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June 11, 2012

Summer of Distilleries 2012: LOWLANDS

The Lowlands of Scotland were where my Scotch Odyssey of 2010 began and, as a cyclist, it’s pre-eminence in my affections was guaranteed by the extraordinarily lovely weather I enjoyed. At the time, it was a somewhat overlooked region; accessible but somewhat ‘vanilla’. However, with a resurgence from Auchentoshan and the enduring individuality of Bladnoch, in addition to Ailsa Bay, Daftmill and building projects such as Annandale in the west and Kingsbarns in the east, the Lowlands is at the forefront of avant-guard distilling with a vast variety of flavours on offer.

Auchentoshan, Morrison Bowmore, 01389 878561 www.auchentoshan.com Open 7 days a week, 10am to 5pm. 

  • From Glasgow: 10 miles (20 minutes) from the city centre; from Edinburgh: 55 miles (1 hour 30 minutes) from the city centre
  • Tours: Ranging from the £6 ‘Classic Tour’ lasting an hour to the £45 ‘Ultimate Auchentoshan Experience’. At 135 minutes this is a tour of serious depth, with a nosing and tasting straight from the cask.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: bottle-your-own single cask in the warehouse. Choice of two. At present it is a 1999 first-fill Bourbon cask, 59.9% abv. £100.

 

 

Bladnoch, Co-ordinated Development Services, 01988 402605 www.bladnoch.co.uk Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

  • From Glasgow: 100 miles (two hours thirty minutes); from Edinburgh: 115 miles (three hours)
  • Tours: one standard tour. Expect to pay between £3 and £5.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: not at the moment.

 

 

Glenkinchie, Diageo, 01875 342004 http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/glenkinchie/ Open 7 days a week, 10am to 4pm (5pm in August)

  • From Edinburgh: 16 miles (30 minutes); from Glasgow: 60 miles (one hour fifteen minutes)
  • Tours: Ranging from the £6 ‘Glenkinchie Tour’ to the £10 ‘Flavour of Scotland’ tour.
  • Visitor Centre Exclusives: ‘Double-treated’ with Amontillado American oak cask, 59.3%. Around £65.
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June 29, 2011

Size Matters?

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

Gargantuan Glenfiddich.

From whisky’s commercial beginnings, success has meant going large: more equipment equals more liquid which equals more profit which equals more equipment. As businessmens’ wallets expanded so, inevitably, did their distilleries.

Miniature Edradour.

Miniature Edradour.

Today, however, we find a subtly changed model. Like the tiny birds which munch their lunch from the hides of rhinos and elephants, there are those whose comparatively diminutive size ensures their survival and prosperity. Fluttering in the wake of the industry’s behemoths are flocks of boutique operations flourishing thanks to the robust health of their enormous counterparts. Liberated by their small-scale natures to offer something particular, distinctive, unusual – maybe even personal – these distilleries cultivate a following of devotees which, though often equally as minute, are enough to sustain a brand and a philosophy. Small, for increasing numbers of ambitious and passionate people, is the whole point. But is boutique best? In the following paragraphs my aim is not exactly to answer this question. I want instead to ponder how whiskies differ on a level beyond – or perhaps it would be more correct to say beneath – flavour. The means by which Springbank journeys to your drinks cabinet contrast with those of The Glenlivet; which dram, therefore, speaks most faithfully of the provenance, process and people behind it?

This train of thought chugged into motion with the Benromach press release published yesterday. However, I should say that the thrust of this article is not innovation. Rather, I want to interrogate the principal bottlings from the likes of Glenmorangie and Macallan and evaluate whether they are as honest as they could be. Has their extraordinary volume compromised their identities as discernible in the final product? Could distillery character be more vividly captured and engaging with less output? Does spirit from smaller sites taste somehow more authentically like itself?

Giant Jura.

Giant Jura.

My tentative belief is that with fewer litres produced, requiring fewer casks and therefore with perhaps a smaller spectrum of oak-derived (or oak-perverted) flavours available, the creation of a new core expression presents the master blender with fewer alibis – whisky special effects. When putting together a 12-year-old, for example, he or she hasn’t the diverting inventory of casks with particular qualities which might in other conglomerates be brought to bear on the vatting with ameliorating, distorting consequences. I know that, with the larger companies, whole floors in warehouses are exhumed to contribute towards the next bottling run, many hundreds – even thousands – of litres many years older than the age statement that will finally appear on the bottle lend colour, fragrance and structure which may have been lacking in the youngest stock. This practise is not misleading exactly, just obscuring. Also, when releasing a subsequent batch of ’12-year-old’, the boutique master blender may be unable to maintain consistency with the previous release at the volume demanded by head office. Theirs will rather be a whisky for and of the here and now. They cannot replicate the character of a single expression, they can only construct a whisky that reflects how the Edradour or Royal Lochnagar spirit has coped with and embraced those variables which are at the heart of whisky manufacture.

Titchy Arran.

Titchy Arran.

I compared the scores given in the latest Malt Whisky Companion to the principal – or only – bottlings from the eleven smallest Scottish distilleries in output terms with those of the eleven largest. They were, once I had calculated an average, to all intents and purposes identical (80 plays 79 respectively). This, of course, tells me very little. Were the MWC published on an annual basis, however, and were the bottling habits of the likes of Kilchoman, Arran and Benromach to become de riguer for all boutiques, I would expect their scores to fluctuate, whilst those of the giants remained constant.

Not to conclude, therefore, but rather to adjourn for now, what about flavour exploration? Is fluctuating whisky better whisky? For me, I would bellow ‘Yes!’ I have enormous respect for how the big boys put out consistently tasty stuff year after year, but right now I yearn for variety, digression and different shades in my drams. I want to explore the products of those whose business models and above all artisanal attitudes empower them to shout about something really great when they find it, instead of having to surrender those drops of transient magnificence into the uniform ocean of brand continuity. To my mind, master blenders must too often sacrifice wonderful malts to function as a kind of whisky airbrushing tool; our omnipresent malts are merely beautified – they are not truly, idiosyncratically, beautiful.

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April 6, 2011

The Spirit of Unity

Whisky ‘News’  and the latest releases are ordinarily entities I leave to other bloggers, preferring to focus instead on the distilleries behind the products. On this occasion, however, I think you will agree that this is more than your everyday expression and Scotch Odyssey – with ambitions one day for a Japanese Odyssey – would like to join others covering this dram.

Seven ‘craft’ Scotch distillers are contributing one cask each from their warehouses for the purposes of blending the contents and selling the doubtless delicious result in support of the relief efforts which still continue in both Japan and Christchurch following the recent earthquakes. All proceeds from this unique blend, dubbed the Spirit of Unity, will go to those countries battling to recover from the dreadful infrastructural and above all human costs.

Arran, BenRiach, Bladnoch, GlenDronach, Glengyle, Kilchoman and Springbank will contribute their singular characters to the blend whose marriage will be overseen by BenRiach Distillery Co. Master Blender, Billy Walker.

The relationship between the Scotch whisky industry and that in Japan has been long-established: Masataka Taketsuru studied the art of whisky distillation in Speyside and Campbeltown during the 1920s - regions here represented by BenRiach and Springbank/Glengyle – before shaping the establishment of Yamazaki and founding Nikka. The outturn of this vatting is expected to be in the region of 2000 bottles, 1200 of which are reserved for the UK and the benefactors hope to raise around £50,000 from the sale of these almost certainly unrepeatable bottles.

Royal Mile Whiskies and Loch Fine Whiskies are already taking preliminary orders through their websites, with the batches due to be dispatched into their stores by the end of this month with an expected price of £59.

The Scotch whisky industry has endured some tumultuous times over its history in the shape of bankruptcy, over-production and global recession, but is now in a position to lend its strength to others. With this and many other contributions from all over the world we can hope that Japan and her distilling traditions will swiftly bounce back.

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June 12, 2010

The Plaudits Post

I’m back now, and whilst I may miss my simple, if at times seriously debilitating life on the road, I am in a position to appreciate and marvel at the world of Scotch malt whisky on an entirely separate astral plain. You want to know (I assume) what was good, bad and indifferent, and where you can be guaranteed an unfeasibly large slice of chocolate cake should you be pondering an attempt at something similar (and you really should).

Therefore, this is a plenary post, an awards bash, for what really shouldn’t be missed if you are within 100 miles.

AT THE DISTILLERIES

Drams of the Odyssey

The Glenlivet Nadurra 16YO, 54.2% - Floral, honeyed and teeming with butterscotch and vanilla. A superbly bold Speyside from the more delicate side of the family.

Aberlour 14YO Single Cask First-Fill Bourbon, 63.3% – Full and intensely sweet. Freshly-sawn pine, wood oils, toffee. The malt by which I shall judge all other Bourbon-matured whiskies, and indeed single casks.

Benromach 10YO, 43% – Sweetly heathery, malty and peaty. My kind of whisky.

Ledaig 10YO, 43% – Properly, evocatively peaty. The first heavily peated malt I had tasted since Talisker, and an auspicious herald of the peaty monsters shortly to come.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48% – Awesome. Perfectly assertive oaking, seaweed, smoke and power.

Lagavulin 12YO cask Strength, 57.9% – I was assaulted by this malt. It butted me in the ofrehead then kneed me in the groin. But I loved it. Smoke and sweetness. I need to find this again.

Longrow CV, 46% – Oily, wood smoke. Enormously complex.

Guides of the Odyssey

The Longer Shortlist:

Clare at Royal Lochnagar; Chris at Aberlour; Dagmar at Highland Park.

The Shortlist:

Gavin at Tullibardine – What more can I say about Gavin that I haven’t already? He is one of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I met on my travels. I phoned up the distillery once I returned to research exclusive bottlings in the VC and he remembered me after I mentioned that I had been the boy on a bike. He was brimming with admiration and congratulations, and eager for me to head back to Blackford. I’m just as keen.

Jim at Edradour - For being just a very funny man. His jokes were equally appreciated by the other twenty memebers of my monster tour party. As dry a Scottish sense of humour as you could wish to find.

Fiona at Glen Garioch - Fiona was another guide with an irrepressible sense of humour. Together with Jane, she gave me the much-needed kick up the backside, and in my darker moments thereafter, the thought of being in a position to roll up to Old Meldrum some time in the future and say “I did it,” kept me going.

John at Ben Nevis – It is very difficult to describe where John Carmichael fits in to the architypal breeds of distillery guide. He is  most definitely not the wide-eyed seasonal student; nor the passionate but casual part-timer, nor a member of the production team. He is, however, a complete professional, and a tour with him around the distillery (and he is the head tour guide so chances are good) is not to be missed. He is the second generation to have been in the industry all his days and it shows. His humour (dry), knowledge (supreme) and demeanour (you would think it was his distillery) are all compelling qualities. I learnt more from him about whisky, whisky hospitality and whisky history than from anyone else. It is plain, when he speaks of industry luminaries such as Richard Paterson, that he too enjoys a niche within the inner circle of people whose passion and experience are a good few rungs above everyone else. 

Ruth at Lagavulin - My tour of Lagavulin was perhaps the most relaxed and somehow intimate of my whole odyssey. It was a lovely warm day, the distillery was ticking over nicely and the tour group wasn’t too enormous. Ruth was spectacularly informative and was able to root out a bottle of the 12YO CS, something I’m very grateful for.

Henrik at Glengoyne - Henrik has kept in touch since I met him last month. Another very professional and passionate guide, he took time out of his regular duties to shoot the breeze with me after the tour. He said that he hoped I had enjoyed my tour with the “sweaty Swedish tour guide.” I assured him that these tours were my personal favourites. Michael, the Australian walker I shared a room with in Glasgow, had toured the distillery with Henrik, too, and he praised  his character and performance, as well.

A special mention to Martin at Bladnoch – not technically a tour guide at all but he delivered a top class performance anyway. I don’t think there was a dusty corner of the distillery I didn’t get a glance at. Obviously, his  chauffeuring was an added bonus, but if he does choose to follow his dad into distilling, the future of Bladnoch and distilling in Dumfries and Galloway is in extremely good hands. Thanks again.

And the Winner is…

Robert at Bunnahabhain – As I waxed in my post for the distillery, despite everything that had drained, annoyed and bored me that day, I hung on Robert’s every word. This can’t have been his first tour of the day, but the pride for his plant couldn’t help but shine through so brightly. Hilarious, and with the insight that only comes from actually making the stuff, Robert was by far the best guide of the tour – and he insisted he was “only a stillman.”

Tour of the Odyssey

To win this accolade, it is vital to show the visitor unique insight into the whisky-making process, accommodate them comfortably and stylishly and dram them well. Bowmore, Kilchoman and Springbank would qualify under the first requirement; The Glenlivet and Tullibardine are notably superior exponents of the second, and Aberlour and Glenfiddich are streets ahead in terms of the whisky handed over. There can only be one winner, however.

Highland Park – The emotions triggered when I think back to my visit are wonderful, unique, inexpressible. The location; the unusual logistics of getting there; the typical difficulties with the Scottish weather; the one-to-one tour; the maltings; the spitting, sparking kilns; the warehouses; the video; the beautiful VC; the drams – it was all deeply special.

 Highland Park 2

***

Cafes of the Odyssey

‘The Arch’ in Fettercairn; the wool place on the road between Strathdon and the Lecht Ski resort, ‘Fresh’ in Aberlour; the cafe on the A9 bridge in Helmsdale; ‘Morag’s’ in Wick; the chocolate shop in Tobermory; ‘The Kitchen Garden’ in Oban; ‘The Craft Kitchen’ in Port Charlotte; ‘Fresh Bites’ in Campeltown.

Restaurants of the Odyssey

‘The Ramsay Arms’ in Fettercairn; ‘The Clockhouse’ in Tomintoul; ‘Taste of Speyside’ in Dufftown; ‘Chapter One’ in Forres; ‘The Red Poppy’ in Strathpeffer; ‘The No.1 Bistro at the Mackay Hotel’ in Wick; ‘The Port Charlotte Hotel’ in Port Charlotte.

Locations of the Odyssey – the Best Places to Cycle

Between Gilmerton and Aberfeldy in Perthshire; Angus; Between Forres and Inverness; The North-East coast to John o’Groats; Orkney; Skye; Mull; Arran; Dumfries and Galloway.

Beds of the Odyssey

Stirling Youth Hostel; Pitlochry Youth Hostel; Kishmul B&B in Fettercairn; Argyle Guest House in Tomintoul; Norlaggan B&B in Aberlour; Milton of Grange B&B in Forres; Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel; Netherby B&B in Wick; The Picturehouse B&B in Ard Dorch, Skye; Inverasdale B&B in Oban; The Carradale Hotel in Carradale; Lochranza Youth Hostel; Glasgow Youth Hostel.

To be Avoided

It would be remiss of me to not warn you of the less rewarding components in the Scotch whisky family.

The Distilleries that Could Do Better

Glenturret (too expensive); Old Pulteney (too expensive and your questions won’t be answered); Oban (never mind too expensive, this is highway robbery); Caol Ila (disinterested guide and not much on show).

***

If you have any questions about anything you have read, or there is anything which you feel I haven’t fully described or made clear, just drop a comment and I’ll do my best to help out. Scotland is an unspeakably beautiful, pleasingly accessible and thrillingly complex country made for exploration, just like the unique spirit it creates.

 

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

Pagodas, sea, sky and a bike. Just right now I can't think of a more stirring combination.

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June 11, 2010

Bladnoch

I wanted to throw a rug down and have a picnic. Sadly I had no rug, no food and no time.

I wanted to throw a rug down and have a picnic. Sadly I had no rug, no food and no time.

Bladnoch, Wigtown, Wigtownshire, DG8 9AB, 01988 402605. Co-ordinated Development Services. www.bladnoch.co.uk

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      Dumfries and Galloway has to be one of the prettiest parts of Scotland, and Bladnoch, with its river, bridge and domestic feel to the various buildings, is one of the country’s most attractive distilleries. It was such a shame I was pressed for time, because more photos whould have done this little place, with the feel of a real backwater about it, justice. To lounge about on the lawn by the river, perhaps with some oak-aged gin, would be nothing less than perfect. The countryside is rounded, tamed, but ancient, too. The pagoda hood stands out, telling you it is a distillery. Otherwise, it could be a village hall, and indeed there is a room in the distillery which is used infrequently for civic gatherings.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £3. See ‘My Tour’ below, although be advised that I did not take the true ‘standard tour’.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      Bladnoch operates their Forum, which bottles casks of whisky independently. Their website is well worth a look, both for information regarding this service and how you can sign up and get lovely single cask whisky from all over Scotland sent to you bt also what is likely to be in the shop when you turn up. Gavin D Smith describes the retail outlet as one of the most complete in the industry, and that is saying something when one reflects on the malty madness of Bruichladdich and Glengoyne.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **      (NB: I didn’t receive the standard tour: Martin is not a guide as such, but the boss’s son. He has grown up with the distillery, though (he isn’t that much older than me), and his knowledge was staggering. The ladies I spoke to for the purposes of arranging an out-of-hours tour, however, were very friendly and enthusiastic, so I think you can expect good things if you come to Bladnoch.)

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      Much like a number of other distilleries, this one grew out of a farm set-up with farming requirements very much in evidence in the architecture. The first warehouse I was taken into is very low, and contains ome of the oldest casks from the new owners. In the mill room, the water from the lade, dug by farmers in the 1800s to bring fresh water to Bladnoch (the river at this point is tidal), runs directly underneath. Martin was perpetually apologising for the simple industrial look of much of the equipment. The mash tun is certainly functional more than beautiful, but it makes the wort, which is hardly a glamorous role.Bladnoch stills

The still house is like a modern barn: steel girders and cladding. The stills themselves were one of the few things Diageo didn’t take with them when they closed the distillery for the last time in 1993. The stills were also left, and both, interestingly enough, are technically wash stills. The spirit still has windows in the neck. Whilst the stills were left behind, new plumbing and pipe-work needed to be installed. The stillman, whilst the same guy as when the distillery last operated, had to re-learn how his own stills worked. They now run the stills slowly, which produces a smoother, more flavoursome spirit. No distilling was taking place that day, so Martin showed me inside the low wines tank. On the surface was a translucent, scummy film, which he disturbed with a rod. Fusel oil. Every distillery will have it floating along the top of their low wines and feints, and it just goes to show why everyone distills it again, to remove such impurities. I’m shown towards the end of the tour the enormous computer bank which controls some of the mechanisms and circuitry upstairs. This would struggle to fit in most cruise ships and had to be fully rewired.

Some of the older "new" stock in a very traditional, and above all cool, warehouse.

Some of the older "new" stock in a very traditional, and above all cool, warehouse.

More warehouses, thankfully, follow (the warehouse is part of the standard tour). I’m shown a huge paletised warehouse and the one adjoining the filling store. In the latter is a rack of “oak-aged gin” which the Armstrongs are keeping “for a friend”. Martin whipped out a valinch and drew a sample. It smelt superb: spirity and spicy, with a sweet mustiness: rather like some of the Pakistani and Indian-run convenience stores I went into in Glasgow. The taste was… different. I could also smell the products of two Sherry casks, both filled from the same batch in 1992 and left beside each other in the warehouse. They were markedly different: one sweeter and creamier than the other. They buy the same Bourbon barrels as Arran does, straight out of Kentucky for $110. I could also see casks from Kenwood Vineyards in California. These had contained red wine, are £350 a barrel, and there should be an interesting Bladnoch expression resulting from those. Speaking of new expressions, last autumn they distilled a batch of malt peated to 50ppm. This should be equally intriguing when it reaches maturity. Martin, before I arrived, had been busy bottling for private individuals. There was a whole table full of ruby-red bottles: Arran single casks. Someone had bought a puncheon of Arran stock, 13-years-of-age and 800 bottles of the stuff. Bladnoch sell casks, too, but Martin recommends buying a tenth share in one, which leaves you with a much more manageable return of malt. Whole casks are around the £1000 mark. Bladnoch, by way of developing a bit of a buzz about their own bottlings, have created the Forum. If you sign up to this, there are periodical bottlings from a broad range of other distilleries in addition to Bladnoch, and these are posted out for discussion. I’m shown label-less bottles full of golden liquid. “This is the latest Forum bottling which I’m just finishing,” Martin said, pointing to a bottling machine in the corner of the office which can apparently allow a whole hogshead to be drained and bottled in half a day or so. “A 30YO Caol Ila.” My eyes lit up. “I suppose they are all spoken for?” I asked, disregarding for the moment that even if some weren’t, I couldn’t fit one in my panniers. Martin nodded. If I had been a member of the Forum, though, it would have cost me £50! Single cask, 30YO Caol Ila for £50. Incredible.  To return to Arran, however, Warehouse No. 2 contains nothing but. It is full of maturing Arran stock, and only Arran. Bladnoch charge 18p per cask per week, and it fills up empty warehouse space economically. A couple of times a year they also run a four-day Whisky School. Just like at Springbank, you can pay your money and involve yourself in every part of the process.

GENEROSITY:      ** (You are given a dram of the 18YO, and anything else you like. As Martin explained, the approach is to let you try before you buy. A jolly good policy, and one I can’t believe the massive conglomerates can’t finance, if plucky little Bladnoch can do it.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      **

SCORE:      8/10 *s.

COMMENT:      I cannot express what a joy it was to tour Bladnoch with Martin, a treasure trove of information and humour. His hospitality and generosity will never be forgotten, and I hope that his finals went well. “I should be revising but my Dad said he needed me to do some bottling.” So, whilst it wasn’t the tour you will receive, I can recommend Bladnoch whole-heartedly.

Oak-aged gin. I suspect the world isn't quite ready for this beast yet...

Oak-aged gin. I suspect the world isn't quite ready for this beast yet...

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Glasgow to Home

Glasgow to Bladnoch, to Barrhill, 54 miles

Few mornings on tour combined stress, trauma and surrealism in quite such a befuddling cocktail as this, my final one. A tough task master to the end, I woke myself up at 5AM for my 7AM train to Ayr. Immediately post-dawn Glasgow in early summer is not the most awful place to be. As I descended through the parks and smart Georgian terraces to Sauchiehall Street, I experienced that thrill you get when you are awake and doing while everyone else wastes the peace and calm in bed. Once on Sauchiehall Street, however, I began to spot clusters of folk who plainly were only just on their way to bed.

The roads were largely empty, which was just as well because I’m not sure all of my city centre riding was within the Highway Code. I had street maps, obviously, and I knew the general location of Glasgow Central Station and the rough direction in which it lay. I was not helped by road signs, however, and all of a sudden I was quite undesirably on a bridge over the Clyde. I barrelled back across on the pavement, cut into a left lane and only after I had ducked under the railway bridge itself which sprouts out of the concourse did I spot a sign. I still had to come back the way I had come, further east, but I found the entrance. Finding the main platform was harder, and whether it was the poor night’s sleep or insufficient rest compounded over six weeks, tasking my reserves of logic to find it from the ground floor entrance did not work. I ended up hauling the bike along a deserted access corridor, down into the underground station and eventually found a lift which took me up to the concourse. The relief I felt was uniquely potent.

I caught my first train, which was devoid of any facilities to stow my bike. After running the length of the short train to try and find a little bike symbol at one of the doors, I wheeled it on and kept it in the space by the doors. I was positioned in a seat nearest to this area so that I might keep a hold of it. I guzzled most of a bottle of water and texted mum. Stage One complete. ‘What would you like for pudding?’ was the reply.

As the train sped south out of Glasgow, mist cloaked the fields and industrial estates. By Ayr it had cleared up, precisely when things became most shrouded and arcane for me.

I have decided to include the oddest and most traumatic encounter of my entire tour because it is in fact rather appropriate as a dramatisation of impressions and conflicts which had been developing within me over the six weeks. Meeting my first stark raving God-fearing lunatic was important, although its significance is most likely solely attributable to the coincidental occasion which witnessed it. For some weeks, I had keenly missed company, cameraderie and the ability to share with others that which I was experiencing. This had taken me by surprise at first, for I had always considered myself very independent, indeed perfectly happy in my own company. I had expected to lap up every moment of blissful solitude. As it turns out, I need people. This is a good thing, though, because if I ever decide I don’t, I might just turn into the paranoid, doom-propheting hermit who, several times over the forty-five minutes he enforced his presence upon me, insisted that he just wanted to be left alone. I wished, without hope, that the hypocrisy of his actions and desire would occur to him. Once he had expounded his theories on the non-existence of time, the government keeping tabs on him due to his fearless and pure lifetsyle, he got on to preaching. It was very clear that he thought I was one of the many people destined to burn in Hell. All the while, I’m trying to savour the frankly gorgeous hills, forests and coast of South Ayrshire, proffering the bare minimum response which was in any case often all I was capable of, so regularly would he start off on a new tack with something I couldn’t quite believe anyone would say to a complete stranger. So draining and bizarre was his constant onslaught of drivel that when the time by which we should have arrived at Barrhill station approached and I got his name wrong as we parted, it had a pre-determined feel about it. He got rather nasty, in fact, and gave a fairly bleak diagnosis as to the state of my soul. My complete absence of inner strength, as he would have it, seemed a trifle at odds with the three quarters of an hour I had endured with him out of politeness, however. In fact, I rather fancy it was my openness at Ayr, waving him and his many bags onto the train ahead of me, that marked me out from the herd. Had I stuffed earphones in, swore, spat and scowled a bit, he might not have been so keen to latch on to me. Still, as a writer I can see the positives of unusual interactions such as this one.

I got off the train physically shaken. After such an early start, on my very last day, this was not exactly what I had needed.

Beautiful Barrhill: it looked just as gorgeous (and welcome) when I passed through six horus earlier.

Beautiful Barrhill: it looked just as gorgeous (and welcome) when I passed through six hours earlier.

I had just under two hours, after changing in the lane up to the station, to get to Bladnoch. Dumfries and Galloway pacified me, cleansed me of my morning struggles and was the perfect epilogue to my travels in Scotland. I have never been to this part of the country before, but I will return. The sun was warm, the air fresh, fields green and full of lambs. Hills were low and rounded, forests plentiful and pine-fresh. I reflected that if my bike conked out, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I followed a single track forestry road, almost completely empty of traffic save for one huge tree truck which demanded an unsteady emergency stop in the grass verge. Besides that, I couldn’t belive how beautiful it all was.

I began to head further south, having bypassed Newton Stewart. Trees nearly swept the road with their new, ethereal leaves. The landscapes which opened out before me on such stunning frequency were soft, busy and idyllic. Everywhere hummed, in the cheeriest possible sense, with the aroma of cow.

11AM, my tour time at Bladnoch, was approaching fast, and I wasn’t seeing any signs to Wigtown. Soon, I rejoined the main road and phoned the distillery. Martin answered the phone. “I’m at the Torhouse stones,” I said. “Oh, you’re just a mile and a half away. It’s all down hill from there.” I began to wonder if this was some cruel joke of his, or maybe we were thinking about different Torhouse stones. I was faced with a sequence of rolling hills, and then I went straight on over the road that could have taken me cheekily right and straight to Bladnoch. As it was, I passed through Wigtown which at least gave me the opportunity to scout out a Co-op for lunch. I made it into Bladnoch at 11.15AM, only for Martin to tell me that I had taken the long way from Barrhill. I was told that, for my return leg, heading through Newton Stewart would be much quicker.

 

Simply, cycling heaven.

Simply, cycling heaven.

In the sweltering and still building heat, I was given a superb tour of what is a unique distillery. Martin knew everything there was to know about its history and place within the local community to this day. It was with the help of the villagers that the Armstrongs succeeded in reversing the ruling by previous owners Diageo that Bladnoch could be bought but must never distil again.

 

You need more than an hour in Bladnoch.

You need more than an hour in Bladnoch.

I made it a bit of a frenzied tour, I must admit. I had asked for the tour to last an hour, but so enchanted was I by all the doors Martin was opening (he says that the hardest job is locking everything up again after his father has conductd a tour) that I rather lost track of time. After taking a photo in the beautiful grounds, I checked my display and read 12.36. I needed to be going. Martin reminded me of the route I should take then broke off. “I could give you a lift to Newton Stewart.”

The first part of my final leg of cycling on tour, therefore, was spent in the Bladnoch Transit van. This is how they transport casks from Glasgow to the distillery and back. Other companies use swish trucks, the Armstrongs use a builder’s vehicle. The bike was stashed in the back amongst cardboard boxes, bags thrown in any old how. As Martin hurtled along Dumfries-shire roads, these a tad busier than those I had taken earlier in the day, he gave me a potted history of the local area, which had played a significant part in the Second World War, an RAF base stationed to the west of Newton Stewart. Regrettably, quite a few Spitfire pilots misjudged the altitude of the Cairnsmore of Fleet, and flew into it.

He deposited me on the main street and I thanked him from the bottom of my heart. Once I had bought lunch and escaped the throngs of the town, I began to appreciate just what a timely favour he had done for me. Shade was essential to pack in my last meal, and I found a sturdy tree on someone’s driveway to eat sandwiches and shortbread. Across the road, sheep panted and tried to take advantage of the cover granted by the same tree. I mixed the last of my electrolyte tablets with the water I had taken from the tap in the Bladnoch courtyard and set off for my final time trial. It was 1.30PM, I had less than two hours.

Again I must stress the beucolic beauty of the area, but I could not appreciate the gentle meanders, rises and falls of the roads, the bluebelled woods rising from the carriageway, the verdant fields, the glorious sunshine because I had a train to catch. And if I failed to it would be dicey as to whether the next trains could fit me and my machine on.

Moist and exhausted, but so very chuffed.

Moist and exhausted, but so very chuffed.

The ferocity of the sun became a genuine concern, as opposed to a luxury. So open and bare are some of the landscapes in South Ayrshire where forestry has been cleared, and so windless is it, that it feels as though you are pushing the pedals with a burning bouncy castle strapped to your back. I saw a sign saying 15 miles to Barrhill but the next one, which seemed to come many hours later, said only 11. Four miles had taken me what felt like an age. I began to doubt the accuracy of my bike computer, I began to doubt my ability to push on as the food I scoffed provided negligible sustenance. The road began to climb, not seriously, but markedly upward. I was pushing on the pedals with all my might but feeling a little lost and doubtful for the first time since I had been condemned to eternal damnation earlier in the morning. So wonderful, surprising and beautiful had my time since that surreal encounter been that I began to wonder if I had in fact dreamed it. As the road began to descend, I could pick up some serious speed and cool off, I genuinely doubted that it had taken place at all. Barrrhill appeared, and not before time. 2PM was developing nicely, and was indeed already too late for the village shop, where I would have bought some Lucozade and some chocolate bars. I was absorbed in food matters, and couldn’t quite remember how far along the village the turning up the hill to the station was. After maybe half a mile further into Ayrshire countryside, I realised that I had passed it. A frantic U-turn, and needlessly savage climb up to the station later, I had made it. 2.45PM, time enough to change out of my dripping cycling gear, put some water back in, and reflect on all I had achieved. I passed a pleasant few minutes on the platform with a lot of swallows and the scorching sun, which still wasn’t backing off.

The bike at rest: its job was done. Check out the swallow in the top right - I'm quite pleased with this picture!

The bike at rest: its job was done. Check out the swallow in the top right - I'm quite pleased with this picture!

The train back up to Ayr was not especially full, and I secured for myself a double seat. All of the windows were open and most of my fellow passengers seemed to have been hypnotised, those that weren’t already asleep on their bags or tables. I joined them in slack-jawed, blithely smiling abstraction. I was deliriously happy, and profoundly dehydrated, of course. I could enjoy the anonymity that public transport provides, whilst sharing a smile with the rest of the carriage when we past through a tunnel and all the windows slammed shut.

The change at Ayr was a swift one, and whilst there were plenty of bodies already on the train, I succeeded in blagging another seat by the doors so I could look after the bike. It turned out I didn’t need to be anywhere near it. Masses of exposed, burnt Scottish flesh boarded the train, couldn’t find seats and so squashed into the seatless spaces. One man found my pannier rack a useful cup holder as he fielded and received calls for the duration of the journey about what he and his friends were likely to be up to that night.

Once in Glasgow the stress returned. I had misread my timetable, and plain forgotten which train I was to catch. I thought it was something like a 5.30PM train, and when I got off my train from Ayr at 5.10PM and couldn’t find it on the departure boards, I panicked a little. I also panicked about locking the bike in the bike park in such a way as to make theft impossible, but also appeasing the urgent signals from my bladder. In the end I only secured the front wheel to the rack, which would have made it very easy for anyone to steal the rest of the bike by flicking the quick-release level to detach front wheel from bike. Anyway, I used the toilet, bought sandwiches, crisps and a large bottle of water from a standing-room-only M&S and returned to find the bike where I left it. Sweating copiously, I wheeled machine and my baggage of six weeks to the departure screens. My train was actually the 5.50PM. Seeing ‘Alnmouth’ scroll along as one of the stops was not an overly momentous sight at the time. However, when I had found the right platform, belatedly the right carriage for the bike (the guard’s van right at the front of the train, my carriage being towards the back), remembered just before we moved off that I’d left my M&S purchases in said guard’s van, had my provisions returned to me and taken my seat; then did I realise that my travels were over, and I had done it. Out of Glasgow, through Motherwell, I couldn’t stop smiling. The evening was as beautiful as the day had been. I ate, sipped and thought. My mind pedalled its way back to Glen Garioch, Tomintoul, Skye, The North, and all of my testing moments in the Central Belt. My thoughts then sprinted off ahead of me into the future. “Stephen,” I said, when he phoned me up, “do you want to come on the next one?”

A sight of the Forth Bridges, through Edinburgh and down the East Coast: all of these familiar sights seen with new eyes. The train raced into Northumberland and I recognised landmarks from my many training miles. That hit me rather hard. When the train stopped in Alnmouth, I hit the side of the guard’s van rather hard, too. I had notified the steward of my exit stop, and that I had precious cargo stowed away. I had made my way to the first class carriages in readiness to alight on the platform and be ready for a speedy handover. But I couldn’t get into the carriage. I hammered on the door but no reply. I had vivid, livid visions of my bike making it as far as Birmingham when I detected in the far distance a man in a hat jogging laboriously towards me. “It’s chocker in there,” he gasped, opened the door for me and in a flash I was on the platform, the train pulling away. I was home.

Out of the station and into the surrounding estates. The smell was different somehow. Down into the village everything had exploded into life, including the local pub where I work, very busy at 8.45PM on a Saturday night. Back at the house, I unhooked the panniers as I had done a hundred times before in foreign parts, wheeled the bike into the garage and without realising or necessarily agreeing to it, became abosrbed once again into the real world.

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June 4, 2010

Islay and Jura

May 13th, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, 33 miles

It felt deeply odd to wake up and have my mother cooking me breakfast, as opposed to someone else’s mother. I tried not to fight it, because after all, this is their holiday too and they want to see their first-born, even if he is unexpectedly hairy, smelly, unsure of the conventions of social etiquette and eats like a starving lion.

My father has wheeled the bike out of the garage for me, and I have much more sensibly-shaped panniers. It all feels so wrong! At least the Scottish rain keeps me grounded. That, if nothing else, is familiar.

I fight the rain and a stiff Westerley to Bowmore, take some pictures and sniff like a solvent-abuser the peat-laden air. Then I have to rake around Bowmore village because they can’t fit me on a tour until 11AM. I pop into the local Spar, which double sup as the Islay Whisky Shop. There were lots of delicious malts I wanted to take home with me. Which would be my favourite by the end of the week? I was seduced from afar by a bottle of Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. A snip at £400.

After my tour of Bowmore, I had to battle the rain and slightly increasing temperatures to Port Askaig and the impossibly rutted, then steep road to Caol Ila. I was so thrilled to be here, though: the home of my very favourite malt. Hidden by name, or at least in the marketing of Diageo, hidden by nature, with the steeply falling cliff ensuring that only its smokestack can be seen from above.

A very very special moment. Indescribable.

A very very special moment. Indescribable.

Regrettably, it wasn’t to be the glorious validation of my pilgrimage. As you can see in my review, it fell a good deal short of expectations.

I was fortunate that it had stopped raining by the time I exited, because nothing had had the chance to dry. Running a little on empty (the lunch my mothe rhad packed for me may have been delicious, but it was maybe half the requirements for the day) I flogged myself along the merrily undulating single track road to Bunnahabhain. I encountered a car travelling in a contrary direction, but none of the terrifyingly huge Carntyne lorries. Having said that, they were loading one with casks when I bumped over the cattle grid into the distillery complex, another one squeezed onto a shelf of flat land before some very un-flat cliffs.

Upon leaving Bunnahabhain, I discovered that the reverse end of the barrel which had acted as a sign post on my way to the distillery broadcast a rather entertaining joke, which you may find below.

The other side, the one you see first as you head to the distillery, says 'Distillery'.

The other side, the one you see first as you head to the distillery, says 'Distillery'.

  

***

May 14th, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, 28 miles

There's nothing like being stunned by the ebauty of your surroundings first thing in the morning.

There's nothing like being stunned by the ebauty of your surroundings first thing in the morning.

Laphroaig demanded an early start of me. Trying to organise my day such that I could visit all of the Kildalton distilleries in the one day was a major head ache. Initially, I had wanted the visits to be kiltered the other way around: with Ardbeg first and Laphroaig last. Due to their tour times, and some being fully booked, I had to rotate my itinerary around the fulcrum of Lagavulin.

Therefore, I was up and out in the lifting mist at 8AM, due for Port Ellen and the unexplored south shore. The mornign was quite stunning, with rain always threatening to the east, and a beautiful, sun-kissed western view of sea and sand. At one stage, I passed through an area where the wind blew the still-smouldering heather blazes (started illegally) into my face. Wowee! It was that triad of distilleries in one breath of wind: peat, heather, earth and smoke, with a view of the sea to boot. Islay in my nostrils.

Smoking Islay: uncannily reminiscent of the real thing.

Smoking Islay: uncannily reminiscent of the real thing.

By the time I reaached the south coast, it was a treat for the eyes. Few places I had encountered were as gnarled, cramped and rugged as Islay’s south shore, and to find three world-class distilleries within three miles of each other: amazing, mind-boggling.

Laphroaig was first, and how lovely it was. The buildings are utterly precious, and everyone else with a camera seemed to think so, too. A warehouse would have been nice, but what with all this interaction with the developing spirit and my running rather late for Lagavulin, it was probably just as well there wasn’t.

What should greet me as I hurtled back on to the main road but road works! This didn’t help. Once clear of the men in hi-vis jackets, the landscape became fractionally softer and more wooded in time for Lagavulin. I caught the tour by the skin of my teeth and just as well: it was magnificent.

Buoyant and fed, but very very warm, I made more serene progress to Ardbeg. When I got there it was as if the Festival had begun early for this particular distillery. “It’s always like this,” said one of the ladies rushing about. “Everyone wants to eat NOW.” There wasn’t a table to be had, and after some folk took the pouring of whisky into their own hands (glasses, really, but you know what I mean), there were no sample bottles, either. Pandemonium.

By the time the tour departed, everything felt rather wrung out. It was the last tour of the week, everyone on the production side had gone home, and their were some giggly young Germans as part of the 20-strong tour group. It might have been the heat, it might have been that they had had similarly intensive encounters with whisky that day. Soporifically, the tour wended its way to the filling store, I felt like a nap. I wasn’t allowed that. What I was awarded instead was an hour and a half of pitted, ruptured, buckled and destroyed Islay roads, into a head wind.

I was similarly broken by the time I returned to the holiday cottage. Once showered and dressed for our parting meal in the Port Charlotte Hotel, I began to feel the effects of six distilleries in two days and the impending desertion of my parents. The exceptional fare on offer at the Hotel recovered my spirits for the remainder of the evening, but what would break and engulf me the following afternoon had been awakened.

***

Bridgend to Port Askaig, Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, 36 miles

Another food parcel is being put together for me as I wolf down my breakfast. It isn’t an early tour of Kilchoman, but it is on the other side of the island. With regards to the food parcel, I’m wondering how I am supposed to readjust to buying food for myself once Ma and Pa depart this afternoon. It sees a return of the full compliment of baggage on the bike, too. 

The amazing thing about relatively low-lying islands in the Atlantic is that you can see weather coming long before it actually hits. I therefore had a lot of time to prepare myself for getting wet before the black and hevaily-laden cloud finally burst upon me. It wasn’t especially cold, though, so I resisted putting on the overtrousers. However, the rain grew heavier and I decided that getting soaked wasn’t liable to be much fun. On went the over trousers, and just as I set off again, the rain abated. I could then watch it as it bounded away to terrorise Jura.

Stormy weather.

Stormy weather.

The weather remained wonderfully fine for the rest of the day. I could only complain about the wind, and did I? I had agreed to meet my parents for lunch in the Croft Kitchen, Port Charlotte at 12.30. After a few minutes on the road to Kilchoman, I appreciated that such a time was ambitious, even if my tour was a scant half-hour.

The extreme western third of Islay is profoundly unstable. The road sinks and soars dispiritingly regularly. When fighting a vindictive Westerly, this is not a good thing. It wasn’t until I came to Kilchoman, however, that I could appreciate what a not very good thing was really all about. “You don’t like cyclists, do you?” I put to my guide. The farm track to the distillery cause my upper body into spasm as it endeavoured to execute minute turns of the handlebars so that I might avoid the biggest rocks whilst inching along at 6 mph. Nevertheless, the back wheel was regularly pitched into unexpected directions by pieces of gravel and I’m faintly amazed that I didn’t fall off or puncture. Maybe I’m a born cyclocross rider. I walked the bike back to the main road after the tour.

The bike with Lochindaal and Bruichladdich in the background.

The bike with Lochindaal and Bruichladdich in the background.

This act of self-preservation cost me time. The frankly wilful winds ensured that my race against time to Port Charlotte (all the while raging internally that this was my last lunch with my parents before I left and I also had to get food before touring Bruichladdich at 2PM) was frustrating to the point of actually screaming. This doesn’t make me feel better, but succombing turns anger into embarrassment.

A chicken bacon and mayo sandwich, some chips, the hand-over of miniatures and food, the vanishing blue bumper of the car. It was all very upsetting, more so because I didn’t think I was going to be and didn’t want to be upset.

Bruichladdich had a similar feel to Ardbeg the day before: more sedate fairground exhibit than distillery. I ate some food, and headed towards the hotel at Port Askaig, trying to look at this change of scene, a reversion to old ways, as a good thing. This was me returning to those austere self-sufficient days which had done so much for me. Mum and Dad leaving was only an unusual, temporarily complicating factor.

Well, it was temporary in that I only struggled with it and a number of other issues for the following three days. It could have been worse.

I sat on my bed in the hotel, making a passionate attempt to label my accommodation as quirky; quirky that the door wouldn’t lock, quirky that the TV didn’t work, quirky that my bike was sharing the covered open garage at the back with a number of picnic tables, quirky that there was no-one in the place, quirky that everyone, to a man, had a Polish accent, quirky that Port Askaig seemed to comprise only this hotel, the ferry terminal and the shop, quirky that I was booked in for three nights, quirky that this seemed to surprise the Polish girl who showed me to my room, quirky that I felt suddenly completely alone and abandoned on this little island in the Atlantic. I tried desperately to maintain a sense of humour, but that I could see the ferry terminal from my seat in the dining room, my escape route but 72 hours hence, was too tragic an irony.Port Askaig

I was desperately hungry, but had no appetite when my very uniform-looking breaded haddock fillets arrived. That night and the next morning was the worst I had felt all trip, including the first three days and my equipment worries in Huntly and Keith. I battled with doubts that the appearance of my parents had dropped me right back at square one, that my passion for single malt, for Scotland, had been exhausted, and that I was dragging myself to Glasgow and its myriad new threats for no good reason. Compounding these anxieties was the accusation that I had no right to feel as I did. Five weeks in, and more than 1000 miles, I should have been able to take it all in my stride. Well I couldn’t and this sheltered cove within the cliffs felt like a prison, the scene of manifested madness and despair.

I turned the light out long before 9PM, and slept until what would class as late for me on this trip.

***

Port Askaig, 25 miles

Rest enjoyed, I could appreciate the lunacy of my recent itinerary. How could I expect to feel anything else after touring all 8 distilleries in three days? I was exhausted. Recenvening with familiarity only to have it leave was a risky move, but the end is approaching and the peripheral issues on this score are the most pressing. I have pushed myself beyond what I had thought I was capable of and my biggest challenge was still squarely in front of me, drawing nearer each day. Quite right that this evaluation of priorities and my own exact physical and emotional location should take place now, with the resolution of my goals and ambitions so very close.

I tried to chivvy myself by engaging in small tasks: making lunch from the rolls, butter, cheese and ham left for me, doing some laundry in the sink. With these little objectives completed, I decided that I reall wanted to get up and out. I packed my panniers, changed into my gear, retrieved the bike, and broke free of Port Askaig. It was, as I said in a text to my mother, a raod to nowhere. I looked at Finlaggan, central seat for the Lords of the Isles, bummed around Bowmore for a bit, visited the little retail/craft village just outside Bridgend, bought some groceries, and returned to the hotel. Despite a very suspect Spaghetti a la Carbonara (that ‘a la’ is crucial), my spirits had lifted.

Reading Iain Banks helped hugely, perhaps even vitally. His vitriol and invective at the political climate of 2003 when Raw Spirit was researched together with his hilarious anecdotes and experiences in distilleries that I had already visited lifted me forcibly out of my gloom. Without his ‘company’, I’m not sure how I would have passed the stickily-slow time in Port Askaig. Had I not been able to draw off some of his enthusiasm and attitude, day 35 might have ended with my seeing if I could swim to Jura, or something equally wrong-headed. Thank you, Mr Banks. As a writer, too, I only hope my work can have such a sustaining effect on someone.

***

 Port Askaig to Craighouse, to Port Askaig, 17 miles

It is a very exciting, and speedy, crossing to Jura. This little boat is captained with real skill, shuttling back and forth over the treacherous tides and currents of the Sound.

It is a very exciting, and speedy, crossing to Jura. This little boat is captained with real skill, shuttling back and forth over the treacherous tides and currents of the Sound.

I should have known by now that no matter how close I may be to a ferry terminal when I wake up, at least an hour must pass between the first anguished yelps which is how I greet the new day in response to the brusque herald that is my alarm and finally exiting my accommodation, Lycra’ed to the max and ready to go. Consequently, as I ate poached eggs at 8.15, I accepted that I would miss the 8.30 sailing to Jura and had to shuffle about for the 9.30 boat. This, at least, gave me the opportunity to get in touch with Bladnoch distillery, as it appeared that there was every likelihood that I would make it to Dumfries and Galloway, after all. 

 As I waited and cars began to queue, William and Sue rolled down from the hotel. I had met them the previous afternoon as I walked the bike back down in to Port Askaig (saving the brakes on the ruthless hill). They had been cycling the other way, and the reversal of accepted bicycle locomotion with regards to negotiating inclines was remarked upon: it should have been them pushing their bikes up, not mine down. William asked, in a wonderfully broad accent straight from the North East of England, if I’d had a mechanical failure. I had replied that I was just nursing my equipment whenever I had the opportunity. Over breakfast we had met again, and had discussed my travel adventures and their own. As it turned out, they had completed almost exactly the same route to get to Port Askaig as I would take from Port Askaig to Glasgow. Reconvening on the pier, they asked if I knew about the Sustrans network. Phyllis in Dufftown had first put me on to them as we tried to work out a possible route from Nairn to Tomatin. Sue now told me that there was a very well-signposted National Cycle Route from the ferry port in Ardrossan to the middle of Glasgow, the 7. This was music to my ears. My Multimap print-outs and 21-year-old OS map (far older than some of the whiskies I had been tasting) were not at all compatible, and I sensed would not keep me off the very busy roads in Scotland’s most densely-populated area. That they had put before me an alternative already allayed some of my monumental fears concerning the stages at the end of the week, and which had grown from molehills into Cuillins of problems and anxieties over the course of my travels.

We boarded the Jura ferry, and what a charming and informal operation it is. On go the pedestrians and cyclists, who tuck themselves closely into the sides of the vessel, the n the cars board – far more than you would have thought possible. You buy your tickets, blink, and you are swinging into Feolin, Jura. A herd of cows represent a welcome party of sorts, and then you cannot wait to explore the interior of this tiny, sparesly peopled island paradise.

Glimpses to the heart of Jura.

Glimpses to the heart of Jura.

The road follows the coast, essentially, although the mountainous nature of Jura is inescapable. With the Sound of Islay on your right, there are tiny dells and glens with streams and steep-sided gorges to your left, heather and grass and misty mountain tops. It felt the most island-like, somehow, of anywhere I had yet been to. The one single track road I suppose helped with the feeling of separateness and seclusion. I couldn’t help but think of Orwell, and whether it was his influence or not, I found my thoughts rising in an attempt to meet the grandeur and serenity of the landscape about me.

In the distillery visitor’s centre, I asked how far away Orwells old house was. It was only a little after 12 and I had not much else to do once I returned to Port Askaig. The lady looked sceptical. It is at the point of the tear-drop that Jura forms, and requires a fair walk once the suspect road finally peters out. Maybe next time for another breed of pilgrimage.

On the way back, the threat of rain vanished and cloud and light entranced me. The Sound itself was like glass, and a tanker slid along in utter silence. I stood opposite the point at which Islay and Jura form a bottle neck of sorts for the wild seas and create the Sound itself. It was gloriously warm and I had another Highland cow for company.

It is places like this that make anyone look like a good photographer.

It is places like this that make anyone look like a good photographer.

I’d been able to claim a couple of sightings of Jura’s famous deer on the way to the distillery, a head or two on a ridge line. As I headed back to Feolin, I disturbed an army of the creatures, grazing on the land below the road. Upon seeing me, they bunched together and sprinted up the hill, amassing again and turning to assess my level of risk.

Back at the ferry terminal, I was one of a peloton of cyclists. There was Dad and son on a tandem, and Mum and daughter on their own bikes. I learnt from William and Sue when they arrived, having completed their exploration of Jura, that they had encountered this family on the Arran ferry. What an amazing thing to do with and for your kids, although I suspect you would need full co-operation and approval prior to departing. As I can testify, some of the greatest moments possible can come in the saddle, but there is massive potential for days of unmitigated  misery, too.

Back in Port Askaig, I had a drink on the lawn outside the hotel with my two fellow North Easters. They were due to leave for Bowmore shortly, but before they did William showed me his “tool kit” with everything a touring cyclist could need, and by rights shouldn’t be without. Having none of what he showed me, I felt rather ashamed. He then reminded Sue of the Sustrans map. This was excavated from a pannier and would be invaluable when, three days later, I headed in to the big smoke, and every one of my darkest fears.

Pure serenity. The vista is completed courtesy of the Highland cow.

Pure serenity. The vista is completed courtesy of the Highland cow.

When they left, I felt almost as bereft as I had on Saturday with my parents’ departure. The afternoon was still young, however, I wanted to see a bit more of Islay and Caol Ila was walking distance away. I then decided to hike to Loch Nam Ban, the water source for Caol Ila.

This was a very good idea. I panted up the hill to the main road and turned right for Caol Ila. The maps in the hotel had suggested a track of sorts that lead off the carriageway to the distillery itself, up into the hills where the loch lay. I passed the stone cairn/sign for Caol Ila, enchanted by the hot, citrussy and eminently peaty smells of mash and wort blown to my quivering nostrils by the breeze in the Sound. I turned left through a bank of trees and found the capped well, under which flowed the process and water, piped from the invisible loch above me. My shoes may not have been at all appropriate, and the route may have been rather unnecessarily circuitous after I headed up the wrong hill first, and had to fight my way through barbed wire, thick mosses, bog and grass to regain the road, only to find that there was a well-worn quad bike track up to the infamous loch. Standing on the shore of the lapping, energetic waters, I felt more at peace. It helped that its situation, in a bowl in the hills looking out to Jura, deflected all wind so the only sound was the faintly luxuriant and very soothing ‘blop’ of wavelets breaking against the loose stones of the shore. I picked up one of these stones and slipped it into my pocket. That was my most solid and significant souvenir of the tour.

The long hot walk back, during which I watched a thick hairy caterpillar speedily cross the road, was rewarded by some battered chicken and more Iain Banks. Tomorrow I would be on my way again. Progress couldn’t come soon enough.

Wild and soft, remote and welcoming. My favourite malt's very core and DNA.

Wild and soft, remote and welcoming. My favourite malt's very core and DNA.

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May 21, 2010

Epilogue: the Bottom of the Glass

Firstly, dear reader, I am still here. My tour has not ended in ignominy and I am licking my wounds privately in Northumberland (there is still time, though). I’m typing from the spacious, if sweltering, lounge of the Glasgow Youth Hostel.

The reasons I have for not posting since almost a fortnight ago are numerous, and shan’t all be explored now. Suffice it to say that I hadn’t access to a computer until Wednesday night in Lochranza but by that stage I was in such a state of anxiety concerning the following day’s stage from Arran to the centre of Glasgow that any composition on my part would not have yielded anything even slightly coherent. Indeed, the logisitcs and itinerary of this last week leave little space for anything besides fretting. Plus, the sensations arising from this unique tour, whose experiences have represented unprecendented challenges and opportunities for me, have been ones I have wished to ruminate over before sharing with you. In short, my head is at many obscure places and journalism is quite impossible. I’m still around, though, and the culture shock after five weeks in Scottish wilderness to one of the busiest cities in the UK (or anything else for that matter) has not done me in.

Tomorrow I go to Dumfries and Galloway courtesy of a hideously early train out of Glasgow Central. Tomorrow night I ought to be back home where internet access is largely unlimited (siter proving accommodating, of course). It is to this end that I haven’t been updating towards the end of this week, despite the internet rate I’m enjoying right now of £1 per hour. Grrrrr… As of Sunday, I hope to revise my posts with all those lovely photos and update the shop contents as far as I can remember them. I may phone up and ask, just for you all.

Regrettably, I must finish on a negative. I could not restrict the casualties to the seven I listed below during my Half-Term Report. Auchentoshan could not be fitted in today. I have rather a good reason for that, however, my truist Mark Beaumont moment so far. By the time I left for Glengoyne I was three hours and £120 out of pocket. Both of the above were needed for my bike to carry on working. I shall go into it in greater detail later on when I come to type up this leg of the journey but all I will say was that had I not forked out for a new crank, I know not where I would be right now. I certainly wouldn’t be in a position to cycle to Wigtown tomorrow.

Apologies again that this tour has fallen short of my (and possibly your) expectations. Let’s hope for a glorious denouement tomorrow then, eh?

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