As part of our Fèis Ìle 2022 coverage, industry veteran and long term visitor to the island Ian Buxton reflects on how the romance of Islay is often very different from the reality. 

As all across Europe, herds of camper vans are being fueled and provisioned ahead of the long journey to the forthcoming Fèis Ìle, I fell to dreaming of Islay. But which Islay?

A strange question you may think but it’s apparent that Islay means very different things to different people. We are all, of course, the product of our experiences and expectations – not a terribly profound or original idea but my dream covered more than 50 years of contrasting encounters with the Queen of the Hebrides.

Bowmore's floor malting

Bowmore’s floor malting

The changing island

Gone are the shabby, slightly damp holiday cottages of childhood memory with their uncomfortable, ill-matched, seen-better-days furniture and lumpy beds. Gone too, the air of suspicion and mild hostility with which visitors seemed then to be greeted.

Those early memories of an island in near-terminal decline contrast vividly with the carefully mediated ‘island experience’ presented to today’s visitor: the 600 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, exquisitely curated vintage fittings, designer toiletries and en-suite power showers of 2022’s stylish B&Bs and AirBnB rentals. It’s easy to awake in such surroundings thinking oneself in a boutique hotel in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on a mission to explore the world’s coolest cocktail bars.

This is not the Islay I remember so fondly but what, I wondered do others think? What, I asked, makes Islay so special?

I regret nothing

I turned first to French writer and gourmand Martine Nouet, who recalled for me her first visit – a press trip to Bowmore, some three decades ago. “I was totally carried away by the smells I was going through. The whisky, of course, but much more: the iodinic air, the grass, the pungent smell of the sheep’s greasy wool, the seaweeds… It was ‘love at first nose’,” she explained. 

Evidently, this was life-changing. “I came back very soon after, this time not for the whisky but for nature and the people”, she said. Eventually she left Paris to live permanently on the island among “the sea of course, but also the rocks, the pebbles, the rain, the sand, the seaweeds – so many sorts and distinctive aromas the chimneys reeking of peat smoke, the flowers – gorse, heather, bluebells… – all the smells and the colours describing the wide range of Islay whiskies: from unpeated to peated, from earthy to marine, from grassy to malty,” she explained. If that seems unduly romantic, well it’s one person’s vivid experience and we may safely conclude that elle se rappelle tout et ne regrette rien.

Ardbeg distillery (Credit: Phil Wilkinson)

Ardbeg today, very much not derelict (Credit: Phil Wilkinson)

Mark Reynier’s view

I put the question to another with experience of life on Islay, Mark Reynier who famously put Bruichladdich back on its feet before moving on to Waterford. He pointed to a “tantalising mystery of inaccessible accessibility”, suggesting that as Islay was the seat of the whole Viking dynasty from Shetland to the Isle of Man, and later home to the Lordship of the Isles, a certain timelessness pervades the landscape. And, of course, whisky filled his thoughts, noting that Islay is home to “the smallest farm distillery to [the] largest factory production. From single family ownership to multinational conglomerate; Scottish, English, French, Japanese, South African, American; unpeated to most peated whisky in the world.” For Mark, variety is key to its unique appeal.

Living here has not always been easy however. I personally watched abandoned and tumbledown housing being demolished (hard to believe if you have checked Hebridean property prices recently) and recall visiting Ardbeg in the mid-1980s to see the buildings, close to derelict, slowly mouldering away in what the late Michael Jackson memorably described as a ‘Gothic air’. No Kiln Café, bustling visitor centre or packed car park then – even on a sunny day, the place seemed desolate, cold and abandoned; beyond resurrection.

A hard place to live

And this has been a hard place to live. Writing in 1934, author James Whittaker (in I, James Whittaker the book that Ian Hunter, then owner of Laphroaig, took legal action attempting to block its publication) recalled that Laphroaig “means three things to me: poverty, misery and loneliness”. Whittaker’s father was a cooper at the distillery and he describes “a filthy, miserable place” with “no proper roads or paths…houses old and dilapidated, most in bad repair…and obviously in need of new roofs”. To get to school in Port Ellen he was obliged to hobble, shoeless through “snow and ice-covered roads”. 

It’s easy today to study the black and white photographs in the Museum of Islay as if looking at exhibits in some anthropological display, forgetting that they show the real lives of real people within the last hundred years. No bucolic island idyll, life on Islay (like many places at that time) could be harsh and unforgiving.

The Duchess of Islay

It’s the The Duchess of Islay (NB: she’s not an actual duchess)

The Duchess of Islay

So I was all the more fascinated to discover in my research the rather wonderful Duchess of Islay whisky blog. This is the work of an American lady Mrs. A— Y—. She will remain anonymous here to respect her privacy – there are, she tells me, trolls out there who apparently find the idea of a lady whisky blogger difficult to accept; there are “many people that don’t take ‘I’m married’ seriously enough, and it can be a bit scary”. Leaving aside the many troubling issues that raises, I just had to ask ‘why Islay?’ as she pursues her self-funded mission of “entertaining and educating a new generation of whisky enthusiasts”.

It’s the whisky, of course. The first taste (Ardbeg 10) “blew me away” (it will do that) and, for the Duchess, “nothing can beat the medicinal peat, sea salt, and unique character that Islay brings. The mystery and history of the area are icing on the cake!”

Yet, one question remained unanswered. Curiously, the otherwise loquacious Duchess remained silent when pressed on her experience and impressions of Islay itself. This remarkable place I concluded has, for many whisky lovers, come to be more than an island – it’s an idea, and all the more powerful for existing in their dreams.