Road Tripping in Scotland Part 2: The Isle of Islay

– By Brittany Seki, Senior Editor –

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Port Charlotte, Islay

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Wendy with Peter, our trusty mechanic! Port Askaig, Islay

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Travelling through Scotland has been a dream so far. The breathtaking landscape of the mainland and the pristine waters off the Isle of Jura was more memorable than the scenes of Braveheart suggest. We were sad to say goodbye to Jura but excited to explore the Isle of Islay. We took the CalMac Ferry back over to Port Askaig (we booked our ferry tickets in advance before coming to Scotland). Prior to leaving, Wendy managed to find some video hacks on YouTube for fixing our broken tire pressure sensor. So the first person we went to see on Islay was Peter our trusty mechanic. We drove off the ferry back on Port Askaig straight to the shop to see if Peter could use the repair videos to fix our problem. He said he couldn’t do what the video suggested but he had a better idea. We left the car with him for an hour and he managed to fix the tire pressure sensor to our relief. We brought him a big bottle of Bruichladdich unpeated whisky as thanks!

IMG_0250Driving on Islay was, yes again, absolutely beautiful. The beaches were even more inviting than expected – the last thing I thought I’d be doing was walking around shells and crab claws in Scotland. Some of the islanders fish and trap crabs, scallops and lobsters for a living, and the seafood is fresh and delicious. On top of the beaches and tasty shellfish, Islay is known for its eight whisky distilleries, one being Bruichladdich. This distillery (that also distils gin) has a wonderful rebellious story, even down to the look and color of the bottle (it’s aqua!). The eccentric Mark Reynier bought the once disheveled old distillery to rebuild it in the spirit of Terroir (the French concept for how the environment plays a key role in creating the taste and character of wine). Mark applied this concept to whisky – and created his products against the expectations of the Scotch Whisky Association. He openly criticized the industry and other distilleries, that Scotch whisky cannot be called Scotch whisky unless the entire process takes place in Scotland. So an island whisky must be made on the island – makes sense, right? As a result, Bruichladdich’s ingredients and process takes place all on Islay. Eventually, Remy Cointreau took over the distillery and Mark, the unemployable man, left to restart his own project in Ireland.

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The same person who makes the Aston Martin sound like an Aston Martin built this beauty. Can you tell he’s a fan of Bruichladdich?

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Live Scottish music at the Port Charlotte Hotel

That night, we stayed at the lovely Bruichladdich Academy, where students come to learn about the whisky making process. We had dinner at the Port Charlotte hotel, which is also one of the best places to stay on Islay. The beautiful seaside hotel has delicious food including seafood and venison, and live music on Sunday nights. Between Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich resides the farmer who grows Bruichladdich’s barely. His name is James Brown (nicknamed The Godfather of Soil)! Little did we know we’d be back in Port Charlotte two days later.

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The infamous Gordon Cavell at the Islay Woolen Mill

We left Bruichladdich and headed to Laphroaig by Port Ellen on Islay. On the way, we decided to drop in to the Islay Woollen Mill off the main Port Askaig road near Bridgend (no, there were no hobbit holes). The quaint little stone mill was built in 1883, and reopened in 1981 by the hilarious Gordon Cavell and his wife Sheila. Even their equipment dates back to the Victorian times, which Gordon had restored to a functional quality. They are known for producing handmade woven fabrics for the Hollywood film industry (including Braveheart and Forest Gump), high-end fashion industry and even the Queen of England.

“One day she just walked in,” said Gordon, recalling the day Queen Elizabeth II showed up at his mill. “I asked her, ‘Do you have an appointment your majesty?’ We had a good laugh and I told Sheila to come downstairs to meet a special visitor. She yelled at me saying she was too busy. Well, when she found out who it was she moved so fast that she toppled down those stairs.”

He showed us around the mill, with stacks of wool and cashmere fabrics. Hats, sweaters, kilts, socks, throws and ties were just some of the items he was selling – and they weren’t cheap! Throws range from £80 to £220 alone.

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The Pod at The Old Excise House B&B

We thanked our hilarious host and went on our way to The Old Excise House B&B off of A846 by Port Ellen, owned by the friendly couple Ron and Emma. We had booked to stay in their Armadilla Xtraroom Plus (wasn’t too sure what that meant), but we didn’t expect the accommodation to be a pod! On the side of the house was a small building about the size of shed. It had a living room/dining room/bedroom all in one, plus a wet-room that doubled as a toilet and shower. The floors were heated and it had a small kitchenette, but there was no room for our suitcases. This would be a fun little stay for a couple, but it wasn’t up to par for a pair of coworkers. We had planned to stay a few nights here but decided one night would be enough. Next time we’d look into accommodation in Port Ellen, but unfortunately during this time everything was full. We planned to head to Port Charlotte Hotel for a bigger room the next day.

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The Campbell Clan ruins on Lagavulin Bay, Islay

After a cramped sleep we headed to Lagavulin distillery the following morning. It’s the 200-year anniversary for the distillery, located on Lagavulin Bay. John Jonston and Archibald Campbell founded the distillery in 1816. Wendy and I discovered an old watchtower from the Campbell clan just on the horizon of the distillery. The old tower had fallen apart but the foundation remained in tact on a hill overlooking the bay. This is my favorite part of Scotland, discovering the ruins of towers, castles and churches.

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The round church in Bowmore

We finished exploring and headed to Bowmore, where we did a bit of shopping, checked out Bowmore distillery and visited an old, round church and graveyard. The church is said to have been built without corners for the devil to hide in. After a quick stop in Bowmore we drove to Port Charlotte Hotel on the other side of Islay, which has a magnificent view of the bay. The seafood (scallops, crayfish, bass and more) was extremely fresh, and the drinks were superb – it’s the first time I’ve had Bailey’s and coffee with real whipped cream! We met a lovely couple who introduced us to the owner of Port Charlotte Hotel, Graham Allison, who just happens to be a bard. So on Sunday night we were graced with the presence of live music and singing. I felt completely immersed in Scottish island culture, with Gaelic music, song and tasty pints – couldn’t have asked for a better experience on Islay.

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