“I want to go on a fairy hunt”, I proclaimed. No, I hadn’t had some inexplicable bout of homophobia (although judging by the reaction I seemed to provoke, this is presumably how it came across).
Fairies or ‘little people’ as they are also known (it is actually bad luck to refer to them as ‘fairies’ or ‘faeries’ in some places) are common throughout Gaelic folklore. They’re not tiny little butterfly-winged creatures either, but rather can be up to a few feet tall with the potential to also shapeshift. Tricksy and sometimes mischievous (starting to sound a bit like Loki) they are to be respected, if only with a healthy slice of whimsy.
Go home Navi, you’re drunk.
“But how does an English boy know a single thing about these matters?” I hear you cry. Well, my girlfriend is from the Isle of Man and in fact I would be there myself this week for the TT motorcycle race if it didn’t clash with Feis Ile. As with Islay, Manx culture is still steeped in Celtic heritage and I have travelled over the famous Fairy Bridge on Castletown Road many a time. (You are encouraged to say hello to the little people, else you may incur some bad fortune and certainly if you’re taking part in the motorsports you don’t tend to chance these things!)
Fairy Bridge on the Isle of Man
Islay, however, isn’t just home to the same kinds of tales and traditions but may in fact be home to the Fairy Queen herself! She is said to reside inside Cnoc Rhaonastil, a large conical hill by the Kidalton coast that may even house the island’s entire fairy population…
Keen to learn more, two intrepid members of the Master of Malt team set off to investigate this ‘hill’ (it’s huge). This is no small undertaking I assure you, as The Rev. Robert Kirk said in 1691:
“There be manie places called Fayrie hills, which the mountain-people think impious and dangerous to peel or discover…”
The ascent was unforgiving and I’m fairly certain that I’m now the only person in history to have successfully scaled the near-vertical Southeastern face of the hill in friction-free bowling shoes!
Another false summit!?
The resting place of John Talbot Clifton, a colourful 1920s Laird of Kildalton who loved to explore when he wasn’t busy shooting anything that moved.
Upon reaching the actual summit, we could catch our breath and admire the truly sensational views. We’ve mentioned the view across to the Paps of Jura from the Caol Ila stillhouse as being one of the best going, but being atop Cnoc Rhaonastil is something else. Not only can you clearly make out the pergoda roofs and white buildings of the Ardbeg distillery, some 2.5 miles away, but you also get a fantastic view of around 15 miles of coastline from Inerval to Ardmore and beyond.
There ain’t no Mountain high enough.
What better place could there possibly be to taste Laphroaig’s festival bottling, a port finished (double matured in bourbon and port casks) version of their limited edition Cairdeas, named after the Gaelic for friendship. “Cairdeas”, by the way, is pronounced more-or-less “car-chase”. (See, the name of this blog post does make sense!) Oh yes, and it’s very, very pink.
Tasting Note for Laphroaig Cairdeas – Port Wood Edition
Nose: Gentle Laphroaig smoke, chopped blood orange, grapefruit, raspberry bushes, a hint of pot pourri with clotted cream developing. Lemon zest.
Palate: Diluted blackcurrant squash, sweet marmalade, savoury pepper.
Finish: Fruity and drying.
Overall: Pink Laphroaig. An appropriate libation for the little people, and for our fallen homies, obviously.
Now, there are many stories that have been passed down the generations about the fairies and their interactions with the human world but nobody is quite as good at crowbarring whisky into them as Robin Laing, a musician and whisky enthusiast whom you may have seen performing at Bruichladdich Day. His popular book The Whisky Legends of Islay contains a number of these tales.
Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen by Johann Heinrich Füssli
(The Fairy Queen notably appears in both the Arthurian legend and the works of Shakespeare)
One such tale relates to the Fairy Queen herself and her wish to help out the women of the world (or at least the Isles), inviting them all to come and visit her at Cnoc Rhaonastil. In the realm of the fairies, it is the women who control the ‘cup of wisdom’, the powers of which she seeks to share with womankind. Understandably, many were anxious about visiting the fairies – was there a hidden agenda? Was this some kind of mischief that they could not yet understand? These beings were often far from benevolent, remember. Despite this, curiosity got the better of them and, putting their fears aside, they went to see what all the fuss was about.
No doubt taken aback as a gleaming entrance presented itself on the side of the hill, the ladies entered into a world of natural splendour they could scarcely comprehend. The Fairy Queen filled the cup of wisdom with the distilled knowledge of the world (in Robin’s version this sounds an awful lot like whisky) and shared it around, bestowing pure wisdom upon the assembled women. As they said their farewells and exited the magical hill, it turned out that a crowd of late-comers had been left outside. The women of Islay supposedly still say that it’s a shame certain individuals “were not there when the wisdom cup was passed around”! #Zing!
In other tales, their interactions with humans are cause for greater concern – sometimes kidnapping people or trapping them in the realm of the fairies, only accessible at certain times of the year and under certain conditions. They have even been known to then take the place of the missing individuals! According to Robin, these terrifying shape-shifting replacements are known as ‘Sibhreach’.
Cat thought she may be able to lure some of the fairies out with some pretty bubbles…
…they are made of Fairy liquid after all!
Oh wait, is that one of them now? Don’t startle it!
The route we took back down was flatter but equally treacherous…
…over the Stepping Stones of Terror…
…through the Forest of Fear…
…past the Flowers of Fairly Unfavourable Fatality…
….and finally the Trees of Unparalled Peril!!!
All in, I think we’re lucky to have survived but that’s just how we roll at Master of Malt. Unless we’re still there and we’ve actually now been replaced by a couple of ‘Sibhreach’…
Much more on Laphroaig and its clock tower tomorrow!