Islay: Seeking sanctuary on whisky island

Sanctuary (noun) ˈsaŋ(k)tjʊəri: “A refuge or safety from pursuit, persecution, or other danger.”

The word is overused nowadays. Sanctuary has come to mean something so … normal.

It’s become a moment when the notifications on your phone fall silent (“the rural road gave him sanctuary from his Facebook, Instagram and email”), or a brief period of peace (“the girls weren’t due home for a least an hour, so she took sanctuary in the garden with a glass of wine and her book”). Maybe even a diversion on the commute home (“he put on his sunglasses, plugged in his headphones and took sanctuary in his music, now oblivious to the jostling crowds that crammed into the carriage next to him”).

But has it come to mean something less, something more trivial?

True sanctuary, that real feeling of protection, is still something as special – as sacred – as it has ever been … and it still exists. If, like me, you’re lucky enough to find it.

It happened after a long day’s travelling. We’d been up at the back of six to make sure we made the ferry at Kennacraig. A storm was forecast, so we’d hoped the sailing would go without a hitch.

Being partial to a nice malt whisky, I’d wanted to visit Islay for years, so when the chance came up to have a few days in a lonely cottage on that fabled island, we gladly accepted, and, sailing along the south coast of the island, the places that came into view were the stuff of legend – Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Port Ellen.

The wind was really picking up as we landed at Port Ellen and the rain was getting more persistent on the drive north away from the ferry, but even then the island was beginning to work its magic. In the gathering gloom, Loch Indaal to our left managed to look serene, with a calm blue tinge that almost looked inviting. And every so often the sun would punch a hole in the clouds and cast a beam like torchlight, adding a wonderful warmth to an already dramatic scene.

Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte – more of those place names, on road signs that read like a menu at some high-end whisky bar.

And there was one more – Kilchoman – our destination, and the site of another distillery. Not quite the island’s youngest, but certainly the smallest. Not quite legend yet, but certainly getting there.

By now the roads were getting narrower – single track, concentration required. And the views were getting more astounding – wide, empty sweeps of windswept moor and white-horse-flecked loch, and huge skies with towering clouds, almost black at the bottom and cotton-wool white far up in the heavens, whipped across the sky by the breeze.

God’s own country? I can see now why people say that.

Five minutes more and we were there – a cottage at Kilchoman House, in a setting that’s grand to say the least. To the south, a great crag that goes on to tower over the beach at Machir Bay; to the west the near-ruin of Kilchoman Old Parish Church and – just a little further away, on a nearby hilltop, overlooking the sea – a military cemetery to honour of sailors who died in the wreck of the HMS Otranto in 1918.

And, in the fields around the cottage, three crosses – ruined now, lying near-forgotten – forming a triangle. Back in the mists of time, if someone had committed a crime and made it into that triangle, they were safe from prosecution.

Sanctuary. That word again. But this time the real thing. And we were right in the middle of it. You could almost feel the protection; you could definitely feel the peace.

Inside, the cottage was warm and snug. Its entrance is on the first floor, which houses two bedrooms and a bathroom, while downstairs there’s a large living area. In better weather the huge patio doors would, I’m sure, never be closed, and the kitchen is modern and superbly equipped (the knives are even sharp – now that really is a first for a holiday let). And, just to top things of, there’s free wifi.

There’s a real feeling of comfort, and calm. But it’s the coal fire … all built up and just begging to be lit … that really draws your attention.

We’d been on the go for seven hours or so by now and the storm was due to hit in the late afternoon, so we headed back along the road (it’s a walk of 25 minutes in case you’re interested) for lunch at the Kilchoman distillery before battening down the hatches.

Kilchoman is a must-visit, by the way. The food in the cafe is excellent and if you fancy a dram with your lunch, you can sample the distillery’s entire range at your table for just a few pounds. The tour is great too, and fantastic value.

So that night we played Scrabble, read books, ate well, drank even better (how could we be next door to a distillery and not buy a bottle?), and slouched by that beautiful fire as we listened, snug and smug, protected by those old stone walls from the wind roaring by outside.

Sanctuary.

During our trip we found that Islay is a place of superlatives. Yes the distilleries are wonderful, but whisky is only part of this island’s charm.

The people are fantastic, and so friendly. And who couldn’t smile at the local tradition of giving every passing car a quick wave? It left us more than a little confused to begin with – how could I know these people? what was I doing that deserved recognition? – but once you get used to it, it quickly becomes a pleasant treat that lifts every journey.

The scenery is out of this world and the coastline is breathtaking. Less than 10 minutes’ walk from our cottage lies Machir Bay, a sweeping beach that we were lucky enough to visit when the wind added a raw, wild drama to an already stunning setting. If the sun’s shining when you go, don’t be too disappointed – I’m sure it would be a great place for a picnic and a spot of kite-flying with the family.

It’s a wonderful island to explore. Just drive about and let your mood decide your route. Our favourites were the village of Portnahaven to the south of us, Finlaggan – the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles – and the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte – a fascinating place to spend a few hours learning about the island, and well worth the small entry fee.

But it was the food that was the real revelation for us – from the finest seafood to the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten (courtesy of Labels café in Ballygrant), it’s a real food-lover’s paradise. But the unexpected highlight for me was Peatzeria, an Italian restaurant in a converted church in Bowmore. We had a wonderful meal there the night before we left for home, enjoying the great pasta, the buzzing mix of locals and tourists, and the cosy yet modern atmosphere. I’d advise booking, though – we went on a Wednesday and it was packed.

Two words to the wise if you’re planning a trip to Kilchoman – stock up on supplies at the Co-op in Bowmore on the way (the nearest shop to the cottage is a good 15 minutes’ drive away), and if you don’t know, Google how to build a coal fire (our first attempt on the second night of our stay was dismal).

My final piece of advice? If you visit Kilchoman, take a good book – and hope that the wind blows. Then maybe you’ll have found your place of sanctuary too.

Andy Clark stayed at Kilchoman House Cottages – for prices and booking information, go to www.islaycottages.com. For more information about Peatzeria, Bowmore, go to peatzeria.com

(Visited 3 times, 1 visits today)

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *