it seemed like they were only getting stronger throughout the day. Thus the walk along the coastal road became a true battle against the storm.

Still far from the epic proportions of last years storm in the mountains between Kinlochleven and Fort William, but strong enough to slow me down significantly. Let these pictures be a testimony of the rapidly changing weather that day.




The dark waters of Loch Ardnahoe colored purple by the strange sunlight
The Bunnahabhain distillery is something out of the ordinary, it is an enormous complex of warehouses, hangars and living quarters for the staff.
The site was completely deserted, during the silent season it appears that only two members of the staff are running the premises.
Not many tourists drive up this far, though to my astonishment the shopkeeper, who looked suspiciously like the captain on the distilleries emblem, told me that about a hundred people made the trip to the distillery each day.
Now back to the distillery, while the seafront buildings got a nice white paint coating, the rest of the tall buildings are grey and in need of some repair. Some people abhor the "prison"-like outlook of the buildings. But I believe it fits perfectly with the atmosphere of pure isolation. One could easily believe that this is the last outpost of mankind,  beyond lies nothing but an endless uninhabitable wilderness.




The entry to the shop, is well hidden, you'll have to enter the atmospheric courtyard and climb the stairs to the first floor. The shop has been furnished like a small cosy living room, a sharp contrast with the cold desolate surroundings outside.  Inside the Captain and two female colleagues from the Deanston distillery were chit-chatting as I walked in.
Of course, I was once again too late for the tour. Before my departure I had collected all the info available on tours at every Islay distillery, but with the elements working against me, my progress that morning had been far too slow.
It may look like it, but this is not the shop


The Captain poured me a dram and offered to show me the stills as soon as the other tour returned.
"What Bunnahabhain expressions have you tried?", he asked. "The ten and the eighteen year old", I replied.  They all had a laugh: "It's the twelve year old!"
What a shameful rookie mistake, no luck trying to present myself here as a true whisky-connaisseur.
"Well I'll let you have taste of the Bunnahabhain 18 than", the Captain said, while he poured me a dram from a bottle of Bunnahabhain 12 (at least i know my bottles!).
The Bunnahabhain XII, is the opposite of what most people would define as a classic Islay whisky. It's unpeated, yet not light or lemony in any way. It's an excellent single malt, briny on the palate, rich body that always reminds me of some syrupy old-style Belgian Dark beers like Westvleteren, Westmalle or Maredsous. Hints of coffee, black pepper, orange and vanilla. This is a complex dram with a lot of layers for an entry level dram.
Unfortunately that was the only dram I got a t the distillery, a pity, it won't stop me from ordering some other Bunnahabhain expressions in the near future.
I discussed my itinerary to the north with the shopkeeper: up to the Rhuvaal lighthouse and the walk along the northern coastline. He advised me that this weather was unsuited to traverse alone along the cliffs with these high winds. (The weather services had given the Amber alert)
One of the things I would hear very often during my trip on Islay was that I just picked the wrong week.
View from the pier
The people from the previous tour walked back in and their young female guide was told to show me the still house.
Well where do they keep getting these girls, are they trying to convince the world that distilleries are nowadays run by young blonde amazons?
The trip to the stills turned into an almost complete tour of the empty distillery. It was interesting to have a peek inside the empty mash tun and pot stills.
Though I do not believe my guide actually worked at the distillery, she had a desperate look on her pretty face when I asked her about the absence of a pagoda on the roof (It never had one) or when I asked her in what way their stills were the "largest" (they are the tallest not the largest).
The stills were indeed impressive, the interior of the distillery does not have the sterilised look of other distilleries open to tourists. In fact the stills and wash backs are pretty dirty. They may claim that it improves the flavour, but I have my doubts that the stains on the outside help in the development of the flavours inside.
No further comments here, Bunnahabhain is the only distillery on Islay that you can still give you that impression that you are indeed a traveler who crosses the rugged seas to discover the purest of flavours at distilleries forgotten by the rest of mankind. While at the other distilleries, you do no longer feel like an adventurer, you're just one of the many tourists joining the distillery tour that day.
Bunnahabhain, the last home of the Islay single malt pioneer, never ever change.


The wreck of the Wyre Majestic engulfed by the rough seas



When I tried to get close to the Wyre Majestic, I was simply blown of my feet by the harsh winds. It made me realize that it would be for the best if I abandoned my plans to travel further north.
Venturing on my own, along ill-defined paths in an uninhabited area with no cellphone coverage, behind on schedule and along the cliffs with high winds, rough seas, against all warnings of meteorological services & locals and with a wet tent, would probably not be the stupidest thing that I've done this summer, but certainly the most irresponsible.
My decision to aboard the planned route was therefore a decision of the mind and not of the heart, as I still regret  not crossing the Margdale river and heading out to that lighthouse.
So I decided to head of to Port Charlotte to spend the night at either the youth hostel or the Port Mor campsite. I took another way back, through the forests west of the distillery.
The scenery along these paths was mainly unexceptional, but the trees provided some cover against the wind.


Back on the main road that connects the eastern and the western part of the isle, I headed towards Bridgend. Along the way I was constantly battered by harsh side-winds and gusts of rain. After several hours out there in the rain my trousers and coat started to absorb the water and cured my own foolishness.
It was a Sunday, so there was no coach service on the isle. Fortunately a mile or two out of Bridgend a local elderly woman with a dog called kiwi took pity on me and offered me a ride up to Bridgend.
After the storm had passed I headed out again on foot along the surprisingly busy road between Portnahaven and Bridgend. Two miles out of Bruichladdich it started raining again and I was picked up by a couple of friendly locals, fierce Scottish nationalists, who brought me to the Youth Hostel.
One thing that I learned on Islay, is that the Ileach  are generally good and helpful people, most tourists cruising at high speeds along the Islay roads however are selfish pricks.
That night I stayed at the Port Charlotte Youth hostel, located in the warehouses of the former Lochindaal distillery,  where I was able to dry my cloths and tent.
I concluded that evening with a couple of Islay Ales at the Port Charlotte Hotel ( they served their whisky at tourist prices).
Sundown at the Port Charlotte Hotel


The Port Charlotte Youth Hostel, located in the warehouses in the rear.