What’s Your Favourite Dram?

This Hogmanay, I know I’ll be reaching for my favourite dram – a peaty monster from Islay! Situated off the coast of western Scotland, this isle has a remarkable history with many archaeological treasures. For more information, check out islayinfo.com. You’ll even be surprised to learn that Islay is pronounced ‘eye-la’!

I’ve often wondered if Islay’s early Neolithic folk in their crannogs or duns, or perhaps the Vikings, or even the Lords of the Isles who ruled the region from Finlaggan Castle drank ‘uisge beathe’ – the water of life?

But who would have thought that Irish monks introduced whisky to Islay? Sometime in the early 14th century, these intrepid souls saw value in the fertile ground suitable for growing barley or bere as it was known then, as well as the inexhaustible supply of pure water and fields of deep rich peat. It is  conceivable then that the MacDonald Lords of the Isles, who supported King Robert the Bruce around that time, might well have drunk his health in whisky.

Overtime, the MacDonald clan were ousted by the more politically powerful Campbell lords who focused their efforts on developing different industries such as linen weaving and fishing, building small villages to accommodate workers. Crofters continued to grow barley as their main grain crop, distilling the surplus into whisky. When a tax was levied in 1644, many of the small stills relocated to remote areas across Scotland but the excise men didn’t sail over to Islay until well over a century later. In time, famine and ‘the clearances’ saw extensive migration to faraway lands like Australia and NZ.

How did this small island come to offer such an idyllic base to so many distilleries – eight at the last count? Some say it was the lure of peat, soaked by sea spray, which gives the whisky such a unique and tantalizing flavour. But even in different parts of the island, there are variations – gentle scents of moss and spice, and stronger, acquired mineral tastes that pack a punch for the unwary.

Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Islay has a relatively gentle climate and lush scenery. But during the short ferry ride over from Kintyre, you’ll pass Jura’s stark, treeless mountains – another intriguing place to visit with an equally fascinating history.

There’s a lot to see and do in this part of the world. A treat lies in store for golfers at The Machrie, and twitchers find their own unique paradise with great flocks of geese arriving seasonally, as well as many rare birds. And in the village of Bowmore, I have it on good authority that the water in the local swimming pool even smells of whisky.

If you love single malts, old hotels, fine seafood, tiny villages and tranquil island life, then you’ll love Islay. Come along now for a wee trip about the isle. Don’t dally or you’ll be left behind…

Oh and you’ll have to guess which is my favourite tipple.

Happy Hogmanay!

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Isle of Jura

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Looking across to Bowmore Distillery

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The village of Bowmore

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Port Charlotte Hotel

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Of Vikings and Fire Twirlers

Come with me to the Swedish island of Birka, burial ground of Viking rulers and home to an ancient trading centre,  just a short boat trip away from Stockholm via its peaceful waterways.

Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and well worth a visit.

Today I came across these photos of my trip there a few years back and was transported back to a mystical time. A Viking fair was in progress. Fire twirlers danced to the powerful drama of medieval music and drums as dusk settled. When I closed my eyes, it was easy to feel a slip in time.

During the day, a guide took us to burial mounds and memorial stones, and Birka’s history slowly came to life. Sweden’s oldest town lay on a thriving river and portage route. Merchants traded in goods from across Scandinavia, the Baltic and as far away as the Middle East. I imagined the waters around the island crowded with vessels of all shapes and sizes, the lanes buzzing with gossip and banter among the traders and market goers. Smoke rising from fires; aromas of roasting meats and baking bread, and the rich salty tang of fish all jostling together.

The island’s zenith seems to have been around the 8th century, fading a few hundred years later. Perhaps its demise came about through attacks from warring Danes but no one seems to know for sure, as other centres nearby rose in power to take its place.

The people are long gone, but how lucky are we that these old traditions are still cherished and brought to life.

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Spanish Gold and the Isle of Mull

On the isle of Mull, the village of Tobermory guards a secret. Deep in the waters of its bay, a galleon lies sleeping. Back in the  15th century, the ship became separated from the main fleet of the Spanish Armada during a huge storm. After stopping to restock, the captain foolishly failed to pay the local villagers for the goods. As the enemy ship set sail, a local Maclean man boarded and set fire to its powder magazine. Now ‘The Florencia’ is home to myriad sea creatures but hidden beneath her weed-encrusted beams lies a grand hoard of gold bullion. Many have searched for it. None have found it or if they did, lips are tightly sealed. It’s an adventure story which has inspired many: even Robert Louis Stevenson penned a tale about it.

Of course back then,  the village of Tobermory as it is today didn’t exist. A few centuries ago, it was constructed  by the British Fisheries Society. Now it’s a pretty village of painted houses, one of my favourites in Scotland. Children might recognize it from the TV series, Ballamory.

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Tobermory

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Situated off the western coast of Scotland, Mull is the second largest island in the Hebrides. Despite its many peninsulas,  jagged coastline, cliffs and  mountainous core, there are some lovely beaches and rolling heathered hills.  All in all it makes for an intriguing landscape and an interesting drive along the narrow, winding roads. Take your time and try not to rush!

On our recent trip, we came across Calgary Bay, thought to  be the inspiration  for Calgary in Canada. Nearby there’s a great cafe with delicious home cooking, complete with whale bone art in its sheltered courtyard. Wander up the hill behind the cafe and you’ll find a surprising sculpture walk with woven willow figures and shapes melded into the landscape. Great views as well!

I was hoping to catch sight of an otter, but the best we could do was a sign down on the beach for the Mull Otter Group which aims to protect injured animals. There are lots to see with white tailed eagles, pale dolphins and basking sharks. Maybe next time!DSC00376

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From the Mesolithic period onward, Mull has been continuously inhabited  so there are many historical treasures to discover from standing stones and circles, ancient duns and medieval castles. On the ferry over from Oban on the mainland, you pass the wonderful Duart Castle, ancestral home of the MacLean clan. The Isle of Iona is well-known too for its role in the development of the Celtic Christian church in Scotland when St Columba and some of his converts popped over from nearby Ireland in a coracle. Over time, the church accumulated wealth which brought Viking raiders: some later  settled with the mingling of cultures.DSC00418

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It was not until the Battle of Largs in the 13th century – when the Scots defeated the Norse king, Haakon – that direct Scandinavian influence ended on Mull. But the Lords of the Isles continued to rule the western isles, generally resisting Scottish royal authority.

At one time, Mull had a population of 10,000 but poor harvests and famine, followed by The Clearances, caused an exodus. Many of the crofters were cleared from the land – sheep, seen as a more profitable farming option – to seek new lives in the large cities on the mainland, or in far away countries like Canada or Australia. Now the population is somewhere in the vicinity of 3000 though this number swells at certain times of the year with tourism.

I would love to be in Tobermory for its music festival around April each year but, to be honest, any time would be wonderful.

Where to stay? There are atmospheric old pubs and hotels. We chose a little fisherman’s cottage which looked out over the bay. Dinner at the restaurant, Cafe Fish, was a major treat, and don’t forget to visit the Tobermory distillery around the bay.

The Isle of Mull… one of Scotland’s great treasures!

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References: http://www.isleofmull.net; http://www.mull-historical-society.co.uk