Early June 2007– Islay to Tobermory
We shall remember Islay for an excess of the "water of life", both the alcoholic and none alcoholic varieties...We opted to stay on the pontoons in Port Ellen on the south side of Islay, these have the advantage of giving easy shore access and were very reasonably priced. The evening we arrived we booked ourselves on two distillery tours on consecutive days as we thought two in one day was a bit much. Friday, 1st June, was a glorious sunny day so we opted to cycle to Laphroaig Distillery. The tour was given by a gregarious scot called Jack, who showed us lots of things we've not seen on other tours. They malt about 10% of their own barley at Laphroaig, so we got to walk inside one of their malt kilns with its distinctive pagoda chimney. Inside it was black with the smoke and had a lovely strong peaty smell. Laphroaig also have a little man-powered narrow gauge railway system for transporting the peat to the kilns which we of course appreciated. Outside they had the empty bourbon casks waiting to be filled, and the casks had a distinctive vanilla aroma when you stuck your nose in the bung hole.
Laphroaig have a "friends of" society which you can join on-line with just the bar code from the back of a bottle. A friend is assigned a square foot of Islay, and there is a field behind the distillery where you can find your plot and stick in your native country's flag. Needless to say the field is covered in many different flags, and they were saying they have over 300,000 friends at last count. When a friend visits the distillery they pay you "rent" for the plot in the form of a whisky miniature (on top of the dram given at the end of the tour), and a certificate. Only Judith was a friend (and has been for years), for some reason Tim had never signed up despite all the bottles of Laphroaig we've got through in the years.
While we had the bikes out, and the weather was fine we continued on to the thirteenth-century Kildalton chapel which is about 9 miles from Port Ellen. The chapel is a ruin, but there are some interesting carved grave stones depicting knights and swords. Also this superbly preserved Celtic ringed cross. They think it was carved in the second half of the eighth century by sculptors who came from Iona. In 1882 the cross was tilting dangerously so had to be reset, using the original socket stone, but a new plinth. We ate our lunch in blazing sunshine on a knoll overlooking the church yard, and watched a peregrine falcon being dive bombed by three lapwings.
On the return journey we stopped for a cup of tea/coffee at Ardbeg which has an excellent cafe. You can see our folding bicycles propped against the wall in the photo. The hot weather did not last, and as forecast for the next two days we had south easterly gales and heavy rain. Port Ellen harbour was sheltered in this wind direction, but would be most uncomfortable in a south westerly. So for our tour of Ardbeg Distillery we chose to take the bus for the three miles from Port Ellen. We thought something was odd when we were joined by three chatty local ladies also going to Ardbeg. There is nothing in the Ardbeg village but a few houses, and the distillery so no obvious reason for locals to go there. We soon found out what was going on. We happened to be in Islay for the end of their week long music and whisky festival which occurs at the end of May every year. Every day of the week a different distillery had an open day, and this day happened to be the Ardbeg open day. It is one of the most popular of the open days because they have a special "big eat" at the cafe with hugh portions of wholesome food, traditional music and pipers. But even more of a draw were the free drams! We knew nothing about this before we got off the bus and found the car park full, and cars double parked all down the road. The tours were completely informal, being given by a young chap in a hugh curly wig, carrying a bottle of whisky with which he continually topped up our glasses. Unfortunately, the last bus left before our tour ended so we had to stagger back along the road in the rain. We got as far as Lagavulin when some locals took pity on us and gave us a lift back to Port Ellen.
After a day of nursing the effects of the Ardbeg party, the weather finally broke on Monday, 4th June, the sun came out and the wind died completely, so we motored off up the Sound of Jura over a glassy sea. We spent a few nights at anchor in the lochs on the mainland side of the sound of Jura. From Loch Craignish we went for a pleasant woodland walk over to Kilmartin Glen which is the most important prehistoric site on the Scottish mainland. The most unusual (thought not photogenic) is a line of five burial cairns covering two miles. These are thought to be from successive generations of chieftains. In contrast, close to the cairns, there are two small stone circles which are apparently from burials from the Neolithic to Bronze age. Nearby there is also and a north-south row of pairs of tall standing stones, the tallest is over 10ft high, and the centre single stone (see left) has interesting markings. There many other prehistoric sites in the immediate area, but it was a very hot day so we decided to head back to the boat, an hours walk away over the hills. Judith was sorry to miss the carvings of the boar at the Iron Age fort of Dunadd, but there is always another time, and they had reproduced it in a prominent location...
On Friday, 8th June, we got our first breath of wind for four days, and had a pleasant afternoon sail through the Sound of Luing to Puilladobhrain (Gaelic for Otter Pool, pronounced 'Pool-doran' and not an otter in sight). The wind dropped just as the cricket on Radio 4 LW finished for the day, which was excellent timing as the engine disrupts reception. Puilladobhrain is a very popular anchorage being only 7 miles south of Oban, and having a good pub a short walk away. The two nights we were there there were about 15 boats, but the pilot talks about the record being 58! The pub is located next to the Clachan Bridge. This is known as the "Bridge over the Atlantic" as it crosses a channel that is navigable at high tide (though not with a tall mast!), so the water must be from the Atlantic. It was built in 1793, and is on the tourist coach routes. Until recently all the passengers had to disembark and walk across the bridge to give the coaches enough clearance to get over the hump back. However recent resurfacing has flattened the hump just enough to give a few inches clearance. Two coach loads of German tourists disgorged just after we had taken our photos!
Next we had a couple of domestic days at Oban marina. This is on the Kerrera side of the sound, and they have an hourly shuttle boat across to Oban, so you get all of the advantages of the busy town but the peace and quite of Kerrera. While there, we went to see "Pirates of the Caribbean III" at the little cinema in the town. It is a very traditional auditorium, more like a theatre really. The sound suffered a bit, and some of the rapid dialog was hard to follow, but fun all the same. The weather remained fine with little wind, but it produced beautiful sunsets. Below is the view from the Kerrera monument across the Firth of Lorn to the Sound of Mull.
By 12th June, due to the lack of wind we had only got as far as Loch Aline part way up the sound of Mull. Here we gleefully collected enough mussels for dinner, in about 10 minutes at low tide. The trick with mussels is to scrub them, then leave them overnight in clean sea water with a handful of flour so that they filter it though their systems to clean out any grit they may have ingested. The following day we cooked them in garlic and white wine and served them up with garlic bread. However, as many of them had tiny pearls up to 1mm in diameter inside them, they were a bit of a disappointment especially after all the effort of cleaning them. Next time we shall collect them from somewhere above the sand on the sea bed - or from a fishmongers!
In Loch Aline we got chatting to the couple on Oran na Mara a Vancouver 27. We joked that it would take us week to go get up to Tobermory. This was not far from the truth as we spent several days exploring Loch Sunart at the north end of the Sound of Mull. The loch shore has many pockets of ancient Atlantic oak woods, where we enjoyed several rambles. The village of Strontian at the head of the loch is famous for it's lead mines. Here in 1808 Strontium was isolated from the mineral Strontianite which was named after the village where it was discovered in 1790.
We are now (18th June) tied up at the new pontoons in Tobermory. At the moment there are only a few berths, but the harbour authority is hopefully going to double the number in the next few weeks. The pontoons are certainly very convenient for getting ashore in the evenings for a pint from the Isle of Mull brewery, or of their own brewed beer in the ever popular Mishnish. The view (below) from our cockpit is unsurpassed. Weather permitting, we plan to head out soon for the Small Isles and then north on towards Skye and Lewis.