Thursday, 9 August 2007
Five Distilleries, Four Hills: A Sojourn on Islay & Jura
Over the years I have slowly been visiting the islands of the Hebrides and climbing their mountains. Islay and Jura, the southernmost islands, had been on my list for some time but the distance from my home in Strathspey and the attractions of the many fine mountains in between kept me away until last week. The two islands are a great contrast, Islay being mostly low lying with vast peat moors and only a few hills, the highest rising to just 491 metres, while Jura is mountainous with little flat land and three summits - the Paps of Jura - rising to over 700 metres. Islay is not an island to visit for the hillwalking but it does have many fine beaches and eight whisky distilleries. The only ferry to Jura goes from Islay anyway so to visit the latter you have to visit the former and the Paps of Jura are superb, steep, rocky hills that every hillwalker will relish. We stayed in Port Ellen, where the ferry from the mainland docks, and visited five of the distilleries, three of which - Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig - lay only a few miles from the ferry terminal. Bowmore is a little further and Kilchoman further still. If you haven't heard of the latter - and I hadn't until I reached Islay - it's because it's brand new and it'll be a few years before the first bottles of whisky are available. In the meantime you can taste the basic spirit - which isn't bad actually - and have an enjoyable tour of the first new distillery on Islay for 124 years. In fact all the distilleries have interesting guided tours, of which we thought Ardbeg was the most informative. After the tours there are whisky tastings, with Bowmore the most generous. Of course once you've tasted the whisky it's hard not to buy some and we came home with four bottles of malt, a dram of one of which - the unbelievably gorgeous Laphroaig Cask Strength 10 Year Old - I am sipping as I write this.
In between distillery visits I did manage some hill walking, ascending Islay's highest peak, Beinn Bheigier, which gives excellent seascape views, and the three Paps of Jura. The latter are rugged, quartzite hills with some almost-scrambling sections, much scree and places where careful route-finding is needed, especially in mist, which came and went during my walk. Unlike the Islay hills the Paps of Jura feel like real mountains, rising precipitously above beautiful lochans and deep corries. To their north stretch equally rough though lower hills in a remote area that looks well worth a few days exploration with a tent, a good reason to go back. Along with the three distilleries I have still to visit.
The photo shows stills in the Laphroaig distillery. Photo info: Canon EOS 350D, 18-55mm lens at 18mm, f3.5 @ 1.60, ISO 200, flash, raw file processed in DxO Optics Pro.