Whisky Rocks – An Islay Odyssey

It was somewhere near here that the Exmouth Castle foundered in 1847; this is the sea on a calm day - one can only imagine what it was like in that northerly April storm which wrecked the ship.

It was somewhere near here that the Exmouth Castle foundered in 1847; this is the sea on a calm day – one can only imagine what it was like in that northerly April storm which wrecked the ship.

As I turned the RIB out of Port Askaig basin at 0945hrs on the 13th of Sepetmber 2014  I had no idea what lay in store for the rest of the day.  Being a sunny Saturday with high pressure sitting over the country I was fairly confident that the weather would remain calm for the rest of the day and whilst it was not bright sunshine, the haze was gradually being burnt off by the heat of the sun.

My first thought was to look at the tide.  High tide was at 0730hrs and I knew that low tide was due to be at about 1530hrs.  This meant that the tides would be ebbing southwards through the Sound of Islay for the rest of the morning.  The current flows at about 5-6 knots so I could easily go against it and head north but it is much more economical – and faster – to go with the flow.

There had been talk of a huge number of mackerel in the sound during August and early September; people have been catching 5 at a time off the pier.  So I dropped a line in the water just off Dunlossit – nothing!  My patience quickly ran out so I headed south with the tide and was soon going 32 knots – not bad for a 50 HP outboard.  This meant I was quickly past McArthur’s Head and heading rapidly for Ardmore.

I have walked from McArthur’s Head to Ardtalla – not something I would recommend for while the scenery is beautiful, the going is pretty tough.  It is much easier by water.  I passed Claggain Bay where there had been a ludicrous proposal to put a fish farm and rounded the corner to the Ardmore Islands.  Several sailors have waxed lyrical about the beauty of the Ardmore Islands and I can see exactly what they mean.  There is a mystical wilderness about them and you have to know your way to avoid hitting one of the many rocks.  Once round Ardmore Point it is possible to take an inside track all the way to Ardbeg – not recommended at speed, at low tide or in anything that draws more than 0.5 metres!

Ardbeg Distillery - nestling behind the rocks on the south of Islay

Ardbeg Distillery – nestling behind the rocks on the south of Islay

Having squeezed through the narrow gap between Kildalton and Eilan Imersay – I came across Ardbeg.  I have been this way before and knew what to expect, but seeing the distillery from the sea, nestling behind the reefs that surround it on the seaward side, I thought what fun it would be to photograph the three south coast distilleries from the sea.  I’m no great photographer, but this would be a lovely record of our time on Islay.  I also thought that Charlotte – who had been expecting some fishing in Loch Indaal – might be able to come and join me in Port Ellen.

The bay is surrounded by rocks but sheltered once you're in - smugglers country?

The bay is surrounded by rocks but sheltered once you’re in – smugglers country?

So Arbeg slipped by, closely followed by Lagavulin.  I know this water quite well as Gus Newman’s boat yard is next door to Lagavulin and I have had numerous test runs in and out of the bay.  On then past Texa to Laphroaig – nestling snugly in a bay, no wonder this area is known as ‘the smugglers’ haunt’.

The distilleries are on the coast for several reasons and I am sure each distiller will give their own version of why: it could simply be for the transportation of coal by puffer, or perhaps because for easy discharge of waste products, or maybe because for the taste of the sea during the distillation and maturation process… Who knows the main answer – but they certainly look pretty.

Closely guarded by the rocks, nestling in a pretty bay on the south of Islay

Closely guarded by the rocks, nestling in a pretty bay on the south of Islay

It was while I paused between the island of Texa and Laphroaig that I had an idea – what if I could get round the Mull of Oa into Loch Indaal?  I know the way reasonably well and am aware of the dangerous tides and overfalls off the Oa.  If I could make it to Bowmore or Bruichladdich then Charlotte could meet me there and the fishing she had anticipated might still happen.  I set off west and was fairly quickly at Rubha na Leacan – the southernmost tip of Islay.  The sea was not too bad and I was able to motor on quickly to the American Monument and out into open water.  It was 1130hrs and I had been going for 1¾ hours.  I still had half a tank of fuel – in fact I hadn’t even used quarter of a tank (25 litres) since starting.  Maybe I could go all the way round Islay…

Strong tides and currents create overfalls here - it can be treacherous in calm weather.  Advice is to stay reasonably close to the shore for a smoother passage.

Strong tides and currents create overfalls off the Mull of Oa – it can be treacherous in calm weather. Advice is to stay reasonably close to the shore for a smoother passage.

The sea was still fairly flat as I headed over the mouth of Loch Indaal.  This is when I realised that circumnavigation of Islay might be possible.  I telephoned Charlotte and asked her to meet me at 1300hrs at Sanaig – a fairly tight timeline for me to get all the way round the Rhinns of Islay.  The sea around Portnahaven was fairly choppy – this is quite usual as the tides in the North Channel are pretty strong.  I had a brief respite inside Orsay and Mackenzie Island before facing Frenchman’s Rocks.  I don’t want to be over dramatic but whenever I have spoken to people about leaving Loch Indaal and going up the west of Islay they have always warned me about Frenchman’s Rocks.  The currents are strong here and any mishap would almost certainly have disastrous consequences.  The area looked more sinister to me than anywhere I have been – except perhaps Corryvreckan.  But I was in luck – I seemed to catch the top of some swell going through the gap and surfed though on the crest of a wave – what a great feeling!

Nestling in a pretty bay at the south of Islay but there are some very dangerous waters around here - particularly at Frenchman's Rocks

Portnahaven nestling in a pretty bay at the south of Islay but there are some very dangerous waters around here – particularly at Frenchman’s Rocks

A fairly long pull past the beautiful Lossit Bay and on past Machir Bay.  No chance to stop for Kilchoman I’m afraid as I surged on past Saligo, taking a couple of pictures of the Bignal’s farm at Smaladh on the way past.  I wonder if they have seen their farm from the sea?  On past the Opera House Rocks (I’m sure they must have another name) and past the small beach at Traigh Bhan.  I reckon I was about as remote as I had been all journey at this stage.

It was about this area that the Exmouth Castle was shipwrecked in April 1847 as it was taking 240 emigrants, 3 women passengers and eleven crew to Quebec from Londonderry.  It is a tragic story as only 3 members of the crew survived while the ship was smashed against the rocks.  I can quite see the hostile nature of this coast and was relieved to have rounded the headland to reach Sanaigmore Bay on the stroke of 1 o’clock.

Charlotte appeared with additional petrol (which I hoped we would not need) and lunch (which I knew I did need!).  We set off towards Ardnave – back in familiar waters as we have spent many trips going in and out of the rocky reefs around Nave Island.  On past the beach at Kilinallan towards Bholsa.  We planned to stop for lunch on the north beach at Rhuvaal but the breakers were too severe on the RIB and several washed over the stern.  We headed round the corner, past the lighthouse and into a little bay used by the Cobbs (who live in the former lighthouse keeper’s house) to keep their boat.

The tide was still ebbing so we had lunch, a short walk up to the old jetty, a snooze on the rocks then set off again at about 4pm towards Port Askaig.  I was clucking slightly about the fuel level but as we hadn’t used the reserve we tried a little fishing again off Rhuvaal where I had watched gannets diving during lunch.  Nothing.  Alan MacDonald (one of Islay Estates’ keepers) thinks I must be the unluckiest fisherman ever because I never seem to catch many – if any at all.  But this was not the purpose of this odyssey so we set off south in flat calm in the Sound Of Islay.

Bunnahabhain - maybe the one distillery closest to my heart

Bunnahabhain – maybe the one distillery closest to my heart

For many reasons Bunnahabhain is my favourite distillery; I know most of the staff who work there – a very cheerful bunch – and the water comes from Islay Estates’ land.  I also like their product!  The rusting remains of the ‘Wyre Majestic’ who hit the rocks in 1974 still overlook the bay and reminds us all of the potential danger of the sea.

The last distillery on the journey but the first Islay one I discovered

The last distillery on the journey but the first Islay one I discovered

The last distillery on this journey was Caol Ila.  I have a particular soft spot for Caol Ila because it was the first Islay Whisky that I really enjoyed after buying a bottle in Harrogate in 1998.  Little did I know then that I would be living on Islay and running the estate that supplies the water to it.  Like this journey, not everything turns out as one expects it too.

I am sorry that I didn’t skirt round Loch Indaal and include Bowmore and Bruichladdich in the journey; I am also sorry not to have looked at Gartbreck where we have been carrying out fairly extensive farming operations recently and where Jean Donnay is going to builds Islay’s ninth distillery next year.  Maybe I’ll have to do another trip and take them all in!

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