My first return to Islay after 22 long months

Islay on Video

Back in March 2020 when I wrote Sadly no Islay visit for me for the foreseeable future I didn’t expect that it would be 22 long months. While Islay was open for visitors in summer 2020 it didn’t feel right for me to travel at that time. Then the winter 2020/2021 lockdowns arrived. Early 2021 finally brought some hope with the vaccine programme rollout gathering pace, as I had decided I would only travel once I was fully vaccinated. I received my second dose in May 2021 (although I only found that out in May, I hadn’t expected expected it until June, making it too late to book for June). July and August I avoided (as usual) as I need to give priority to my colleagues with children (someone has to hold the fort in the office). But two weeks ago, in early September, I finally boarded the MV Finlaggan for my first crossing to Islay since November 2019.

It was emotional. Very emotional. Especially stepping out on to Kilchoman beach, my spiritual home, again the morning after my arrival. Several people have told me they’ve never seen me so happy as in some of the pictures I’ve shared. And they’re probably right. Even when I can’t explain why. Sometimes people ask me why I love Islay so much and why I keep returning after well over 20 years. And all I can say is that there’s something that clicks for me. That’s the best explanation I can give.

I don’t know if they show some of the magic, but I recorded a series of “YouTube shorts” (short 15 seconds clips best watched in portrait mode on a mobile device, but you can also watch them on a desktop/laptop) from some of my adventures during my second week on Islay:

YouTube playlist of Armin’s Islay #shorts

While I didn’t get out as much as I had hoped and didn’t meet as many people as I would have liked for a variety of reasons (weather not being that great especially in the second week, a very annoying blister on my left heel which made longer walks difficult at times, a lingering reluctance to go into busy enclosed spaces like pubs/restaurants and more) I did get to see a few new things and had some interactions I treasured:

One day I drove from Conisby to Uiskentuie beach for a walk. When I left Conisby my car alerted me that it was low on screen wash, so when I arrived I opened the bonnet and topped up the screen wash (might as well get it done while it’s fresh in my mind). Walking past another car parked a bit further down the beach the driver asked me if had a problem with my car and needed help. I reassured him that everything was fine and explained the background. While somebody elsewhere might have asked as well to me this felt very much like an Islay thing to do, people caring about others.

Also at Uiskentuie during my first walk there I passed a woman walking her dog and we had a brief chat about how long the beach was. A few days later (I think it might have been my last walk at Uiskentuie) I met her again and we walked together for a bit, having a nice chat about ferries, walking and more. We didn’t exchange names, so I don’t know who she was, but I really enjoyed our walk and chat. While something like this might happen elsewhere it felt like an Islay thing to me. Hopefully we can catch up on another beach walk at some point.

In regards to new things, I walked the new Loch Indaal path between Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte on a beautiful morning. I’ll write about it in a dedicated post, but I think it’s brilliant, a fantastic addition to Islay’s infrastructure and experience. Thank you and well done to everyone involved in making it happen.

I was welcomed online by several of my neighbours during my stay at Conisby, which I really appreciated. Apologies I didn’t come over, I’m still nervous visiting people in their homes at this point. Hopefully there will be another opportunity once the pandemic has settled further.

There were a few more moments, but I think what I’ve captured here covers the most important parts of this visit as well as touches on some of the reasons why I like Islay so much.

My next visit is already booked and assuming everything goes to plan I’ll be back soon, much much sooner than the very long time until this visit. I will do my utmost to meet the people I missed on this visit, most of you will know who. I’ll be in touch.

Thanks for all the walks and birds, Ian

Islay News

Many of you will know that Ian Brooke passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in June, leaving a big void for many. You can read a wonderful tribute to Ian on the Islay Birds blog. I’ve known Ian for almost 20 years and he’s had some big influences on my life. These are my personal memories of Ian and how he influenced my life:

Picture of Ian Brooke showing and explaining the WalkIslay cards
Ian explaining the WalkIslay cards

Back in 2003 Ian started the WalkIslay Islay walking week where every April daily guided walks by local people around the island were set up. Because of how Easter (and my birthday) fell that year I happened to be on Islay for a long weekend and joined for one of the walks. I enjoyed it so much that I returned the following year for the full week, joined by my mother. And as they say, the rest is history. I’ve been on every WalkIslay week since with the exception of 2018 where a bad leg injury stopped me from going (and 2020 as well as 2021 were cancelled due to Covid 19). Through the walking week I got to know a large number of people and made many friends. I got to see many parts of Islay I probably wouldn’t have seen without it. I learned various things about Islay’s history, nature and geology I might not have learned otherwise. Not to mention all the wonderful memories and pictures of beautiful walks and events during the walks. All because of Ian’s idea and drive to set up the walking week, his drive to find walk leaders and his enthusiasm to make it work. Not to mention the great Islay Walks booklet he helped creating. All something that gives me inspiration for walks on Islay to this day.

Picture of Ian Brooke walking along a loch at low tide
Ian walking along Loch Gruinart

The other big influence is birds (and other wildlife). As everyone knows Ian was an avid birdwatcher. Over the many years I’ve known Ian (and through him many of the other birders) this led to me developing an interest in wildlife and birdwatching. While I’m still very very amateurish (and will always be) I now spot birds I wouldn’t have seen a decade ago during my daily walks, I at times actively go out to watch and photograph birds, something I wouldn’t have thought of doing 15 years ago. Not something that Ian actively pushed, just something he planted in me through his enthusiasm. Closely related to this is the well known Islay Birds blog he started in 2007. As some may know I’ve been blogging in some way for about 20 years, with this blog going since May 2006, something Ian knew and read. He picked my brain, I gave him some pointers and ideas, and soon after the Islay Birds blog appeared. A regular update of the birds spotted on Islay (and elsewhere) as well as some regular weather and rainfall updates in Ian’s personal style. Something I’ve had in my feedreader ever since and read regularly. Something I remember soothing my nerves when I had booked an October visit slightly earlier than usual. The week before I was due to leave for Islay I was checking for the arrival of the Barnacle Geese, one of the main reasons for an October visit. Monday, nothing. Tuesday, nothing. Wednesday, nothing. But the winds have changed. Thursday, they have arrived! Phew……. It was also very nice to see my own reports mentioned on the blog by Ian, being from Islay or even from West Berkshire.

Of course I also have fond memories of the many many cups of teas and biscuits enjoyed at Ian’s and Margaret’s kitchen table. The meals we’ve enjoyed together. The phone calls. The emails. The times I’ve helped Ian with some IT problems when I could. The stays at Kilchoman Cottages which they ran for many years until they retired. The help they gave me at various times. The hours spent in Ian’s own birdwatching hide at Kilchoman, chatting, looking out for birds or viewing footage from his CCTV camera.

Those are my personal memories of Ian and my little thank you to him. When I see a rare or unusual bird I still think, “Oh, I need to send that to Ian” and probably will for a long time. The Islay Birds blog will be continued in his memory, so in a way I will still be sending it to him.

Thank you, Ian.

Islay & Jura Peatland Projects

Islay News

Islay is well known for its peat bogs and peatland, among other reasons mainly through its peaty whisky. But that’s not what this post is about, on the contrary, it’s about the preservation of the endangered peatlands. Islay is a key part in the CANN project (Collaborative Action for the Natura Network), which focuses on conserving peatlands and wetlands across Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

On Islay this covers two sites, the Rinns of Islay and Eilean na Muice Duibhe (also known as Duich Moss). Various activities are under way, including the treatment and removal of invasive rhododendron, you can read a bit about that in A Film Diary from Angharad Ward on Islay. Not only that, you can also watch some of what was filmed:

The CANN Project Short Film – Combatting Rhodi on Islay

For more background and context also watch The CANN Story – April 2021, which gives an overview of all the projects in Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

To spread the word and increase awareness the Islay & Jura Community Peatland Project was launched, which includes the Peatland Passport. This project will be run by the INHT until 2022, if you’re in Port Charlotte make sure to drop in at the INHT and pick up your passport (also available in various other places on Islay). If you are on Facebook you can also join the excellent Islay and Jura Community Peatland Project Facebook group, which has a huge variety of interesting posts with information, videos, online events and more.

Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift to film music video on Islay

Islay News

Details are still a bit sketchy, but news reach me this morning that mega popstars Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are going to film the music video for an as yet unreleased duet on Islay. From what I understand they recorded the song (a love ballad) two years ago and have now decided to release it. Of course the song needs a video, and this is where Islay comes in…

The two superstars wanted something a bit different from the usual polished boredom of a pop video. On a Zoom call with Craig Ferguson (while now an American citizen he of course was born and grew up in Scotland) they got talking about it and Craig suggested they might want to take a look at Islay.

They seem to have taken to his suggestion and are now planning to travel to Islay once Coronavirus restrictions are lifted and they and their crews can safely visit the island and film the video.

Likely locations include Soldier’s Rock, Kilchoman beach, Sanaigmore Bay, Finlaggan, Bowmore (in particular with the Round Church in the background), but there’s also talk of an excursion to Jura for views of the Paps of Jura and the Corryvreckan whirlpool.

I’ll keep you updated as this story develops…

Help fund a new walkway to Finlaggan, Islay

Islay News

The wooden walkway to Eilean Mòr at Finlaggan, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles on Islay, has gone through a few iterations over the decades. Because of the harsh conditions at Loch Finlaggan the wood starts to decay and the wear and tear at some point makes the walkway unsafe. Over the years there have been different walkways, this is how it looked in 2006:

Picture of an old wooden walkway to a small island
Finlaggan walkway in 2006

In 2007 it was replaced by a new walkway built by the Army 39 Engineer Regiment after removing the old rotting walkway. Visitors soon enjoyed good access to Eilean Mòr again:

Picture of a group of visitors next to a information board, a new wooden walkway in the background
Visitors after crossing a new walkway in 2007

In 2008 the visitor centre also saw some significant renovation and extension, making it the valuable place to learn about Islay’s history it is today:

Picture of a visitor centre extension under construction
Finlaggan visitor centre under construction in 2008

The walkway built in 2007 has now aged so much that it needs to be replaced to ensure continued access to the site. To do this the Finlaggan Trust needs support. The Finlaggan Trust writes:

We have already secured partial funding from a number of sources and are able to contribute a certain amount ourselves, but there remains a £30,000 shortfall in the £86,000 total nonetheless. If successful in our fundraising we hope to begin work in September/October 2021, with a five- to seven-week timescale for completion of the build, C-19 restrictions and weather conditions permitting.

The Lordship of the Isles needs you – Tha feum aig Rìoghachd nan Eilean ortsa

If you want to support the Finlaggan Trust you can make a donation at The Finlaggan Walkway Project JustGiving campaign. As of writing this in the early days of the campaign 8% of the target have been reached, hopefully that will jump up soon and continued access to Finlaggan can be secured:

Picture of a small island with ruins in a lake, a walkway leading to it
Finlaggan from the air, walkway bottom right

Cleaning beaches at the other Islay

Islay on Video

As many will know there are two Islays (at least), the Islay in Scotland this blog is mostly about and then there’s another Islay in the Arequipa region in Peru. It looks like they’ve got a similar problem with litter and rubbish washing up on their beaches and people having to go on beach cleans to tidy it all up. While I don’t speak any Spanish I’m pretty sure that’s what a good part of this video is about:

HOMENAJE A ISLAY 2020.

Looks like they picked up at least two big sacks of rubbish, some good work there! I hope that you’ve enjoyed this view of the other Islay and learning that they share some of the same issues.

The Islay Sessions 2020 go online

Islay Music

Same as so many other events this year the Islay Sessions 2020 will take place online. They will also be a bit shorter this year, taking place on Saturday 21/Nov/2020 in the evening. However, the line-up is as good as ever with some familiar faces (as in, they have performed at previous sessions) and some new artists. Today the organisers uploaded a short teaser:

Fraser Shaw Trust – Sessions 2020

This years sessions will be broadcasted live on the Fraser Shaw Trust YouTube channel, starting at 19:30 on Saturday 21/Nov/2020. The musicians performing this year will be Daimh, Maeve MacKinnon, LB Salter & Jenn Butterworth and David Foley & Jack Smedley. I hope we will be able to use the live chat function, while not the same it would allow us to chat with the musicians and listeners, something I’ve always really enjoyed at the real live sessions.

Get your tickets and with it entries to the prize draw (including for a rare Bruichladdich valinch) online, I understand you can get as many as you want. For more information follow @TrustFraser and @IslaySessions on Twitter, if you’re on Facebook you can like TrustFraser on FB and Islay Sessions on FB.

Hope to “see” you there!

Listen to the This Is Islay podcast

Islay News

Some new media from Islay to write about. Back in August the This is Islay podcast was launched. Its goal is to bring you voices from Islay, news and events with interviews from the community. It is intended for both locals and listeners further afield to give an insight into what is happening on Islay and how the community experienced events. The intention is to complement other news sources (e.g. The Ileach), not to compete with them.

As of writing this two episodes have been published, Welcome to This Is Islay Fàilte a chàirdean and Islay Resilience and A Trip To India. The below embedded player should list and allow you to play the most recent episodes (as of writing this the two mentioned ones):

Portraits and Partnerships This Is Islay

This is Episode 9 of This Is Islay, a volunteer-led podcast celebrating the people, places, events and connections which shape the Hebridean island communities of Islay and Jura. This month’s podcast is hosted by Larah McKay and Jasmine Middleton and features: · Glen Roberts in conversation with Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen about his new book of photography “Islay – A Personal Portrait of the Island”, · News of the partnership between This Is Islay and Mactaggart Youth and Families Outreach Services (MYFOS) to involve young people of Islay, and · A special mini-podcast put together by MYFOS participants, featuring local music and recorded at the Cyber Sounds studio in the Cyber building in Port Ellen. The goal of This Is Islay is to use podcasting to foster community involvement, education and training, providing resources and facilities to research, produce and promote content for a worldwide audience. We collaborate with Islay High School through the support of their staff and access to their recording facilities, and are working closely with MYFOS to involve the young people of Islay in digital media and podcasting. We invite you to provide feedback, ideas, or even join our podcasting team.  Find us at https://anchor.fm/thisisislay .  Let us know what you enjoyed and what you would like to hear next month.  Contact us by e-mail: thisisislay@gmail.com and follow us on Twitter @thisisislay, on Facebook @thisisislay and Instagram @thisisislaypodcast. More about this month's podcast: Lord Robertson’s book “Islay – A Personal Portrait of the Island” featuring landscapes, seascapes and the people of Islay, is available from Roy’s in Bowmore (The Celtic House) and The Blue Letterbox in Port Ellen. All sales proceeds go to the benefit of the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte. Music featured include "Mary Had a Little Lamb" performed by Brodie Shakespeare Music from Steve Martin, and James Edwyn. Our theme music is '£50 Cashback' from The Fraser Shaw Trust.  Keep up to date on Islay Sessions and the work of the Trust in support of the relief of multiple sclerosis at https://frasershawtrust.com .
  1. Portraits and Partnerships
  2. Tea with Cantilena
  3. Spring Arrivals and Islay Faces
  4. Òran Mór and More Cyber
  5. Always Heat the Haggis

I hope you’ll enjoy the podcasts as much as I did and will subscribe to them (I’m using Google Podcasts, which works really well for me, but various other services including Spotify are available). With the latest developments around Covid-19 I found the information about the Islay Resilience Group very interesting and how it will help with possible future developments. But of course there are plenty of other interesting topics as well.

See you next year, Islay (hopefully)

Islay News

Several factors were involved in this decision, but over this belated bank holiday weekend I have made the decision not to travel to Islay this year. Back in March when I wrote Sadly no Islay visit for me for the foreseeable future and also in recent weeks I still had hopes and plans to visit later in the year. I’ve got two weeks off work in October, which I had originally planned for a long Islay visit. But I’ve now decided to make it another staycation in West Berkshire, where I live (and currently work from home. I normally work in Reading, but we’ve been told to work from home until at least the end of the year). I don’t feel I have to justify that decision, but I still would like to explain:

To start with I’m still not comfortable to travel or go anywhere with people in confined spaces. While my GP told me she doesn’t consider me a Covid-19 high risk and I don’t have to shield like some other people I’m still very careful. I’ve read several reports of long term health implications from Covid-19 infections, including heart problems. Having fully recovered and been given a new life after my major heart surgery a few years back I just want to minimise the risks. I haven’t been to a pub or restaurant since March or even February (can’t remember) and obviously haven’t used the dining voucher scheme by the government. I haven’t even been to the beer gardens some of the pubs around where I live have opened. I’d love to, but I must admit I’m feeling physically uncomfortable even when walking past them. Some will say I’m overreacting, that might well be, but that’s how I feel.

Going on the long trip to Scotland with these feelings doesn’t feel right to me. It wouldn’t feel like a holiday. The journey (with over night stops, ferry crossing etc) would be very stressful and even on Islay I couldn’t fully enjoy it. Sure, most of the time I would spend in the cottage and outdoors away from people, but even though it’s probably safe (I know the restaurants, distilleries etc all follow the latest guidelines and do their best to keep everyone safe) I wouldn’t feel comfortable to go for a meal, go to a pub/bar or visiting a distillery. Visiting any friends isn’t very realistic either, I wouldn’t feel comfortable going into anyone’s home.

Finally the news over the last week or so have further tipped me over to the decision not to go. As I’m sure everyone is aware the infections rates, R-values and whatever else they measure have gone up. While it’s probably too early to say that there is talk of a second wave. Across the continent we have significant increases, same as earlier this year where the UK was lagging the continent by a few weeks. Some restrictions have already been put in place, I fear further restrictions might come over the coming weeks. For me personally not the time to plan a trip, just too insecure (I’ve seen it very closely, some people I work with had to cancel their holiday in France the day before they were due to depart as the rules changed).

I’m obviously very disappointed that I won’t visit Islay this year. I hope the situation will improve next year, I’m hoping that there will be an Islay walking week again and that I will have the confidence to travel. Should that turn out to be too early then I’ll have to wait. All I know is that at some point I will be back.

To finish I’d just like to make clear that this is a purely personal decision. It’s no guidance, direction, anything for anyone else. If you want to go and it feels right for you to go, by all means visit Islay. I’ll be happy for you to go, share your pictures and videos and experiences so that others can enjoy them as well. Islay will welcome you, many businesses on Islay are waiting for you, support them in this difficult time.

Donald Trump plans to buy Islay

Islay News

The cousin of a friend of mine has an uncle who works in the White House who has a colleague who has access to the innermost circle of the American president. From him we’ve just learned about this most fascinating development:

Donald Trump is planning to buy Islay. All of it. The whole island.

Remember the story about Donald Trump wanting to buy Greenland? As you probably know that plan failed. So now Trump has set his sights elsewhere. And picked Islay. In a secret transcript Trump says:

Islay is such a tremendous island, it has the bestest whiskey in the whole world, Americans love it. Islay is hugely popular! When there’s a feature about Islay on the TV the ratings go up in England, it’s bigger than a Premier League game or Dance Off!! Amazing!!! So I’m going to buy it for America.

secret White House transcript

Trump is understood to have reached out to the Scottish and British government to negotiate the deal, believed to be worth in the trillions if Trump is successful with his outrageous bid. Trump also said:

This will be an amazing deal we will offer Scotchland. And once we’ve completed it I will proclaim my beautiful daughter Ivanka as the first queen of Islay. We will also introduce the proper spelling of whiskey to Islay and teach everyone how to best enjoy a stiff Islay scotch, with a nice big lump of fresh Alaskan ice!

secret White House transcript

This will certainly be a developing story to watch…..