Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Islay Hogmanay 2009

We're sitting in the dining room of the CalMac ferry," The Isle of Arran", the smaller of the two vehicle ferries that service the Hebridean Isle of Islay. 

I've just polished off a huge breakfast and am sitting reflecting on the amazing eight days we've spent on the Hebridean island of Islay whilst the ferry makes it's two hour journey from Port Ellen to Kennacraig on the mainland.

Bunnahabhain Distillery, our home for the week

The Paps of Jura, the view from number 5, Shore Road, Bunnahabhain.

Probably the most surprising aspect of our holiday was the weather. It was perfect. We had clear blue skies all week and the only rain we had was as we left number 5, Shore Road, Bunnahabhain Distillery this morning.

It really annoys me when folk, (usually English folk!) Presume that when you say you holiday in Scotland, you spend the whole time being rained upon and in desperate misery....and that is just the summer. I've visited Islay on around 30 occasions in the last 5 years and I can honestly say that, on the whole, the weather is always much warmer, and sunnier on this wee Hebridean Isle, than it is back home in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Yes, the weather can be extreme, there will be gales of frightening wind speeds and torrential rain, stopping air flights and ferry trips, but these are days for spending in front of a roaring fire with a large dram and a good book, or for tying a few loch patterns for the new Trout and Salmon season to come.


Our trip began on 27th December. We left Leek at 6am so as to allow plenty of time to battle through any snow in order to get to our 6pm ferry on time. We arrived 3 hours early, the only snow we encountered was on Shap where the M6 was down to one lane.

After a busy Christmas at The Wine Shop, we were determined to have a relaxing week and we packed the van with enough food and beer, wine, port and whisky to feed an army for a month. We found that we weren't dashing around the island, ticking off must visit spots as we have done in the past, but instead, visiting one place per day and spending a good amount of time there. It was a joy to be back in front of a huge fire each night with a large dram to hand...usually Glendronach 18 yrs old or good old Cask Strength Laphroaig.

Loch Gorm, looking much different to the last time I visited it when I fished it with Glen Pointon and Peter Dracup in September.

Our most memorable outings were to Machir Bay (Kilchoman) and to the lovely beach at Saligo where the huge Atlantic rollers crashed onto a deserted, white, Hebridean beach, devoid of any other people or even any footprints of visitors from earlier In the day. A truly magical place. The river that flows into the sea here is sizable (by Islay standards), and flows from nearby Loch Gorm. I look forward to having a few casts for Sea Trout in the summer months.

The lighthouse at Port Charlotte, overlooking Loch Indaal towards Bowmore

As ever the bird life was amazing. We saw many Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Curlew and on our walks on the "Peat Road" at Bunnahabhain, we were guided by a relay of eager Robins, much to the delight of the chasing Katie, our less than intelligent Flat Coated Retriever. There were not many deer to be seen and the closest I got to one was late last night whilst walking Katie on the beach in front of our cottage in the dark. I heard and then saw, a large stag skitter up the pebbles and rocks on the shore. I presumed that, food being scarce during the big freeze on the hill, he'd ventured down on to the shore to look for scraps among the seaweed, flotsam and jetsam.

Geese making their way towards Loch Gruinart

Islay is home to much birdlife. This pic looks over Loch Indaal towards Bowmore, the round church just visible on the sky line

I'm still on the Isle of Arran and we're just passing the island of Gigha. The weather, quite predictably, is becoming much more dull, overcast and grim, as the distance between ourselves and Islay grows.

In October 1974, the Fleetwood trawler, "The Wyre Majestic" struck rocks whilst navigating the Sound of Islay. There it has sat ever since, just down the shore from Bunnahabhain Distillery

We enjoyed many evenings with friends from Islay and it was good to catch up with a few glasses of wine and a large dram or two....by far the highlight of these drams being a Single Cask 12 year old, incredibly heavily peated Bunnahabhain which was simply stunning. By contrast, we got to taste Bruichladdich's brand new blended Scotch Whisky...."Jim McEwan's Symphony number 1"...for reasons of diplomacy, no comment!

Much of my time was spent plotting and planning my fishing trips to Islay in the season to come. Where will I try this season? With what flies and techniques? Last year I had great fun with wee dry flies, largely ignored by local anglers. Their preference tends to be traditional wets such as Soldier Palmer, Kate Maclaren (Green Tail rather than Yellow), Butcher or Peter Ross. In September, Glen Pointon and I were having great fun taking dozens of fish on the dry LTD ("Living The Dream") and the F Fly. I'm certainly looking forward to trying these again in the season to come along with a few terrestrials.

Many of the waters looked totally different to how they are in the summer months, mostly iced over and where they weren't the water was deadly still with no sign of life whatsoever. I can remember many times making a mental note not to fall in!

Looking towards Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte from Black Rock, The Rhinns of Islay in a stunning winter sunset

Yesterday, we spent the entire afternoon at Black Rock on the Shores of Loch Indaal, Leonie being lucky enough to receive a kayaking lesson from Islay Studio's Mark Unsworth, as we enjoyed a Kelly Kettle brewed hot chocolate on the beach. I'm not saying that it was t-shirt weather, but it is good for the spirit to spend a good few hours in the sun in the depths of winter.

Looking towards Bridgend from Blackrock

Leonie in a Kayake in Loch Indaal on the 3rd of January 2010, as Leek sits under a blanket of snow and ice

Mark and Leonie return from their trip

If you are into fishing, birding, walking or simply having a wonderful, relaxing time, I would recommend the Isle of Islay above and beyond anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Yes, it's heaven to the whisky enthusiast, but Islay is not just about distilling, it is an Island rich in flora and fauna, steeped in history and of incredible natural beauty. We're incredibly gutted to be leaving it today.

Another amazing sunset, this time at Kilchoman (Machir Bay)

Nothing but bugger all separates this Atlantic Shore from Canada. A very peaceful place to be

We're heading in to Loch Tarbert and the small port at Kennacraig. The weather is dull and we are faced with a boring motorway drive this afternoon. Tim has just called to say that Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands is under snow and that there are abandoned cars all over the place. We've called a couple of friends for weather updates desperate to hear that conditions are too bad to continue our journey back, eager to get straight back on the ferry and return to Bunnahabhain, and Islay.

Roll on the next time we're "Westering Home" to Islay.

I am looking forward to fishing Dovedale though!!

Anyone wishing to join us on one of our whisky or fishing trips (or both), please get in touch.

Feel free to leave a comment.




  1. Nice write up youth, some of them pics are mouthwatering, having been there i can see how sweet it really is, i love the picture with the boat, top draw that mate...looking forward to my next trip there, i loved it last time, now its time for you to get out on the Dove and get on the Grayling!!
    Nice one

  2. Cheers Glen,

    Don't forget we're up there from May 22nd-ish. Two fishing competitions to fish in...cluncking wild brownies to find in Gorm, Finlaggan, Ballygrant and one or two other lochs!


  3. Ah David you're making me homesick for Islay and I'm here! The Symphony is here waiting for your next visit, see you soon.

  4. Hi Lindy,

    I wish I was on Islay! Turns out we could have stayed on Islay Tuesday and Wednesday too as the schools were closed!

    Can't wait to try The Symphony again!!