AS I MAY HAVE MENTIONED elsewhere already, I have been spending the summer months on Islay in the Inner Hebrides. I was invited to the island to help an old army friend with a number of things political and media related, and my only stipulation before accepting his invitation was that I needed to be able to earn a modicum of pocket money to help me along the way. Even at my advanced age I still have a mortgage and one last child to support through university for a wee while yet.
There was an easy solution to hand: my friend runs a taxi business on the island and could, if I so desired, become one of his drivers for a spell. So that’s exactly what I have done, and for a few weeks now, duly approved and licensed by the local authority, I have been helping out with the odd trip around Islay. And what an education experience – for me – it has proved to be!
Most of the folk I have transported have been tourists, and most tourists travel to the Queen of the Hebrides for the whisky. There’s plenty of it. Currently there are nine distilleries producing the uisge na beatha, with the promise of two or three more to open in the not too distant future. There could be, therefore, a dozen distilleries on a wee island measuring roughly 20 by 25 miles with a local population nudging just over 3,000. It used to be over 15,000 in the mid 19thcentury, but food shortages and emigration has had its impact on that.
Having visited all the distilleries now I have a couple of favourites. Top of my list is Bunnahabhain in the north of the island close to Port Askaig. Its setting could not be bettered, with wonderful views across to Jura and further beyond to Oronsay, Colonsay and Mull (on a good day). It also produces one of my favourite whiskies, the Toiteach A Dha, 46.3 abv, a touch of smoke from the peated barley combined with a high sherry influence. Or so their website says, you’ll have to try it for yourself! I like it anyway.
Number two would be, I think, Ardbeg, because it is a pretty well run operation in a picturesque setting on the east of the island near Port Ellen. It also has a nice café which is a great place for lunch. And the whisky isn’t bad either. Plus you can walk to it from Port Ellen – it’s only three miles – and take in Lagavulin and Laphroaig on the return journey. Three miles out and five miles back as they say around these parts.
All the distilleries have cottoned on to the value of the whisky tourists, of course, and all have well oiled and run visitor facilities with organised tours and tastings. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the cost of a bottle of malt on the island isn’t any cheaper than it is elsewhere in Scotland, and possibly in the rest of the UK and beyond. This may be due to all bottling being done on the mainland.
Tourists do come to Islay for other reasons too. There are two RSPB reserves, one at Loch Gruinart and one on the Mull of Oa, where birdwatchers can spot rare species like the Chough, Hen Harrier and Sea (or white-tailed) Eagle. There are also seal colonies around the island and whales and dolphins can frequently be seen in the surrounding waters. There are also stunning views all around the island for walkers, hikers and cyclists to enjoy.
Taxi-ing also gives one an insight into the traits and habits of other nationalities. Take the practice of tipping, for example. I’m not a big fan of giving tips myself but it’s part and parcel of the job, and I know that for many people on the minimum wage it’s a welcome, if not essential, top-up to their wage packet. Generally speaking, the Scandinavians do not tip; I suspect it is probably not part of their culture. The Germans and Americans do, although sometimes through gritted teeth it seems. Most generous of all are fellow Scots. Sometimes those who have the least give the most.
Sadly, wonderful though Islay is, it is not without its problems. Housing, or the lack of it, is a big one. Houses which come on the market are usually snapped up by the distilleries or other local businesses for sums well above the asking price, and the locals just can’t compete. Anecdotally, some potential workers who have secured jobs on Islay have had to turn them down because they haven’t been able to find accommodation.
Job opportunities aren’t a problem for the locals; with an unemployment rate of just 0.6 per cent basically everyone who wants to work can get a job. A lot of workers are actually imports from the mainland or further afield, and one of the major hotels has taken to housing employees in what can only be described as a trailer park slum behind some industrial sheds. I’m told that the local authority waiting list is well over the 100 mark with no respite in sight.
The other major headache is the ferries. Islay has its own airport with daily flights to and from Glasgow and Edinburgh, but the majority of tourists, and all commercial traffic, comes to the island by ferry. Regular sailings from Kennacraig to either Port Ellen or Port Askaig disburse a steady stream of visitors during the ever-lengthening tourist season. The ferries are run by CalMac, essentially Scotland’s and possibly the UK’s last nationalised industry (if you discount Prestwick Airport and now Ferguson’s shipyard).
By all accounts most find the ferries acceptable and the crews welcoming and helpful, although the ships are getting on a bit now and islanders feel that Islay always loses out if one of the Hebridean fleet goes out of service for whatever reason. But the real problem is space. There are never sufficient slots on the ferries to Islay to satisfy demand.
What is scandalous about this, however, is how it appears that this scarcity is being exploited for commercial gain. For reasons hard to fathom, it appears that CalMac runs a system whereby block booking of ferry slots can be done up to one year in advance and then they can be cancelled 24 hours in advance of sailing with no penalty incurred. This bizarre practice, which contrasts with almost every other booking system I’m aware of, is exploited by at least one of the local hauliers – no names, no packdrill at this stage – to deny access to the ferries by competitors. It also has the effect of strangling local businesses on the island because visitors and locals alike sometimes cannot get space on the ferries.
Whether this is corruption or incompetence, or possibly both, I wouldn’t like to venture an opinion. I am told that the relevant local political figures are aware of the practice but have chosen not to act. Again, no names, no packdrill, but it’s easy enough to look them up if you have the inclination. Whether the current Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson MSP, has been briefed on this I couldn’t say, but if not perhaps he should be.
There are other minor irritations which bedevil the Ilich, and one major one on which I shall write separately, but that’s enough for now. For all that, Islay is a delightful gem of an island and a joy to visit. Lying on approximately the same latitude as Glasgow and Edinburgh, and with Northern Ireland clearly visible on a good day, it has much to offer visitors and tourists all year round. It’s less than an hour by air from either Edinburgh or Glasgow so well within reach for a weekend trip.
If whisky and scenery is your thing, Islay is the place to be!
© Stuart Crawford 2019. Stuart Crawford is a writer and commentator.