The sun! The blazing orb has not been sighted since we were atop Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. I run out before breakfast to try to capture the morning light shining on Bruichladdich’s whitewashed walls. In eight years of traveling in Scotland, I have probably had more than my fair share of sunny days, but I know enough not to expect too much. Indeed, a column of dismal weather has been sitting over the west coast for weeks, and everyone we meet today will be smiling up at the blue sky.
We arrive at Caol Ila for a 9:30 tour. We are the only three touring, which makes it easier for us to inform the guide that we must catch the 10:30 ferry for Jura. The fellow is a retired distillery employee, very cheerful and knowledgeable, and he promises to see us off in time. “Oh, it’s a great day to go to Jura!” he laughs, as if he is thinking about joining us. But he is obviously proud of his distillery, and he does like to talk–not a fault in his job–and the progress of the tour is a little slower than I would like. He catches me looking at my watch and says, “Don’t worry, you’ll be all right.” He is keen to point out that the distillery, rebuilt in the ‘70s, was designed by someone who knew the operation inside out, as a result of which the whole place can be easily run by minimal staff. It’s a modern factory, really, and not the most charming of Islay’s temples of malt, but its crowning glory is the stillhouse, with its glorious view across the Sound of Islay to the Paps of Jura. “A great day to go to Jura,” he repeats, and we are sure that he is right.
We rush our complimentary drams of Cask Strength at the end of the tour before dashing off to the ferry at Port Askaig, which is but a few minutes away. “Come back later and we’ll have another for you,” the guide says as we get in the car, and we promise to do so.*
We arrive at the pier in time, but the tiny ferry is crammed full. The ferryman promises to make a second trip, and I call Jura to let them know what’s up. They assure me that we will not be more than a few minutes late for the 11:00 tour, and they will wait for us. The trip across the Sound is short, so we are indeed aboard less than fifteen minutes later. The ferryman is friendly and chatty, perhaps in part because of the fine weather. He points up the Sound to the majestic mountains of Mull, invisible to us yesterday, and down the Sound to Kintyre and Ireland’s Antrim coast. “Usually I’m looking the other way,” says Bobby, who has made many trips to Ireland.
From the ferry landing, it’s about a ten-minute drive to Craighouse, metropolis of Jura. Despite being relatively large, the island has a human population of fewer than two hundred, the largest concentration being near the village. The 5,000 or so red deer are spread out a bit more. The distillery sits on the uphill side of the road, across from the Jura Hotel. Michael Heads, the distillery manager, gives us our tour, and he is informative and entertaining. He doesn’t mind telling us about various incidents and mishaps, such as the time the rotors in a washback broke, and foam poured out through the roof (or so he said). Like most modern distilleries, Jura is operable by a fairly small number of workers, but that small number amounts to significant fraction of the island’s workforce.
We are planning to have lunch at the Jura Hotel before returning to Islay, but, as we are enjoying our complimentary drams, we note that the ferry schedule doesn’t match up very well with our plan. Instead, we dash off (again) to catch an earlier trip, and have lunch in the Port Askaig Hotel. Ron makes another call to the airline, without result. We are hoping to sneak back to Caol Ila after lunch, but find we have just enough time to make our 3:00 tour at Kilchoman.
Our tour at Kilchoman is conducted by the distiller, who has worked at several Islay distilleries prior to his involvement with this start-up. He seems a bit distracted and disorganized at first, but warms up after a while, and we have a nice blether. Everything here is decidedly small-scale, and the intent is to do everything onsite that can be, from growing the barley to bottling the finished product. We see a floor maltings in use, and pass by the smoldering kiln. But the tiny stills have yet to be operated, thanks to a problem with the boiler (which may also have accounted for our guide’s distracted state). The place is a work in progress, with carpentry and painting going on as we watch. The gift shop and café are in full swing, and we are told that sales of cask futures have had to be cut off, so the place is as successful as it can be without having made a drop of whisky, I suppose. We buy t-shirts and Glencairn glasses, and wonder what we ought to put into the latter.
After, we drive out along Loch Gruinart to visit the chapel at Kilnave and its weather-worn cross. We get some nice photos in the warm afternoon light. As we are leaving, two white-haired ladies arrive, and one remarks on the weather, saying, "It's a good day to be alive." "And to visit the people who aren't," says Bobby with a smile, gesturing toward what he is until that moment thinking is a long-disused medieval graveyard. Too late it occurs to him (as it did straightaway to Ron and me) that the ladies are not tourists, but are here to visit a relative–their sister, in fact. He is mortified. Back in the car, we rib him mercilessly, and probably we will never let him forget his faux pas.
It’s now too late to return to Caol Ila. A trip to the ATM in Bowmore seems like a good idea, and a pint at the Harbour Inn seems even better. The sun is setting, and we walk out onto the pier between sips to see if we can capture its rosy glow bouncing off the distillery warehouse fronting on Loch Indaal. This late in the year, unfortunately, it barely swings around far enough north to shine weakly on the wall, before dipping behind the Rhinns. In the summer, it must be quite lovely.
We stop at the Bridgend Hotel, near the head of the loch, for another pint, and consider having dinner there. We opt instead for the Port Charlotte again; we are quite comfortable there. However, the softly-playing music in the bar is a CD that has been repeating since yesterday–we’ve heard it at least four times. “I really love Coolfin,” I tell the bartender, “but do you think we might have something else?” After dinner, I try a couple of Bruichladdich’s special bottlings–a fruity Sinnsear, from a bourbon cask, which I quite like; and a sherried Cairdean, which is okay, but not as good in my mind. We are pretty worn out from our day, and are thinking of calling it quits, when Bobby strikes up a conversation with a young fellow at the bar. He’s noticed him in a photograph on the wall, playing the pipes. His name is Fraser Shaw, and now that we are talking to him, I remember seeing him and his brother playing in the bar last year. They were damn good. “So you know your music, do you?” he says to me, having heard the exchange over Coolfin. I demur; Bobby is far more knowledgeable. They discuss a long list of musicians and bands, and Fraser unexpectedly buys us a round. He tells us that he is one of six finalists for BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician 2006, all of whom will be playing at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow on 22 January. We will certainly check to see how he does. He will be playing in the bar Sunday night, but we will be gone by then.**
Back at the Academy House, we are mildly dismayed to realize that we have to make an attempt at finishing our Atlas minikeg tonight. We had a pint each last night, and it’s now or never for the rest. I hadn’t cared too much for it, finding it rather yeasty, but I accept my duty, half a pint’s worth, anyway. Bobby and Ron quite like the stuff and have a pint each. The rest will go down the sink. We’ll be sorry tomorrow. Again.
*Our guide at Caol Ila was Neil Ferguson, a legendary Islay character. Rushing off on him is one of my biggest regrets in all the time I've spent in Scotland. If I'd known then what I know now, I'd have saved Jura for another day, and spent the afternoon chatting with Mr Ferguson. Likely I'd have learned more about Islay than I ever did before or since.
**Fraser Shaw, much loved and respected musician in Islay and in his native Glasgow, was diagnosed with MS in 2011, and in 2015 died of progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a rare viral infection that afflicts people with weakened immune systems. The Fraser Shaw Trust celebrates his legacy and raises money for MS charities. The CD they sell of Fraser's music, played by the Islay Sessioners, is highly recommended.