Saturday, April 4, 2009

Farewells and new friends

Friday 3 April 2009

Gosh it is hard to leave Islay. The island has been so interesting with the people so warm, welcoming and friendly. We would find it ever so easy to just stop. And stay. If we don't leave today, we just might not! Neil and Carol at the Harbour Inn Hotel and most of the staff come and say goodbye. We have had a wonderful stay with them and thoroughly enjoyed their company and their generous hospitality. It is very easy to see why their business is doing well. The rooms are very comfortable with lots of little extras, the staff service is impeccable and the food prepared by chef Paul and his crew is just amazing. We can very easily and honestly recommend it very highly.

We talk with Paul re the Squat Lobsters that we had last night. They are tiny and something like a moreton bay bug in taste. They are the size of a large hazelnut in its outer shell and the shell itself is very soft. I love the way they are served - as a pint or half pint in a beer jug! Michael says that the mussels he had were like pillows of soft flavour that just burst in his mouth. Paul explains that he went down to the harbour (all of 20 steps from the restaurant!) and collected the seafood straight off the trawler at 5:00 pm - and we were eating then around 7:00 pm! Paul has also bought in some of his photos that he has take at various spots on the island to share with us. He has some amazing ones taken in the most incredible light around midnight in winter.

The Church of Scotland in Bowmore sits at the top of the main street at the top of the town. It was built as a round church so that the devil would never be able to find a corner in which to hide. Guess they were a much more superstitious lot back then. After we have put a bit more fuel in the car, we make a quick stop. While we are there a couple of local parishoners arrive to do some housekeeping and we get chatting (as you do). They too are very friendly, full of local knowledge and generous with it. Michael also makes a quick trip into their cemetery where he finds the grave of an Australian pilot - 401718 Sgt E.G. Palmer, Royal Australian Air Force, killed 24 January 1943 aged 25 - His Job Nobe Done. We have a look in our little stash of souvenirs for a Australian flag on a stick to leave with him but don't have one. Sadly there are a number of unnamed war graves and the ladies tell us that in WWII there were a large number of uniformed corpses washed up on the local beaches - very sad.

I am tempted to go down to the Bowmore Distillery but honestly once you have done one of the tours, you have all the knowledge that you need. Despite the minor differences in still shapes, peating times and the barrels used, the process is the same. And to be honest, I really don't think that I can face another whisky tasting before lunch today! So instead, we settle for a quick stop at the local store where I can buy some of the miniatures from the distilleries on the island to send home (keep a look out!)

Apart from the whisky, the Isle of Islay is known for its history and ruins connected with the history of the Scottish clans and their leaders. Finlaggan was where the installation of the Lords of the Isles took place. The Macdonald Lords of the Isles were descended from Somerled, a 12th century prince, and these lords, the chiefs of Clan Donald, chose Finlaggan as their home and the centre of their lordship so Islay is often referred to as the Cradle of Clan Donald. The Lords of the Isles ruled the islands and part of the west coast of Scotland, from Kintyre to Lewis virtually independent of royal control. Michael walks down a very boggy and slippery path from the Islay island onto the Finlaggan island site to get some more information and photos of this timeless place. He says standing amoungst the ruins with the wind roaring all around you helps you to imagine why they chose this (very picturesque) spot and how their power would have been held in awe.

People at the other distilleries we have been telling us that the Caol Ila Distillery is the smallest on the island and still farm based. So we were not expecting much infrastructure when we got there. Instead, we find a setup as big as any of the others. When we tell the wee lass in the Shop / Tasting Room, she just sighs and shrugs. She explains that 95% of their whisky goes to the mainland to be fed into the various well-known blends including Johnny Walker, Bells and J&B. Only 5% of their production is therefore used to make the single malts for which the island in known. I tried their cask strength and then an 8 year old unmalted whisky that you can only buy at the distillery. Very light, and so I did - buy one that is!

Caol Ila is located on a bay near Port Askaig on the Sound of Jura. The bay was very calm, but looking out to the Sound all we see is a seething, rolling maelstrom. The current is changing and the waves double back on themselves creating a rough and bumpy boiling sea of water. I am starting to get a little perturbed about the crossing back to the mainland in a couple of hours - hope that I can find somewhere not too public to sit and groan. All the locals tell me that it is nothing and that the crossing will be fine - easy for them to say!!

We board the ferry and you can definitely feel the rolling and lurching. Altogether it is not too bad as the ferry has stabilisers etc. I have brought my book to finish on the crossing and sitting in one of the recliner armchairs in the lounge area without any windows to allow you to see the rise and fall of the shoreline or horizon I can kindof kid myself that my stomach is not bubbling. Easiest thing is to go to sleep - so I do. Michael on the other hand goes to the observation deck with is at the top of the ferry to enjoy the rollercoaster ride. He doesn't take the camera because of the sea spray - so does that tell you anything?! Hence, no photos sorry!

Because we had such a lovely night at the Stonefield Castle Hotel, we decided to have another night on our way north again. We land off the ferry at Kennacraig just after 5:30 pm and travel back through Tarbert where we stop so Michael can climb up to the castle ruins. The Tarbert people have been fishing herring since the 1600s! I tell you, this part of Scotland where the lochs meet the Atlantic produces some of the most amazing seafood.

When we arrive back at the Castle, the staff that were on previously recognise us and are very friendly. We do the Arnold Schwarznegger bit - "Weeee're baaaack!" much to their laughs! Book in for dinner at 7:30 pm which gives us just on an hour to unpack and check emails. Dinner is at a table overlooking the Loch Fyne - the tide is in and the causeway across to the small island is just crossable. There is quite a heavy mist and we can't see beyond the island tonight - certainly not to the other side of the Loch. We are impressed with the staff - they are all young, very friendly and extremely professional. Not sure whether this is a deliberate action by the managment of the hotel, but whether it is or not it definitely works. A magical setting with committed and enthusiastic staff for whom nothing is a bother.

Dinner is again fabulous. I debated just having the same as I had earlier, but decided to throw caution to the wind and try something new.
Pate on oatcakes with a sweet clear sauce that beautifully balances it
Grilled Haggis, turnip fondant, creamed potatoes, Barley and Whisky Broth (Michael) - he can have it!
Confit of Oak Roast Salmon, Kedgeree, Leek and Spring Onion salad, Arran Mustard Vinaigrette (Maria) - sooooo sublime
Char Grilled Rib-eye Steak (Blue of course), Mushrooms, Tomato, Watercress, Hand cut chips and house butter (Michael)
Tarbert Langoustines with hand cut chips (Maria) - even more sublime!
Home made iced cream and sorbets (Orange and lemongrass & Coconut sorbets, Belgian Dark Chocolate and Cinnamon ice creams) Michael
Classic Creme Brulee and home made Shortbread (because it was so good last time) Maria

Around to the bar for coffee and a dram where we sit near another couple already seated and immediately strike up a conversation. Jim and Sheila are on a weekend away from Stirling. We have alovely night chatting to them and sharing a whisky. Before we leave for bed they are inviting us to visit them at home on our way south after we finish up north.

1 comment:

Pete (nr Blackpool) said...

Good read. Found it from the Blackpool stop. Sounds like you're having a great time.