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.