By Robin McKelvie
Islay is world-famous for its peaty single malts, but there is so much more to this remarkable island than superb whisky. This is, after all, the isle where the legendary Lords of the Isles once presided over much of the Hebrides, a land whose rugged coast is ravaged with shipwrecks and whose hills burn deep with souls lost from abandoned communities. Islay is one great storybook that it’s deeply rewarding to dip into.
My own relationship with Islay was ignited through whisky. It has matured over the years to delve deep into that unique history – there is no overstating Islay’s importance to the narrative of the west coast; we’ll come to Finlaggan soon. I’ve come back for whisky tours and festivals, yes, but birding too with some of Europe’s most impressive migrations and with my late parents to paddle the beaches, wander the hills and pass time under big skies. It’s the imprint of man that always strides through, though, the island’s stories woven from its landscape into its people and back again. I’ve just been back on Islay reading the COAST stories at the locations they evoke. Here are a quartet of ways of diving deeper to connect with the beguiling stories of Islay, stories I’m delighted that have been pulled together by COAST.
- Finlaggan and the Lordship of the Isles – We have to start here with the site that really put Islay on the map. I’ll never forget the first time I headed to Finlaggan. I had no idea that even the site you see today is built over an Iron Age fort. I knew that the old Viking lands came under the rule of the Lords of the Isles, and that they held sway over a vast chunk of the Hebrides from here. We’re talking a territory that swept all the way from the Butt of Lewis in the north, right down to the Mull of Kintyre. But not just that – COAST reminded me over breakfast before I returned that their empire also spread into mainland Scotland as far as the Black Isle! I was expecting hulking walls and sturdy fortifications. Instead I found a modest community on a little lochan on the moor with not a rampart in sight. Come here and eke over the walkway to the island and imagine how the most famous of the Lords of the Isles, Somerled, felt when he first came here. In the COAST story you learn the Lords ruled for over four centuries and how the inauguration of each of the Lords of the Isles was held here – a special stone bore the imprint of the foot, a symbol and guarantee that each ruler would walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. Don’t miss the Finlaggan Trust Centre, which sheds further light on the site. Look up too from the old grave slabs and information boards as you’ll find the Paps of Jura peering back towards you – the Lords of the Isles chose quite a spot. Read more here.
- Solam, The Plague Village on Islay – I was back at the remarkable distillery at Ardbeg on Islay’s south coast recently. I thoroughly recommend a trip to savour the balanced peaty delights they conjure up here right on the Atlantic. When I first visited I was very lucky to be guided up to the abandoned village of Solam by the warehouseman Dugga (he’s been in the job now for 25 years), which lies in the rugged hillside behind near to the source of Ardbeg’s water, Loch Uigeadail. The COAST story tells of the people who lived there and their terrible fate. Not for once cleared off the land – like happened to many other communities on Scotland’s west coast – what killed the community is thought to have been brought in by a necklace given to them by a grateful shipwrecked sailor who they’d helped save. The gift carried the bubonic plague that was to kill every man, woman and child in the 18th century. The village was burned, but you can still ramble amongst the site today and a plaque marks their story. You can raise a toast to their memory over a dram back down at Ardbeg. Read more here.
- Iain Og Ile – Historically the Campbells of Islay are intertwined in all sorts of myths, legends and stories. COAST tells of John Francis Campbell of Islay (1821-1885), born to inherit the Islay Campbell family estates. Financial turmoil meant he never realised them and left to train as a barrister in Edinburgh. He rose to be an acclaimed linguist who could speak Gaelic fluently and also he became a courtier to Queen Victoria. His love and passion for Gaelic is commemorated in the books in the four volumes of his ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’ he penned touring the Highlands and Islands. After his death, the monument you see today was commissioned with a bilingual inscription by the Islay Association atop Cnoc na Dàl, near to Islay House in Bridgend. Cycling back on Islay I noticed how fitting it is that the monument obelisk is not far from today’s Islay Gaelic Centre, which is also passionate about preserving and promoting Gaelic. John Francis Campbell would have been delighted. Read more here.
- Portnahaven – I’m cheating a bit here with my last one as this gorgeous wee whitewashed village set on a dramatic natural harbour is home to three of the COAST stories – there are just so many great COAST stories on Islay. One tells us all about the striking Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse, one of Robert Stevenson’s finest creations. Come here on a windy day and you’ll be blown away, in every way! And you’ll realise just how vital this lighthouse has been. COAST also tells us about the ‘The Woman behind Mairi’s wedding’. I knew of the song, but not the heritage. The Gaelic original was Màiri Bhàn (Fair Mary), penned by musician John Bannerman to pay homage to traditional Gaelic singer Mary Connel MacNiven after she won the Gold Medal at the Royal National Mòd in 1934. It was later translated into English by Sir Hugh Robertson of the Orpheus Choir. Mary herself was born in Portnahaven in 1905 – I recommend listening to it here by the Atlantic. Lastly we have the story of Islay’s Limpet. This completes our journey from the ancient Lords of the Isles to the impressive project that saw Islay become a sustainable power pioneer. Through COAST we learn Islay was chosen as a site for the testing of wave power in 1991. The Limpet 500 marks the first time a commercial scale wave energy device had been connected to the grid anywhere in the world! On Islay stories swirl through the mists of time, from the ancient to the modern.