September 29, 2019 – Published in Design & Decor Autumn 2019 issue
Scotland’s whisky island… the jewel of the Hebrides
Words Jim Dunn
Islay, that brooding, mainly flat, West Coast of Scotland island just a short flight from Glasgow or a romantic two hour sail from the mainland has always featured high in my thoughts.
It has a low, almost featureless and on the whole peat bog landscape but with rolling hills, unrivalled vast views in places and a necklace of pristine beaches of Caribbean standard… when the sun is out… as it was during my most recent visit.
We all know that you don’t go to Scotland for the weather, but when those blue cloudless skies appear and the birds are atwitter and the wild flowers are in bloom, there is no better place. There’s clear, fresh air, turquoise seas but not ideal for swimming, it has to be said, except for the very brave.
My parents met on Islay, my father serving with the RAF and my mother a local girl working on a ‘wee croft’ with my uncle and the result was me. In those days, I understand, there wasn’t a proper hospital on the island and pregnant mothers had to sail to the mainland to give birth… so my claim to be Islay born didn’t happen.
I never ventured to visit Islay until much later in life although I listened at my mother’s knee to many stories of the early Islay and the hardships they all endured in those days during WW2.
On a visit more than 10 years’ ago, inevitably as these things go, we succumbed and bought a magnificent plot of land and built a home with terrific views and three, or was it two deserted beaches below up on the Oa an area to the west of the ferry terminus Port Ellen. The only other occupants were a small herd of wild goats and some very handsome Highland cattle who seemed to nod enquiringly as you drove past. The cattle all mooched around the land and through a deserted ‘Clearances’ village of great historical interest.
Sadly I sold the property…that’s a long story… but recently returned as a tourist.
Islay has changed. It is only 25 miles long, with a population of 3,000 and full employment. The booming whisky distilleries are still there, and they keep increasing in number as entrepreneurs seek to get into the highly lucrative international whisky demand worldwide. Currently there are 8 enticing distilleries and rising as another two are on the way.
All with world brand names are here with shops selling the product at tastings and tours. And there is usually a café for a light lunch as you tour. Whisky is the main tourist attraction on Islay but there is also golf and more of that later.
World famous whisky names like Caol Isla, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and my particular favourite Bruichladdich are there. When I visited years ago the latter was going into liquidation… excuse the pun… was rescued and was recently sold for almost 60 million pounds and is now a hit around the world.
Whisky aficionados travel from around the world to visit and as a result there is now a bit more infrastructure on Islay… there’s more than one supermarket now for example and all around as you travel the Island you see a greater awakening to the tourist euro, dollar, pound or yen.
There is of course more to Islay than whisky… beach rugby, (yes) great rambling walks, bird watching, and an increasingly thriving artisan scene of pottery, teashops at and at a particularly dilapidated square where quilts, whisky marmalade and local art are sold. This is situated behind the newly refurbished Islay House Hotel - still not 5-star. This was once the ‘big hoose’ of the Island but fell into considerable disrepair and it still needs money spent on it.
Islay offers desolate drives to silent hills among distant white painted crofters’ homes seemingly always, no matter the weather, with peat smoke drifting lazily from the chimneys into the huge skies. The food scene is also improving with all the fresh sea products… oysters, mussels and scallops… and then there’s golf which comes a close second to whisky in the attractions hit parade.
Not only do groups fly in from around the world to taste the famous amber liquid but they come to play golf and this is where the magnificently refurbished comes in… see photographs.
I remembered the old hotel as a bit of a dump of a place, frankly, very basic, homely with the fairly tatty golf course attached. Then along came Gavyn Davies a former head of the BBC and a Goldmann Sachs partner and his wife Baroness Sue Nye who was Gordon Brown’s Political Secretary. They saw the opportunity and bought the hotel and golf course which overlooks the dramatic Laggan Bay which just happens to run alongside one of the most glorious beaches the island can offer. It makes a stunning late evening walk after dinner at The Machrie particularly from about May onwards when it’s very light until very late in the evening.
The couple refurbished the hotel and golf course very much with the help of hotel icon, Scotsman Gordon Campbell Gray, the creator of Number 1 Aldwych hotel in London, Le Gray in Beirut and Carlisle Bay in Antigua to name a few… all top spots on the hotel calendar
Here in Malta, Gordon has also been responsible for organising the refurbishment of the island’s top hotel The Phoenicia, Valletta and what a beautiful job he has achieved.
What he and his team have created on Islay is one of the great contemporary hotels of Scotland and an asset to Islay’s tourism offer.
The heart of the hotel is still the old rustic farmhouse but elsewhere they have added buildings and re-designed the whole edifice to now include a spa and a cinema.
Great food delivered by Chef Darren Velvik and his team abounds. Aberdeen Angus Sirloin, Isle of Mull cheddar, souffle, haggis, black pudding, bubble and squeak and apple tart are all on the menu. And this is just what hungry golfers and walkers want of an evening… good honest comfort food with the occasional nod to the foodies among us. The extremely comfortable bedrooms, there are 47 of them including four suites with prices starting at about 140 pounds a night are divine.
The hotel is scattered with art from some of the Scotland’s latest young artists and beautifully framed Hermes silk scarves… which used to be given to British Airway first class passengers in the good old days. There’s the ubiquitous Golf Pro Shop which actually does stock gifts that you might want to buy even if you are not a golfer.
Islay should be on your list if you think of Scotland. If the weather isn’t kind to you there’s always a wee dram and a roaring fire.